Unwanted Paradigm: The Seamless Garment Helps Liberalism, Not Catholicism

It’s safe to say that Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall was built at a time when the Jesuit com-munity was a more self-assured body than it is today. With its 500 seats on the main floor and room for 200 more in the balcony, it resembles a baronial assembly hall on the grand scale. A medieval parliament would fit very appropriately into it. Suits of armor would not be out of place. When it was built, in 1879, the Jesuit order was still confidently on the move. Painted heraldic devices on the walls identify 60 Jesuit institutions of higher learning around the world, some only recently founded around the turn of the century. There are triple-arched windows, panels bearing the aphorisms of famous men, and allegorical paintings representing Morality, Faith, Patriotism, Art, Alma Mater, and Science. Prominently displayed is a motto of Jesuit higher education: “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam in quo Hominum Salutem.”

The hall was slowly filling up for what had been billed as a “major address” by His Eminence Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, the Archbishop of Chicago. The subject was “The Consistent Ethic of Life in the 1990s.” The very suggestion of timeliness in the title, of course, hints at doctrinal uncertainty in the future. We could feel fairly confident that the New York Times would take approving notice of the evening’s proceedings in tomorrow’s paper—there indeed was the New York Times man, Peter Steinfels, and we felt immediately that we were in the best of company—but the question uneasily arose in the mind: Will the consistent ethic of life a few years hence be consistent with the consistent ethic of life as it is to be understood now, and how has it changed since it first came to prominence in a famous address at Fordham University in 1983?

Cardinal Bernardin had been invited to Georgetown University by the Woodstock Theological Center, itself a manifestation of the changing times in which we live. Woodstock Center is a mutation of Woodstock College, a school founded in Maryland in 1869 for the training of young Jesuits. But by the early 1970s there were very few young Jesuits to train, and so it closed as a seminary in 1974. The library was moved to Georgetown University, and “a center for theological reflection was born of this move,” according to a Woodstock brochure. Today the center undertakes research and publication “on contemporary social issues from the perspective of Christian faith,” the method being “ecumenical and interdisciplinary.” Among such contemporary social issues are “ethical considerations in corporate takeovers” and “the environmental crisis and the voice of the churches.” (The latest issue of Woodstock Report strikes a pantheistic note, quoting Thomas Berry, “a famous Catholic environmentalist,” as saying that “if we lose the environment, we lose God.”)

Few students showed up for the speech. The audience (of perhaps 300-400) was mostly middle-aged and well dressed in a subdued, tasteful sort of way: sensible skirts, thatchy jackets, and button-down shirts; nuns in mufti, tenured faculty and friends—the familiar old seminar community—no doubt representing the moderately well paid, moderately underemployed professoriate of the 1990s (perhaps someone should do an interdisciplinary, ecumenical study of them). Something about this community suggests the faded British aristocracy of the 1930s: It does its best to keep up appearances, but it is living off capital. At Georgetown one has in mind intellectual rather than financial capital, but in the case of some of these declining religious communities, they are living off physical capital as well, of course. Meanwhile the members of this community make a leisurely round of the seminars, ruminating here on the necessity of arms control, there on human rights in the Americas, and before too long returning once more to the familiar topic of irresponsibility in the corporate boardroom.

This, in any event, would be an evening of theological nuance, in the course of which some of the more refined points of the consistent ethic would no doubt be considered. Rev. J. Bryan Hehir of the USCC was seated in the front row (and he would accompany Bernardin out of the hall at the end of the evening). James Cardinal Hickey, the Archbishop of Washington, arrived shortly before Bernardin spoke, and sat quietly off to one side. And the Apostolic Pro-Nuncio, Archbishop Pio Laghi, was also present.

The consistent ethic of life was first enunciated by Cardinal Bernardin in late 1983, in a speech at Fordham University. Then he brought it up again, in 1984, at an earlier Woodstock forum. Bernardin pro-posed that a “seamless garment” of “life issues” should henceforth govern the debate about abortion, which should no longer be considered as a “single issue,” in isolation from all other “life issues.” What the Cardinal was saying was that Catholics concerned about abortion should, as it were, demonstrate their bona fides by taking the “pro-life” position on several other issues as well—capital punishment, for example (he meant that it should be opposed), the “nuclear threat” (arms control negotiations should be supported, so that the quantity of nuclear weapons could be reduced), and “social and economic justice” (welfare programs should be expanded). But Bernardin steadfastly refused to say whether some of these issues were more important than others, and therefore should take priority in assessing one’s support for this or that political candidate.

