A Cardinal Error: Does the “Seamless Garment” Make Sense?

Recently the National Catholic Register ran a brief news story with the headline, “‘Consistent ethic’ theory clarified.” The story ran: “Answering critics of his ‘consistent ethic of life’ philosophy, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago said August 8 that in the final analysis Catholics can vote against a political candidate because of the candidate’s support for legalized abortion. Bernardin, who is chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Pro-life Activities, made his remarks in a keynote speech at a national meeting… of U.S. diocesan pro-life directors.” This brief news report illustrates strikingly the great confusion that has been brought about, and the great harm that has been worked by Bernardin’s theory. Whether Bernardin’s speech has been accurately reported is not relevant. If the report reflects a misinterpretation, it is serious enough that his theory is still being misinterpreted, by a charitable audience, five years after it was first stated, and after so many previous clarifications by the Cardinal.

It is incredible that there could ever have been any doubt that Catholics can vote against politicians who support the killing of unborn babies. After all, the Vatican’s Declaration on Procured Abortion stated: “Whatever the civil law may decree in this matter, it must be taken as absolutely certain that a man may never obey an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law approving abortion in principle. He may not take part in a campaign to sway public opinion in favor of such a law, nor may he vote for that law.” And note how the news story is concerned not with the morality of the politicians who support abortion, but with the morality of Catholics who would vote against them—as if Catholics who vote this way stand under a cloud and need to be cleared of guilt. A curious inversion of the moral question!

We are told that “in the final analysis” Catholics may vote against pro-abortion politicians; but isn’t it true that we should vote against them in the first analysis? Isn’t it the case that someone who positively defends a gross and immediate injustice makes himself, ipso facto, unfit for public office? Note furthermore at least the appearance here of being granted permission: “Catholics can vote” against a political candidate because of his stand on abortion.

A Consistent Ethic?

The “consistent ethic of life” philosophy, usually called the “seamless garment,” gained attention through an address that Cardinal Bernardin delivered at Fordham University in December of 1983. He has been articulating the view since 1975, however. In a homily in Cincinnati, on the second anniversary of Roe v. Wade, then Archbishop Bernardin stated:

The issue of human life and its preservation and development is one that begins with conception and ends only when God calls a person back to himself in death. If we are consistent, then, we must be concerned about life from beginning to end. It is like a seamless garment; either it all holds together or eventually it all falls apart. In the minds of some, the issues of abortion and euthanasia are for “conservatives.” Other life issues, such as promoting the quality of life at home and abroad through the implementation of Christian social principles, are considered proper only for “liberals.” There is no room for such distinctions!

The seamless garment theory after 1983 would probably have fallen back into the same obscurity that it enjoyed before 1983 if it did not become, under Cardinal Bernardin’s direction, the strategy of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) Pro-life Committee, of which Bernardin had just been named chairman. It is curious that Bernardin stated in his Fordham address that he was proposing his theory tentatively (“I have cast the lecture in the style of an inquiry, an examination of the need for a consistent ethic of life….”) yet he immediately began to implement the theory, not first awaiting the views of prominent lay pro-life activists as to its soundness and advisability.

It is difficult to state the seamless garment theory, simply because it has never been very fully or precisely delineated. In the Fordham address, Bernardin said that he was stating his theory “in the broad strokes of a lecturer” and that he would leave its finer articulation to “philosophers and poets, theologians and technicians, scientists and strategists, political leaders and plain citizens.” In various lectures over the past five years, Bernardin has largely restated points in the Fordham address and continued to say that the theory awaits development. However, the following seems to be the basic rationale for and content of the theory.

Bernardin notes, rightly, that human life is threatened in various ways in the contemporary world, and that a unified response to these threats would be desirable and effective. The threats, Bernardin says, drawing on themes from Vatican II and John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptor Hominis, derive in large part from technological progress. The unified response should consist of a consistent ethic of life; that is, one that consistently upholds and defends the sanctity of life in the face of these various threats.

