The Seamless Garment
Fifth Sunday of Lent. Fr Leon Pereira reflects on the unity of Catholic teaching.
Fifty-five years ago the then senator John F. Kennedy addressed a group of Protestant ministers in Houston, Texas, on the ability of a Catholic president to make decisions independently of his Church. Kennedy equated his personal faith with being a private one, and in so doing he implied the operation of both a public and secular conscience (in public office) and a private and religious conscience (as a Catholic). It is an equivocation many Catholics in public office have resorted to, before and after Kennedy.
While we can speak of different duties and authority according to one’s role or position in society, what we do not deny is that we are each one individual. And an individual has an individual conscience, as the first reading tells us, ‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts’. We do not have different consciences for different situations. We might wear different hats, but the hats sit on the same head.
The attempt to split conscience in the subject (the one who makes moral choices) is mirrored by an attempt to split the object (the moral choices themselves). Perhaps the latter is the foreseeable consequence of the former. If I say, ‘I am pro-life but I don’t see why someone shouldn’t be allowed to commit euthanasia’, in reality it just means I am pro-death but deceiving myself. And often such an evil stance can be mixed with other causes which are good and praiseworthy in themselves – promoting just wages, for example.
In 1984, in a series of talks, the late Cardinal Bernadin explained that Catholic moral and social teaching form an inextricable whole, like the ‘seamless garment of Christ’ (tunica Christi inconsutilis, cf. Psalm 22.19; John 19.23), an image first used in a similar context by St Cyprian of Carthage in the mid-third century. All these matters are bound up with each other: abortion, the threat of nuclear war, euthanasia, social and economic injustice. As Bernadin said, ‘Nuclear war threatens life on a previously unimaginable scale; abortion takes life daily on a horrendous scale.’ The emphases are Bernadin’s own. These separate issues are not morally equivalent or of the same gravity. Here, for example, abortion is the far more serious matter, since it actively destroys innocent lives and ruins the lives of many others.
Thus, Catholic ‘justice and peace’ (our shorthand for the whole of moral and social teaching), addresses all these matters. It cannot neglect one for the sake of the other, nor can it pretend all of these matters are similar in moral weight. The temptation which nags us is to go with the flow; why not just cooperate with the world where it does good? While we should work with the world for the good, we must also stand up against the world for what is true. It is easy to protest climate change, or issues like that. The world is already with us on those things. It is much harder to stand up for the right to life of pre-born humans, much harder to endure the satanic hatred, shrieking, and calumny the world will then prepare for us. Today’s Gospel tells us, ‘he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life’. St John Paul II taught,
Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights – for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture – is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with the maximum determination.
In our day a new tear to the seamless garment emerges, one which promises falsely to leave Church teaching intact while altering her pastoral practice. The word ‘pastoral’ has been abused for a long time already, as though it means replacing difficult truths with a concession to sin. Here also the seamless garment of Christ holds – praxis without dogma is whim or error. We never genuinely serve our brothers and sisters by misleading them. Without truth, love is false. Without love, truth is hard to receive. Good pastoral care is founded on both inseparably.
Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Hebrews 5:7-9 | John 12:20-33