Volume > Issue > Seams in the Seamless Garment?

Seams in the Seamless Garment?


By Sheldon Vanauken | January-February 1986
Sheldon Vanauken is a writer located in Virginia and a Contributing Editor of the NOR. His now classic book, A Severe Mercy, won the National Religious Book Award, the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association Gold Medallion Book Award, and the Campus Life Mark of Excellence, and was the choice of four major book clubs.

The “Seamless Garment” (as used by many people, although not necessarily by Cardinal Bernardin who introduced the term) is the weaving to­gether of all the human-life issues into a single issue that is seamless because every part of it including the joinings is woven of the thread of the sacredness of human life. A most appealing concept. Thus in a fine article — “Beyond ‘Left’ and ‘Right’” (April NOR) — my distinguished friend Peter Kreeft points out as Socrates might have done the logical inconsistencies of both the liberal left and the conservative right on life issues. The conservative cries out against the murder of unborn babes while contemplating placidly the prospect of nuking the men, women, and children of Russian cities; and the liberal weeps for murderers facing execution and Russians facing the MX while shut­ting at least his left eye to the death chambers of the abortionists. And then Kreeft, descending from “the clear arctic air of logical thought,” points out (with impeccable logic) his conclusion that either there are absolutes or there are not, and that either human life is sacred or it is not. I cannot fault him; and I join him in proclaiming that there are indeed absolutes and that one of them is certainly the sacredness of God-created human life. This sacredness leads Kreeft toward the Seamless Garment as “a spiritual strategy.” But not being a logician, I myself confess to a degree of uncertainty as to pre­cisely what the Seamless Garment implies. Does it — does the sacredness of human life — imply that no human life under any circumstances may be shortened by any deliberate human action?

The life issues that are to be woven together with the thread of the sacredness of human life are the slaughter of innocent babies through abortion or through deliberate neglect after birth, the prac­tice of euthanasia upon the innocent elderly or in­firm, the execution of the not-so-innocent mur­derer, the shooting by the householder of the un-innocent armed robber, and the destruction of the enemy in war. Kreeft links these matters by saying that he expected to find that for the absolutists like himself human life would be “an absolute value, everywhere, in the abortion clinic or on the battlefield or in the geriatric ward or on death row or in the ghetto gutter.” Even so, I do not know whether in his “spiritual strategy” of the Seamless Garment he would deny the justice of the Just War or of judicial execution, since he says the Roman Catholic Church is our teacher, and she does not deny them. And yet, what else can a Seamless Gar­ment that includes “the battlefield [and] death row” mean? Surely that must be the implication of a Seamless Garment that includes the battlefield and death row with abortion — the implication that all are one. And, though seldom stated, the further implication must surely be that indeed no human life may under any circumstances be cut short by human decision. Clearly, if some lives may be shortened and others not, there are seams in the Seamless Garment (at least as articulated by Kreeft).

Though I shudder to suggest it, there is some­thing faintly like a contradiction in Kreeft’s article. Without the fishnet catchalls of left and right, he says, we should have to think for ourselves, howev­er painful the process, on each issue; and he implies that thinking for ourselves would be desirable. I agree. But isn’t Kreeft’s Seamless Garment made of fishnet, too? Isn’t it, at least, a catchall? How if we think for ourselves about each issue in that bag? Might it not be equally desirable? At all events, that is what I propose to do. This article is what I am pleased to call thinking for myself upon the dif­ferent issues cobbled together by Kreeft into the Seamless Garment.

Or perhaps I should say the allegedly Seam­less Garment, for even at a distance I perceive what look like seams. Isn’t that a rough seam where the innocent human life issues (like baby killing) are cobbled into guilty human life issues (like hanging murderers)? And perhaps another seam where the killing of enemy soldiers is patched on? The only way to make the Seamless Garment truly seamless would be to show that the teaching authority of the Catholic Church teaches infallibly that no hu­man life under any circumstances may be truncat­ed by deliberate human intent and action; but our Church has never, in fact, taught it. For instance, she teaches the rigorously confining but not for­bidding doctrine of the Just War, not pacifism. Yet this is not to deny the sacredness of God-created human life. But if there are any exceptions — cir­cumstances where human life may be deliberately taken — there is no Seamless Garment. Or only a little, less-inclusive Seamless Garment.

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