Philosophy of Feelings

So far there is little to quarrel about. But then Bernardin moves to controversial ground in two ways. First, he sketches a kind of moral philosophy to support this view. He says, in effect, that moral thinking consists of three levels: concrete decisions; basic principles; and what he calls “attitudes.” He cites “innocent life may never be taken” as an example of a principle. Bernardin thinks, however, that “attitudes” constitute the deepest level of moral thinking. “Attitude is the place to root an ethic of life,” he says. This is where the theory gets hazy and metaphorical, yet Bernardin is adamant: “The precondition for sustaining a consistent ethic is a ‘respect life’ attitude or atmosphere in society.” He tells us that “The development of such an atmosphere has been the primary concern of the `Respect Life’ program of the American bishops. We intend our opposition to abortion and our opposition to nuclear war to be seen as specific applications of this broader attitude.”

It is a bit hard to understand what an “attitude” or an “atmosphere” is supposed to be. Perhaps the best guess is that it is a feeling of some sort—but this would be a feeble foundation for an ethic. Surely what is more basic than this is a belief about how the world is: the belief that human beings have dignity in virtue of their being created beings with reason and will. Nor is it clear what it means to apply an attitude; feelings are by nature personal and therefore hard to convert into a public domain.

The second controversial move that Bernardin makes is to link together, under the respect life attitude, abortion and a whole slew of issues that were brought together by Bernardin in his Fordham address as follows:

If one contends as we do, that the right of every fetus to be born should be protected by civil law and supported by civil consensus, then our moral, political, and economic responsibilities do not stop at the moment of birth. 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 homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker. Such a quality of life posture translates into specific political and economic positions on tax policy, employment generation, welfare policy, nutrition and feeding programs, and health care. Consistency means we cannot have it both ways: We cannot urge rights of the unborn and then argue that compassion and significant public programs on behalf of the needy undermine the moral fiber of the society or are beyond the proper scope of governmental responsibility.

This controversial passage, never withdrawn or repudiated by Bernardin, links regard for life with regard for the “quality of life” in a highly dubious moral equation.

Only three months after his Fordham address, Bernardin spoke on the seamless garment at St. Louis University, clarifying the many misinterpretations of his theory. This is illuminating: from the start the theory proved itself pedagogically unsound. A metaphor should make a teaching easier to understand, not easier to misunderstand, but the seamless garment metaphor was only confusing people. “If the Garment is seamless,” people wondered, “then the various issues that are linked are of equal importance—just as a hole in a cloth rends that cloth equally at any point?” No, we were told, the theory does not imply that all of the issues are equally important.

Again, “If you put on part of a cloak, you have to put on the whole cloak—so the seamless garment theory means that if you act against one evil, such as abortion you have to act against them all?” No, Bernardin assured us, the theory does not mean that either. (Yet, after all, Bernardin did say that “those who defend the right to life… must be equally visible in support of the quality of life.” What else could this mean?)

“Well, then, since a seamless garment is uniform over its surface, a pro-abortion candidate who supports increased welfare spending to that extent fosters the ‘respect life attitude’ as much as one who opposes abortion?” No, the theory did not mean that either—though, as we saw, it would require at least five years to remove this misunderstanding.

Bernardin’s frequent use of the word “consistency” is as misleading as his metaphor. To charge someone with an inconsistency is to make a precise and grave claim. It is to claim that, because he believes or does one thing, he is necessitated, on pain of being irrational, to believe or do some other thing. Bernardin’s “consistent ethic of life” misleadingly suggests that someone who opposes abortion must, on pain of being inconsistent and hence irrational, oppose capital punishment and favor greatly expanded social welfare programs.

