‘Seamless garment’ focuses on whole life

By Ruth Powers
Beginning in 1972, the Catholic Bishops of the United States have designated October as Respect Life Month. Catholic congregations around the country are asked to spend time during this month particularly focusing on awareness of pro-life issues. In their Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, the bishops “proclaim that human life is a precious gift from God; that each person who receives this gift has responsibilities toward God, self, and others; and that society, through its laws and social institutions, must protect and nurture human life at every stage of its existence.”

Although the bishops state that pro-life means protecting and nurturing human life at every stage of existence, it is true that for a number of years the focus of the movement has been the protection of the life of the unborn. This has led to the accusation from some who support legalized abortion that people in the pro-life movement are only concerned with the child up to the point of birth but do nothing to support and nurture the child afterwards. This is generally an unfair accusation, but there is enough truth in it that it is time to go back and look at what our church and its leaders define as what it means to be pro-life.

Abortion does play a central role in issues involving the dignity of human life, as it is the direct killing of an innocent human being and is always gravely immoral. (St. John Paul II, The Gospel of Life, no. 57) However, there are a wide spectrum of issues that touch on the protection of human life and the promotion of human dignity.

Again, St. John Paul II reminds us: “Where life is involved, the service of charity must be profoundly consistent. It cannot tolerate bias and discrimination, for human life is sacred and inviolable at every stage and in every situation; it is an indivisible good.” (The Gospel of Life, no. 87) As Catholic Christians we are called to hold a “consistent ethic of life,” which calls for the protection of human life at all ages and in all conditions.

Ruth Powers

This idea, now embraced by most American bishops in some form, had its beginnings in the early 1970s when bishops and theologians were arguing for a consistent approach on life issues, including abortion, capital punishment and war. One term used for this approach was the “seamless garment,” which referred to the tunic of Jesus which his executioners left whole in John 19:23. This philosophy, further popularized by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago in 1983, holds that issues such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, war, and social and economic injustice demand a consistent application of moral principles which put the sanctity of human life at their core. This approach is not meant in any way to downplay the importance of abortion and euthanasia, both of which involve the direct taking of innocent human life. Instead, it is meant to help us understand that because human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, they are deserving not only of having basic physical needs of food, shelter, clothing, clean water, and medical care addressed, but also of having their dignity as human beings respected by rejection of all forms of economic and social injustice.

More recently a subset of activists within the pro-life movement has begun to advocate for a broadened focus. This movement has become known as the Whole Life Movement, or sometimes Pro-Life/Whole Life. Abortion and euthanasia remain the primary focus, but members of this movement insist that it is not enough to simply support laws that restrict abortion. To be consistently pro-life is to advocate for protection of life and human dignity for all persons “from conception to natural death” as Pope Paul VI said in Humanae Vitae. Although followers of this movement continue to work for an end to abortion, they also believe that working to pass laws favoring access to nutrition, shelter, health care and education, as well as protecting the rights of the disabled is integral to being pro-life. Some in this movement even believe that the protection of the environment should be considered a pro-life issue since without a healthy environment, the lives of all of us may be threatened.

Taking some time during this Respect for Life month to reflect on what it means to be pro-life is a worthwhile endeavor for all of us. Does our concept of being pro-life begin with conception and end with the birth of the child? Or do we understand that this is only the beginning of what it means to be for life? Are we willing to fight the “throwaway culture” described by Pope Francis that sees those people who are not “contributing to society” or who are “an economic drain” as unworthy of our concern? Are we willing to build a society that protects a “right to life” that includes protection of the physical well being and the right to human dignity of all persons? It is a good time to examine our consciences about these issues.