thoughts on “seamless garment” morality

The late Catholic Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (Archbishop of Chicago from 1982 to 1996, died 1996) was the principal promoter of the so-called seamless garment here in the US during the 1980s and 1990s.  There is much confusion as to just exactly what this seamless garment teaching is and what it entails.  There are those who call it “a consistent ethic of life” or “consistent life ethic”.  The Church seeks not only to defend human life at all stages, but also to help human life “flourish” and prosper.  (See the link below for some good analysis which contrasts the actual seamless garment with the more widely known “parody” of it.)  The confusion I think stems in part from the Catholic Church’s commitment to many “social justice” issues (such as concern for the poor, etc.).  Catholics and the world at large hear more from the Church on the various current social justice issues than they hear about the more grave moral issues of our times.  The social justice movement, sorry to say, is actually now a vehicle for those who desire/demand more Leftist social engineering from the government.  The Catholic Church has at times been co-opted by Leftist groups on some issues.

Regardless of the good intentions behind this consistent life ethic, the seamless garment moral concept has been effectively hijacked by various opportunists with their own agendas for achieving a more moral society, a better world.  What the seamless garment has come to mean in practice is referred to as “the parody” of it.  In this parody, all moral issues and concerns are of equal moral gravity and importance.  Thus, a concern or lack thereof for raising the minimum wage is of equal moral gravity with the decision to abort a child in the womb.  Sadly, that is the thinking of some people.

In reality as opposed to theory, not all moral issues nor even all “social justice” issues are of equal gravity or equal importance.

Contrary to this seamless garment (parody) mindset of moral equivalencies, some moral and social problems are of greater moral gravity or significance than others.  Equating all moral issues indicates a deficiency in moral competence, an inability or unwillingness to effectively address moral complexity.  Because of the serious confusion surrounding this seamless garment, which the Church has not effectively cleared up, many Catholics see this deficiency in moral competence as residing with the moral arbiters (the Church) and this is quite distressing and disturbing to the faithful.

some practical consequences of the seamless garment confusion

In practice, the seamless garment or its parody (the corrupted or bastardized version of the seamless garment) has allowed Catholic politicians and individual Catholics to flaunt their dissent from Catholic moral prohibitions that they personally do not agree with, or to be duplicitous (two-faced) by opposing something in their private life while actively promoting it in their public life.  The poster child for this phenomena currently is Nancy Pelosi, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, but she is certainly not alone.  (The late Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy was another prime example.)  Some years back (1990s), in a mayoral campaign in San Francisco, we witnessed well known Catholic politicians claiming to be “pro-life”.  Their claims were based solely on their opposition to capital punishment for convicted capital murderers (not a true pro-life issue, by the way).  These very same individuals were all publicly “pro-choice” (read pro-abortion).

Another observation may be helpful here.  If you attend a Catholic Church for Sunday Mass for several months, in many parishes throughout the country you will hear many sermons on various social justice issues, especially on concern for illegal immigrants and concern for “the poor”.  You will not hear many – if any – sermons addressing the continuing epidemic of elective abortions occurring in the US.  Sadly, the statistics we have seen indicate that Catholics that make up about 22-23 percent of the population account for more than 30 percent of the abortions performed annually.  Thus, clearly there is a need for the Church to speak to its members on this issue (albeit, it is true, that many “pro-choice” Catholics are lapsed Catholics and do not attend Church anymore).

If you think there is moral confusion among American Catholics, it is because there is such confusion.  And, the confusion is in no small part because Church leadership has failed to effectively and publicly correct those who have promoted the parody of the seamless garment.  Public figure Catholics and Catholic politicians, who actively dissent from important Catholic moral doctrines, gain cover for themselves by complaining incessantly about the poor.  Always the poor.  (We might opine that redistribution of wealth by the government here in the US for the past several decades has not cured this terrible social ill.  Thus, perhaps, those bleating about the poor need to address the underlying causes of poverty rather than insist on merely treating the symptoms.)

Here is a link to a thoughtful article on the topic.  The author laments the confusion as to what the true seamless garment is, but we have not over the years seen the Catholic Church in the US working effectively to dispel the confusion.



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