Can the ‘seamless garment’ approach to pro-life issues make a comeback in the Catholic Church?

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago speaks Nov. 13 during the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller) Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago speaks Nov. 13 during the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

In the run-up to this week’s meeting of U.S. bishops in Baltimore, several reporters and commentators zeroed in on the election for the chairman of the bishops pro-life committee as something of a referendum, either on Pope Francis, on one of his champions in the United States, Cardinal Blase Cupich, or both. Since bishops are reluctant to discuss issues of voting publicly, it will perhaps remain unclear why they broke tradition and elected an archbishop over a cardinal for the post or why nearly three-dozen bishops abstained from the vote.

The focus on the pro-life committee vote did, however, give renewed attention to a way of approaching a litany of thorny social and political issues: the consistent ethic of life. This ethos, first made famous in the 1980s by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, was crafted at a time when abortion, the death penalty and nuclear war were forefront on the minds of many Catholics. Today, some bishops, including Cardinal Joseph Tobin and Bishop Gerald Kicanas, say the consistent-ethic or “seamless-garment” approach to how Catholics operate in the public square could be especially helpful as the church grapples with issues like migration, health care and even taxes.

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Archbishop Bernardin feared “abortion could completely take over the American Catholic political engagement.”

Steven P. Millies, the director of The Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and a biographer of the late archbishop, said that then-Archbishop Bernardin used the phrase “consistent ethic of life” as early as 1976 as he struggled with how the church should approach social issues in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade to legalize abortion a few years prior—a decision he called “evil” four times in a single paragraph immediately after the court handed down its ruling.

During the first presidential election following Roe, in 1976, Archbishop Bernardin was president of the U.S. bishops conference. According to Mr. Millies, he feared “abortion could completely take over the American Catholic political engagement.” As a result, Mr. Millies said, “he was very conscious of trying to find a way to make sure that everything else didn’t get lost.”

It was not until he was made archbishop of Chicago a few years later that Cardinal Bernardin formally explained the concept of the consistent ethic of life. The threat of nuclear war in the early 1980s spurred U.S. bishops to consider broader issues affecting human life and part of that effort included the 1983 publication of a pastoral letter written by the cardinal,The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.” A few months later, Cardinal Bernardin gave a lecture at Fordham University in which he laid out his vision in more detail.

The threat of nuclear war in the early 1980s spurred U.S. bishops to consider broader issues affecting human life. 

As Mr. Millies put it, the thinking among those drawn to Cardinal Bernardin’s formulation was, “The church cannot be satisfied that every child conceived will be born and brought into a world where a moment later a nuclear war might end human civilization.”

Bishop Gerald Kicanas, who recently retired as the head of the Diocese of Tucson, was an auxiliary bishop in Chicago under Cardinal Bernardin. He said during a recent interview with America that the late cardinal, who passed away in 1996, was persistently criticized during his career for promoting the consistent ethic of life because of a misunderstanding about how the framework approached abortion.

“What Cardinal Bernardin was trying to emphasize in his efforts was seeing that all life issues are intertwined and that we have to see this as a ‘seamless garment,’” Bishop Kicanas said. The “seamless garment” is an image from the Gospels that the cardinal used to help explain the concept, which was picked up by the popular press following his 1983 speech. That image led some to believe that the cardinal believed all moral issues carried equal weight, which he did not.

“What Cardinal Bernardin was trying to emphasize in his efforts was seeing that all life issues are intertwined.” 

Bishop Kicanas said that some Catholics were not receptive to Cardinal Bernardin’s message and accused him of trying to undermine church teaching on abortion.

“One of the most painful things for Cardinal Bernardin when he was talking about the ‘seamless garment,’ of the whole idea of seeking common ground, was that there was such a reaction by some to that, as if he had betrayed the teachings of the church,” he said.

The cardinal, Bishop Kicanas said, “wanted to somehow heal the polarization that existed, and sadly still exists, not only in the church but certainly in the world as well.”

