Rethinking the Seamless Garment

Is Pope Benedict XVI an admirer of the seamless garment? Evidently he is, and at first sight that’s bad news for conservative Catholics. But hold on: The good news is that he understands seamless-garment thinking in a way that ought to lead conservatives to admire it, too.
To be sure, in his new economic encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), Benedict nowhere uses the expression “seamless garment” or its more sophisticated variant, “consistent ethic of life.” The concept nonetheless lies at the heart of the document, signified by the verbal formula “integral human development,” which serves as the central organizing principle of this long, complex treatise.
But are integral development and consistent ethic/seamless garment really one and the same? A little background sheds light on that.
Pope Benedict attributes the idea of integral development to Pope Paul VI and traces it back to Paul’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio (The Progress of Peoples). Interestingly enough, he also sees it playing a key role the following year in Humanae Vitae, the encyclical in which Paul reaffirmed the Church’s condemnation of artificial contraception. (More on that below.)
By contrast, the consistent ethic/seamless garment rationale first emerged under that name a decade and a half later, proposed by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. He adopted the approach in the early 1980s in order to make the case that concern about the fundamental value of human life ought to predispose advocates of various life-related issues — from forestalling abortion to ending capital punishment to cleaning up the environment — to form a united front of commitment to the sanctity and quality of life in a variety of contexts.
Several years after that, with the waters of many controversies and disappointments having flowed under this particular dam, I happened to speak slightingly of the seamless garment in something I wrote. To my surprise, I received a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger letter from my old friend Cardinal Bernardin, telling me I was missing the point.
Among the considerations advanced by the cardinal on behalf of the consistent ethic was this: Aware of the flak the idea was receiving from conservative Catholic sources, he’d checked it for orthodoxy with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and had received assurances that it was acceptable. Need I point out that Cardinal Ratzinger is now Pope Benedict XVI?
Possibly I should have left it at that, but I didn’t. Replying to Cardinal Bernardin, I wrote that the problem wasn’t with the consistent ethic/seamless garment as such. The problem was with the bad use to which the idea was sometimes put by people who sought to use it as a smokescreen for moral equivalence.
In case you wonder, that’s the error which supposes — or pretends to suppose — that if some issue (curbing pollution, let’s say) can be lined up more or less convincingly under the heading “human life,” it carries the same moral weight as any of its cousins grouped under the same heading (abortion, euthanasia, whatever).
This reasoning then supplies the basis for a simplistic counting exercise: If Candidate A takes the side of life on eight issues and Candidate B does the same on fifteen, then B obviously is the authentic pro-life candidate — and never mind that A’s issues include abortion and euthanasia and B’s do not. That fantasy calculus is sometimes used in the ongoing abortion wars and lately has provided a significant part of the reasoning of Catholics who support President Barack Obama.
I got no reply from Cardinal Bernardin. Thinking about that go-round years later, I guess we both were right.
It should be obvious that Benedict does not fall into the trap of moral equivalence in Caritas Veritate. The argument he makes is more subtle and persuasive than that.
Starting from the idea of integral development in both its individual and communal aspects (“authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension”), the pope argues that there is a “strong link” between “life ethics” and “social ethics.” Furthermore (and here’s where Humanae Vitae comes in), “openness to life” is at “the center of true development.”
Benedict then proceeds to hammer away at his vision of linkages and — if I may say so — seamlessness. It’s to the fore, for example, in what he says about population (“a very important aspect of authentic development, since it concerns the inalienable values of life and the family”), about “human ecology” and “natural ecology,” and about biotechnology and the manipulation of human life: “How can we be surprised by the indifference shown towards situations of human degradation, when such indifference extends even to our attitude towards what is and is not human?”
The pope obviously understands that different issues require different ethical analyses and carry different ethical weight. But different as they are, he contends, a proper understanding of integral development brings all into focus on the welfare of the person. At its deepest level, the encyclical’s message is this: “There cannot be holistic development and universal common good unless people’s spiritual and moral welfare is taken into account, considered in their totality as body and soul.”
The Pope Paul/Pope Benedict integral development line is far more coherent and carefully reasoned than the consistent ethic/seamless garment rhetoric ever was. But leaving aside cases where seamless garment people foolishly try to equate apples with oranges, it’s easy to see that both approaches at bottom are speaking of the same thing: a vision of human flourishing in its totality, along with the programmatic steps needed to make it real.
There’s no comfort here for cafeteria Catholics of either the left or the right. In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict closes the gap between pro-life people and social justice people precisely by arguing that, for people who think clearly, there is no gap: human development must be integral or it’s illusory. “The whole Church, in all her being and acting — when she proclaims, when she celebrates, when she performs works of charity — is engaged in promoting integral human development,” he writes. It’s a stirring vision for today’s confused, frequently fractured community of believers.

Russell Shaw

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Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • Tom

    Here’s why: read Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion (2004), written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. He carefully distinguishes Church teaching with respect to “life” issues and rank-orders them. He is just as carefully in Caritas in Veritate.

