The Seamless Garment is the Catholic position

By Pedro Gabriel, 9 February 2020
Pope Francis. Image: Vatican News.


“Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection”

— Pope Francis
Gaudete et Exsultate, #101

Last week’s March for Life generated a great deal of interest and discussion in the news and on social media. Whenever these debates occur, one question is bound to surface: what does it mean to be pro-life?

On this topic there are two camps: one, the more “classical” pro-life position, thinks of abortion as the most urgent political issue, given that 1) millions of unborn children are killed each year, a number that dwarfs the numbers of nearly every other human rights violation in the US or abroad; and 2) the conviction that if the right to life is not respected from conception, then the struggle to protect any other human right or social issue hardly makes sense. How can one say they believe in other human rights if they don’t support a person’s right to be alive and benefit from them? Both of these arguments are, of course, absolutely and unequivocally valid.

The other camp upholds a “consistent ethic of life,” or, as it has also been called, the “Seamless Garment” approach. This term was coined by the Catholic activist Eileen Egan, borrowing from the biblical imagery of John 19:23. As Egan reportedly wrote in 1971, “the protection of life is a seamless garment. You can’t protect some life and not others.” Later on, this concept was popularized by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin:

“Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us: the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker. Such a quality-of-life posture translated into specific political and economic positions on tax policy, employment generation, welfare policy, nutrition and feeding programs, and health care”

— Cd. Bernardin
Gannon Lecture at Fordham University
Dec 6th, 1983; New York

Put simply, the Seamless Garment postulates that being pro-life involves not only fighting against abortion, but also against euthanasia, the death penalty, war, social injustice, anti-immigrant sentiment, and a host of other social issues that can also result in the death of human beings, whether directly or indirectly.

Proponents of the first camp usually criticize the Seamless Garment as somehow downplaying the importance of ending abortion. Supposedly having a consistent ethic of life distracts from the most pressing issue, which is the protection of the unborn. For this camp, abortion must be the top priority, for the reasons I mention above. Interestingly, many of those who reject the notion of the Seamless Garment usually don’t have a problem extending the pro-life label to opposition of euthanasia, assisted suicide, or embryonic stem cell research. Their qualms often only apply to the social issues typically supported by their political adversaries. This is a glimpse of what is fundamentally at the root of opposition to the Seamless Garment, and I will return to this point later in this article.

Are the criticisms of the Seamless Garment really fair? Does a consistent ethic of life really steal thunder from the fight against abortion? Even if this charge is overblown in order to score political points, it is also undeniable that an increasing number of left-leaning Catholics often appeal to a consistent ethic of life in order to shoot down anti-abortion legislative and policy proposals. When doing this, they fall into the same trap as the other side: they give the impression that they are resisting antiabortion legislation as a reflexive response to their political opponents, who push for such initiatives.

Nevertheless, this criticism against the Seamless Garment is not fair to those who use its logic appropriately. After all, abusus non tollit usum (“abuse does not preclude use”). Though some people abuse the concept of the Seamless Garment, this does not mean that the concept should be rejected. Cardinal Bernardin very clearly rejected such abuse as a betrayal of the principle he had laid out. In a 1988 interview in the National Catholic Register, Bernardin said:

“I know that some people on the left, if I might use that label, have used the consistent ethic to give the impression that the abortion issue is not all that important anymore, that you should be against abortion in a general way, but that there are more important issues, so don’t hold anybody’s feet to the fire just on abortion. That’s a misuse of the consistent ethic, and I deplore it.”

Bernardin clarified his position further in another lecture:

“A consistent ethic does not say everyone in the Church must do all things, but it does say that as individuals and groups pursue one issue, whether it is opposing abortion or capital punishment, the way we oppose one threat should be related to support for a systemic vision of life. It is not necessary or possible for every person to engage in each issue, but it is both possible and necessary for the Church as a whole to cultivate a conscious explicit connection among the several issues. And it is very necessary for preserving a systemic vision that individuals and groups who seek to witness to life at one point of the spectrum of life not be seen as insensitive to or even opposed to other moral claims on the overall spectrum of life. Consistency does rule out contradictory moral positions about the unique value of human life.”

— The William Wade Lecture Series
March 11th, 1984; St. Louis University

Many Catholics on both sides of the political spectrum misunderstand what the Seamless Garment is all about. Their mistake is that they have ignored the idea of a “consistent ethic” and made it all about competing priorities. Misguided Catholics who profess support of the Seamless Garment seem to think that it means that all life issues are of equal value, and they rail against any language that gives priority to abortion. Opponents of the Seamless Garment, on the other hand, criticize it on the basis that it is necessary to prioritize abortion over anything else, while ignoring (or even rejecting) Catholic Social Teaching on many other crucial issues.

