A refutation of the seamless garment theory

 This was written as an e-mail exchange between a parishoner and his parish priest.

 Dear Father,

I am coming to you as one of the sheep of your flock. I completely respect your spiritual authority, and I also respect your theological formation. However, I am legitimately confused about something.

     I asked you the question “Does the Catholic Church embrace the ‘seamless garment theory?’” You responded that the Church did, because we respect all human life. I remarked that the Catechism taught that, though the death penalty should be rare, it is never treated as an intrinsic, objective and absolute moral evil like abortion. I also pointed out that though JPII thought that the death penalty may not be needed at this point in our society (a prudential judgment) he did not ever say that there was no proper, moral application of the death penalty (objective moral standard). In other words, JPII acknowledged the death penalty could be moral under certain circumstances. Further, I told you Benedict XVI had said that “reasonable minds could disagree” on this issue. You responded with a statement that “reasonable minds” could disagree on whether it is moral to abort a baby with birth defects. This is the point in which I felt I might have not handled the situation best, so I dropped the issue. I apologize if I put you on the spot.

    That being said, I did want to provide some sources I believe to be definitive on the issue. Make no mistake; I am not saying it is wrong to pray for the end of the death penalty. That is not my point. Again, reasonable minds can disagree on that issue. The degree to which the death penalty is morally applicable in modern society is a prudential judgment. My point is, the Church has allowed for such disagreement on this issue where She has not allowed for it on issues defined as intrinsically, objectively and absolutely evil (i.e. Embryonic Stem Cell Research, Abortion, Euthanasia, Cloning, Homicide, and Suicide). In other words, we should not equate the issue of capital punishment with issues like abortion. It creates confusion, and is not theologically or historically accurate. The Church has never taught that abortion was acceptable under any circumstance. She has taught (and still teaches) that capital punishment is acceptable in certain (though rare) circumstances. And since the Church is infallible over matters of the faith and morality, it is impossible for a doctrine that was once taught as revealed truth to be contradicted later. Otherwise, we would have to acknowledge the Church once taught error, and therefore is not infallible.

      Let’s take a look at the relevant passages which come from the Catechism “promulgated by John Paul II.”

 2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. "The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one's own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not."

 Right here we see that society has recourse to a “legitimate defense” which does not contradict the prohibition against murder. Why? Because with murder, you intend to kill the person, whereas with self-defense your intent is not to kill life, but rather to protect it. Protecting life is an inherent good. The effect of attempting to preserve one’s own life may end up being that the aggressor dies, but since that was not the intent it is not murder. Nor is the person “innocent” if they are the aggressor. This paragraph is the foundation for why the Church can allow societies to protect themselves via capital punishment. It is also why we can never compare abortion, which truly is the intended “murder of the innocent” to capital punishment.

 2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one's own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:

If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one's own life than of another's.

Here we see that the defense of one’s own life is not “murder” even if a life is taken.

2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.

Here we see that the “defense of the common good” is not merely a “right but a grave duty.” In other words, there is a time where it may be necessary “ to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community.” This is also the basis of “Just War Theory.”

2266 The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people's rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.

Here we see the “defense of the common good” as it applied to Just War in paragraph 2265 applied to the “spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society.” What’s more is that society is given the authority to “inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense.”

2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically non-existent."

This is the nail in the coffin for the “Seamless garment theory.” Right here, JPII’s own Catechism says that “the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty.” Rather, what the Church says is that it should be “very rare, if not practically non-existent.” Thus, through Her application of Her own infallible moral principles, the Church has taught that we should seek other means wherever possible, except in very rare or unique cases. This is entirely different than the Church’s teaching on abortion. The Church teaches that abortion is always and in every situation an intrinsically evil act. The two should not be confused as the same, nor given the same weight when discussing issues of “life.”

   So, where did the “seamless garment theory” come from? Well, shockingly it is a relatively new invention, originating in our very own United States. Joseph Cardinal Bernadine (from Chicago) developed this theory in 1983. In my estimation, this theory was developed in order to allow Catholics to continue to vote for politicians who supported abortion, though Cardinal Bernadine himself said he did not intend it the way it has been used by partisans.


   The “seamless garment theory” has since been developed further by Douglas Kmiec who was a major player in the previous election (in which over 1/3 of our Bishops publicly spoke out against the pro-abortion record of our current President). This gets back to the reason I find this issue so important to discuss. There is a lot of confusion amongst Catholics over how to properly apply a Catholic lens to voting. Over 50% of Catholics voted for a man as president, who immediately upon being sworn in to office, declared executive orders allowing the federal funding of Embryonic Stem Cell Research and federal funding for international abortions. This is a man who promised Planned Parenthood that the Freedom of Choice Act (which would dismantle the “conscience clause,” mandate federal funding of domestic abortions, and do away with all state limitations on abortions) would be his first priority.

