The Seamless Garment Error

Over the years, faithful Catholics, especially those involved in pro-life work, have heard lay leaders, priests and prelates discuss a “seamless garment” or “consistent life ethic” approach to upholding the dignity of human life. The term was commonly made popular by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago in the early 1980s.

The seamless garment approach attempted to elevate certain social issues (poverty, discrimination, immigration, etc.) to the same level as direct attacks on innocent human life (abortion, contraception, and euthanasia).

This approach however blurs the lines between moral teachings which Catholics must believe and proclaim and prudential or political issues, which Catholics, based on the Church’s social teachings can hold differing opinions on how best to solve these issues.
The Church’s authentic and expressed teaching however does indeed give priority to defending innocent human life over all of the other so-called “life issues”. St. John Paul II taught this in his apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici (1988) and his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (1995).

“The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fínds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights – for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture- is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination….”

– Pope John Paul II, Christifideles Laici (1988), no. 38

It is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop. A society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized. Only respect for life can be the foundation and guarantee of the most precious and essential goods of society, such as democracy and peace.

– Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (1995), no. 101

Turning a blind eye to the priority of protecting innocent human life can harm not only the body, but also the souls of many. As Saint Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Theresa) noted in her February 3, 1994 speech to the National Prayer Breakfast,

“…abortion, which often follows from contraception, brings a people to be spiritually poor, and that is the worst poverty and the most difficult to overcome.”

Therefore Catholics should be wary of the “seamless garment” interpretation — equating the moral equivalence of all social issues on the same plane as defending innocent human life — as it deliberately takes the focus off moral matters essential to salvation of souls and human dignity.

If Christians truly love their neighbor, and desire to help alleviate their neighbor’s sufferings (material or spiritual), the greatest thing one can do next to prayer is work to end abortion the root of today’s human sufferings.

C-PLAN therefore encourages Catholics who are sympathetic to the “seamless garment” approach to join us in advocating the truth and priority of the Church’s beautiful unchanging moral teachings on the sanctity of human life and preach them loudly from the house tops (Matthew 10:28). Doing so will help protect families, restore moral order and build a just society that will address many of today’s social issues – something the “seamless garment” thus far failed to achieve.

Declaration by the Congregation of Doctrine and Faith, 1974

The first right of the human person is his life. He has other goods and some are more precious, but this one is fundamental – the condition of all the others. Hence it must be protected above all others. It does not belong to society, nor does it belong to public authority in any form to recognize this right for some and not for others: all discrimination is evil, whether it be founded on race, sex, color or religion. It is not recognition by another that constitutes this right. This right is antecedent to its recognition; it demands recognition and it is strictly unjust to refuse it.

– Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion (1974), no. 11

Statement by the Prefect for the Congregation of Doctrine of Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Muller, February 2013

We are all familiar with the image of the “seamless garment” which is used to illustrate how Catholic moral teaching is a consistent whole-uniting ethical, religious, and political threads in a unified moral vision. Attributed to Cardinal Bernardin, the “seamless garment” image was used to great effect to root the Church’s response to various moral issues from nuclear proliferation to poverty – within the overarching teaching on the sanctity of human life, from natural conception to natural death. Unfortunately, however, it is also true that the image of the “seamless garment” has been used by some theologians and Catholic politicians, in an intellectually dishonest manner, to allow or at least to justify turning a blind eye to instances of abortion, contraception, or public funding for embryonic stem cell research, as long as these were simultaneously accompanied by opposition to the death penalty or promotion of economic development for the poor issues which are also part of the fabric of Catholic moral teaching.

Often this abuse of the “seamless garment” theory stems from a natural tendency on the part of some in the Church to look for “common ground” with the surrounding culture; that is to say, to emphasize in their teaching and preaching those elements of Catholic doctrine that are acceptable to the non Catholic ambient culture; for example, social justice, human rights, and other similar issues. This is understandable and sometimes it is an appropriate pastoral strategy. But what also must be taken into account is the difference which exists between those elements of Catholic teaching that may be attractive to the surrounding culture and those elements which are profoundly counter cultural and which Catholics themselves need to be proclaimed by their pastors.

Address to the Pontifical Academy of Life, Rome, February 22, 2013

Statements by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)

At this particular time, abortion has become the fundamental human rights issue for all men and women of good will. …. For us abortion is of overriding concern because it negates two of our most fundamental moral imperatives: respect for innocent life, and preferential concern for the weak and defenseless.

– Resolution on Abortion (November 7, 1989)

[A]bortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others.

– Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics (1998), no. 5

Among important issues involving the dignity of human life with which the Church is concerned, abortion necessarily plays a central role. Abortion, the direct killing of an innocent human being, is always gravely immoral (The Gospel of Life, no. 57); its victims are the most vulnerable and defenseless members of the human family. It is imperative that those who are called to serve the least among us give urgent attention and priority to this issue of justice.

– Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities: A Campaign in Support of Life (2001), Introduction

Additional Resources

For further reading on the “seamless garment”, the North Carolina Family Policy Council interviewed Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, President of the Ruth Institute on this topic:

Reversing the “Seamless Garment”

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