A little while ago, Fr James Martin SJ made a few waves at the US Democratic Party’s national convention by including an intercession for the unborn child in the prayers he was invited to offer there. This was a courageous and impressive act.
The unborn child was just one of the subjects of Fr Martin’s prayer, which also included immigrants and bullied LGBT teens and people from minority ethnic groups. This suggests to me that Fr Martin, like many Catholics, subscribes to the “seamless garment” approach to Catholic ethics.
I am uneasy with the Consistent Ethic of Life approach: thinking about every part of Catholic social or political teaching as fundamentally a “life issue” muddles our reasoning. – Niall Gooch
This approach was popularised by the former Archbishop of Chicago Joseph Bernardin and is sometimes called the Consistent Ethic of Life. In this way of thinking, almost all political matters where the Church has any kind of teaching come to be regarded as “life issues”. Everything is lumped together as a sort of mega-issue. If we want to truly defend the sanctity of life, or human dignity, goes the argument, we cannot simply focus on abortion or euthanasia, but must also turn our attention to healthcare, economic justice, protection of the environment and so on.
I confess I am uneasy with the Consistent Ethic of Life approach: thinking about every part of Catholic social or political teaching as fundamentally a “life issue” muddles our reasoning.
Not all bad things are equally bad, or bad in the same way, or for the same reason. Poverty and the arms trade and racial prejudice certainly raise enormous moral problems. But they are not identical moral problems to those raised by euthanasia, and if you try to shoehorn all issues together, it becomes harder to achieve clarity of thought. We must not let abortion and euthanasia, at the core of the Church’s moral vision, be forgotten and compared to a huge grab-bag of political causes.
The Consistent Ethic of Life is sometimes presented as the authentic Church position, and those with doubts are portrayed as dissenters, as if they deny the Trinity or the divinity of Christ. Nevertheless in historic perspective, the concept is both relatively novel and somewhat controversial.
Catholics can reasonably disagree with each other on matters such as immigration or healthcare, which fall under the umbrella of the Consistent Ethic of Life. – Niall Gooch
The death penalty, for example, is an uneasy bedfellow for abortion in the “seamless garment” basket. The Church is against capital punishment, and in 2018 the Holy Father updated the Catechism to rule it out completely. However, this is a hotly-debated break with the Church’s past teaching, which held that the death penalty was not only tolerable, but in itself a fitting and just punishment for certain crimes (so says Ed Feser in By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed).
It’s worth noting too that Catholics can reasonably disagree with each other on matters such as immigration or healthcare, which fall under the umbrella of the Consistent Ethic of Life. How many people a country is obliged to admit, or how it should organise its healthcare system, are matters of careful judgment, where different people will balance priorities and trade-offs differently. In one sense, there is simply no one Catholic teaching on healthcare or immigration in the same way that there is on abortion or euthanasia. St John Paul the Great wrote in section 58 of Evangelium Vitae that “among all the crimes which can be committed against life, procured abortion has characteristics making it particularly serious and deplorable.” You see, the Church has a clear and unambiguous teaching about abortion, euthanasia and embryo research, which can and should be prioritised in a special way by politically engaged Catholics.
If the “seamless garment” distracts Catholics from putting uniquely awful practices at the top of our list of concerns, then I question how useful it really is.
Niall Gooch is a regular Chapter House columnist. He also contributes to UnHerd.
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