Scripture’s Seamless Garment and the Foundational Life Issue

The “seamless garment argument” versus the Biblical seamless garment, and how this ties into the primacy of a defense for the unborn

In 1984, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin gave a talk which was meant to be supportive of a “consistent ethic of life.”1 To that end, he suggested that a Catholic moral vision could provide the subtlety and scope needed to address the wide range of human life issues. He included in his list of life issues the threat of nuclear war, abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, etc. Unfortunately, the Cardinal did not explicitly address the distinction which needs to be made between acts which are intrinsically evil (e.g., abortion) and those which may, or may not be, considered morally wrong, according to defined moral criteria and prudent judgment. Thus, the text did not address abortion as the foundational life issue, which is always and everywhere intrinsically evil.2

Cardinal Bernardin, nevertheless, insisted that the Catholic moral vision could guide the consistent ethic of life by protecting the right to life of the unborn, and by promoting those rights throughout all of life. He stated:

 A consistent ethic of life does not equate the problem of taking life (e.g., through abortion and in war) with the problem of promoting human dignity (through humane programs of nutrition, health care, and housing). But a consistent ethic identifies both the protection of life and its promotion as moral questions. It argues for a continuum of life which must be sustained in the face of diverse and distinct threats.3

Cardinal Bernardin assured those who criticized what has subsequently been called the “seamless garment” argument that Catholic opposition to abortion would not be weakened by the argument’s logic. In fact, he gave assurances that the consistent ethic of life argument would in no way “smother our persistent and necessary opposition to abortion.”4 The text proposed that a systemic vision which considered the spectrum of life issues best served to counteract any opposition which would assuredly be encountered. Bernardin wrote:

It is both a complex and a demanding tradition; it joins the humanity of the unborn infant and the humanity of the hungry; it calls for positive legal action to prevent the killing of the unborn or the aged and positive societal action to provide shelter for the homeless and education for the illiterate. The potential of the moral and social vision is appreciated in a  new way when the systemic vision of Catholic ethics is seen as the background for the specific positions we take on a range of issues.5

One of the unfortunate consequences of the Cardinal’s seamless garment argument has been the amalgamation of what the text referred to as the systemic vision of Catholic ethics, thus eroding the distinction between intrinsically evil actions (abortion, euthanasia) and those which are not always and everywhere evil (e.g., warfare).

An example of such a lack of distinction occurred when Cardinal Bernardin’s text invoked the moral principle which prohibits direct attacks on human life. He wrote that : This principle is both central to the Catholic moral vision and systematically related to a range of specific moral issues. It prohibits direct attacks on unborn life in the womb, direct attacks on civilians in warfare, and the direct killing of patients in nursing homes.”6

Although one might observe that the text was incomplete—due to the lack of distinction between issues which are intrinsically evil and those which may or may not be—to his credit, Bernardin’s text indicated that not all the life issues were qualitatively equal from a moral perspective, implying that the issue of abortion was of crucial concern. Nevertheless, because the notion of systemic vision obfuscated the concept of intrinsically evil acts, the importance of safeguarding all human life has subsequently endured significant stormy weather.

Instead of emphasizing the safeguarding of human life as a fundamental moral issue, many Catholics now subscribe to the notion that no one single life issue holds greater weight than any other. Sadly, by not distinguishing between actions which are intrinsically evil from those which are not, the moral landscape has been clouded, and ultimately, the protection of the sanctity of the unborn child in the womb has been jeopardized. The notion of a consistent ethic of life, affected by the aforementioned lack of clarity, suffers from an inconsistency.

An example may help. Several years ago during a presidential campaign, one candidate had a 100 percent voting record for reproductive freedom which included abortion. During the month of October, known as “Respect Life” month in Catholic communities, a well-educated female parishioner wrote to me in regard to my presentation given during the Sunday homily. She stated that I was wrong to focus primarily on the respect that needs to be given to the unborn. She said that her preferred presidential candidate was actually staunchly pro-life because, although he supported a woman’s right to choose an abortion, he wanted to make sure that young children had proper nutrition concerning the milk they were drinking. Apparently, part of his campaign was ensuring food safety standards which would enhance proper nutrition for children.

The woman apparently believed that, although the candidate had a voting record opposed to the defense of the unborn, he was, nevertheless, pro-life because he wanted children to receive adequate nutrients in the milk they drank. She cited the seamless garment argument to support her conviction. Her interpretation of the argument, perhaps a result of its failure to distinguish intrinsically evil acts from those which may or may not be, placed the issue of nutritious milk on or above par with the evil of abortion. Unfortunately, many Catholics have taken to the aforementioned notion, the results of which include an erosion of protection rights for our most vulnerable. Nevertheless, setting aside whatever observations one may have about Cardinal Bernardin’s address, the image of the seamless garment has inspired a reflection that may be helpful in promoting respect for all human life.