Mr. Millies agreed, saying the “challenge for Bernardin was trying to find a way to make sure the church is engaging the full range of issues and not getting stuck on one, no matter how important that issue is.”

The “challenge for Bernardin was trying to find a way to make sure the church is engaging the full range of issues.”

He contends that the consistent ethic of life deserves another look from some Catholics, saying that as the Roe v. Wade decision approaches its 50th anniversary, it is clear to him that the tactics used by bishops on abortion have not persuaded people and instead “have not succeeded to produce anything other than division.”

Debates about how thoroughly the consistent ethic of life has permeated Catholic life in the United States have gone on for years. In 2011, the Catholic writer George Weigel penned an essay in the journal First Things entitled “The End of the Bernardin Era,” in which he argued that the concept had given cover for Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, even if that was not the cardinal’s intention. Regardless, Mr. Weigel wrote that by 1998, U.S. bishops had moved on from the “seamless garment” approach by elevating “pro-life activism as the cultural marker of serious Catholicism in America.”

There have been calls not only to embrace Cardinal Bernardin’s vision—but to adapt it to modern times as well.

But with the election of Pope Francis in 2013, that began to shift. While consistently toeing the line on the church’s opposition to abortion, Francis nonetheless suggested in an interview published by America early on in his pontificate that the church had become too narrowly focused on abortion and same-sex marriage, perhaps to the detriment of other issues.

And there have been calls not only to embrace Cardinal Bernardin’s vision—but to adapt it to modern times as well.

Cardinal Cupich, who was appointed to lead the Archdiocese of Chicago by Pope Francis in 2014, has led this call, suggesting that the seamless garment ethos should be expanded to include greater solidarity with the poor and other marginalized groups.

Cardinal Cupich has suggested that the seamless garment ethos should be expanded to include greater solidarity with the poor.

In an essay published in Commonweal magazine earlier this year, Cardinal Cupich defended his predecessor’s legacy and he said that the church should expand on that legacy by applying its teaching on solidarity to a number of seemingly disparate issues, such as the economy, military spending and international development.

Another archbishop appointed by Pope Francis, Cardinal Joseph Tobin who heads the Archdiocese of Newark, told America in a recent interview that he believes Cardinal Bernardin’s approach to life issues “has been certainly downplayed” in recent years. And, he said, it is “necessary” to bring back this ethos because, otherwise, it will appear that Catholic leaders “pick and choose” which life issues are important “rather than applying consistently the same principles” to a range of life issues.

He said migration issues, while not as prevalent during Cardinal Bernardin’s time, should certainly be part of the consistent ethic approach today.

Pope Francis: “The church, ‘the seamless garment of the Lord,’ cannot allow herself to be rent, broken or fought over.”

“As disciples, we read the signs of the times in the light of faith,” Cardinal Tobin said. “So I think that what a bishop need to do is read the signs, times and places in the light of faith and that we need to do that as a conference.”

Mr. Millies said that he thinks even the pope endorsed the consistent ethic of life, pointing to Francis’ address to U.S. bishops during his 2015 visit to the United States.

In a section urging collegiality among bishops, Pope Francis said: “The world is already so torn and divided, brokenness is now everywhere. Consequently, the church, ‘the seamless garment of the Lord,’ cannot allow herself to be rent, broken or fought over.”

“The bishops would not have failed to connect those words to the consistent ethic,” Mr. Millies said.

As for the notion that Cardinal Cupich’s defeat for pro-life chairman signals a defeat for the Cardinal Bernardin’s legacy, Mr. Millies is dubious.

He points to the publication of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a voting guide published by U.S. bishops, for proof.

