The Seamless Garment in a Fragmented World
WHAT THE CONSISTENT ETHIC OF LIFE IS & IS NOT
It seems especially appropriate that I begin with a passage from the Passion narrative in the Gospel of John:
When the soldiers had finished crucifying Jesus they took his clothing and divided it into four shares, one for each soldier. His undergarment was seamless, woven in one piece from neck to hem; so they said to one another, “Instead of tearing it, let’s throw dice to decide who is to have it.” In this way the words of scripture were fulfilled: “They shared out my clothing among them. They cast lots for my clothes.” This is exactly what the soldiers did.
This, of course, is the passage Joseph Cardinal Bernardin drew upon in December 1983 to dramatize the Roman Catholic Church’s commitment to a consistent ethic of life — an ethic linking the Catholic bishops’ stances on abortion, nuclear arms, and a number of other issues. Since that time the “Seamless Garment” idea has been further expounded by Cardinal Bernardin and other bishops. It has been praised and condemned by our nation’s opinion-makers. And it has been used and abused by various political figures who crave moral respectability and the Catholic vote (not necessarily in that order).
Most of all it has been misinterpreted, by both critics and defenders, as giving specific answers to questions it was never intended to address. And as a result the Garment has indeed been torn into partisan fragments and thus rendered less effective at doing the vitally necessary job it should be doing. I would therefore like to give an account of what the Seamless Garment idea does not mean before moving on to what it does mean.
One question that it does not answer is the question of which issue involving the sanctity of life is the most important. To be more specific: “Consistency” is not a kind of code word for the view that the abortion issue should receive less attention than the Church has given it in the past.
It is remarkable that both defenders and attackers of the “consistency” theme have imagined that it is just that. Remarkable, because the speech in which Cardinal Bernardin first used the phrase “Seamless Garment” in this context was a ringing defense of the bishops’ efforts against abortion. Speaking as Archbishop of Cincinnati on January 22, 1976 — the third anniversary of the Supreme Court decisions legalizing abortion — he explained that when it devotes resources to the abortion debate, the Church is not diverting attention from its human rights agenda but advancing an important part of that agenda. “Life,” he observed, “before and after birth, from the moment of conception until death is like a seamless garment…. If we become insensitive to the beginning of life and condone abortion or if we become careless about the end of life and justify euthanasia, we have no reason to believe that there will be much respect for life in between.”
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