There are facile and fallacious arguments, often used to score cheap points against pro-life activists, which Bernardin’s theory inevitably encourages. Many of us have heard “How can you oppose abortion if you favor capital punishment?” (Surely innocence versus guilt is a morally significant distinction, if anything is!) Then there is Rep. Barney Frank’s (D., Mass.) quip, that the Reagan administration believes respect for life begins with conception and ends with birth. Bernardin actually argues the same way. In the passage quoted above, he says “consistency means we cannot have it both ways”; he then argues that pro-lifers are compelled to embrace “significant public programs on behalf of the needy.” But consistency means only the following: even if we grant that right to life and “quality” of life are inseparable, then what follows from “Parents should be prohibited by law from killing their children” is: “Parents should be required by law to feed, clothe, and educate their children.” Something more than consistency is needed to bring the federal government into the picture.

Christ’s Seamless Robe

A further point should be made about the seamless garment metaphor. Of course, the metaphor is an allusion to the seamless garment of Christ. Hence, to call the “consistent ethic of life” philosophy the “seamless garment” theory is to suggest that the consistent ethic of life is identical with the teachings of Christ. The metaphor suggests that those who reject the theory are rending the garment of Christ and hence rejecting Christ’s teaching. Yet this is gravely misleading, since the “consistent ethic of life,” in opposing capital punishment, for example, adopts a view that goes beyond (in some cases inverts) the traditional teaching of the Church, that is, the teaching of Christ. The metaphor incorrectly suggests that Catholics are bound by the Church to oppose capital punishment, which they are not.

In conclusion, then, the two distinctive features of Bernardin’s theory—the stress on consistency and the striking seamless garment metaphor—are both seriously misleading. The theory itself is misleading and encourages misunderstanding.

Why should anyone think there is an underlying unity among the various “life issues” linked by Bernardin’s theory? After all, historical evidence suggests otherwise. It was precisely during the 1960s, during the expansion of federal welfare programs in our country, that the drive for legalized abortion began. If Bernardin were right, the 1960s ought to have been a time of growing respect for life. In Europe and in the United States, the trends to eliminate capital punishment and to legalize abortion have been concurrent; many opponents of capital punishment have championed abortion on demand.

Bernardin’s only argument for the essential unity of the “life issues” is fallacious. He maintains that, because human life forms a continuum from conception until death, the various ethical problems associated with human life form a continuum. But the only kind of unity that can be derived from this sort of consideration is the kind usually labeled the “slippery slope,” not the “seamless garment”: since human life forms a continuum, if taking an innocent life after birth is wrong, then taking such a life before birth is wrong; similarly, to permit killing before birth leaves us with no solid reason not to permit killing after birth. From this kind of argument, nothing follows about first-degree murderers or food stamps.

The seamless garment theory is also philosophically faulty because it encourages proportionalist

thinking. Proportionalism (or “consequentialism”) is the theory that the rightness or wrongness of an act is to be judged by its good and bad consequences. The seamless garment theory would distract us from contemplating the intrinsic wrongness of abortion and have us consider instead how the “atmosphere” of respecting life is eroded by it. That abortion erodes the “attitude” of respect for life is a serious problem, but the fact that it kills 1.5 million human beings each year is incomparably more serious. The seamless garment theory turns our attention away from the persons killed or injured by abortion and aims to have us think about institutions, social structures, and government programs. These are all important, but secondary.

Moreover, the theory is faulty insofar as it has no place for the virtue of prudence. Prudence is the virtue by which we order our actions: we distinguish what is primary from what is secondary, and we act to achieve the primary thing first and the secondary thing afterwards. Bernardin’s theory gives absolutely no guidance as to what is ethically more or less important. Consequently, even where it does not positively discourage the careful ordering of our actions so important to the moral life, it is of little practical value. This problem is illustrated perfectly by the 1984 U.S.C.C. statement on voter responsibility, which merely lists 13 “important issues” alphabetically, and does not even attempt to describe their relative importance. Abortion (which perhaps we should now spell “aabortion” to be on the safe side) was listed first out of respect for the alphabet, not life. Where is our sense of priorities?

Disproportionate Evils

It is inappropriate even to put abortion on the same list with many of the problems included in the “consistent ethic of life.” There are many obvious analogies that make this point clear. It would be absurd, for example, to say that the South before 1865 was unjust because of slavery and because the roads were not maintained in poorer regions.