Hanging on the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”7 These words introduce Psalm 22 from the Old Testament. Later in the psalm, we read that “they divide my garments among them and for my vesture they cast lots.”8Thus, the prophecy contained in the psalm was fulfilled in the dividing of our Lord’s garments by the Roman  soldiers who were present at Calvary and who, according to Roman law, were able to take the clothing of an executed criminal.9 The garment itself was a tunic that was “seamless, woven in one piece from the top down.”10 In the Old Testament, we find reference to the linen garment that was worn by the high priest at the time of the daily holocaust.11 The etymology of the word for both these garments is the same. The high priest mentioned in the passage from Leviticus wore the garment when offering an unblemished lamb as a means of atonement for the guilt and sin of the people.12

Gospel according to John seems to imply that Jesus was both the victim (the unblemished lamb) and the high priest. Jesus, in the Gospel according to John, is referred to as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.13  The background for this title given to Jesus could certainly be connected to the slaughtered paschal lamb whose blood saved Israel (Exodus 12), or to the suffering servant who was led like a lamb to the slaughter as an offering for sin (Isaiah 53). As victim, Jesus was the Lamb whose blood was shed. As high priest, Jesus made the guilt-offering by becoming the Lamb, taking on himself “the guilt of us all.”14

The high priest wore the linen garment when sacrificing the unblemished lamb as a guilt-offering. Could, perhaps, the offering of an unblemished lamb in the Leviticus passage parallel the unblemished paschal lamb that was sacrificed by the Israelite families who prepared to leave Egypt on the night when the eldest male child of the Egyptian families died? The blood of the lamb that was sprinkled on the doorposts of the Israelite homes was meant to provide safety for the life of the eldest male Israelite child (Exodus 11, 12). The blood of the lamb safeguarded some of the most vulnerable of persons, i.e.,the first-born male child.

The seamless garment worn by Jesus, who was both victim and priest, finds a parallel in the garment worn by the high priest when sacrificing the unblemished lamb. The unblemished lamb sacrificed by the high priest finds a parallel in the unblemished lamb that was offered on the night of the Passover. Because of the lamb’s blood that was sprinkled on the doorposts on the night of the Passover, the eldest male child was protected and his life was spared. Therefore, just as the garment of the high priest could be associated with the sacrificial lamb (Leviticus), so, too, the lamb of sacrifice could be associated with the deliverance of the eldest male child from death (Exodus).

A possible reading of the text of Cardinal Bernardin’s seamless garment argument could be said to point implicitly toward the defense of the life of the unborn as something non-negotiable. So, too, the Scripture passage about the seamless garment worn by Christ implicitly connects Jesus as both high priest and the paschal victim. Furthermore, an implicit connection presents itself between the lamb slain by the high priest and the lamb slaughtered in preparation for the Israelites’ departure from Egypt.

I submit that the seamless garment argument proposed by Cardinal Bernardin should in no way lessen our insistence that the fight against legalized abortion remains a primary concern for Catholics. I also submit that the seamless garment, which is mentioned in Scripture links the blood of the lamb with the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. The first lamb’s outpouring of blood protected some of the most vulnerable according to the story in Exodus. The second Lamb, through the outpouring of his Precious Blood, offers eternal life to the vulnerable children whose lives are terminated through abortion, as well as offering forgiveness to those who repent of their willing cooperation in the destruction of human life.

There will be those who try to reshape the seamless garment argument in order to downplay the fundamental issue of safeguarding human life within the womb. Mistakenly, some will invoke the seamless garment argument and say that a politician with a 100 percent pro-choice voting record, according to NARAL, is really pro-life because he/she wants children to receive the proper nutrients in the milk they drink. Sadly, this type of thinking mistakenly suggests an equality of all moral issues that fall under the umbrella of Cardinal Bernardin’s text which refers to a systemic vision of ethics—also referred to as “a consistent ethic of life.”  However, the Church teaches that, no matter how good the intention might be (e.g., ensuring adequate nutrients in milk), it cannot be the sole criterion in the moral order.15

In summary, the seamless garment argument has been fashioned in a way that has lessened the primacy of consideration for the defense of the unborn— although perhaps unintended. Perhaps, further reflection with regard to the scriptural references about the original “seamless garment” may help to bolster the aforementioned primacy.

  1. Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, “A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue,” given at the William Wade Lecture Series, St. Louis University, St. Louis, MO, March 11, 1984.
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church §1756: “It is, therefore, an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.”
  3. Bernardin, “A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue.”
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34
  8. Ps 22:19
  9. Jn 19:24
  10. Jn 19:23
  11. Lv 6:3
  12. Ibid.
  13. Jn 1:29
  14. Is 53:6
  15. Catechism of the Catholic Church §1753: “A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying or calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means. Thus, the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means to saving the nation. On the other hand, an added bad intention (such as vainglory) makes an act evil that, in and of itself, can be good (such as almsgiving).”
Dr. Pat Guinan About Dr. Pat Guinan

Dr. Pat Guinan, M.D. is President of the Catholic Physicians' Guild of Chicago, and is with the University of Illinois at Chicago, in the Department of Urology and Surgery.