In reality, nothing in the biblical imagery of the Seamless Garment evokes prioritization at all. The soldiers at the foot of the Cross were not fighting over one part of the garment that was more important than the others. They weren’t discussing whether the neck hole is more important than the sleeves. They weren’t arguing whether the first stitch was more important than the ones that followed.

No. They were fighting because the garment was without seam and they could not divide it without tearing it apart. The key word here is “seamless,” just as the operative word in “consistent ethic of life” is “consistent.”

Shouldn’t we look at pro-life advocacy as promoting a seamless garment, in the sense that when you separate the issues, you tear the very fabric of the “pro-life” label apart? When I rediscovered the Catholic faith, one of the central things that drew me in was the consistency of doctrine. In the secular realm, it is not unusual to find politicians shifting their arguments and principles according to political expediency. So, a politician will use argument X to defend policy A one day, and the next day will attack argument X to advance policy B.

This is not so with Catholic doctrine, however. The principles that underlie it are the same throughout. From the big things to the small things, the values and ideas that permeate it are consistently applied, with no break in logic. Catholicism abhors being a cafeteria where people pick and choose according to what they want and leave what doesn’t please them. Separating bits of doctrine from the full body of teaching is the very essence of heresy.

Whether Catholic doctrine stands or falls, it stands or falls as a whole. The same, therefore, applies to pro-life advocacy. Pro-lifers should adopt the Seamless Garment logic, not because abortion is equally important as all other life issues, but because the arguments against abortion are part of a framework that subsists across the whole spectrum of social and moral issues. If we undermine this framework, we weaken the foundation of the anti-abortion position. It is folly to reject the Seamless Garment while making abortion a priority, because without the Seamless Garment, any moral ground we have to defend the unborn simply crumbles, whether it is a matter of high priority or not. In fact, we should defend the Seamless Garment for the sake of the unborn child.

Certainly, we can adopt alternative frameworks that value unborn children, while turning a blind eye to other groups of marginalized people (or vice-versa). But such frameworks are not the fruit of Catholic doctrine; they are simply man-made. Usually they are designed along political party lines, introducing the inconsistencies I mentioned above. This is typical of political discourse nowadays. A human life is valued, not according to its intrinsic and inalienable dignity, but according to whether the party has decided to invest political capital on it or not. Ultimately, this arbitrariness does not reinforce the life of the unborn child, but actually makes it more vulnerable to shifting political winds. Also, since such frameworks are man-made, they are–as with anything made by mortal hands–subject to decay. They stand or fall, not because of adherence to eternal and immutable principles, but because of the power structures that sustain them: power structures that are not immortal and will eventually pass away.

It is true that Catholic doctrine draws distinctions between issues. Many pro-lifers like to bring up the CDF memorandum from then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger saying that “not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion or euthanasia” and that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

These quotes only make sense, however, if we understand what’s at play here. In the first part, we are talking about priorities (something that I have already addressed in this article). The second part talks about the distinction between intrinsically evil acts, which can never be justified (abortion and euthanasia), and acts that can be justified sometimes (war and, at that time, the death penalty). Hence the “legitimate diversity of opinion” bit. It is a stretch, however, to consider that just because war can be justifiable sometimes, that it can be justifiable at all times, namely whenever a Catholic decides to use this CDF quote as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The same CDF, headed by the same Joseph Ratzinger, also had this to say:

“The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility toward the common good.”

— Doctrinal Note on Some Questions
Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life, #4

In other words, Ratzinger did not find it contradictory to prioritize evils, to label them as “intrinsically evil” or “non-intrinsically evil,” and to have a consistent ethic across the spectrum.

Let us now explore some of the inconsistencies that arise whenever we reject the Seamless Garment. Each of them has a corollary, meaning that they are double-edged swords: they hinder the so-called liberal side as much as the so-called conservative one.

I already mentioned the first inconsistency: on the defense of human dignity. Pro-lifers typically ground their support of the unborn child’s right to live in light of the human dignity that God grants to each person.

