Intellectual dishonesty and the “Seamless Garment” argument

by Jimmy Akin

in Apologetics, Government, Moral Theology

Gerhard-Ludwig-Müller“The image of the ‘seamless garment’ has been used by some theologians and Catholic politicians, in an intellectually dishonest manner.”

That’s a sentiment that many Catholics, particularly in the pro-life movement, have expressed.

What’s significant about this expression of the sentiment is the person who uttered it: the pope’s own doctrinal watchdog.

Here are 11 things to know and share . . .


1) What is the “seamless garment” argument?

It’s the claim that Catholic teaching on life is like a seamless garment, so that if you accept one part of it, you need to accept it all.

This is sometimes referred to as having a “consistent ethic of life.”


2) Where does the image of the seamless garment come from?

The image of the seamless garment is taken from the Gospel of John, where we read:

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus they took his garments and made four parts, one for each soldier; also his tunic.

But the tunic was without seam, woven from top to bottom; so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the scripture, “They parted my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots” [John 19:23-24].


3) How has the Church historically used this image?

It has been commonly used as a symbol of the Church’s unity. You’ll see that in various Magisterial documents. For example, in 2007, Benedict XVI stated:

An indispensable characteristic of the Church is unity, symbolized by Christ’s seamless garment [General Audience, June 6, 2007].


4) How did this image get applied to the Church’s teaching on life?

Apparently, the image was first applied this way in 1971 by Catholic pacifism activist Eileen Egan.

In 1983, this use was popularized by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.


5) What kinds of “life issues” have been proposed as belonging to the seamless garment?

Numerous things. Among them are abortion, euthanasia, nuclear war, capital punishment, and even poverty.


6) Who is the pope’s “doctrinal watchdog”?

This is a common way of referring to the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the department in Rome that is charged with protecting the Church’s teaching.

This is the position that Benedict XVI held before his election to the papacy. Today it is held by Cardinal Gerhard Muller (pictured).


7) Where did Cardinal Muller address the seamless garment argument?

He did so in an address he gave at a workshop sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Life in 2013.

You can read the full text of his remarks here (pdf).


8) What did he say about it?

He began by giving an overview of the subject, saying:

We are all familiar with the image of the “seamless garment” which is used to illustrate how Catholic moral teaching is a consistent whole – uniting ethical, religious, and political threads in a unified moral vision.

Attributed to Cardinal Bernardin, the “seamless garment” image was used to great effect to root the Church’s response to various moral issues – from nuclear proliferation to poverty – within the overarching teaching on the sanctity of human life, from natural conception to natural death.


9) What did he say when he accused some of using it in an intellectually dishonest manner?

He said:

Unfortunately, however, it is also true that the image of the “seamless garment” has been used by some theologians and Catholic politicians, in an intellectually dishonest manner, to allow or at least to justify turning a blind eye to instances of abortion, contraception, or public funding for embryonic stem cell research, as long as these were simultaneously accompanied by opposition to the death penalty or promotion of economic development for the poor – issues which are also part of the fabric of Catholic moral teaching.


10) Did he say anything about why people use the argument this way?

Yes. He stated:

Often this abuse of the “seamless garment” theory stems from a natural tendency on the part of some in the Church to look for “common ground” with the surrounding culture; that is to say, to emphasize in their teaching and preaching those elements of Catholic doctrine that are acceptable to the non-Catholic ambient culture; for example, social justice, human rights, and other similar issues.

This is understandable and sometimes it is an appropriate pastoral strategy.

But what also must be taken into account is the difference which exists between those elements of Catholic teaching that may be attractive to the surrounding culture and those elements which are profoundly counter-cultural and which Catholics themselves need to hear proclaimed by their pastors.


11) What solutions did he propose?

He stressed that Church teaching must be presented as a whole, without turning a blind eye to particular aspects of it.

He particularly emphasized the need to proclaim the Church’s teaching on human sexuality as found in Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae, saying:

The experience of the Church . . . demonstrates that where the Church has tried to accommodate her teaching to this secular understanding by deemphasizing the specific witness of her moral teaching, this has lead neither to a greater societal acceptance of the Church nor to a renewal in her own life.

Rather where the teaching of Humanae vitae has been down-played, or worse still ignored, we have witnessed a collapse of family life, an increase in extra-marital infidelity and a diminishment of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life.

He had much more to say on this and related subjects, so be sure to check out the full text of his remarks, linked above.

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Frank January 27, 2015 at 6:09 am

Thanks, Jimmy, for yet another insightful treatment of an extremely important subject. I’m afraid that many in the Church are still watering down sacred beliefs in order to find this “common ground” with a totally secular culture in order to gain acceptance. The result, however, is that it is not being, and never will be, achieved. On the other hand the Church suffers as so many fall into the trap of relativism.

Roseanne Bell January 27, 2015 at 8:57 am

I hear this argument used by people whose faith was formed post-Vatican II, and who have not examined their beliefs since. Luckily, they’re getting old. I have hope for the future.