    The Catholic Church is not Republican or Democrat. She is simply…Catholic! We cannot justify voting for a party over our Catholic values. As Catholics we are definitely called to respect ALL human life, including the murderer. However, we must not confuse that with saying that convicting and sentencing a mass murderer to the death penalty is the same as murdering an innocent child in the womb. When we do this, we have lost the consistent moral/ethical foundation we were seeking in the “seamless garment.” Thus, we must be taught which values are most Catholic. Since the Catechism was clear on the distinction discussed, we must acknowledge the Magisterium has spoken.

  Additionally, Pope Benedict stated:

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia

Click here to view an article on war and capital punishment. 

   In this paragraph, Pope Benedict has clearly emphasized that there must be a different weight given to moral issues like “abortion and euthanasia” than “capital punishment or on the decision to wage war.” One would be a mortal sin and thus separate you from communion, whereas the Holy Father said “capital punishment or…the decision to wage war” would not prevent you from receiving “Holy Communion.” He concludes this paragraph emphasizing precisely the point I have made, “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.” I’d say the Holy Father has stated the Church’s position pretty clearly.

   Additionally though, the USCCB put out a document on Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship which gives more weight to some life issues than others (in the document #42, 43, 44, 45).

   This is one of the clearest statements from the document: “Not all issues are equal; these ten goals address matters of different moral weight and urgency. Some issues involve matters of intrinsic evil that can never be supported while others involve affirmative obligations to seek the common good” (#90).

   Thus, the USCCB makes clear that there is a certain hierarchy of moral weight and urgency based on the distinction between an intrinsic evil and something that should be sought for the common good.

   Human life is sacred. The dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. Direct attacks on innocent persons (remember the distinction we made earlier?) are never morally acceptable, at any stage or in any condition. In our society, human life is especially under direct attack from abortion. Other direct threats to the sanctity of human life include euthanasia, human cloning, and the destruction of human embryos for research. (#44)

   While acknowledging the noteworthy goal of seeking the end of all war, poverty and the death penalty, the document does not seem to confuse the idea that there are still potentially unfortunate circumstances where war (or perhaps the death penalty) could be necessary “as a last resort” (#45). The four listed in the paragraph above, however, involve matters of intrinsic evil that can never be supported (#44, #90)

Click here for the full document.

   Ultimately, I agree that we must work to end the death penalty. However, this will require reform of our criminal justice and prison systems that could be potentially impossible to achieve in the foreseeable future. In order for the death penalty to be entirely unjust (in every instance) in our society, we would need to remove the loopholes in the criminal justice system that allow murderers and rapists to get back on the streets. Otherwise, we are not respecting the dignity of the innocent human lives that will be taken when the murderer hits the streets again.

   Furthermore, as someone who has worked extensively with parolees, I can assure you that the culture of violence in the prison system necessitates potential recourse to the death penalty in order to “protect human life.” What else do you do with a murderer in prison when he keeps murdering in prison?

   Finally, our local Magisterium (Bishop Farrell in a joint statement with Bishop Vann) said:

“3. Therefore, we cannot make more clear the seriousness of the overriding issue of abortion – while not the “only issue” – it is the defining moral issue, not only today, but of the last 35 years. Since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, more than 48 million innocent lives have been lost. Each year in our nation more than one million lives are lost through legalized abortion. Countless other lives are also lost through embryonic stem cell research. In the coming months our nation will once again elect our political leaders. This electoral cycle affords us an opportunity to promote the culture of life in our nation. As Catholics we are morally obligated to pray, to act, and to vote to abolish the evil of abortion in America, limiting it as much as we can until it is finally abolished.

4. As Catholics we are faced with a number of issues that are of concern and should be addressed, such as immigration reform, healthcare, the economy and its solvency, care and concern for the poor, and the war on terror. As Catholics we must be concerned about these issues and work to see that just solutions are brought about. There are many possible solutions to these issues and there can be reasonable debate among Catholics on how to best approach and solve them. These are matters of “prudential judgment.” But let us be clear: issues of prudential judgment are not morally equivalent to issues involving intrinsic evils. No matter how right a given candidate is on any of these issues, it does not outweigh a candidate’s unacceptable position in favor of an intrinsic evil such as abortion or the protection of “abortion rights.”

Click here for the full document.

   I believe you had requested something from Bishop Farrell. It appears, based on the above text, he has also taken the position that more weight must be given to issues of intrinsic evil than of prudential judgments. Since he has spoken pretty clearly on the issue, I pray further discussions of this issue will take into consideration the distinctions made on the life issues as taught by Rome (JPII, Benedict XVI, and the Catechism), the USCCB and our local Magisterium. I believe making these clear distinctions will help to avoid further confusion of the laity. We must hear this from our priests. Thank you very much Father. God bless you!