Many Catholics are divided on the subject of abortion. Even though Church teaching on this matter is crystal clear (CCC 2270-2275), Pew Research reported that more than half of U.S. Catholics favor legalized abortion (i.e. “pro-choice” Catholics), and a subset from this group upholds that the Church ought to reverse her teaching on abortion to “keep up with the times.”
But I noticed a far more subtle deviation, obfuscating Catholics who believe they are following the Church’s teaching while slowly sliding down a slippery slope.
In 1971, Eileen Egan, a Roman Catholic activist and founder of what is now known as Pax Christi USA, coined the term “seamless garment.” This analogy comes from the seamless cloak belonging to Jesus that the Roman soldiers took following the crucifixion (cf. John 19:23) and advocates for the sacredness of life from conception to natural death. The seamless garment position opposes abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, and social and economic injustice, and asserts that opposition to these evils ought to be equal and comprehensive. In other words, one who opposes abortion ought to also oppose capital punishment, and vice versa.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Stemming from this ideology, in 1983 Cardinal Joseph Bernardin rebranded the seamless garment as the consistent life ethic. During a lecture he gave at Fordham University, Bernardin spoke out against both nuclear war and abortion, and he expanded the discourse to promote the various ways human dignity ought to be upheld. “The spectrum of life cuts across the issues of genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare and the care of the terminally ill.”
I am an adherent to the consistent life ethic. However, I have noticed some Catholics utilize this ideology to shut down discussions on abortion, employing whataboutism to point to migration and poverty, for example. These aforementioned important issues become misused to take our eyes away from the issue of abortion. Instead of consistency, this praxis applies deflection.
Further, some Catholic proponents of the consistent life ethic often name all the ways they believe life is sacred—from the unborn, to the imprisoned, to the elderly. On the surface, this is very good. But there are two areas that trouble me.
First, in examining the language employed by some of my fellow consistent life ethicists, they avoid using the term abortion.
But why? If these Catholics believe life is sacred in the womb, then why not denounce the sin of abortion? Catholics need to name the evil. When we fail to do so, we allow the evil to subtly persist. There is no room for accommodating and compromising the tenets of our Faith. If we are going to name and denounce racism, capital punishment, and elder abuse, among other areas, we also need to name and denounce abortion. That is a truly consistent life ethic.
The other subtly troubling area with the womb-to-tomb language is, if not carefully examined, it generalizes the dignity of life to the point it indirectly trivializes abortion.
By way of comparison, Black Lives Matter proponents state that the problem with proclaiming “All Lives Matter” is it circumvents the issues resulting in the premature deaths of Black persons. I support this assertion.
However, by using the same logic, womb-to-tomb language effectively states all stages of life matter. While this is correct, this train of thought can lead people to lose sight of the harmfulness of abortion and the Church’s wisdom in this delicate matter. All stages of life do matter, but if we are not consistently calling out abortion along with the other evils that attack human dignity, then in reality we do not believe that all stages of life matter.
Returning to the subject of Black lives, a cause that is close to my heart, there is also an inconsistency with regard to denouncing all the ways Black persons die prematurely. As Crisis Magazine contributing editor Austin Ruse highlighted, “more black babies die in abortion than are born in New York City.”
Ruse is not a lone or fringe voice in calling attention to the disproportionate number of abortions in the Black community. Bishop Edward Braxton, one of the few African American bishops in the U.S. and an outspoken advocate for racial justice, also asserts this. In his book The Church and the Racial Divide, Braxton observes, “Although African Americans represent only 13 percent of the population of this country, between 2007 and 2010, almost 36 percent of the abortion deaths in the nation were Black infants” (57). Based on this statistic, Black abortions are nearly three times higher than its proportional representation in the population. This discrepancy is astounding.
His Excellency further reflects, “If you genuinely believe that Black lives matter, you should be working to see that every Black infant is accorded the very first civil right, the right to life” (57-58). As Braxton calls out the inconsistency in defending Black lives without opposing abortion, we need to call out the inconsistency subtly employed by some proponents of the consistent life ethic.
Therefore, as Catholics, we need to name the evil. We cannot give into subtleties and slippery slopes. While abortion is a delicate issue, and those who have committed this ought to be treated with compassion, we cannot let that stop us from boldly and unequivocally promoting the Church’s teaching in this regard. A life ethic cannot be consistent without consistently denouncing all threats to the dignity of life and consistently echoing the moral authority of the Catholic Church. Otherwise, the garment is not seamless but divided, thereby promoting division in the Body of Christ.
[Photo Credit: Jonah McKeown/CNA]