Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Bishop McElroy’s variation on the ‘seamless garment’ theme

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 14, 2020

Bishop Robert McElroy says that Catholics should not be single-issue voters. He packages a familiar argument—that abortion is not the only key pro-life issue in this year’s political campaigns—in an attractive new form: “To reduce that magnificent, multidimensional gift of God’s love to a single question of public policy is repugnant and should have no place in public discourse.”

Bishop McElroy acknowledges that abortion is always gravely immoral, and that “candidates who seek laws opposing intrinsically evil actions automatically have a primary claim to political support in the Catholic conscience.” Exactly. So then why not opt for candidates who oppose abortion? Bishop McElroy, following the “seamless garment” line advanced by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and the late Governor Mario Cuomo, explains that politicians who oppose abortion might have different ideas on how to curtail the killing:

While a specific act of abortion is intrinsically evil, the formulation of individual laws regarding abortion is not,” he said. “It is an imperative of conscience for Catholic disciples to seek legal protections for the unborn. But whether these protections take the form of sanctioning the doctor or the pregnant mother, whether those sanctions should be civil or criminal penalties, and the volatile issues pertaining to outlawing abortions arising from rape, incest and danger to the mother are all questions of deep disagreement among advocates wholeheartedly devoted to the protection of unborn children. Like the issues of fighting poverty and addressing climate change, the issue of abortion in law and public policy is a realm where prudential judgment is essential and determinative.

Okay. So if a politician disagrees with pro-life lobbyists on the proper legislative path to ending abortion, he should not forfeit all Catholic support. Fair enough. But suppose (just to take a hypothetical example) a presidential candidate not only refuses to outlaw abortion, but promises to preserve free and unrestricted access to the procedure, pledges to guarantee government subsidies, welcomes support from the abortionists’ lobby, vilifies those who seek legal restraints on the practice, and plans to ensure that every American citizen and institution will be involved in paying for abortions? When applied to the actual political situation in America today, Bishop McElroy’s argument relies on a transparent fiction: the polite nonsense that this candidate is merely looking for a different way to advance the pro-life cause.

If you suffer from persistent headaches, and one doctor recommends medication while another calls for proper diet and exercise, you can easily see that while they take different approaches, both are trying to help. But if a third doctor proposes to hit you on the head with a sledgehammer, don’t kid yourself that he has made a different prudential judgment. He’s trying to kill you. If a politician wants to argue with you about how to help women with problem pregnancies, hear him out. But if he proposes to shut down pregnancy-help centers and throw sidewalk counselors in jail, don’t insult my intelligence by pretending that he may doing his best to advance the pro-life cause.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: christosvoskresye5324 - Oct. 20, 2020 5:43 PM ET USA

    I think a part of this comes from the assertion that we each have the duty to, through the ritual of voting, assert before God and man that either the Republican nominee or the Democratic nominee is fit for the office. To choose the lesser evil is still to choose evil, which is both sinful and stupid -- stupid because if you do not demand an actually good candidate, but only a "lesser evil", that's all you'll ever get, worse and worse lesser evils.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Oct. 16, 2020 4:56 PM ET USA

    No wonder he was invited by Notre Dame...birds of a feather...mistaken together.

  • Posted by: 1ornative2826 - Oct. 16, 2020 4:51 PM ET USA

    Abortion is NOT a single issue - everything we are and do and believe is based on how we view and value life. If you believe the life of an innocent child is of no consequence, how can anyone expect you to treat anyone's life with respect? Electing someone to public office that believes abortion is a "right" couldn't be more wrong and that elected official can't be trusted with anyone's life.

  • Posted by: FredC - Oct. 16, 2020 4:19 PM ET USA

    The Oct 15-28, 2020 Arlington Catholic Herald, Page 13, reports that Bishop Burbidge “reaffirmed that ‘the threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority’” Respecting life means upholding the dignity of all persons, including the elderly, those with disabilities, the inmate, the immigrant, the marginalized, and the most vulnerable “as well as in our confronting other serious threats to the dignity of all persons, such as racism and poverty.”

  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 15, 2020 10:05 AM ET USA

    "Act of abortion is intrinsically evil, but the formulation of individual laws [allowing millions of] abortions is not." Stalin made this observation, "One death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic."

  • Posted by: Cory - Oct. 15, 2020 7:56 AM ET USA

    But that kind of reasoning is probably beyond McElroy's capacity to understand.