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Unraveling the Seamless Garment

Archbishop Gerhard Müller is prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office once held by his fellow Regensburger Josef Ratzinger (whom you might recognize as the pope emeritus, His Holiness Benedict XVI). He caused a mild stir in 2007 when he said that Muslims and Christians do not believe in the same God, but by and large he doesn’t seem to be the sort who seeks controversy.

His recent remarks at the annual meeting of the Pontifical Academy for Life, however, may have controversy seeking him. For in those remarks he set his sights on a beloved metaphor of American Catholicism: the “seamless garment.”

It was the late Joseph Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago, who coined that expression (drawn from John 19:23) as a way of illustrating the coherence of Catholic teachings on the sanctity of human life. It’s meant to underscore that a “consistent ethic of life” requires attention to a spectrum of issues, including not just obvious offenses against life such as abortion and euthanasia, but just war, capital punishment, human trafficking, the plight of the poor, workers’ rights, and so on.

Critics of the seamless garment idea have suggested that it accomplished the opposite of its aim; that, rather than creating a deeper respect for human life by expanding the categories in which we consider it, it has diluted that respect by allowing Catholics—and Catholic politicians in particular—a specious way to consider themselves “pro-life” on balance even if they don’t oppose abortion or euthanasia. Other critiques, typically from the political right, have highlighted the additional problem of conflating non-negotiable moral doctrines (for example, that abortion is a grave, intrinsic evil) with life principles that invariably have negotiable pragmatic applications (for example, how best to direct public policy to facilitate our duty to help the poor, or what role the state should play in ensuring the adequate health care that human dignity demands).

According to these critiques it was no coincidence, or surprise, that Cardinal Bernardin’s introduction of the seamless garment concept in March of 1984 was followed in September of that same year by Mario Cuomo’s infamous Notre Dame speech that established the vocabulary of Catholic political dissent on abortion for a generation.

The first part of Archbishop Müller’s remarks about the seamless garment, indeed, strikes a similar critical note:

[T]he “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.

But then he takes his criticism in a bolder direction, suggesting that Catholic teaching on contraception is the biggest victim of illicit application of the seamless garment. (Think of the few courageous pastors and pols you know who speak out against abortion. Now think of the much smaller number of same—if you can think of any at all—who voice opposition to contraception.) This is something approaching tragic, for, says Archbishop Müller, that teaching is not peripheral to a consistent ethic of life, but central—even its binding principle:

Our teaching is based in an inspired vision of the meaning of love wherein the sexual act finds its proper place as an expression of nuptial intimacy and openness to the live-giving creativity of God. In marriage, sex is an expression of love with a particular and intrinsic meaning. Once the sexual act is removed from this defining context, the “seamless garment” begins to unravel.

Only a full embrace of Church teaching on the meaning of human sexuality, he concludes, can rehabilitate the seamless garment and provide a truly coherent Catholic life ethic.

The archbishop then reminds his listeners of Humanae Vitae’s prophetic warnings about the societal ills that would follow upon widespread use of contraception, a list that includes weakening of marriages and families, greater objectification of women, and a diminishment of respect for human life. Only the willfully blind would deny that all of Paul VI’s predictions have come to pass.

Yet the masters of our culture, including some fellow-traveler Catholic theologians, would have us believe that contraception is not a seamless garment issue; that its now-ubiquitous practice is unrelated to abortion; or even that it reduces the number of would-be abortions by preventing unplanned pregnancies. Do they have an argument? Stay tuned to this space—we’ll examine those claims next time.

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