“That document has said since at least 2003 that anything that concerns human life is of interest to the church and that anybody who’s willing to be serious about forming a political opinion in light of Catholic faith has got to take every part of that seriously,” he said. “And the emphasis is on every part of that—not picking and choosing”

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Arnoldo Miranda
3 weeks 4 days ago

If you do not defend life in the womb, all other things do not matter. Today's Faustian bargain with diluting the fight for the unborn by supporting people who give a pass on abortion while supporting immigration reform or any other social justice issue rings hallow to all those deaths that have tragically occurred since 1973. All life is important but the greatest tragedy today is abortion in the name of progress and equality.

"If a mother can kill her own child, what is left but for us to kill each other." ~ Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta

John Flemming
3 weeks 4 days ago

I try to understand the emotions and logic many "pro-life" people espouse and in many cases I agree with them. When the "Voters Guide" encourages citizens to accept Trumpism in the name of "pro-life" ideology that's when it's time to step away and take a breath of fresh air; perhaps even read the teaching of the Teacher who never once mentioned abortion and lived and dealt with some horrible situations always with understanding and compassion. I am thankful for this new perspective and hope someday the U S citizens will get a wise leader not unlike the previous one or the current Pope.
Till then Bishops can debate but the proof is in the fruit. Look at what they rendered and think of the children who will someday look back on our insanity.

Tim Donovan
3 weeks 4 days ago

In terms of educating people (both we Catholics and the world at large) I favor a consistent ethic of life approach. I am particularly concerned with capital punishment, both for moral reasons and for the practical reason that sometimes people sentenced to death have been found to be innocent. I next strongly support stringent gun control laws, because of the huge number of firearms in our nation and the number of people killed by guns. I did read the bishops pastoral letter on nuclear weapons and war, The Challenge of Peace, and largely agreed with it. I would note that the bishops letter did in its conclusion refer to the great immorality of killing innocent unborn human beings, much as it's terrible immortality to deliberately kill civilians in war.
You're absolutely right that Jesus didn't say a word about abortion. However, it's equally true that Christ didn't say anything about slavery, despite the fact that the Romans enslaved people. In fact, St. Paul's teaching that slaves should obey their masters was wrongly used by many clergy throughout the ages to morally "justify" slavery. This happened in the 19th century in our nation in the years preceding and during our Civil War, which caused tremendous divisions among Americans regarding slavery, much as people for some years have been divided regarding the violence of legal abortion. As we know, Jesus wrote nothing, but His teachings were passed throughout the lands that the Apostles visited in addition to Israel by preaching. Only in time did the authors of the New Testament record the teachings of Jesus; the last of the Gospels is believed to have written near the end of the first century. The bishops, as succesors to the Apostles, sometime later decided in
an ecumenical council what books were the authentic Word of God and were to be included in the canon of the Bible.
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said to Peter, "And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it." As an imperfect Catholic who attempts to follow Jesus ' teachings as enunciated by the Church, I believe that these words of our Lord gave Peter authority as the first Pope, and the successors of the Apostles became known as bishops, priests ( "presbyters"), and deacons. These terms for these posts are used primarily in the writings of Paul as well as other. New Testament writers. The Didache, "The Teachings of the Apostles," perhaps is the first catechism . It's not known when it was compiled, but according to the Wikipedia website, it "may have,been completed in its present form as late as 150, although a date closer to the first century seems more possible to many." It's noted that in Chapter 2 of this early written Christian work that one of many commandments was against abortion.
Finally, although we should when choosing candidates for elected office carefully consider a wide range of "life" issues, I do believe that protecting the innocent unborn, of whom about one million human beings are killed by legal abortion for any reason up until viability, should be of paramount importance. To me this means not voting for any candidates who favor legal abortion. If a candidate is pro-life and one considers him or her to be reasonable on other issues as well, I think we're obliged to vote for rhat candidate. If such a "reasonable" pro-life candidate can't be found, then it. may be necessary to abstain from voting for a candidate for that particular office. In my opinion, the crucial matter is not to vote for any supporters of the violence of legal abortion, but hopefully to find a vote for a pro-life candidate who has other reasonable positions on important issues.

