Rethinking the Seamless Garment

Is Pope Benedict XVI an admirer of the seamless garment? Evidently he is, and at first sight that’s bad news for conservative Catholics. But hold on: The good news is that he understands seamless-garment thinking in a way that ought to lead conservatives to admire it, too.

To be sure, in his new economic encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), Benedict nowhere uses the expression “seamless garment” or its more sophisticated variant, “consistent ethic of life.” The concept nonetheless lies at the heart of the document, signified by the verbal formula “integral human development,” which serves as the central organizing principle of this long, complex treatise.

But are integral development and consistent ethic/seamless garment really one and the same? A little background sheds light on that.

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Pope Benedict attributes the idea of integral development to Pope Paul VI and traces it back to Paul’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio (The Progress of Peoples). Interestingly enough, he also sees it playing a key role the following year in Humanae Vitae, the encyclical in which Paul reaffirmed the Church’s condemnation of artificial contraception. (More on that below.)

By contrast, the consistent ethic/seamless garment rationale first emerged under that name a decade and a half later, proposed by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. He adopted the approach in the early 1980s in order to make the case that concern about the fundamental value of human life ought to predispose advocates of various life-related issues — from forestalling abortion to ending capital punishment to cleaning up the environment — to form a united front of commitment to the sanctity and quality of life in a variety of contexts.

Several years after that, with the waters of many controversies and disappointments having flowed under this particular dam, I happened to speak slightingly of the seamless garment in something I wrote. To my surprise, I received a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger letter from my old friend Cardinal Bernardin, telling me I was missing the point.

Among the considerations advanced by the cardinal on behalf of the consistent ethic was this: Aware of the flak the idea was receiving from conservative Catholic sources, he’d checked it for orthodoxy with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and had received assurances that it was acceptable. Need I point out that Cardinal Ratzinger is now Pope Benedict XVI?

Possibly I should have left it at that, but I didn’t. Replying to Cardinal Bernardin, I wrote that the problem wasn’t with the consistent ethic/seamless garment as such. The problem was with the bad use to which the idea was sometimes put by people who sought to use it as a smokescreen for moral equivalence.

In case you wonder, that’s the error which supposes — or pretends to suppose — that if some issue (curbing pollution, let’s say) can be lined up more or less convincingly under the heading “human life,” it carries the same moral weight as any of its cousins grouped under the same heading (abortion, euthanasia, whatever).

This reasoning then supplies the basis for a simplistic counting exercise: If Candidate A takes the side of life on eight issues and Candidate B does the same on fifteen, then B obviously is the authentic pro-life candidate — and never mind that A’s issues include abortion and euthanasia and B’s do not. That fantasy calculus is sometimes used in the ongoing abortion wars and lately has provided a significant part of the reasoning of Catholics who support President Barack Obama.

I got no reply from Cardinal Bernardin. Thinking about that go-round years later, I guess we both were right.

It should be obvious that Benedict does not fall into the trap of moral equivalence in Caritas Veritate. The argument he makes is more subtle and persuasive than that.

Starting from the idea of integral development in both its individual and communal aspects (“authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension”), the pope argues that there is a “strong link” between “life ethics” and “social ethics.” Furthermore (and here’s where Humanae Vitae comes in), “openness to life” is at “the center of true development.”

Benedict then proceeds to hammer away at his vision of linkages and — if I may say so — seamlessness. It’s to the fore, for example, in what he says about population (“a very important aspect of authentic development, since it concerns the inalienable values of life and the family”), about “human ecology” and “natural ecology,” and about biotechnology and the manipulation of human life: “How can we be surprised by the indifference shown towards situations of human degradation, when such indifference extends even to our attitude towards what is and is not human?”

The pope obviously understands that different issues require different ethical analyses and carry different ethical weight. But different as they are, he contends, a proper understanding of integral development brings all into focus on the welfare of the person. At its deepest level, the encyclical’s message is this: “There cannot be holistic development and universal common good unless people’s spiritual and moral welfare is taken into account, considered in their totality as body and soul.”

The Pope Paul/Pope Benedict integral development line is far more coherent and carefully reasoned than the consistent ethic/seamless garment rhetoric ever was. But leaving aside cases where seamless garment people foolishly try to equate apples with oranges, it’s easy to see that both approaches at bottom are speaking of the same thing: a vision of human flourishing in its totality, along with the programmatic steps needed to make it real.

There’s no comfort here for cafeteria Catholics of either the left or the right. In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict closes the gap between pro-life people and social justice people precisely by arguing that, for people who think clearly, there is no gap: human development must be integral or it’s illusory. “The whole Church, in all her being and acting — when she proclaims, when she celebrates, when she performs works of charity — is engaged in promoting integral human development,” he writes. It’s a stirring vision for today’s confused, frequently fractured community of believers.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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