9 Responses to Can The Seamless Garment Be Rediscovered?

  1. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Cardinal Bernardin on abortion in 1989:


    Following is the complete text of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s statement for Respect Life Sunday 1 October 1989, entitled “Deciding for Life”.

    This year as the Church in the United States celebrates Respect Life Sunday, some observations on the notion of freedom are in order.

    We Americans cherish freedom. To act on our own judgements and enjoy the responsible use of freedom accords more with human dignity than does being pressured or coerced into action by outside forces. Personal freedom enables us, in harmony with others, to pursue those goods and values which enhance and enable human lives.

    It is good to keep in mind, though, that freedom is not an absolute value. At times some, in their exercise of personal freedom diminish the freedom and dignity of others. At other times, vulnerable groups in society need their personal freedoms protected. In both in government has an obligation to limit one group’s use of its freedom so another group may legitimately exercise its freedom.

    A common example illustrates this point. Governments at various levels have passed ordinances requiring reserved sections in parking lots for persons with disabilities. Although this restricts the liberty of those who are not disabled and who would like to park in those sections, the vast majority of people accept this type of restrictive legislation. It is easy to see how reserved parking areas enable those with disabilities to have easier access to facilities. Government intervention restricts the personal liberties of some without demeaning them as persons in order to uphold the personal liberty of the disabled and provide them with an opportunity to lead fuller lives.

    Laws requiring handicapped parking sections are based on a respect for the dignity of persons with disabilities and a call to others to treat them with fairness and justice. The pursuit of values associated with the human spirit is the purpose of freedom. Protection of these same values is the justification for restricting personal liberty.

    Not all values, however, are of equal weight. Some are more fundamental than others. On this Respect Life Sunday, I wish to emphasize that no earthly value is more fundamental than human life itself. Human life is the condition for enjoying freedom and all other values. Consequently, if one must choose between protecting or serving lesser human values that depend upon life for their existence and life itself, human life must take precedence.

    Today the recognition of human life as a fundamental value is threatened. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of elective abortion. At present in our country this procedure takes the lives of over 4,000 unborn children every day and over 1.5 million each year.

    Some, though admittedly a small minority, even favor abortion for the purpose of eliminating a child that is not the sex desired by the mother or both parents. Such a decision gives more weight to gender preference than to life itself. Yet, this is permitted under our nation’s current legal policy virtually allowing abortion on demand.

    Others, though increasingly a minority give, higher priority to the freedom of teenage girls to abort their children without their parents knowledge or consent than they do the value of the human lives these young women carry within them. Overcoming fear, embarrassment and inconvenience, or concern about not interrupting one’s career plans are value often cited in justifying elective abortion. Giving precedence to these values to justify abortion ignores the priority of the more fundamental value, namely life itself.

    The primary intention of the consistent ethic of life, as I have articulated it over the past six years, is to raise consciousness about the sanctity and reverence of all human life from conception to natural death. The more one embraces this concept, the more sensitive one becomes to the value of human life itself at all stages. This is why this year’s Respect Life observance, whose program is shaped by the consistent ethic of life, includes, in addition to abortion, such topics as euthanasia, the Church and technology, violence in our culture, the changing American family, and the Church’s concern for the elderly.

    This consistent ethic points out the inconsistency of defending life in one area while dismissing it in another. Each specific issue requires its own moral analysis and each may call for varied, specific responses. Moreover different issues may engage the energies of different people or of the same people at different times. But there is a linkage among all the life issues which cannot be ignored.

    Because of the Webster decision, the abortion issue is being debated intensely at this moment. and the consistent ethic has much to contribute. For the more one reverences human life at all stages, the more one becomes committed to preserving the life of the unborn, for this is human life at its earliest and most vulnerable stage. And the more one is committed to preserving the life of the unborn, the one more one appreciates their need for constitutional protection.

    There are those who support abortion on demand who do not grasp or will not discuss the intrinsic value of human life and the precedence it should take in decision making. The issue – the only issue – they insist, is the question of who decides — the individual or the government.

    Who decides is not the issue. We all decide, but we make our free decisions within limits. In exercising our freedom, we must not make ourselves the center of the world. Other individuals born and unborn are as much a part of the human family as we are.

    On this Respect Life Sunday I invite reflection on our free choices and the values which really are worth pursuing. I encourage a deeper appreciation for the freedom we have and how it enables us to achieve selfhood in harmony with others, particularly the weak and vulnerable whose dignity as persons may not be as clearly in evidence. In short, I exhort you to decide for life.”

  2. This leaves faithful Catholics in two positions: we feel politically homeless and we cast our ballots with some sort of hesitation, reflecting our desire for better candidates.

    No, it doesn’t. Catholics may in good conscience disagree with the application of the death penalty or just war teaching favored by the current and last pontificates. They may not do so regarding issues like abortion, ESCR, homosexual “marriage,” etc., and of the two major parties, one is decidedly and consistently on the wrong side of these. That doesn’t make me a partisan, but a man with eyes to see.

