Life Matters —The Newsletter of the Respect Life Office of the Diocese of Rockford
By Patricia Pitkus Bainbridge
Associate Director, Respect Life Office
I have been asked on numerous occasions why some Catholics who are so involved in what are commonly referred to as the “social justice issues” are occasionally the very ones who refuse to even speak out against procured abortion and in some cases, actually work against the efforts of the Pro-Life movement.
Sadly, in some cases, the problem stems from a conscious rejection of the official teaching of the Church. In many cases, it may originate from a misunderstanding or misapplication of the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s seamless garment or consistent ethic of life message.
In a 2001 presentation, Richard Doerflinger of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Office of Pro-Life Activities, commented that Bernardin “first used the phrase ‘seamless garment’ in this context in 1976, it was in a pro-life homily designed to show the fundamental importance of the teaching on abortion and euthanasia: ‘Life before and after birth,’ he said, ‘is like a seamless garment... If we become insensitive to the beginning of life and condone abortion or if we become careless about the end of life and justify euthanasia, we have no reason to believe that there will be much respect for life in between.’”
Used and Abused
In the years following the Cardinal’s initial use of the phrase “seamless garment,” many individuals and groups have used it to imply that abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, poverty, hunger, war, capital punishment, and economic injustice were morally equivalent. Some went so far as to equate abortion with the harmful effects of smoking.
Cardinal Bernardin was emphatic in stating that while all these issues were interrelated, they were not equal. In 1985 in a speech at Loyola University he stated that, “The fundamental human right is life—from the moment of conception until death. It is the source of all other rights.”
In 1989 on Respect Life Sunday, Cardinal Bernardin issued a statement in which he said in part:
Not all values, however, are of equal weight. Some are more fundamental than others. On this Respect Life Sunday, I wish to emphasize that no earthly value is more fundamental than human life itself. Human life is the condition for enjoying freedom and all other values. Consequently, if one must choose between protecting or serving lesser human values that depend upon life for their existence and life itself, human life must take precedence. Today the recognition of human life as a fundamental value is threatened. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of elective abortion.
Pope Paul II and the USCCB have made it very clear that the fundamental right to life is the source of all other rights. Writing in Evangelium Vitae, our Holy Father says “the fundamental right and source of all other rights….is the right to life, a right belonging to every individual. Consequently, laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual.”
In 1974 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the Declaration on Procured Abortion which stated in part: “The first right of the human person is his life. He has other goods and some are more precious, but this one is fundamental—the condition of all the others. Hence it must be protected above all others.“
It Could Not Be More Obvious
The 2001 USCCB Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities addresses the interrelated, but morally disproportional issues of the various assaults on human life when it states:
To focus on the evil of deliberate killing in abortion and euthanasia is not to ignore the many other urgent conditions that demean human dignity and threaten human rights. Opposing abortion and euthanasia “does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing and health care” (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 23).
We pray that Catholics will be advocates for the weak and the marginalized in all these areas. “But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community” (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 23).
All of us are called to speak out whenever and wherever the sanctity of human life is threatened. We must oppose everything that “offends human dignity. That means that we demand protection and promotion of all human life regardless of race, creed, or color and whether in a petri dish or womb, whether a zygote or embryo, fetus or infant, pre-schooler or adolescent, middle aged or elderly, strong or weak, intelligent or retarded, stable or emotionally disturbed, healthy or disabled, rich or poor, Jew or Muslim, Christian or atheist, free or on death row, abortionist or pro-life obstetrician.
In doing so, we must remember that the most urgent, the most egregious, and the most heinous crime against humanity is the deliberate killing of the most vulnerable among us—the unborn.