The 'seamless garment' may wear thin in the age of the laity

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 14, 2015

Recently in this space I argued that Archbishop Blaise Cupich of Chicago had pushed the “seamless garment” argument much too far, by suggesting that support for the death penalty is morally equivalent to dismembering unborn babies and offering the parts for sale. This is—or should be—a familiar point. Some actions, such as the deliberate destruction of innocent human life, are intrinsically evil; they can never be justified under any circumstances. Other actions, such as the punishment of criminals or the regulation of immigration, are subjects for prudential judgments; different actions may or may not be morally justifiable under different circumstances.

Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute makes this point in an essay for Catholic World Report, but then adds another useful point. Prudential judgments on political issues, he reminds us, are the province of the laity. The Church magisterium sets out the moral principles, but it is the laity—more specifically, the lay people in public office—who have the responsibility to study the situation and make the appropriate judgments to put those principles into operation. Gregg explains:

In short, contra the consistent ethic, at least as formulated by Cardinal Bernardin, it’s not the responsibility of Catholic bishops—including, one might add, the bishop of Rome—to engage in the process of evaluating the multifaceted contingent details, competing sets of empirical data, and information yielded by the social and natural sciences that is required to make a determinatio concerning the most optimal ways of addressing genuine problems such as homelessness, environmental degradation, unemployment, or gun-violence: problems to which there are many possible right answers.

Since Vatican II we have been instructed frequently that this is the “age of the laity.” It would be appropriate, then, for prelates to recognize the fields in which lay people hold primary authority. This is not to say that bishops and priests cannot criticize political leaders. They can—just as you can and I can. But in criticizing political judgments, they should not claim political authority.

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: feedback - Aug. 14, 2015 11:35 PM ET USA

    Abp Cupich actually helped to expose major inconsistencies (could we say, holes?) in the "seamless garment." When the discussed topic is abortion he changes it to immigration, or to unemployment, or to gun violence. However, when he discusses immigration, or unemployment, he never mentions abortions, as the "seamless garment" would require. Then it becomes evident that the allegedly "flawless" moral garment is full of holes on the seams.