Reconsidering the Seamless Garment

Well-intentioned axiom has out-lived its usefulness, should be retired.

You Look FineWe’ve all been there.

You’re way behind on laundry so you dig deep into your closet, rummaging through clothing you haven’t worn in years. Amid all the outmoded items you find what appears to be a gem, something you used to wear all the time. Okay, it is a bit outdated. “But that just makes it funky, retro hip,” you say to yourself. As you put it on, it feels kind of awkward, but you tell yourself that’s precisely how it’s supposed to fit. One look in the mirror and you’re convinced. “This is going to be awesome!” And with that final affirmation, you’re out the door and feeling fine.

However, all day long, you feel uncomfortable and self-conscious, like others are staring and laughing when you’re out of earshot. You cover up with your jacket and try to avoid bumping into people; you just want to get through the day and go home. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” you groan silently. When you finally get home at the end of the day, you take a good, hard look in the mirror. “I look ridiculous! Why did I ever think this would work? Hey, how did I not notice that stain…and that hole?” You shake your head and say goodbye to your old friend with a parting toss into the Goodwill box. You promise yourself, “I’ll never make that mistake again.”

Enter the Seamless Garment.

Catholic pacifist Eileen Eagan is credited with coining the term in 1971 to describe the unity of Catholic teaching on life issues. It is presumed to be a reference to Jesus’ tunic in John 19:23, “…seamless, woven in one piece from the top down.” This became the common name for the Consistent Ethic of Life teachings Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (Chicago) first advanced in a lecture at Fordham University in 1983. He specifically invoked the term in a lecture at St. Louis University a few months later.

The cardinal’s teaching recognizes that traditional pro-life and social justice issues are not in conflict but are instead complementary. Essentially, the fabric of both is woven from the common thread of fundamental respect for human dignity. At their core, all life issues are matters of social justice, and all social justice issues are matters of life. From Cardinal Bernardin’s St. Louis talk (emphasis mine):

A consistent ethic does not say everyone in the Church must do all things, but it does say that as individuals and groups pursue one issue, whether it is opposing abortion or capital punishment, the way we oppose one threat should be related to support for a systemic vision of life. It is not necessary or possible for every person to engage in each issue, but it is both possible and necessary for the Church … that individuals and groups who seek to witness to life at one point of the spectrum of life not be seen as insensitive to or even opposed to other moral claims on the overall spectrum of life. Consistency does rule out contradictory moral positions about the unique value of human life. No one is called to do everything, but each of us can do something. And we can strive not to stand against each other when the protection and the promotion of life are at stake.

The utility of the Seamless Garment is that it teaches, as a Catholic, you have to swallow the whole life and social justice pill. Feeding the homeless is pointless if you assist in aborting their children; your care for the unborn is incomplete if you let the mother go hungry.

Unfortunately, the maxim has become problematic because it has essentially been co-opted by Catholic dissenters who choose to embrace only selected Church teachings. However, that’s not at all what’s intended. Cardinal Bernardin clearly states that, while you don’t have to be an activist for every issue, you don’t get to cherry-pick the ones with which you agree and stand in opposition to others, either. That’s simply not Catholic. Over at The Catholic Thing, Michael Uhlmann  asserts:

The principal effect of [Seamless Garment] rationale has been to give Catholic politicians a free ride when they support pro-abortion measures. It is beyond scandal that so many prominent office-holders have been allowed to avert their gaze from the rights of unborn children. Just how many politicians like John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and Kathleen Sebelius do the bishops wish to tolerate?

A subtler but no less insidious misappropriation of the Seamless Garment is to put all the relevant issues on equal footing. However, Cardinal Bernardin makes no such claim. Further, with regard to the Church’s teaching on abortion, paragraph 2273 of the Catechism states:

The moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law. When the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined. (from Donum Vitae III)

This means that the guaranty of the right to life is foundational, because the guaranty of all other rights depends upon precisely it. Colloquially, if you don’t make it out of the womb intact, nothing else matters. However, some would have you believe otherwise. Consider Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM who runs The Center for Action and Contemplation. In his February 28, 2012 daily meditation, he wrote:

We worry about what people are doing in bed much more than making sure everybody has a bed to begin with. There certainly is a need for a life-giving sexual morality, but one could question whether Christian nations have found it yet. Christianity will regain its moral authority when it starts emphasizing social sin in equal measure with individual (read “body-based”) sin and weaves them both into a seamless garment of love and truth.

Fr. Rohr’s message is cunning in its subtlety as he gently bends the phrase “seamless garment” back against authentic Church teaching under the guise of “love and truth.”

This is precisely why the Church needs to part with the Seamless Garment once and for all. It may have once had utility, but it has now been permanently stained by dissenters who have hijacked it to legitimize their agendas in conflict with Church teaching. Further, it has a hole of ambiguity about the primacy of beginning-of-life issues like abortion, so it is easily misconstrued. Finally, every time some pro-abortion Catholic politician or seemingly authoritative maverick priest drags it out of mothballs to suit his or her renegade ideology, the world becomes even more confused about what Catholics believe, and the Church ends up looking ridiculous.


  1. Mike F. says

    Good piece, much appreciated. Two small corrections and a comment: it’s “complementary” (with an “e”) in this case, not “complimentary” (with an “i”)>

    And “Colloquially, if you don’t make out of the womb intact” should be “Colloquially, if you don’t *it* make out of the womb intact”

    One other possibility – the bishops could clarify these points, making it plain that such uses of the “seamless garment” argument are incorrect/illegitimate. I think perhaps it’s as likely that they would do this as that they would get rid of the phrase altogether.

    • says

      Mike, thanks for stopping by and commenting in. Thanks also for picking up the mess behind my inadequate proofreading and offering me the opportunity to exercise my humility. Both much appreciated.

  2. says


    We have a 7-week baby at home. Looks like the foggy mommy brain isn’t just for mommies (and I even edited this, too)! Thanks for dropping by and offering the grammatical clarifications. We are all in this together…

  3. says

    It is unfortunate that the Seamless Garment as proposed, suggesting that the teachings are consistent, related, and supportive of each other, was turned more into Prego (“It’s in there!”). The Seamless Garment idea wasn’t suggestive of a menu where you pick and choose the items you like, it was more like a recipe, where the final result just isn’t right if you leave anything out.

    • says

      Deacon Sean, great to hear from you! Thanks for stopping by and weighing in. I like the recipe analogy very much; I may use that. Of course, I promise to give you proper credit. Hope all is well in your corner of the state!

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