What Did Cardinal Bernardin’s “Seamless Garment” REALLY Say About Abortion?

What Did Cardinal Bernardin’s “Seamless Garment” REALLY Say About Abortion? February 14, 2014
Cardinal Bernardin

Cardinal Bernardin was not, as some have alleged, soft on abortion.

This week the cardinal’s long-time assistant, Mary Hallan FioRito, made that point in a letter published in the Wall Street Journal.

I have often heard from ardent pro-lifers that Cardinal Bernardin’s “Seamless Garment” policy did great damage to the cause of the unborn. The “Seamless Garment,” they say, placed abortion on an even plain with poverty and unemployment and immigration—other societal issues which are important but which, according to one friend, do not result in a dead human in a trash bucket.

A recent article by Nicholas Hahn in the Wall Street Journal attempted to make that same point. He quoted Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, who said in an interview last October,

“The point that [Bernardin’s] consistent ethic makes is exactly the same point that Pope Francis is making—let’s look at the whole picture and not just focus almost exclusively on three or so issues.”

Cardinal Bernardin,” Hahn wrote, 

“…who led the archdiocese from 1982 until his death in 1996, espoused a liberal line that has helped give pro-abortion Catholic supporters of the Obama administration theological cover.”

Mary Hallan FioRito strongly disagrees, and backs up her contention with quotes drawn from the Cardinal’s own writings. Responding to Hahn’s column, FioRito wrote:

As the person who served as the pro-life spokesperson for Joseph Cardinal Bernardin from 1993 until his death, I write to correct Nicholas G. Hahn III’s assertion that Bernardin “maintained that matters as varied as the death penalty, the minimum wage and how to wage war should be considered on the same moral plane as abortion” (“The Pope’s Chicago Cardinal,”  Houses of Worship, Feb. 7).

Mr. Hahn is right to be troubled that, especially in the political arena, the “consistent ethic of life” has sometimes been employed to justify support for legal abortion. Yet in a 1988 interview, when he was directly asked about some Catholics who were “less visible about right-to-life issues,” Bernardin noted: “I know that some people on the left, if I might use that label, have used the consistent ethic to give the impression that the abortion issue is not all that important anymore, that you should be against abortion in a general way, but that there are more important issues, so don’t hold anybody’s feet to the fire just on abortion. That’s a misuse of the consistent ethic, and I deplore it.” (National Catholic Register, June 12, 1988). Moreover, the Cardinal said, “I’ve made it very clear that at any given time, one issue may have to be given much higher priority than others. I’ve never said they were all equal or required equal attention.”

As Cardinal Bernardin pointed out, “whatever diminishes life or destroys it is evil.” It’s true that some people have manipulated his words to suit their own agendas, but as the cardinal himself stated, “the misuse does not invalidate the argument.”

Mary Hallan FioRito

Archdiocese of Chicago



"I'll follow you over Kathy. I was probably in more sympathy with your point of ..."

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow…. My ..."
"If you're at all interested in knowing . . . the Catholic Dogma . . ..."

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow…. My ..."
"Thank you, Mrs. Harris! Christmas blessings to you. I hope to see you over at ..."

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow…. My ..."
"Let's defer to the experts (namely, the tract writers (tractors?) at Catholic Answers) for a ..."

Heaven Is For Real: Secrets Colton ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Bernard Fischer

    Instead of parsing a single statement of the Cardinal, what of his whole life? Did he take strong, unambiguous statements about the sanctity of life from conception to natural death? Did he admonish his flock to vote for life? Did he pray outside abortion clinics in his diocese? Or did he, by his actions, treat abortion as one issue among many? Not being from Chicago, I would like to know.

    • RUTH_ANN

      I’m from Chicago. I have a photo of my daughter, age 6 at the time, and the late Cardinal Bernardin, on my prayer room wall. I always read his columns in the Catholic newspaper, and on a few occasions I heard him speak. He was a holy man. What more is necessary? Furthermore, abortion, egregiously evil as it is, actually is one evil among many. Pope Francis has exhorted Catholics to be balanced about all the issues that deserve our attention.

      • Bernard Fischer

        The question is not whether he was a holy man, but whether he was soft on abortion. His supporters claim the “seamless garment” theory was taken out of context to give cover to pro choice / pro abortion Catholics. His detractors say he saw abortion as equal to every other social cause. So you can be bad on abortion, but good on unions and good on food stamps and still be a good Catholic because you have two out of three right. Is there a hierarchy of issues or are they all the same?

        So the question I have is, by his life which view did Cardinal Bernardin espouse?

        • RUTH_ANN

          My understanding of holiness is that the holy person believes and acts in accordance with God’s teachings and those of the Church. I think that says it all. And, yes, the holy person’s life will reflect that. Thing is, who sees and understands our whole life—inside and out? God, of course. No one else.

          What, exactly does it mean to be “soft on abortion?” All evil is evil, and there’s lots of it floating around! I don’t know if there is a hierarchy of evil. Maybe so. If so, I didn’t have to learn it during my elementary, secondary, and post-secondary Catholic education. Nor, have I heard such a hierarchy preached at Mass. I think it’s best to avoid all that is evil and strive for goodness. Be good. Do good. God will take care of the rest.

          • Bernard Fischer

            Thanks for your reply, but you still haven’t answered my question. I now where YOU stand, but I still don’t know where Cardinal Bernardin stood.

          • RUTH_ANN

            Oh. I see your point. I’m sorry I was unable to accommodate you. Good luck and God’s blessings to you on your journey to finding the answer which you seek.

          • oregon nurse

            There is a hierarchy of sin, i.e., venial and mortal. Isn’t that the same thing as hierarchy of evil? I also don’t see how the death of an innocent human being can be anything other than the worst of evils.

          • RUTH_ANN

            That sounds like a valid interpretation of venial and mortal sin. I, however, never heard that interpretation from an authoritative source, like the Catechism of the Catholic Church.