Seamless Garment or Political Comforter?

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In the 1970’s, the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin and his episcopal allies advanced the notion that Catholic politicians should not be judged only, or even primarily, by their position on abortion. Abortion was merely one strand in a rich and finely woven “seamless garment” of Catholic social teaching in defense of life. Numerous other issues, the bishops said, ought to be considered.

In a recent editorial promoting the seamless-garment thesis, the National Catholic Reporter provided its list of “other” issues, which included “war and peace, immigration, tax cuts, housing, the death penalty, economic justice, welfare reform, the federal deficit, civil liberties, education, health care, crime, and on and on.” How fox hunting failed to make the list, I do not know, but the idea seems to be that a good Catholic is a liberal Democrat. That was surely not the bishops’ intention in the 1970s, but many have drawn just that inference.

A little-noticed irony of the seamless-garment proposition is that—with the exception of those who contrived it, and perhaps not even all of them—no serious combatant in the abortion wars really believes it. Roe v. Wade’s defenders, who consider the right to abortion the very essence of human autonomy, aren’t about to trivialize that right by weighing it on the same scale with housing and tax policy. Roe’s opponents, who know barbarity when they see it, reach the same conclusion for very different reasons.

So who does that leave? Poorly formed Catholic politicians who are indifferent to abortion but need political cover while voting to support it. In that respect, the seamless-garment argument has been a spectacular success. (Just ask the 71 Catholic members of the House and Senate who regularly defend “the right to choose.”) In every other respect, it has been an unmitigated disaster. After watching Catholic politicians oil their way around the issue, the laity concluded that seamless-garment thinking did not demand much of them either: Catholic opinion on abortion today does not appreciably differ from public opinion generally. Moreover, by effectively equating the gravity of abortion with diverse other issues of demonstrably lesser import, the bishops undermined their teaching authority on serious moral questions. While Catholic officeholders and their supporters were granted a free pass on abortion, millions of unborn children suffered horrible deaths.

Liberal Catholic politicians were at first wary about showing too much enthusiasm for abortion rights, being always careful to announce their “personal” opposition even as they voted the other way. Now they are bolder. Experience has taught them that they have little to fear from the bishops or from many lay Catholics whose moral sensibilities have been dulled by the seamless-garment rationale.

Comes now John F. Kerry, who mumbles sotto voce about being “personally opposed” even as he embraces abortion rights with gusto that would do Gloria Steinem proud. When asked to square his position with Catholic teaching, he seeks a scoundrel’s refuge by invoking the First Amendment. The issue, however, has little to do with the separation of church and state and everything to do with the moral criteria essential to a well-formed Catholic conscience. By Kerry’s reckoning, separation of church and state means he can choose any morality he wants and still call himself a Catholic in good standing. That’s where 30 years of seamless garment teaching have brought us.

As the bishops, with notable exceptions, seem paralyzed by Kerry’s contumacious behavior, here’s a modest proposal: When Kerry again declares his “personal opposition” to abortion, why doesn’t a bishop write him a public letter to ask what he could possibly mean? Is abortion wrong because it is morally wrong in fact or only because his faith tells him it is so?

Clearly, Kerry cannot embrace the first alternative. If someone said he was personally opposed to slavery but supported its legalization, he would be seen at once as a hypocrite. One cannot claim, as Abraham Lincoln famously noted, a right to do a wrong. “Personal” opposition, in this case, means no opposition at all.

Kerry has more than once embraced the second alternative. But he has also said that in a secular polity Catholic moral teaching can have no binding effect on his conscience. In what sense, then, does Kerry consider abortion to be wrong as a matter of religious faith? Don’t hold your breath for his answer.

Editor’s note: this article first appeared in the June 2004 print edition of Crisis Magazine.

Photo credit: AFP via Getty Images

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Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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