John Schuh January 27, 2015 at 10:27 am

Not many people are aware that between the wars, World Wars I&2, many Catholics had a good opinion about Mussolini’s and Hitler’s monist views, including those who supported Franco’s revote in Spain. His anti-Jewish policies, even the Nazi smears of Catholic priests and the failure ti live up to the Concordat., were discounted precisely because of the many economics and social programs that benefitted the Reich,He had admirers in every European country and even in the Vatican. I may do him wrong, but Bernardin’s support of the Democratic platform in the name of “social justice” enabled politicians like Cuomo and Ferraro and Kennedy to convince many, many Catholics, even practicing ones, that the pro-lifers were just a bunch of nuts. Here we are, however, thirty year on, and the Nuts have been proven right.

Mary January 27, 2015 at 3:59 pm

One also notes that Hitler toned down his anti-Semitism enormously after the putsch. One Jewish woman snuck into a speech and reported afterwards that he hadn’t even mentioned the Jews. Most people hoped he had gotten over it.

John Ata January 28, 2015 at 5:51 am

Cardinal Bernadin was right as is Pope Francis and Cardinal Muller… no contradiction there. There is nothing worse for the pro-life cause then being selective about which group of people one champions while ignoring or denigrating others. The solution, as Cardinal Muller points out, is not to use the seamless garment as an excuse to do this any but to teach the whole truth. The flipside which wasn’t covered by Cardinal Muller, of course, is that there are folks who are intellectually dishonest and use the importance of the pro-life issue of the unborn as an excuse to ignore other life issues as well as social justice issues. That to me is why Pope Francis is seen as authentic – he cares for all life without exception. Everyone sees it. This makes him an authentic pro-life messenger who adheres to the “seamless garment”.

Mary Ann Sweeney January 28, 2015 at 6:46 am

Thank you for this posting, especially the access to Cardinal Muller’s address. We have been duped by the “seamless garment” ruse that the very powerful Cardinal Bernardin imposed and that was accepted by many ‘liberal’ Priests to justify being able to ignore defending the basic tenet of life from conception to natural death. I spent many years going head to head with several of these Priests, whose pride wouldn’t permit them to listen to anything that interfered with “their” so-called beliefs. I am also appalled that too many of today’s youth treat sex as ‘dessert’ after a date, including my own granddaughters. Prayer and good example are all we have in our arsenal, along with the few ‘real’ Priests who are preaching the Gospel the way it was intended. FYI, I now live in a rural Parish in PA where the Pastor is a convert (with a wife, 2 children and 2 grandchildren). He is more Catholic than any other Priest I have ever met. I feel very blessed in my old age to be granted the grace to be a member of this very active, pro-life parish.

Jacqueline January 31, 2015 at 8:46 am

Thank you for another great teaching moment. Kudos to Gerhard Cardinal Muller.
While Pope Francis goes about his PR route and makes ambiguous statements, Cardinal Muller will stabilize him. Praise God.

My sincere prayer is that the clergy will pay attention to Number 11….Solutions? Take the fear out of the Pulpit and teach the Word of God that young and old alike are thirsting for….not the “Church of Nice” that has existed for the last 50 years or so.

“Rather where the teaching of Humanae vitae has been down-played, or worse still ignored, we have witnessed a collapse of family life, an increase in extra-marital infidelity and a diminishment of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life.”
AS WITNESSED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA…..We need more courageous priests, bishops, cardinals and Pope!

John January 31, 2015 at 1:57 pm

Great information! Thank you!

Joanne S. February 2, 2015 at 1:16 pm

This happens to be a pet peeve of mine. Everything is “Social Justice” that ignores the unborn, as if those in the pews don’t already care about the poor. Following the October Synod of the Family, for example, our deacon castigated those concerned Catholics who contacted the archdiocese and ALLEGEDLY criticized the pope for speaking out on economics. This was the time there was much misinformation over the pope’s reaction to the gay marriage issue and communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. Having followed reports by the Catholic vs secular press on the event, I was greatly surprised that economics was even reported in any media, or that there had been these massive criticisms of the pope over ‘economics.’ I like to think I’m pro life in all areas of Catholic teaching, but having been pounded over and over on the social justice issues which rarely mention the unborn, I find myself becoming very hostile when homilies are so one-sided. For all those who tell me ‘there are other issues besides abortion,” I’d like to tell them that “uncomfortable” topics like abortion and gay “marriage” need to be addressed as well.

Bill912 February 2, 2015 at 1:34 pm

I like to remind people that there are no other issues if one is not alive.

Irksome1 February 7, 2015 at 4:35 am

I’m rather uncomfortable with that type of response, since it implies that, out of the 10 Commandments, we can deemphasize the gravity of nine of them simply because one can survive having acted against them.

The Sarge February 7, 2015 at 6:01 am

It implies no such thing; it is merely a statement of fact.

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