The Consistent—and Not So Seamless—Ethic of Life | Dr. Samuel Gregg | CWR
Archbishop Blaise Cupich's appeal to Cardinal Bernardin's "seamless garment" approach to ethics is flawed on several counts, including a failure to acknowledge the primacy of the laity in pursuing good public policy
In an August 3rd Chicago Tribune article, Archbishop Blaise Cupich of Chicago suggested that the widespread outrage ignited by the revelations that Planned Parenthood was selling body-parts extracted from aborted children represented an opportunity for Americans
to reaffirm our commitment as a nation to a consistent ethic of life. 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.
Archbishop Cupich was quite right to underscore the classical Christian insight that good can be drawn out from evil, just as the Fall leads to Redemption. Much attention, however, was directed to the Archbishop’s use of the expression “a consistent ethic of life”: a phrase which has been used by members of the American Catholic episcopate as far back as a 1971 speech delivered by then-Archbishop Humberto Medeiros of Boston.
The term itself was brought to prominence by another Chicago archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. In approximately 15 addresses delivered between 1983 and 1986, Bernardin called for the development of such an ethic and outlined how it might inform the way in which Catholics—lay and clerical—approached public policy issues.
Right from the beginning, forceful criticisms were made of the consistent ethic position (often described as the “seamless garment”). One was that it would inadvertently help provide “cover” for Catholic politicians who supported legalized abortion. Cardinal Bernardin himself lamented in a 1988 National Catholic Register interview that
I know that some people on the left, if I may use that term, have used the consistent ethic to give the impression that the abortion issue is not all that important any more, that you should be against abortion in a general way but that there are more important issues, so don’t hold anyone’s feet to the fire just on abortion. That is a misuse of the consistent ethic, and I deplore it.
Ten years later, the United States Catholic Conference’s document Living the Gospel of Life also criticized those who had used the consistent ethic to relativize the killing of unborn human beings by making it just one of a laundry list of concerns.
In a way, however, the political fallout from the consistent ethic distracted attention from significant ambiguities that characterized important aspects of the seamless garment’s theological and philosophical apparatus. In light of what seem to be efforts to revive this approach as a way for Catholics and, more particularly, Catholic bishops to engage in public policy debates, it’s worth revisiting these problems.