Sometimes, however, they will turn around and support policies that are in fact inconsistent with this defense of human dignity. Even if keeping a child confined during days without a toothbrush, soap or blanket does not rise to the level of killing, it is still a self-evident affront to the child’s human dignity. Yet many who describe themselves as pro-life will explain this away, or shift the blame will to others (such as the parents who wanted their children to have a future away from poverty and gang violence, or the other political party). Conspicuously absent from these considerations is any concern for the human dignity of the child. These arguments are made to defend the status quo. They are deployed to forestall action on behalf of the child’s human rights and dignity.

We often hear the slogans, “Defend life from conception to natural death” or “Pro-life from womb to tomb” in pro-life advocacy circles. These are very cleverly devised slogans, and in an age of excess information in which people have no time or attention span for more than snippy catchphrases, we surely need such slogans. But do we internalize the deeper message? The Catholic does not simply believe in protecting life in the womb and in the time immediately preceding death, but from the very first moment of life to the very last, and every moment in between. When our view of what it means to defend and promote life becomes limited, the pro-choice side can and will take advantage of that.

Whenever a Catholic goes on to say that abortion is more serious than other issues affecting human dignity, he does so at a price. For example, when he says that we can disregard the convicted criminal’s right to life while upholding the unborn child’s human dignity, because the former is guilty and the latter is innocent, he has already lost the debate. This is for two reasons. The first reason is practical. We are engaged in a discussion with a world that speaks a different philosophical language than we do, and often does not understand the distinctions we are making, the world often viscerally rejects them without considering them. With so many misconceptions about Catholic doctrine to clear, so many teachings the world has difficulty hearing, choosing this particular hill to die on (one that isn’t even based in the official teachings of the Church) is not sensible.

The second reason is because the Church herself does not insist on these distinctions. Since Vatican II, she has placed much stronger emphasis on every person’s inviolable right to life and human dignity. This support for a consistent ethic of life is a much stronger position, even though it might be weaker in terms of gathering political support. The Church does not say: “since the death penalty is not as evil as abortion, it is permissible to kill a guilty criminal but not the innocent unborn child.” Rather, the Church says: “all human lives must be defended, without exception: if even the guilty criminal’s life must be respected, then we must defend the innocent unborn child’s life as well.”

This turn of tables has increased the credibility of the Catholic Church on issues of human rights. Because of the Church’s vocal defense of all life, it is not the pro-life message that is inconsistent, but the pro-choice position. The spotlight is no longer focused on our contradictions, but on theirs. When pro-lifers present a message that is rooted in the dignity of all people, the contradictions of those who, for example, support legal abortion while lobbying for the abolition of the death penalty are made more clear. However, many pro-lifers today appear to prefer to keep the spotlight on their own inconsistencies, while juggling complex moral arguments to make philosophical distinctions that go over the heads of most people.

There are other inconsistencies. Pro-lifers will rally for more stringent legislation on abortion, claiming that prohibitions will have a deterrent effect. But then they will turn around to–let us say–denigrate gun control legislation, arguing that laws banning guns do not work, that people who want to break the law will always find a way. It is remarkable how this mirrors the pro-choice talking point that abortion laws do not work, women who want abortions will always find a way.

Another inconsistency is that pro-lifers will argue against abortion by saying that we are not conferred human rights by the State, but rather from our God-given human dignity. But then they will turn around and make the law the measure of morality on how we treat illegal immigrants.

Pro-lifers will say that society needs to welcome every single unborn child. They will proclaim that every child is a blessing, and therefore each woman, each family–our entire society–needs to be overhauled so we can welcome every child that is conceived. But they oppose such accommodations to immigrants, even immigrant children. To them, immigrants are freeloaders who exploit the welfare system, they are burdens, there is not enough room for them, there’s not enough wealth to spread around. They argue that welcoming immigrants will increase criminality, in an argument reminiscent of Freakanomics, which postulated that high abortion rates reduce the crime rate.

Of course, the pro-choice position, with its denial of the human rights of the unborn child, is rife with the exact same incosistencies. But instead of capitalizing on this, many pro-lifers will hold on to their own inconsistencies and justify them with a passion. Then, something absolutely astonishing happens. Both sides will start pointing out the inconsistencies of the other side, while gleefully ignoring how they are essentially admitting to being inconsistent in the exact same way. Such argumentation will only defeat the other side’s case if it is self-defeating. Yet, not one among them seems to care.

Mind you, this also happens with many liberal pro-lifers, who advocate a distorted view of the Seamless Garment. They will discourage advocacy for any restrictive pro-life legislation, and advocate only for “changing hearts,” “changing the culture,” or “creating a social and economic system that will reduce the abortion rate.” Then, quite often, they will turn around and demand legal changes on issues they (justifiably) consider attacks on justice and human dignity. They don’t say we should stop lobbying for better immigration laws or for the abolition of the death penalty. Somehow, to them, certain offenses against human dignity require direct legal action and advocacy, while others must only be addressed by changing hearts, changing the culture, and by creating conditions that make those evils more rare.

