The Seamless Garment: What It Is and Isn’t

The Church proposes what is called a “consistent ethic of life”.  It must, of course, do so because it is bound by sacred tradition to the proposition that all human beings, without any exception whatsoever, are made in the image and likeness of God and that Jesus Christ died for all human beings, without any exception whatsoever.  Therefore each human person—without any exception whatsoever—is sacred and is the only creature that God wills for its own sake.

This simple fact is one that our civilization has tremendous difficulty grasping.  All sorts of social and political groups have all sorts of human beings they wish to exempt from this truth—often for purely utilitarian purposes that subjugate the good of human beings to some strategic, political, or economic need.  So, for instance, the good of the unborn baby is subjugated to economics and the child is killed in order to spare the parent economic hardship.  Criminals deemed to have “forfeited the right to live” are put to death for the express purpose of “teaching a lesson” to others, or because it is thought to be cheaper to kill them—in short, for a utilitarian purpose.  Wars in which thousands of combatants and civilians die are launched in order to obtain economic security or to extend some ideological vision.  And economic systems are constructed and maintained which reduce whole populations to little more than slavery and poverty while wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a small oligarchy—because, in the final analysis, wealth and power are deemed more important than human beings.

The teaching of the Church, in contrast, was articulated in 1984 by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago in what became known as the Seamless Garment doctrine.  And it remains a controversial teaching, not because it is unorthodox, but because Catholic teaching is and always has been at cross purposes with the political currents of this world and is therefore prone to being cannibalized and used by ideologues rather than listened to in its fullness.

What Archbishop Gerhard Muller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, calls the “parody” of the Seamless Garment is well known.  This parody states, for instance, that the death penalty is just as intrinsically immoral as abortion, or that the minimum wage is just as grave a question as euthanasia, etc.  The odd thing is not that such smokescreen parodies have, indeed, been put forward by some who wish to ignore the Church’s teaching on sexual morality and life issues.  We should expect this from progressive dissenters.  The odd thing, rather, is that instead of countering such tactics with the Church’s actual teaching, many Catholics who reject progressive dissent have nonetheless accepted the parody as identical with the Seamless Garment itself in order to reject it as a corruption of the Faith.  But this is a mistake since, as Muller says, the Seamless Garment itself (not the parody) illustrates “how Catholic moral teaching is a consistent whole—uniting ethical, religious, and political threads in a unified moral vision.”

The Seamless Garment is basically common sense Catholic Social Teaching.  It puts the human person at the center of things, instead of things such as possessions and ideologies at the center of the human person.  It insists that the Church’s teaching is a unity (like the seamless garment of Christ) in which both the interconnectedness of revelation and a certain hierarchy of truth has to be respected in living out our approach to the love of neighbor. 

This approach prevents both 1) the tendency of Progressive dissenters to flatten all moral issues to the same levels of significance (with the resulting absurdity of treating the minimum wage as though it is as grave a matter as the deliberate taking of innocent human life), as well as 2) preventing the tendency of their opponents to isolate the gravest moral issues and use them as excuses for ignoring—sometimes with open contempt—nearly all the rest of the Church’s social teaching (as though opposition to abortion takes away the sins of the world). 

This very typical Catholic balance results in a vision of the human person in which indeed, every human life is sacred and the goal is not merely “not killing innocent human life” (a bare minimum threshold of elementary decency) but the flourishing of human life (in keeping with Jesus’ promise of abundant life).  As Bernardin puts in his 1984 lecture “A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue”:  “nuclear war threatens life on a previously unimaginable scale; abortion takes life daily on a horrendous scale; public executions are fast becoming weekly events in the most advanced technological society in history; and euthanasia is now openly discussed and even advocated. Each of these assaults on life has its own meaning and morality; they cannot be collapsed into one problem, but they must be confronted as pieces of a larger pattern.”

Note the judiciousness of that phrasing, so far from the parody.  What Bernardin (and Catholic teaching) sees is that the Culture of Death is interlinked with many expressions of contempt for human life, while at the same recognizing that they can’t be “collapsed into one problem”. In short, as Bernardin put it: “A consistent ethic of life does not equate the problem of taking life (e.g., through abortion and in war) with the problem of promoting human dignity (through humane programs of nutrition, health care, and housing). But a consistent ethic identifies both the protection of life and its promotion as moral questions. It argues for a continuum of life which must be sustained in the face of diverse and distinct threats.”

Seamless Garment teaching, as is typical for Catholic teaching, insists on the interrelatedness of various moral questions (i.e., the notion that Catholic teaching is a “whole weave” and not a single thread).  That’s because Catholic teaching is designed to address the entirety of the human condition.  Significantly, the word “heresy” comes from the Greek word referring to the plucking of a single thread from a whole garment.  The mark of heresy is that it seizes on some few truths in Catholic teaching and exaggerates their importance while using them to make war on the rest of the Tradition.  It matters little which truth or truths are seized on, just so long as the rest of the Tradition is attacked by it.  Indeed, even the greatest truth: that God the Father is God can be (and was) used by Arius to attack the truth that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are God. 

Similarly, the great truth of the inter-relatedness of Church’s teaching sometimes gets flattened (so that in some quarters, if you oppose the death penalty you need not care about the killing of unborn children), while in other quarters opposition to the death penalty or concern about the environment or poverty is taken as a sign that one is a “liberal” who must therefore approve of abortion, contraception, gay “marriage”, etc.  Both of these parodies lose sight of exactly what the Seamless Garment actually asserts: that the dignity of the human person compels us to accept all of what the Church teaches in its social doctrine, not just pluck out the threads we like.

The comparison and contrast of the Church’s teaching on abortion and capital punishment is useful here. Seamless Garment teaching of course recognizes the distinction between taking innocent human life (always gravely and intrinsically evil) and the taking of life in the death penalty (sometimes justified).  But the Church also notes that merely because something can be done does not mean it must be.  So while the Church does not say the death penalty is intrinsically immoral, it still insists in applying it as sparingly as possible and essentially says that the burden is on the state to show it is necessary to take human life, not on the human person to show that he deserves to live. The Church, in short, has a "preferential option for life" and always puts the burden of proof--a very heavy burden--on those who seek to kill or harm.

This common sense balance that emphasizes both the inter-relatedness of human life and human dignity and the proper hierarchy of various issues is at the core of Seamless Garment thinking because it is at the core of Catholic Social Teaching.  It is long past time for Catholics of all stripes to embrace the whole of Catholic teaching and not merely the parts that suit us.

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COMMENTARY: ‘We all want progress,’ writes C.S. Lewis, ‘but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.’