Dudley Sharp
3 weeks ago

Morally, you can find 2000 years of Catholic teachings, supportive of the death penalty.

The death penalty protects innocent lives, in three ways, better than does life without parole: enhanced due process, enhanced incapacitation and enhanced deterrence, with the later two not disputed, the third is supported by reason and history, as the deterrent effect of any sanction, as any negative prospect, has never been negated.

Kevin Murphy
3 weeks 4 days ago

Under Francis and his appointments, IE Cupich, Tobin, etc., abortion will take a back seat to illegal immigration, minimum wage and, yes, the Pope's favorite, climate change. America Mag shows this mindset all the time, like publishing flattering portraits of Joe Biden, fingering his rosary beads and talking of social justice, never mentioning his numerous 100 % NARAL and Planned Parenthood ratings. I don't trust the abortion struggle to any of these fellows.

Tim O'Leary
3 weeks 3 days ago

Success in any battle for justice requires a strategy that is not only moral (e.g. just war criteria) but that is also most likely to be effective, to strengthen our allies and weaken our enemies. Words and labels are central to any strategy. For example, President Obama’s apology speeches in the Middle East, his premature abandonment of our Iraqi allies, and his underestimation of ISIS for years, may all in isolation have had some apparent justification, but the cumulative result was a weakening of most of our allies in the fight against terror, destabilization of the Arab world, the rise of the most deadly anti-human movement since Communism (Islamic jihadi, ISIS et al), and the consequent greatest refugee crisis in modern times.

Similarly, the “seamless garment” and “consistent ethic of life” can appear morally justified, provided that it doesn’t obscure the relatively disproportionate injustices (20-30 executed for murder each year in the US vs. millions from abortion, tens of thousands from criminal gun violence, illegal drug use and a similar number from sex trafficking due to illegal immigration, and none yet from defensive nuclear weapons). But, the evidence to date suggests it only emboldens the forces of evil.

My test for supporting any specific strategy weighs heavily on what the pro-life warriors on the frontlines (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and secular) believe will strengthen their morale and numbers and what strategy is most opposed by the enemies of the unborn (Planned Parenthood, much of Hollywood, the Media, and the Democratic Party). So far, the “consistent ethic” strategy has lots of support from the pro-abortion alliance and minimal support from pro-lifers.

William Juliano
3 weeks 3 days ago

There is no compromise for abortion. When a baby is killed in the womb, they are denied the gift of life. Anyone advocating this extreme position can never be acceptable to a Catholic, even if every other issue they support is in alignment. Think of it this way: if a candidate believed it was OK to murder a person who has already been born, would you support them if they agreed with you on every other position? I can’t imagine many people would, so why should an exception be made for killing people at their most vulnerable stage?

Another problem with the seamless garment philosophy is it assumes the every solution to an advocated position must be the same. No one is for nuclear war, but there are many legitimate methods to prevent it. The same is true of most other issues. Tax the rich to feed the poor sounds great in theory, for example, until the economy falters and even more people are forced to go without. Universal healthcare seems to be a life affirming issue, until you consider whether a nationalized health care system would lead to a declining quality of care for everyone.

The Church needs to be careful weighing in too heavily on issues for which there are a variety of political solutions. Abortion, however, is not one of those. There is only way to save babies in the womb, and that’s by continuing to work tirelessly to end the practice.

Finally, it's wrong to suggest no one has been persuaded on abortion. During the seamless era, pro choice sentiment flourished. When the approach changed in the late 1990's, so did public opinion. Abortion should always be front and center for the Church. http://news.gallup.com/poll/1576/abortion.aspx

Lisa Weber
3 weeks 2 days ago

The seamless garment approach to issues about life is the only approach that makes any sense. It makes no sense at all to be against abortion but okay with capital punishment or nuclear war. The problem with getting all worked up about abortion is that so little can be done about it, at least in the early stages of pregnancy. A woman can decide to have an abortion and seek a provider, whether legal or illegal, and no one else is a part of that decision. Abortion was practiced for centuries before Roe vs. Wade. Safe abortion providers were ignored by law enforcement during the years that abortion was illegal. The justification for ignoring safe providers was that "at least they aren't killing the women." Driving a safe provider out of town would be likely to result in a dangerous one replacing the safe one.

