In the 1980’s Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago used image of the seamless garment of Jesus for which the soldiers drew lots to portray a “consistent ethic of life” that “argues for a continuum of life which must be sustained in the face of diverse and distinct threats.” This “seamless garment” implied opposition to abortion and to capital punishment; opposition to the threat of using nuclear arms and the support of a vast social welfare state as means to a preferential option for the poor. This approach was to be tempered by the fact that a “consistent ethic does not say everyone in the Church must do all things, but it does say that as individuals and groups pursue one issue, whether it is opposing abortion or capital punishment, the way we oppose one threat should be related to support for a systemic vision of life.”
Unfortunately, this seamless garment approach to social issues has become a tool in the hands of those who wish to rationalize their support for legislation and office holders that support intrinsic evils. This election season has been no different. It is high time that we pull at one of those threads and unravel the seamless garment once and for all.
When those garbed in the seamless garment refer to a “consistent ethic of life,” they equivocate on the term “life.” When someone who is Pro-Life uses the term life, they are not referring to life in the merely temporal and corporal sense. Instead they mean something more, which Pope St. John Paul II aptly captures in the opening paragraphs of Evangelium Vitae. The Holy Father emphasizes that when we use the term life we are referring to that
“which far exceeds the dimensions of man’s earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God. The loftiness of this supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase. Life in time, in fact, is the fundamental condition, the initial stage and an integral part of the entire unified process of human existence. It is a process which, unexpectedly and undeservedly, is enlightened by the promise and renewed by the gift of divine life, which will reach its full realization in eternity (cf. 1 Jn 3:1-2). At the same time, it is precisely this supernatural calling which highlights the relative character of each individual’s earthly life. After all, life on earth is not an “ultimate” but a “penultimate” reality; even so, it remains a sacred reality entrusted to us, to be preserved with a sense of responsibility and brought to perfection in love and in the gift of ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters.” (EV, 2)
Practically speaking what this means is that when we seek to protect and promote the sacredness of life in opposing something such as abortion, we not only care about the child in the womb, but also the eternal destiny of his mother, the abortionist, and even the annoying “escorts” whose sole job it appears is to mock those praying outside the abortion clinic. On the other hand, life, according to the seamless garment approach, merely refers to not being dead and to have some sufficient means to “eat, drink and be merry.”
Cardinal Bernardin and his friends might object to this characterization, but their conclusion follows directly from this premise. On the temporal plane it could be argued that things like abortion, capital punishment, poverty and denying harbor to refugees equally put earthly lives at risk. But once we move to the plane of the eternal, some of those things are more likely to put eternal souls as risk. We as Christians do not ignore the temporal welfare of our neighbors, but we must always put their spiritual well-being first. The life of the body may be a seamless garment, but the soul is naked before God.
Because they are only concerned with the temporal, the supporters of the seamless garment approach are unable to make the necessary distinctions between evils. There are certain acts that are intrinsically evil and cannot be ordered to the good no matter what the intention of the person. Our Lord told us that we will always have the poor with us, not as justification to avoid helping the poor, but because like St. Paul found in Thessaloniki, some people refuse to work. Poverty will never be completely eradicated and is not always an intrinsic social evil. To aid us in discerning how these evils present themselves in social life, the Church for her part has listed the so-called five non-negotiables. The first four are related to the protection of life at its most vulnerable stages including abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and human cloning and the fifth is support for so called “same-sex marriage.” These are non-negotiable not because we are stubborn but because they are aligned so closely to the true human goods that they can never be ordered to the good.
Those who call themselves Pro-Life bear some of the blame in this. They too tend to focus only on the temporal. They may oppose abortion, but then support making contraception more readily available so as to limit the number of abortions. Setting aside that contraception and abortion are, as St. John Paul II said, “fruits of the same tree. …The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs, and abortion becomes the only possible decisive response to failed contraception” (EV, 13), contraception has the potential to kill the soul just as much as abortion does. The tree they are both fruits of is the culture of death, a culture that is designed to lead to spiritual death.
Those who are Pro-Life must also avoid defining themselves as being in opposition to abortion, or euthanasia, etc. Following the lead of St John Paul II they must define themselves in a positive manner as having “respect for nature and protection of God’s work of creation. In a special way, it means respect for human life from the first moment of conception until its natural end” (St John Paul II, Closing Address World Youth Day 1993). The semantical gymnastics of the Pro-Choice movement to label Pro-Lifers as “Anti-Abortion” is sometimes more accurate because of the negative way in which they tend to define themselves.
In closing a word about what I would call the statistical argument, namely that under a regime that actively promotes abortion, that somehow the number of abortions decreased because of its emphasis on helping the poor and making contraception more readily available. As a statistician, I can readily see this flaw as one that wannabe statisticians often make—confusing correlation with causation. Just because two things seem to be related does not mean that one causes the other. There could be a third (or fourth) variable that is actually the cause of both. In logic we call this the Post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (“after this, therefore because of this”). It may be that more readily available contraception is the reason why abortions decreased, but you cannot do something that is evil to bring about a good.