All of these inconsistencies do not help the defense of the unborn (or, for that matter, any other marginalized group). Sure, they may strengthen short-term political alliances. Nevertheless, they create vulnerabilities in our position, and they open huge gaps in the arguments we use to convince the culture. If an argument is sound, it should be applied consistently. But when we only use an argument when it is convenient, and refute that same argument when it becomes inconvenient, the argument is not true in itself. It becomes a tool used to achieve an end. And those who want to obstruct that end will take note of this and make it known to the very same people we want to convince.

As Catholics, the greatest inconsistency is in our relationship with Catholic doctrine. Catholic pro-lifers, usually of a more conservative or traditionalist bent, will often cry out how doctrine is important, how we should not treat Catholicism as a cafeteria, and how we should not downplay Catholic teachings because the salvation of souls is at risk. But then they will slice off huge chunks of Catholic Social Doctrine, picking and choosing which to accept–often according to the positions of their favored political parties–and downplaying other teachings as if they were negotiable or disposable as long as one invokes “prudential judgment”.

Left-wing Catholics are guilty of the same thing, of course. They will appeal to Church authority whenever social justice is mentioned, but will quickly turn against that very same Church whenever abortion is mentioned. Or, for that matter, contraception, women’s ordination, papal infallibility, or any other teaching that is not compatible with their progressive ideology.

Catholics who truly subscribe to the Seamless Garment need not do such back-flips. They need not defend Church authority and teaching in the morning and attack it in the afternoon. They will follow Catholic Social Doctrine, and the pope, and the bishops in communion with him whenever they teach about abortion, immigration, euthanasia, the death penalty, care for creation, embryonic stem cell research, healthcare, religious liberty, and war. They will defend the unborn child’s right to live because it’s what the Catholic Church teaches, and then they will turn around and defend the rights of migrants because that’s what the Catholic Church teaches, too. They don’t need convoluted excuses to masquerade perceived inconsistencies, because they are not being inconsistent. They don’t need to usurp the hierarchy’s role and claim that they are the ones who know what doctrine is, not the Vicar of Christ and the Successors of the Apostles. They don’t need these maneuvers. They can simply follow the Church and that’s it.

The Seamless Garment, properly understood, is indeed the Catholic position. If it is not, then why are the people who attack it the same people who spend so much time explaining away the Catholic position? Why do they feel the need to say that the official Catholic position is not the true Catholic position? That the Pope is wrong? That the bishops are wrong? A person who subscribes to the Seamless Garment is Catholic without apology. Only a Catholic with a consistent ethic of life can subscribe to Catholicism as it has been presented and revised by the Successor of Peter, who is invested with authority by Jesus Himself. Fully embracing the Seamless Garment prevents one from being led astray by pundits and manipulated by political forces across the spectrum.

What is the Seamless Garment, then? How can we properly understand it? I think that a clear picture can be found in a brief speech that Pope Francis delivered in Feb 2nd, 2019, to the members of the Italian Directive Council of the Movement for Life. He said (my translation, with the help of a Vatican News piece):

“In your cultural action you have witnessed that all those who are conceived are sons of all society, and their killing in huge numbers, with the endorsement of States, is a serious problem that undermines the foundations of the construction of justice, compromising the proper solution of any other human and social issue.”

But he also said:

“Taking care of life requires that this be done throughout life until the end. It also requires that attention be paid to living conditions: health, education, and job opportunities. In short, it includes everything that allows a person to live in dignity”

Ideologues on both sides will tell you that you cannot agree with both sentences. Some will argue that you can build justice on a myriad of human and social issues while allowing the killing of unborn children in huge numbers. Others will argue that you can be pro-life while rejecting measures that improve people’s health, education, job opportunities and living conditions.

Pope Francis eschews this false dichotomy and applies Catholic principles in a consistent way. By doing this, he is a stronger pro-life advocate than any of those who not only not follow him, but have made attacking him at every turn a part of their “pro-life” advocacy. He clarifies the confusion and ambiguities that progressives and conservatives alike have built around the Seamless Garment, and then presents it as the true pro-life, Catholic position. Those who are concerned with the rights of unborn children would do well to take heed of his advice.

With thanks to Where Peter Is.


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