From the Publisher: Whose Seamless Garment?

The year of choice is here again. Through the frenetic primaries, the U.S. presidential candidates are coming to know the hills and valleys of America, the towns upon the plains, the neighborhoods of cities. The United States is not ruled by a professional political class. The parties do not nominate their candidates for highest office in closed caucus. By means of a long and grueling obstacle course, the people make the choice.

Not all the people, of course. In the primaries, at least, the smaller portion of the population that is composed of political activists plays a disproportionate role. This makes for two different races. During primaries, candidates run to left (or to right) in order to capture fervent activists. During the general election, they seek the center, striving for at least a slim majority.

By all past auguries and current signs, 1988 ought to be a banner year for Democrats. Ronald Reagan is the first president since the 1950s to serve two full terms. Winds of change are in the air. Catholic voters, in particular, show signs of drifting “home” to the Democrats. And, as always, what Catholics do — the nation’s largest single swing vote — is decisive.

The return of the Democrats to moral prominence places Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment” in the spotlight once again. Whatever theologians may think, political analysts believe that this metaphor for the large sweep of Catholic moral teaching has the powerful political utility of protecting the bulk of the Democratic party agenda. The cardinal himself has been known to emphasize that the metaphor is intended to prevent Catholics from seeming a “one-issue” community. Consequently, the Catholic bishops have recently been taking public positions on hosts of issues, such as nuclear war, AIDS, and the U.S. economy.

Thus, the “seamless garment” has been greeted with delight by those Democratic politicians who are masters of broad visions and long, glowing lists of moral concerns. For them, the “seamless garment” is a capacious tent cloth, large enough to house a circus. It permits everyone to be partly inside it, partly outside it, and still claim its cover.

As a metaphor for an ethic of prudence and realism, however, the seamless garment fails. Catholic moral teaching is not plane geometry, does not lie flat, is not made of one piece. Pascal despised 2 x 2 = 4 ethicists, and so has the Catholic intellectual tradition since St. Augustine and, especially, St. Thomas Aquinas. Not to mention the Teacher by parable and story.

Human lives are neither compartmentalized nor seamless. They are complicated and organic. Like our bodies, they project at knees and elbows, and are full of curves and angles.

Thus, many moral principles are necessary to the complexities of daily living. In every individual moral problem, several principles, checking and balancing each other, are usually called upon. Selecting which ones are most appropriate is less a work of logic than of prudence.

Moreover, discerning the decisive features of reality in the kaleidoscopic flow of circumstance is also a work of prudence, rather than of logical clarity. A realistic prudential ethic is precisely tailored to differences, divergent contours, and multiple sides. A seamless garment is a caftan, disguising concrete shapes. Garments that fit reality require seams, joints, and tailored cuts.

As catholic eye recently wrote, the only seamless garment in our day is the condom.

We shall probably find in 1988 that the many individual bishops who are aware of the personal dimension of episcopal authority, will speak to the jutting, angular edges of reality that strike their own consciences as the most egregious moral problems in their own localities. Meanwhile, in all the churches these days, national staffs tend to be highly partisan and flagrantly ideological. Although life is not, ecclesiastical staffs are all too seamless.

Not to worry. The Democrats look to win in 1988, with or without friendly cover from the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference.

Michael Novak


Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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