On the Seamless Garment, and Catholics Writing About Politics

On the Seamless Garment, and Catholics Writing About Politics August 22, 2016

Meister Bertram von Minden, "Knitting Madonna"

Meister Bertram von Minden, “Knitting Madonna”

There is a species of reader who always seems to know better than you what ought to interest you and what you ought to say. Just as often, this reader (or Facebook denizen) knows all the things a writer like you should not bother with.

I get e-mails with the instructions, “Hey, Alt! You should write a post about the Johannine comma!” or “Hey, Alt! Did you see this stupid thing that Mr. Y posted at the-pope-is-the-antichrist.com? You ought to refute that!” One would think I took were a DJ, or an impressionist, and took requests.

Or people will say, “Hey, Alt! Stop writing all these wild attacks on Mr. Trump! I liked you better when you wrote about Catholicism!”

Or, more ominously: “Be careful, Alt, you’re becoming like one of Them. Lots of people have stopped following you, you know, you’ve been brainwashed by Shea, you’re in it for the big Patheo$ buck$, people are shaken—shaken to the core!—it’s ugly.”

What I marvel at in all this is the idea that there is some sort of distinction between writing about Catholicism and writing about politics. It is as though these were separate spheres that ought never intersect, as though the Church—or lay Catholic writers—should never have anything to say about politics or voting. This would have surprised St. Augustine.

It is not thus, of course; no one honestly believes such nonsense. The real meaning, when someone says “Write about Catholicism, not politics,” is: Gee, you know, when you write about politics, you are just wrong, so don’t do that; write about the kind of thing I will agree with.

But the Church teaches us about the moral dimension of politics all the time. It leaves us latitude, to be sure; we can apply those moral concerns in different ways; the Church does not dictate every last detail or every last policy; it is licit for Catholics to disagree about political questions.

But let us not pretend that we’re talking about something separate from Catholicism when we talk about politics.

When Judge Andrew Napolitano said, “Hey, Pope Francis, stick to saving my soul, not my pocketbook,” he really meant something different from “The pope should not interfere in politics.” What he meant was, “I like capitalism, so don’t trouble me about its evils.” If the pope had spoken about the evils of Marxism, Napolitano would not have been troubled in the least.

Mr. Napolitano gave the pope the same order earlier this year, telling him that he should stay out of politics when it comes to Mr. Trump. Somehow I doubt Mr. Napolitano would have had similar instructions if the pope had had bad words to say about Mrs. Clinton.

Likewise, when people say to me, “Hey, Alt! Don’t write about politics so much, write about Catholicism,” they mean something more along the lines of, “Don’t trouble me by speaking ill of Mr. Trump.” If I wrote something about the evils of Mrs. Clinton, those same people, I suspect, would not bewail my focus on politics. They might even commend me for my firm stand against an abortion supporter; they might give me accolades for my firm adherence to Church teaching. (As though I am adhering to something different when I oppose Mr. Trump—neohoodooism perhaps. )

I am just speculating.


This is really a post about the seamless garment. Once more the laygisterium is hard at work on Facebook, condemning it as heresy. This time the anathemas were flying in the comments to a post that was all about how Mark Shea’s dismissal from the Register was the fruit of many holy novenas. (Will Simcha be next? Let us pray.) Now, I do believe that schadenfreude is a mortal sin (CCC 2539); but not to worry, confessionals are open, and opportunities for Plenary Indulgences abundant, in this Year of Mercy.

(The author of that post, to my utter amazement—or maybe not to my amazement—is a priest, Fr. Richard Heilman. Fr. Heilman spends a great deal of his time advertising himself as “Trump’s prayer warrior” and telling us that we ought to “wrap Trump in prayer.” I wonder if anyone has told him he ought to knock it off with the politics and get back to saying Mass and hearing confessions. I’d be interested to know.)

In any case, the Seamless Garment, according to one commenter, “regularly ignores the massive evil of abortion to take on minute issues.”

Let’s say we are torturing terrorists, let’s say a high number: 10 a day, every day, for the past several years. Even if that is the case, 200x that number of children are being slaughtered. Not at all the same.

Several things are amiss here, and one of them is that this is not at all what the Seamless Garment says. The Seamless Garment does not say that all moral issues involving the sacredness of human life have the same gravity. For behold, the wicked and abominable Mark Shea himself has made that wery point, and with great specificity, here. The idea “that the death penalty is just as intrinsically immoral as abortion, or that the minimum wage is just as grave a question as euthanasia” is a “parody” of the Seamless Garment. It is not the Seamless Garment itself. So says the wicked and abominable Mr. Shea.

Even Cardinal Bernardin himself said that wery thing.

[N]uclear war threatens life on a previously unimaginable scale; abortion takes life daily on a horrendous scale; public executions are fast becoming weekly events in the most advanced technological society in history; and euthanasia is now openly discussed and even advocated. Each of these assaults on life has its own meaning and morality; they cannot be collapsed into one problem, but they must be confronted as pieces of a larger pattern.

Not even Bernardin believed that all issues had the same weight or the same gravity.

No, the error is the belief that, because abortion is such a grave issue, I may disregard all else and—for example—become a single-issue voter. I can vote for the person who promises with a great flourish to end abortion across the land, and all else be damned.

The error is the idea that one life is of less worth than sixty million lives. In fact, they are equal.

The existence on earth of abortion does not give us a license to ignore the failure of employers to pay a just wage, or waterboarding, or unjust warfare, or the plight of refugees. Although the one issue has a different moral weight than the others, the Second Vatican Council, in Gaudium et Spes, reminds us that we are to be attentive to all of them.

At the same time, however, there is a growing awareness of the exalted dignity proper to the human person, since he stands above all things, and his rights and duties are universal and inviolable. Therefore, there must be made available to all men everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom even in matters religious. …

In our times a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of every person without exception and of actively helping him when he comes across our path, whether he be an old person abandoned by all, a foreign laborer unjustly looked down upon, a refugee, a child born of an unlawful union and wrongly suffering for a sin he did not commit, or a hungry person who disturbs our conscience by recalling the voice of the Lord, “As long as you did it for one of these the least of my brethren, you did it for me” (Matt. 25:40).

Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator. (GS 26-27)

In this context, John Zmirak is wrong when he claims that the Seamless Garment is a “poison pill to kill off the pro-life movement” and attributes such a scheme to Cardinal Bernardin and the wicked and abominable Mr. Shea, whom no one may countenance. Both acknowledge that abortion and euthanasia have a greater moral weight than, say, the death penalty or an unjust wage.

The danger is not that the Seamless Garment will “kill” opposition to abortion; rather, the danger is that opposition to the Seamless Garment will make abortion and euthanasia the only moral issues involving the right to life, and all the rest be swept under the rug under the guise of “prudential judgment.”


Because the practice of politics involves important moral considerations, Catholics ought to be writing about politics. This does not mean that they will always come to the same conclusions; the Church gives latitude for conscience and for applying the same moral considerations in different ways.

I suspect that many incorrectly think that, if a Catholic writes about politics, he is instructing others on what they need to believe, or how they need to vote, in order to be good Catholics. In fact, he may be doing no more than expressing his own opinion and working out the moral questions for himself. Expressing an opinion the Church allows is not the same as binding others to the same opinion.

This does not mean that certain moral considerations are negotiable. But it does mean that there needs to be charity, as well as open-mindedness to persuasion (imagine that!), when someone has a different point of view on a political question.

And charity works both ways. To express an opinion does not, by itself, imply that someone who has a different opinion is a disobedient Catholic. Those who are anti-Trump need to receive the same charity that those who are pro-Trump demand for themselves.

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