Wenski & Bernardin

Archbishop Thomas Wenski was installed yesterday as the new Archbishop of Miami. He is known largely for two things, the fact that he drives a motorcycle and the fact that he is fluent in Spanish and Haitain Creole, having worked with those communities all of his life. At the Mass in which he took possession of his new see, Wenski delivered a powerful sermon in all three languages but the text’s power came from its theology not from its linguistic acumen. Soon, he will be known for a third thing, as a forceful and balanced voice within the U.S. hierarchy. In the section that concerned itself with the issues of politics and religion that most concern me, Wenski said:

"While this understanding expressed in the Church’s social teachings can seem to be quite complex, I believe it can be summarized in one simple phrase: no man is a problem. This is why as Archbishop of Miami I will continue to proclaim a positive and consistent ethic of life: no human being – no matter how poor or how weak - can be reduced to just a problem. When we allow ourselves to think of a human being as a mere problem, we offend his or her dignity. And, when we see another human being as a problem, we often give ourselves permission to look for expedient but not just solutions. The tragic history of the 20th Century shows that thinking like this even leads to ‘final solutions’."

"For us, Catholics, therefore, there can be no such thing as a ‘problem pregnancy’ – only a child who is to be welcomed in life and protected by law. The refugee, the migrant –even one without ‘papers’ - is not a problem. He may perhaps be a stranger but a stranger to be embraced as a brother. Even criminals – for all the horror of their crimes – do not lose their God-given dignity as human beings. They too must be treated with respect, even in their punishment. This is why Catholic social teaching condemns torture and advocates for the abolition of the death penalty."


These words, with their explicit invocation of the phrase "consistent ethic of life" called to mind the effort of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin to articulate the Church’s social teachings in such a way as to ensure that both political parties are made to squirm. He called his approach "the seamless garment." Bernardin’s approach fell into disuse as other powerful prelates let it be known that they thought such a construction undervalued the primacy of abortion among the Church’s political concerns. Those inclined to cynicism argued that many rising stars in the hierarchy opposed Bernardin’s construction because they did not want to make both parties squirm, only the Democrats. As my mother used to say, priests are Democrats but bishops are Republicans.

The principal value of Cardinal Bernardin’s seamless garment approach was not that it made both parties squirm, although there is value in that. The principal value is that it is true, profoundly true. The Church’s various teachings on a multitude of issues must all derive from, and be seen to derive from, our beliefs about the human person. Put differently, our political beliefs are secondary to, and derivative from, our anthropological beliefs. There are not five, or twenty, "non-negotiable" issues as some suggest. They are all related and we must understand that anything that de-humanizes is an affront to the Church’s teaching, torture as well as abortion, anti-immigrant bigotry as well as the death penalty.

Of course this does not mean that abortion is the same thing as unemployment, although both rob a person of dignity, nor that the Church should at any given time refrain from prioritizing her interventions in the public sphere. But, the "consistent ethic of life" demands more than either political party is willing to offer these days, and so we Catholics, especially our bishops, are especially wise to point out that the Church’s teachings transcend the political realm. Even if there was a political party that followed the Church’s social justice teachings to the letter, that would not be the eschaton either.

There is a bit of chutzpah in Archbishop Wenski’s delivery that a text does not capture. I admire a bit of chutzpah and think that it is not to be confused with sinful pride. Cardinal John O’Connor had some chutzpah, too, but it was combined with a great humility, as well as a profound commitment to the comman man that was not just an intellectual commitment but a deeply emotional, even existential bond. During a strike against CBS, the network sent a scab crew to a press conference being given by O’Connor and he threw them off his property. One can fancy Archbishop Wenski doing likewise, perhaps not to a scab crew, but I suspect any Arizona legislators would get a piece of his mind were they to show up on his doorstep. And, if he can help restore the sense that our teachings are interwoven and inter-connected, all the better. Buckle up, Miami. Me thinks you are in for a ride! Perhaps on the archbishop’s Harley.

Michael Sean Winters

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9 years 5 months ago
I think the seemless garment is a fine Scriptural metaphor.  But, then i have to decide whom to vote for among the two parties.  Growing up Democrats, we counted all the church's positions and decided that the Democrats held the most positions in common.  This ends up giving every issue equal weight.  Other people gave abortion the top priority and voted Republican.  We used to try to respond by saying that the death penalty cancelled out abortion because they were both life issues.  Of course, they don't weigh each other out. Now, we have the problem of embryonic stem cell destruction. 
At the end of all this the seemless garment is lost in whole bunch of horse trading, and I am back where I started, not knowing whom to vote for.
The bishops have since offered the metaphor of a temple, where certain teachings like abortion are the foundation.   It seems to be a metaphor more likely to support nuance, but then we get people who still say we have to vote based only on abortion/embryonic stem cells.
Both parties are little more than individualism run amok, one economic and the other social.
John Raymer
9 years 5 months ago
"No [person] is a problem"! This is truely the Good News of Jesus Christ. But it is hard news to live by. Even Jesus, as told by St. Matthew, came quite close to calling the religious leaders of His day "problems."

Has any political party ever sufficiently followed the Gospel? Do you expect that any ever will? If a party did, do you think it could get elected?