It would be helpful to separate some of the issues related to abortion. Contraception and abortion are separate issues. Making abortion illegal only makes it illegal, it doesn't bring an end to abortion. Making abortion illegal is likely to result in the deaths of women who seek illegal abortions (and I know there are some who consider that entirely okay - hardly a pro-life stance). Acknowledging that the church and the community do not really have control over abortion would be most helpful. It would also be helpful to acknowledge that contentious debates about abortion destroy the community. Jesus managed to carry out his entire mission without once mentioning the subject of abortion. The Catholic Church today should consider what that means for its own evangelization.

Dudley Sharp
3 weeks ago

The distinction is between the guilty and innocent, as it has, always, been.

Charles Erlinger
3 weeks 2 days ago

I suggest that there is some validity in Stephen P. Millies’ observation:

“He contends that the consistent ethic of life deserves another look from some Catholics, saying that as the Roe v. Wade decision approaches its 50th anniversary, it is clear to him that the tactics used by bishops on abortion have not persuaded people and instead ‘have not succeeded to produce anything other than division.’”

Some maintain that only candidates who promise to work toward overturning the Supreme Court decision, that female citizens who choose abortion are within their right to do so, should receive the vote. Is it possible that one of the factors impeding the effectiveness of the political approach to the pro-life campaign is that the people who disagree with it have a vote?

In any case the result of overturning the decision would affect only the availability of the service. It would have no direct, necessary affect on anyone's desire and intent to make the choice or to make use of illegal means to accomplish the intended objective.

On the other hand, my understanding of the Church's mandate to engage in the "new evangelization" which presumably has remained of interest over the reigns of several popes in succession, is that promoting principles such as respect for human life in all of its stages is, essentially, a missionary mandate. But a missionary mandate entails achieving conversion. Achieving conversion has, in our past, been done badly, by coercion, and done blessedly, by persuasion and loving assistance. The loving assistance that would seem relevant to this issue is the convincing assurance to women and girls for whom abortion is a perceived resolution to an unbearable difficulty, that we Catholics are ready, willing and able to help them successfully to bear the child and to prosper and to live securely thereafter. And no denunciation would be allowed. Rather, praise, encouragement and lasting friendship could be expected.

In the process of evangelization, the "business model" for Catholic pro-life programs might eliminate the strident denunciatory and threatening campaigns that seem aimed at striking the fear of criminal convictions upon those women and girls facing their terrible dilemmas.

Dudley Sharp
3 weeks ago

"Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, in his famous speech on the “Consistent Ethic of Life” at Fordham in 1983, stated his concurrence with the “classical position” that the State has the right to inflict capital punishment."

"The Catholic magisterium does not, and never has, advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty. I know of no official statement from popes or bishops, whether in the past or in the present, that denies the right of the State to execute offenders at least in certain extreme cases. The United States bishops, in their majority statement on capital punishment, conceded that “Catholic teaching has accepted the principle that the State has the right to take the life of a person guilty of an extremely serious crime.”

"Summarizing the verdict of Scripture and tradition, we can glean some settled points of doctrine. It is agreed that crime deserves punishment in this life and not only in the next. In addition, it is agreed that the State has authority to administer appropriate punishment to those judged guilty of crimes and that this punishment may, in serious cases, include the sentence of death."

CATHOLICISM & CAPITAL PUNISHMENT, by Avery Cardinal Dulles, First Things, April 2001

JOHN GRONDELSKI
2 weeks 4 days ago

Can the seamless garment make a comeback?
Please, Lord, I hope not.
Enough of diluting the premier civil rights issue of our day with lobbying on policy matters.

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