What does it mean to be a pro-life Catholic? What issues come under the umbrella or pro-life – certainly abortion and euthanasia. Some people are surprised to discover capital punishment is also on the list. There is a lot more on the US Bishops’ list of issues to which we as Catholics are called to take into prayer and action. It includes topics such as trade and debt, climate change, poverty, and more. It is a wide range of issues which have in common the deeply held conviction of the sanctity of life from conception to natural death. Admittedly the issues which bracket the timeline are more focused: abortion and euthanasia. As horrific as they are, as issues, they are easier to frame morally and focus action and prayer. But the issues in the between become more challenging to garner a consensus of action among the faithful. We are challenged to have a consistent ethic of life that is enacted in our Church.The phrase “consistent ethic of life” comes from Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago who addressed the topic in a December 1983 Gannon Lecture at Fordham University. You can read the transcript here. It is wide ranging lecture, but perhaps this quote will give you an idea of the tenor and direction of his thought:
“…the Catholic position on abortion demands of us and of society that we seek to influence an heroic social ethic. If one contends, as we do, that the right of every fetus to be born should be protected by civil law and supported by civil consensus, then our moral, political and economic responsibilities do not stop at the moment of birth. Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us: the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker. Such a quality of life posture translates into specific political and economic positions on tax policy, employment generation, welfare policy, nutrition and feeding programs, and health care. Consistency means we cannot have it both ways. We cannot urge a compassionate society and vigorous public policy to protect the rights of the unborn and then argue that compassion and significant public programs on behalf of the needy undermine the moral fiber of the society or are beyond the proper scope of governmental responsibility. Right to life and quality of life complement each other in domestic social policy”
Christianity Today published an article in 2017, sadly titles, “Almost No One in the US Believes in a ‘Consistent Ethic of Life’” In the article it notes that only 4% of Catholics would be counted as holding a consistent ethic of life (sometimes referred as “seamless garment”) in that they oppose all: abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment – and that does not delve into the arena of social policy. If that is the measure of it, then what are the underlying influences?
Recently, I ran into an interesting article recently from Geoffrey Layman, chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He wrote: “In the struggle between faith and party politics, American two-party politics is winning. In some ways, partisanship becomes a religion unto itself.” That is his capstone remark summarizing a new report released by Notre Dame researchers exploring a surprisingly complex aspect of Catholic life: how Catholics vote. The report focused on the unique pressures and behaviors of “seamless garment” Catholics in making electoral decisions.
The Notre Dame report describes “seamless garment Catholics” as those who support the church’s spectrum teaching across their sociopolitical beliefs—people both pro-life and pro social justice, opposing abortion and supporting strong social welfare, immigration rights and environmental protections. Politically this puts them in a bind because in the dominant two-party American political system, neither party or internal ideology (liberal or conservative) fully represents their beliefs. Each political party represents only a segment of Catholic Church teaching on the consistent ethic of life.
A practical question is “How many Catholics truly face this dilemma? How many actually follow this seamless garment pattern of supporting all the positions of the church, and not just those that line up with one party or the other?” Answer: not very many. The Notre Dame report is more nuanced than the general survey used by Christianity today, still fewer than 10 percent of U.S. Catholics follow the teaching of the church in the face of our political realities – about half the number reported in 1988 – a generation ago. Why? I could not pretend to offer an insightful and complete response, but I have an intuitive guess. Perhaps it is (a) the more definitive alignment of one political party with what we hold important, (b) the waning moral authority that Church holds for many believers – in part because of the child abuse scandal but also the increasing alignment of bishops and pastors with political candidate and (c) in general, we only two choices for the elected office. “Psychologists say it is cognitively easier to identify as either a Republican or a Democrat than it is to navigate the political no-man’s land of maintaining beliefs that defy party lines. Over time, the faithful affiliate with a political party and adopt that party’s political stances, leaving seamless garment beliefs behind.”
In another commentary, the author wrote that the political parties offer a more effective “catechism” than the Church. That rings true for me at some level and I find it somewhat haunting.
About a year ago, while still one the new and unknown priests in pandemic-restricted church age, it was not uncommon for people to chat with me. For most it was the normal social interactions of welcoming, introduction, and “I heard that you were…..” (fill in the blank with some element of my personal history). Once in a while it was more like an interview to see if I measured up to the canon of their view of the issues. Actually all pretty typical stuff for the new priest in the parish.
“Let me ask you a question” was the opening. No introduction, no exchange of greetings – just right to it. He asked me what I thought the Bishops were going to do on a specific topic. Perhaps being overly literal, my replied: “I have no idea. Things episcopal are above my pay grade. But I am sure they will let us know soon enough.” The reply was “I knew you were one of the liberal priests.” Huh?
He asked if I were against abortion and I replied that I was – which seemed to surprise him for some reason. So I inquired if I could ask him a question: He agreed. “Are you for capital punishment?” His reply was: “Damn straight I am.” In chatting about the issues that the Catholic Church holds as life issues, he was clearly a very conservative person who aligned himself with one party vis-a-vis life issues. He was very doubtful that my questions were authentic teaching of the Catholic Church.
It was a sidewalk conversation and I think some topics are too important for the sidewalk. However, he was not interested in chatting in the office or elsewhere. His final words were, “I knew you weren’t really a pro-life priest.” It was an experience at the edge, but increasingly I worry the faithful are more drawn to the “edge” just as some are in the political realm. I worry that we are too willing to divide the garment of our Faith.
But it is not easy to be a seamless Catholic. Nobody promised easy. But we are asked to be faithful.
Such are thoughts on an afternoon in all-too-cool Virginia.