Dolan and the Seamless Garment

Dolan and the Seamless Garment December 9, 2011

On December 6, Archbishop Dolan gave the inaugural lecture at Notre Dame for the Project on Human Dignity.  This new project is described this way:

The Notre Dame Project on Human Dignity wishes to take up the challenge of persuasively defining and defending human dignity through an ongoing series of speakers, symposia, classes, retreats, and special learning events for students.

I have not been able to find the full text of the speech the Archbishop gave, but a good summary was provided by CNS.   He discusses the idea of “human dignity” and refers to it as “one of the primary doctrines of the Church.” He argues that human dignity is intrinsic and not based on who we are or what we do:

“My identity, my personhood … does not depend on whether or not I have a green card, a stock portfolio, a job, a home or even a college diploma,” Archbishop Dolan said. “Nor does my identity depend upon whom I am sexually attracted to, or to race, religion, gender, social status, bank account, passport or health insurance, but on my essence as a child of God.”

He then draws some powerful conclusions from this perspective:

“If the preborn baby in the womb, from the earliest moments of his or her conception, is a human person — an ‘is’ that comes not from the catechism but from the biology textbook used by any sophomore in high school — then that baby’s life ought to be cherished and protected….If an immigrant from Mexico is a child of God, … then we ought to render him or her honor and a welcome, not a roar of hate, clenched fists and gritted teeth in response to the latest campaign slogan….If even a man on death row has a soul, is a human person, an ‘is’ that cannot be erased even by beastly crimes he may have committed, then we ought not to strap him to a gurney and inject him with poison.”

Here we see a solid line drawn connecting abortion, immigration policy and the death penalty through the lens of human dignity.  His conclusions seem remarkably categorical:  he is not looking for loopholes on the death penalty (e.g., that opposing abortion is about protecting “innocent human life” and so different); he fails to draw distinctions between legal and illegal immigrants.

What struck me as I was reading this was that he sounded remarkably like the late Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago, who more than two decades ago advanced the notion of the “seamless garment“.  Indeed, comparing the above remarks with the original speech by Bernadin, it is remarkable that Dolan seems much less cautious and nuanced that Bernadin.  (In fairness, as I said I cannot find the full text of the speech, so Dolan may have developed these ideas with more nuance than the above quotes suggest.)

Given the way in which Bernadin was excoriated in some quarters for this idea, particularly for any suggestion that abortion was in any way equivalent to other “life” issues, I find this speech quite remarkable.  I wonder if it represents a Catholic version of the “Nixon in China”:  just a Nixon, a hawkish anti-communist, was able to use this fact to buttress his opening to communist China, so perhaps Dolan, widely perceived as staunchly conservative and orthodox, is using this reputation to advance a position that would be condemned if were heard coming from someone to his left.

The Catholic blogosphere does not appear to contain any commentary on this speech:  are they ignoring it, unaware of it or unsure how to respond?   For my part, I am very happy, as we enter into another long and painful election cycle, that Archbishop Dolan has clearly articulated the unity of Catholic teaching on the dignity of human life.    Hopefully, his brother bishops and various Catholic pundits will follow his lead.


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