Even the serious threat of nuclear war does not compare. Imagine how much more serious and pressing the nuclear problem would become if some foreign power actually began destroying one U.S. city each year with a nuclear bomb. Yet that is how great an evil legalized abortion already is.

There are two views that a person can take about legalized abortion. The first is that abortion is a calamity, a moral catastrophe of the first order, like the Ukrainian famine or the Holocaust. On this view, legalized abortion constitutes a direct attack on the foundation of our society: it involves the destruction of the most fundamental human bonds and requires, perilously, the continued corruption of our legal and medical professions. Our immediate task as citizens is to work with an almost militant commitment—like the French resistance, or like the underground railroad—to remove this evil.

The second view is that abortion is one among many evils in our society; that these evils come and go over time; and that we simply have to do our best to bring about the best society that we can achieve. The seamless garment theory gives no support to the first view, which follows logically from the very nature of abortion conceded by Bernardin, and encourages the second view, which is a formula for lukewarmness and apathy.

Finally, Cardinal Bernardin’s theory is tactically unwise precisely because it implies that pro-abortion politicians who support the liberal agenda on social spending are at some level actually opposing abortion, since they are fostering a “respect life attitude.” Witness the absurd and scandalous JustLife rating system, according to which Senator Kennedy scores 67 percent but Senator Dole rates only 34 percent. It provides promoters of abortion with many tools for deflecting attention from the evil of abortion. (In this respect it is like the line, “Why are you so concerned about abortion, when thousands of children are starving to death in Africa?”) And it provides a reason why abortion, which is so controversial and unsettling, need never be mentioned in a homily, even on Respect Life Sunday—after all, don’t we foster the “respect life attitude” equally well by talking instead about the (fashionable) problems of sexism and homelessness?

As we saw, because it encourages the view that abortion is only one among many evils, the theory discourages commitment and sacrifice. It makes sense to go to jail to stop the equivalent of the Holocaust, but not to oppose merely one among dozens of evils. Furthermore, the theory does nothing to encourage unity among opponents of abortion. Anyone who has marched in Washington, picketed an abortion mill, or joined in a sit-in knows that already citizens from all over the political spectrum are united in opposing abortion—this without agreeing on the various points of the “consistent ethic of life.” One almost thinks that Bernardin has been taken in by the media stereotype that pro-life activists are all New Right Republicans—this despite consistent polls showing that more Democrats than Republicans oppose legalized abortion.

Perhaps Cardinal Bernardin’s statement of his theory is aimed at reaping the fruits of pro-life fervor. It would be good if we could commit ourselves to work for social justice generally with the same fervor with which we oppose abortion. But clearly this kind of transformation of moral energy cannot take place before legalized abortion is successfully defeated. The Marshall Plan was a desirable and natural continuation of the American effort to defeat Hitler, but it would have been folly to propose it before Berlin had fallen. Only after legalized abortion is defeated should we begin to analogize about other, less important social ills.

The final, and perhaps best, rebuttal to the logic of the seamless garment theory is: ask those who have been active in the pro-life movement for more than 15 years. Most will say that Cardinal Bernardin’s intellectual distinctions have proved to be a practical disaster. These are people concerned not with speeches but with results. They are admittedly less worried about a spurious consistency than with saving lives. Hundreds of thousands of these pro-life Catholics would be relieved if their hierarchy would quietly put to the side a paradigm that has proved untenable.

Michael Pakaluk


Michael Pakaluk (A.B., Harvard; M.Litt., Edinburgh; Ph.D., Harvard) wrote his dissertation on Aristotle's theory of friendship under John Rawls and was, for many years, the Director of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy (BACAP). Currently Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University in Florida, he has formerly taught at Clark University and the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, and has held visiting positions at Brown, Cambridge, Catholic University of America, Harvard, St. Andrews and Santa Croce (Rome). The author of six books, most recently (with Giles Pearson, University of Bristol), Moral Psychology and Philosophy of Action in Aristotle (Oxford University Press, 2011).