MSW, your article gives me great hope.
9 years 5 months ago
It is settled Catholic teaching, albeit not infallible, that the problem of legalized abortion is the primary threat, and indeed the root, of all other threats to the dignity of each human being.  As Pope John Paull II taught, so long as the most vulnerable and innocent form of human life is so threatened, the rug underneath all others is tenable.  AND I would add that Cardinal Bernardin himself, in subsequent speeches re: a consistent ethic, explicitly stated his agreement with the words of the Pope.  The trouble I have come to have with the use of the consistent ethic is that it is often used to give wiggle room to politicians on a fundamental moral issue.  One can have any number of responses to certain moral issues, abortion included.  One can, for example, think it imperative that we protect and maintain a border that is non-existent, and that such a position does NOT reduce others to "problems".  BUT one simply CANNOT in good conscience, as a Catholic, agree that abortion on demand can be or should be a matter of law. That is not to say one ought not and should not work to reduce the incidents of abortion, but on the fundamental issue of whether the normative law of the United States should make provision for legalized abortion of innocent human life, there simply as a matter of Catholic teaching, can be no debate on that.  And every bishop of every ideological point of view is in accord on that fundamental point, so any attempt to "divide and conquer" is moot with respect to it.  And I realize, of course, that this makes a Catholic's position with respect to the Democratic Party a very tenable one at best.  But, as a former Democrat myself, I cannot see how one can choose to stay in a party that has so willy-nilly dismissed and marginalized any within it who would disagree on this point.  It is the Democratic Party, and NOT the Church, that has struck at the heart of the old Democratic-Catholic alliance.
Gabriel Marcella
9 years 5 months ago
The statement "Of course this does not mean that abortion is the same thing as unemployment, although both rob a person of dignity" needs repair work. It should say that abortion robs a person of human life, while unemployment robs a human being of dignity. That is my understanding of Catholic teaching.
Vince Killoran
9 years 5 months ago
Jeff's posts uses some well-worn arguments-how could he not, given that "The Debate" is nearly forty years old and pretty calcified by now. I don't think I could vote for a political party that is indifferent, and even hostile, to so many important issues of life, justice, & dignity. As for the "pro-life" credentials, the GOP wears them pretty lightly when it's all said & done.
He writes that "one simply CANNOT in good conscience, as a Catholic, agree that abortion on demand can be or should be a matter of law."  He might not, but there are plenty of valid arguments for not advocating for the recriminalization of abortion.  The burden rest on Jeff et al. to explain how this would work and I haven't heard compelling plan to do this, just posturing.
Tom Maher
9 years 5 months ago
The recent actions of the nuns showed us the problem with the "seamless garment". Health Care became the moral equivalent to human life. "Life issues" are all equivalent the nuns reasoned and therefore whichever "life issue" yielded the most results should be legislatively backed. Two or more maternity centers would be morally more important than one human life they reasoned. So nuns backed the legislative proposal that had the highest "life issue" yield. This false reasoning is to be rejected.

All "life issues" are not at all eqivalent. In fact some "life issues" are do not actually involve life but are economic metaphors for getting a better job or lifestyle. There is no moral equivalent to an abortion where the actual life of a child is destroyed.

The trick that needs to be exposed with the "seamless garment" is the perverse logic the nuns employed where one maternity clinic, because it would help many mothers, should be perferred over saving the life of one unborn child. But this choice is not anyone's to make. No one has the right to bartered one "life issue" to gain more of another "life issue". Qualitatively perserving the life of an unborn child is vastly more important than any other consideration. It is false and preverse to compromsie on legislation that fails to definitively protect human life despite any other advantage the legislation may yield.
9 years 5 months ago
But Cardinal John O'Connor was one of those powerful prelates who attacked Cardinal Beradine's consistant ethic of life...
9 years 5 months ago
"The burden rest on Jeff et al. to explain how this would work and I haven't heard compelling plan to do this, just posturing."
No, sorry, but for a Roman Catholic the burden rests on those who OPPOSE changing existing law with respect to abortion.
And for a supposed Roman Catholic to oppose to an argument because of its age or history is somehat ironic, don't you think? 
Vince Killoran
9 years 5 months ago
I'm sorry Jeff but if you are proposing a change to the law it's your burden to explain why it should be changed, how it would be implemented, etc.
My point was simply that, for decades, we've all heard the same arguments-what can we do to re-configure the debate and have a breakthrough of some sort?
On a different subject, I wonder what would happen if we had a moratorium on "bishop stories." Frankly, they're just not that interesting or even particularly smart. Given their standing in light of the sexual abuse scandal and cover-ups I really don't want to join any ecclesiastical fan clubs just now. 
Vince Killoran
9 years 5 months ago
p.s. When I wrote that "they" weren't interesting or smart I meant the bishops, not MSW!
9 years 5 months ago
"I'm sorry Jeff but if you are proposing a change to the law it's your burden to explain why it should be changed, how it would be implemented, etc. My point was simply that, for decades, we've all heard the same arguments-what can we do to re-configure the debate and have a breakthrough of some sort?"
You can begin by conceding that the very simple point the Church has been proclaiming consistently for some decades is unassailable: that human life at every stage should be entitled to full protection in law.
But trying to get at the problem from the back-end simply won't work.  You make it seem as though the law of the United States is meaningless.  And this is precisely the issue with the immigration debate.  We are a nation of laws and the first right and duty a nation owes its citizens is the enforcement of those laws and the integrity of its borders.  That's not to say a nation may not or should not owe duties to foreign aliens within its borders, but to abandon its primary duties to its citizens is very dangerous.
9 years 5 months ago
I think what I was trying to say was that in my family the seemless garment was a reason to vote Democratic, and not something that transcended politics.   So, I dont' see how its return is going to help people understand that social justice transcends politics.
Vince Killoran
9 years 5 months ago
"You make it seem as though the law of the United States is meaningless."
My argument is that if you intend to make such a major change to the law you'd better be able to explain in a compelling (and comprehensive) way how it would work.  The self-identified "pro-life" crowd hasn't done that.


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