  3. Kyle Cupp says:

    While not every Catholic will feel homeless and hesitant in the political arena, perhaps every Catholic should, even if Catholics were to be presented with a political party or candidate perfectly in line with Catholic teaching. Politics is of this world, and while we Catholics should participate in the political realm, we shouldn’t make it our home or unhesitatingly place our trust in it in the same way we ought to place our trust in the things of the Lord or make our home the Kingdom of God.

  4. I don’t think one could legitimately claim that any party is the “natural home” of Catholics in the sense that it is fully founded upon a Catholic philosophy — in part because I strongly suspect that running a country naturally leads one away from God’s priorities. (It is not without reason that we find so many references to “the world” and God’s ways being different in the scriptures.)

    However, unless one actively expects to feel that sort of all-encompassing comfort with a political faction (in which case one perhaps has an unrealistic view of politics), I don’t think one need necessarily assume that Catholics must necessarily feel un-at-home in any one political party.

    On Eric’s post:

    I think your overall point is well taken. One of the difficulties on the practical level, however, is that there’s invariably a lot of disagreement on what exactly Catholic teaching mandates on some of these issues at the practical political level. Abortion is, in that sense, rather simply. Topics like welfare, minimum wage law, tarriffs, big labor, etc. admit a lot of disagreement even among people who strongly agree with Church moral teaching — because the application of morality to these questions is often disputed even by honest Catholics of good will.

    So while I think there’s little disagreement with a seamless garment approach in the sense of bringing our moral understanding of the world to all issues, there is a lot of disagreement as to the shape of the garment in certain areas.

  5. Eric Brown says:


    While there are four paramount issues, I think many Catholics wish they could vote for candidates they are more in alignment with than on the basis of four policy positions. I’m one of those Catholics. I voted for 23 Republicans on virtually four issues and I disagreed substantially on practically every other issue I knew their position on. I happen to think I’m right and think the policies do not necessarily achieve the end they are aiming for. The sense of hesitation in voting was a real experience for me. There were seven pro-life Democrats on my ballot and I voted for them with little hesitation. Politics is more than four issues; true justice is more than four issues. There are a host of injustices and it really makes you cringe when you are of the mind that the committment to fighting those injustices correctly and justly splits across the political spectrum. I think the right to legitimately disagree on lesser issues doesn’t imply that they are irrelevant when voting and any position is just as right as the other.


    Thank you. I think it was Madison who said that if men were angels there would be no government.


    I think disagreement leads to a healthy debate. I think the sense that we’re all working for the same end is more essential. Sometimes it’s obscure when debating that we may agree on the same ends.

    What are your thoughts on Catholic libertarians?

    I might as well add…I think you *might* have corrupted my mind about guns. Don’t you worry, I’m reading a wonderful book on gun control. =)

  6. I think disagreement leads to a healthy debate. I think the sense that we’re all working for the same end is more essential. Sometimes it’s obscure when debating that we may agree on the same ends.

    So long as people can remember that, it’s a good sign. Too often people just take the short cut and accuse each other of not embracing a consistent life ethic.

    What are your thoughts on Catholic libertarians?

    Libertarian is one of those very odd terms. It can be used either to refer to anything from a Randian who really does think you would be right to do whatever you can get away with (and should be able to get away with as much as possible) to people who believe strongly enough in what Catholics would call subsidiarity to almost invariably want to reserve decisions for levels of organization smaller than the governmental.

    The former clearly doesn’t fit with Catholicism, while the later might. But there is a certain Scottish Enlightenment element to libertarianism, it seems to me, which is at best a slightly odd fit with Catholicism. Like it or not, Catholicism does have a history of accepting and working with fairly strong governments.

    I might as well add…I think you *might* have corrupted my mind about guns. Don’t you worry, I’m reading a wonderful book on gun control. =)

    Goodness. And I haven’t even had a chance to write my own post yet. I must be some ideologically dangerous dude… 😉

  7. Eric Brown says:

    The book actually turned out to be in favor of the “gradual elimination of guns,” which made me argue with the author mentally as I was reading in favor of guns. Gah!

  8. The point, Eric, is that there is no single Catholic position on policy questions outside of those four core issues. Catholics are free to disagree and aren’t any less faithful for doing so.

  9. Matt says:

    I never felt comfortable with the Seamless Garment theory, rhetorically or theoretically. I think it falls apart on the question of the death penalty, because here we are talking about the killing of the guilty vs. taking the life of the innocent. In our society a politically-motived and imprudent concern for criminals has come at the expense of compassion for the victim. It undermines our sense of justice and thus undermines our sense of outrage at abortion. One can’t help but wonder if there’s moral equivalency going on with some proponents of the theory. On a practical level, we saw overtures to liberals but no reciprocity. In the end the left gained and the Church lost ground. Granted I can respect those who are anti-death-penalty and anti-abortion while disagreeing with them. But in the end I can’t help but feel the thing is a passing fad of the 20th century — it doesn’t jibe with previous centuries of Catholic social thought — and it just doesn’t work.

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