  • Bob

    But Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in a front-page interview in the June 12, 1988, National Catholic Register, said:

  • Ender

    I have never cared for the Seamless Garment argument. Not because it allowed the “fantasy calculus” of claiming everything as a life issue, but because it allowed the comparison of abortion with capital punishment, two issues not just unbridgeably separated by scale but intrinsically different in nature, the former being irredeemably evil and the latter, prior to 1997, an obligation of justice.

  • James Pawlak

    To me it appears that the “seamless garment” does NOT fit over the massive Natural Law right (And duty?) to use such force (Including deadly force) to protect self and innocent others from such criminal attacks as threaten death or great bodily injury.

  • Stephen B. Wise

    In a Q&A, with American Bishops, in Washington D.C. (on his birthday) during the 2008 trip, Pope Benedict XVI said — “I believe that the Church in America, at this time in her history, is faced with the challenge of recapturing the Catholic vision of reality.”

    Seamless Garment = To “be” more = To be more “real.”

  • S

    The left are challenged by abortion et al, and the acceptance of these horrors by the left’s favorite politicians.

    The right are challenged by capital punishment and immigration.

    Interestingly, the left and the “middle” and even some on the right are challenged by something that is indeed a part of the seamless garment but not mentioned much: contraception.

    In my opinion, contraception is the true issue. It is the issue that encompasses all issues; the beginning and the end. There are too many people in this world who will accept saying No to God when it comes to the greatest gift of all – co-creation with Him. I think once you are with the Church on the issue of contraception and you know WHY, the other issues follow.

    The other trouble is that we cannot trust either political party. We are always stuck between a rock and a hard place in the voting booth, and it is only getting worse. The democrats don’t mind admitting they are the party of death; the republicans say they aren’t, but won’t campaign on it.

  • Steve P

    I can’t claim to be an expert advocate nor critic of the seamless garment. On the other hand, I can see the various ways (as the author notes) that this thinking can be abused.

    At the same time, my impression has been that the seamless garment calls us to a view that is more authentically Catholic. We can all cherry pick our points of view, depending on how comfortable we want to be with our social, economic, and political affiliations. (Mark Shea, though often criticized, perhaps justifiably so, seems to try to call us to task on this tendency.)

    Rather than throwing the garment out with the laundry water, I think there are ways to present this in a prophetic and authentic manner. Issues of poverty, immigration, health care, the environment, etc. OUGHT to make us uncomfortable, though abortion and euthanasia are not in the same league, and aren’t subject to ambiguous prudential judgments. But can we have the humility to admit that the Gospel and the Church may have something to teach us in these other matters, and that in submitting we may have to repent of our own pride, avarice, gluttony, sloth, anger, etc.?

    I’m afraid the alternative temptation is one of smug, self-righteous, comfort-loving Christianity that congratulates itself on getting things right on sexual matters. I don’t see that as a way to win souls for the Lord.

  • Ender

    Issues of poverty, immigration, health care, the environment, etc. OUGHT to make us uncomfortable, …

    A great deal of the problem with the seamless garment imagery is the uncritical acceptance that issues like those listed above are life issues when they are not even moral issues. What determines the morality of an action? Where the act itself is not intrinsically evil, it is the intent … and unlike abortion and euthanasia which are intrinsically evil, poverty et al present us with entirely prudential questions of how best to solve a particular problem.

    in submitting we may have to repent of our own pride, avarice, gluttony, sloth, anger, etc.?

    This is the other shoe in the all-things-are-life-issues world: the conviction that the people who oppose one’s particular solutions do so because they are proud, avaricious, gluttonous, lazy, angry etc.

    If you start with the assumption that the person opposing your solution to immigration, health care, etc is a good person trying to do the right thing, of what sin would you accuse him (and surely, if these are truly moral issues and people are on opposite sides, someone must be sinning)?

  • Ted Seeber

    I subscribe to moral equivalence, but I don’t subscribe to that allowing me to vote for a pro-choice politician because he happens to be pro-environment. I in fact insist that all politicians I vote for be Seamless Garment of Life- IN ALL THREADS. If they’re missing even one, they don’t get my vote. Seamless Garment of Life is a reason to vote *against* politicians, not a reason to vote for them.

    And if nobody who is demonstratably Seamless Garment of Life files- or is paid for to file by the corporations that really run the government- then I do not vote in that race. Far better to give up my right to vote, than to cooperate with evil in *any* form.

  • Ted Seeber

    I have never cared for the Seamless Garment argument. Not because it allowed the “fantasy calculus” of claiming everything as a life issue, but because it allowed the comparison of abortion with capital punishment, two issues not just unbridgeably separated by scale but intrinsically different in nature, the former being irredeemably evil and the latter, prior to 1997, an obligation of justice.

    I could have sworn that arc welding was invented long before 1997.

  • Ted Seeber

    In my opinion, contraception is the true issue. It is the issue that encompasses all issues; the beginning and the end. There are too many people in this world who will accept saying No to God when it comes to the greatest gift of all – co-creation with Him. I think once you are with the Church on the issue of contraception and you know WHY, the other issues follow.

    I very much agree. If you understand that sex is a prayer- a prayer for a new life- and that contraception *defeats the purpose of the prayer*, then *all the rest falls into place* quite nicely.

  • diane

    if the catholic church teaches truth then why so many changes from country to country/

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