Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The “Seamless Garment” Revisited

By Joseph Sobran

The late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, former archbishop of Chicago, endeared himself to liberals, especially liberal Catholic politicians, by adopting the metaphor of life as a “seamless garment.” 

It isn’t enough to oppose abortion, he insisted; to be consistent, you have to defend life on every front, as for instance by relieving poverty and illness.

This came as welcome news to the liberals, since it turned “life” into a checklist, in which abortion was only one of many items, and not necessarily the most urgent. You could be “pro-life,” according to the Bernardin standard, merely by supporting the welfare state.

Well, of course life is, in some sense, a seamless garment. We should oppose abortion on the same principle that we should oppose the bombing of cities. But according to Bernardin’s way of thinking, you mustn’t oppose bombing Hiroshima unless you also favor setting up an anti-poverty program there.

Conservative Catholics smelled a rat. They sensed that this “seamless garment” was really just a way of minimizing the special problem of abortion, at a time when more than a million abortions were being performed in America every year.

Liberal Catholics, on the other hand, loved the idea. But somehow the imperative of consistency worked only one way. We never heard any of them say, “Well, it’s not enough for me to support the welfare state. If I’m really going to be pro-life, I must also fight to end legal abortion.” Politicians like New York’s Mario Cuomo felt they had been vindicated in their empty “personal” opposition to abortion.

You know that familiar line: “I am personally opposed to abortion, but ...” But you weren’t going to do anything about it. If you opposed it “personally,” you were in favor of it practically. And everyone knew it.

Abortion remains legal today thanks in large part to all those nominal Catholic politicians who oppose it — “personally.” That telltale adverb must lift the hearts of abortionists everywhere.

Cuomo is still at it. He recently told NBC’s Tim Russert that “we” — we Catholics — are “hypocrites” because we say we oppose contraception even though most of “us” use contraceptives like other people. Of course, it goes without saying, people who call themselves Catholics while constantly subverting Catholic morality aren’t guilty of hypocrisy. To hear Cuomo tell it, he’s one of the few honest Catholics in politics. So why do so many other Catholic pols talk like him?

But has anyone ever refrained from getting or procuring an abortion because people like Cuomo “personally” disapprove of it? Extremely doubtful. Their message is clear: “I can’t give my blessing to any abortion, but please don’t let me discourage you from getting one. I wouldn’t want to impose my beliefs on anyone.”

I sometimes wonder how such Catholics would behave if their alleged “beliefs” were sincere. It’s probably a purely hypothetical question, but if they really thought, felt, and acted as if abortion were evil, without wishing to ban it by law, surely there are ways to give this view real force.

Public opinion can be powerful even when it isn’t backed up by force of law. If you advertise allegiance to the Ku Klux Klan, you’ll soon find yourself ostracized by people who don’t question your legal right to join the Klan.

In the same way, the country would change dramatically if every Catholic who professes “personal” opposition to feticide would peacefully picket abortion clinics. But can anyone even imagine a Cuomo, let alone a Ted Kennedy, doing even that much?

Even so, the country is changing. Abortion rates over the past decade have reportedly plunged dramatically. The Democratic Party is now uncomfortable about its unreserved public identification with the cause of “choice.” Even Hillary Clinton has voiced reservations about the practice — and has probably made more impact thereby than all the liberal Catholics in America put together.

So the “seamless garment” has turned out to be nothing but a loophole for hypocritical Catholic politicians. If anything, it has actually made it easier for them than for non-Catholics to give their effective support to legal abortion — that is, it has allowed them to be inconsistent and unprincipled about the very issues that Cardinal Bernardin said demand consistency and principle.

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