The tattered 'seamless garment' of social justice

Informed Catholics (and, in all likelihood, at least some politically and socially conservative non-Catholics) of the last few decades are familiar with the so-called "seamless garment" philosophy, espoused by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin as an attempt – his supporters would scoff at this, of course – to water down Catholic orthodoxy in general and the right-to-life issue in particular.

The seamless garment philosophy, which essentially equalizes various moral and ethical issues under the banner of social justice, was music to the ears of liberal, pro-abortion Catholic politicians (mostly Democrats, but some Republicans as well).  They were, in effect, given a loophole to support the legalized killing of the pre-born.  They could now claim to be “good Catholics” since they were, and are, advocates of several Catholic-friendly social justice issues.

Yes, they’re “pro-choice,” but abortion is just one of a number of moral issues, they say.  And woe to those right-wing fanatics who are concerned only with that single issue, a procedure that’s legal and even vital to women’s health!  (Ahem.)

Bernardin – who reportedly had attended several banquets to benefit Planned Parenthood contributors – winked at liberals while asserting that abortion should be the primary concern over the myriad of other moral issues. But his insidious philosophy would soon inflict tremendous damage within, and outside, the Church.  

Recently, Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago wrote an op-ed that appeared in the Chicago Tribune.  In that op-ed, the archbishop sounded as though he was channeling Bernardin.

While commerce in the remains of defenseless children is particularly repulsive, we should be no less appalled by the indifference toward the thousands of people who die daily for lack of decent medical care; who are denied rights by a broken immigration system and by racism; who suffer in hunger, joblessness and want; who pay the price of violence in gun-saturated neighborhoods; or who are executed by the state in the name of justice.

Thankfully, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia wrote a response (of sorts), taking issue, albeit indirectly, with Cupich's assertion.


Here's a simple exercise in basic reasoning. On a spectrum of bad things to do, theft is bad, assault is worse and murder is worst. There's a similar texture of ill will connecting all three crimes, but only a very confused conscience would equate thieving and homicide. Both are serious matters. But there is no equivalence.

The deliberate killing of innocent life is a uniquely wicked act. No amount of contextualizing or deflecting our attention to other issues can obscure that. ...

A case is sometimes made that abortion is mainly a cultural and moral issue, and politics is a poor solution to the problem. The curious thing is that some of the same voices that argue against political action on the abortion issue seem quite comfortable urging vigorous political engagement on issues like health care, homelessness and the environment.

I should note that in his column, Chaput does give a nod to Bernardin and the seamless garment philosophy.  I won't hold it against him.  There's no way he or any other non-retired Catholic bishop would be publicly critical of the "saint" of the American Catholic Church.

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