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