In the spring of 1984, the National Catholic Reporter surveyed both houses of Congress and found that only three senators and seven congressmen voted in accordance with the consistent ethic as defined by Cardinal Bernardin. “Thus in effect voters are being told that, absent the ideal candidate, they must settle for an approximation, someone who qualifies on some counts but not on others,” James Hitchcock wrote in the Human Life Review. “It is here that the matter of priorities becomes crucial, since it is essential to know whether some lapses from the definition of ‘pro-life’ are more serious than others. By refusing to indicate those priorities, Cardinal Bernardin made it legitimate for Catholics simply to choose. He has, in short, provided a rationale for voting for pro-abortion candidates.” Such candidates might, after all, be “pro-life” on all the other issues except abortion, and therefore achieve a satisfactory score in the seamless garment ratings.

Joe Sobran noted in a special issue of Catholic Eye that Bernardin’s list of “life issues” was, apart from abortion, “completely congruent with the fashionable liberal agenda of seeking accommodation with the Soviet Union and empowering the federal government to redistribute the nation’s wealth…. They have no official standing as Catholic teachings, and it is at least very odd to insist on giving them parity with the Church’s teaching on abortion. Why didn’t the Cardinal, or the bishops in general, raise traditional Catholic life issues, such as those concerned with the very transmission of life? Much might be said about sexual morality—about contraception, divorce, pornography, fornication, homosexuality. The virtue of chastity would bear mention, not only for its intrinsic value but in light of the ubiquitously visible consequences of unchastity. One suspects, however, that these themes would jeopardize the sort of “credibility” the hierarchy pines for. Certainly the bishops have said little, in their highly publicized recent statements on nuclear war and economics, to disturb secular liberalism.”

In particular, as one or two commentators pointed out at the time, the “seamless garment” argument was never used by Bernardin to instruct secular liberals that they could not credibly oppose war and poverty unless they also opposed abortion; it was always used the other way—as a convenient cudgel against more conservative and orthodox Catholics who opposed abortion and who favored capital punishment and a strong military defense against the Soviet Union.

Laundry List

Here in any event was the Cardinal in person, democratic in his black clericals, walking on stage with Fr. James Connor, the director of Woodstock, and Fr. Leo O’Donovan, the president of Georgetown University. It soon became clear that, in light of the Supreme Court’s Webster decision last summer (restoring to the state legislatures a greater role in the regulation of abortion), Bernardin would devote most of his talk to abortion. As for the other issues lumped in with the “consistent ethic,” the first that he brought up was “the nuclear threat.” In 1983, he recalled, only modest change had been hoped for in this area, but in the event there had recently been “anything but modest change.” Obliquely, he was referring to the warming of U.S.-Soviet relations. He went on to say, however, that “there are still 50,000 nuclear weapons to be reduced,” espousing the customary but peculiar notion that the “nuclear threat” is somehow proportional to the number of nuclear weapons, and not to the character, intentions, and philosophy of those who control them. Still, he continued, the hope of a “radical reduction in the danger we have known, and the possibility of a different political order in world affairs, is closer at hand than I would have ever guessed in 1983.”

Capital punishment? “We have recently had the spectacle of people running for public office on the basis of whom they are prepared to kill,” he said (was this not a somewhat unfair way of characterizing support for capital punishment?), adding that, in contrast to the “nuclear question,” a brief report on this topic “must be starkly negative.” The main problem, apparently, is that “the general public does not share the conviction of the consistent ethic on capital punishment.” Nonetheless, Bernardin said he remained convinced that the consistent ethic “cannot change on this question,” even though Catholic tradition “in principle allows states to resort to capital punishment.”

Social and economic justice? Here he noted that the lives of women and children “reflect the persistent social problems of our society: health care, housing, and hunger.” True, we have had a decade of remarkable economic growth, but he cautioned us not to be “mesmerized by the illusion that everyone has shared equally in that growth.” In short, the Cardinal concluded, the consistent ethic of the 1990s “will be tested by how the orphans and widows fare.”

For about the next half-hour he addressed abortion exclusively, but his comments were so carefully couched and, as they say these days, “nuanced,” that it was difficult to extract anything very meaty from them. The next day the Washington Post’s reporter, Laura Sessions Stepp, quoted in her first paragraph Bernardin’s final comment on abortion: “I believe that the Church can be most effective in the public debate on abortion through moral persuasion, not punitive measures.” This appeared to be a reference to Leo Maher, the San Diego bishop who recently denied communion to a pro-abortion candidate to the California state senate (who subsequently was elected). Bernardin may of course be correct that persuasion is more effective than sanctions “in the public debate.” A debate, after all, is a form of argument. But Laura Stepp surely misrepresented the Cardinal’s position when she summarized it (in her opening sentence) as the claim that Catholic politicians “should not be punished when their votes conflict with what the Church teaches.” “Should not be punished” is not at all the same thing as “It may be ineffective to punish.”

Ecclesiastical Duty

The question and answer period was of more interest. The Cardinal’s replies were, of course, unprepared, and the questions were revealing in themselves. With varying degrees of intensity, almost all the questioners politely pressured the Cardinal to adopt a more heterodox, not a more orthodox position. Such pressure from the Catholic intelligentsia is no doubt the routine experience of senior members of the Catholic hierarchy today. But is it not the great duty of leadership to resist such pressure, indeed to oppose it? One question was particularly revealing. The Cardinal was asked why the problem of “over-population” was not included in the consistent ethic. The questioner took it for granted that “over-population” degrades the environment, that the state of the environment is a “life issue,” and so, having made it quite clear where he stood, he asked: “What should be the official attitude of the Church toward this continued population growth?”

Here, surely was an opportunity for the Cardinal to point out that birth control is as inconsistent with the consistent ethic of life as it is with Church teaching. Indeed, the continued U.S. policy of shipping boatloads of condoms abroad is the one U.S. policy that has truly merited the outcry of the international Left: Yankee imperialists, Ugly Americans all, like nothing more than to throw their weight and money around. (In the latest Agency for International Development budget, $200 million of taxpayers’ money is dedicated to this ignoble cause.) Bishops in Latin America have been particularly critical, including some of the more left- wing prelates, such as No Lorscheiter of Brazil. One might have thought that Bernardin and a good many other U.S. bishops might quietly enjoy making common cause with them, against the U.S. government. But on this issue of all issues, our politically opinionated bishops—ready with a press release should the unemployment rate rise a tenth of one percent—have maintained a discreet but nonetheless amazing silence.

Here was Bernardin’s reply: “The consistent ethic of life does not directly address the question of population, or of over-population. But obviously the Church does have something to say about population control, in particular birth control—that is what you are addressing. The emphasis has to be from the Church’s perspective on responsible birth control, on responsible population control. It’s not that the Church is not interested in the problems that you address. The question is, What are moral or appropriate means for such control? So I think that the argument, the debate must be cast in that particular framework.”

Here the Cardinal had an opportunity to (a) “prophetically” rebuke Yankee imperialism, while (b) remaining utterly faithful to Church teaching, not to mention (c) faithful to his own consistent ethic of life; at the same time (d) showing solidarity with his brother bishops south of the border (AID’s program “defies and mocks our Christian principles,” the Archbishop of Guatemala wrote to President Reagan in 1985). But he did not do so. Why not? It’s hard to disagree with Joe Sobran’s earlier observation that, for all their political activism, the U.S. bishops have said very little to disturb secular liberalism. And population control is one of secular liberalism’s most enduring causes. On this twentieth anniversary of Earth Day, they have dusted it off once again and trotted Paul Ehrlich out before the cameras once more (in 1970 he predicted that 65 million Americans would die of starvation in the 1980s).

Critics of the consistent ethic of life have said that its effect has been to dilute the Church’s teaching against abortion. At the end of his speech Cardinal Bernardin said that the consistent ethic “was proposed to help and urge the Church to keep our moral perspective broadly designed… to recognize that the life issues today are not confined to one area of human activity.” As for “the style of teaching it,” Catholics “should resist the sectarian tendency to retreat into a closed circle, convinced of our truth and the impossibility of sharing it with others…. We should be convinced that we have much to learn from the world, and much to teach it. A confident Church will speak its mind, seek as a community to live its convictions, but leave space for others to speak to us, help us to grow from their perspective, and to collaborate with them.”

In the end, then, he spoke of style and he spoke of confidence. But his message of collaboration was a far cry indeed from the old, self-confident images so well preserved in the hall in which he spoke. Those who designed Gaston Hall indeed were convinced of their truth, but hardly of the impossibility of sharing it with others.

What did Peter Steinfels have to say in the New York Times the next day? The story was on page 24, and the headline read as follows: “Cardinal Accepts Discord On Abortion.” This was not an unreasonable summary of the evening. And can anyone doubt that a discordant position against abortion is less effective than a unanimous one?


  • Tom Bethell

    Tom Bethell is a senior editor at the American Spectator. A graduate of Trinity College, Oxford, he is the author of several books including Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages (1998); The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (2005); and Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher (2012).

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