Moral Relativism: The Danger of the “Seamless Garment” Mentality
Proclaim the truth and do not be silent through fear.
~St. Catherine of Siena
The resurgence of the dangerous “seamless garment” mentality should cause us grave concern. In its most pernicious form, this philosophy holds that grave intrinsic evils like contraception, abortion and euthanasia and social problems like poverty, immigration, health care and the environment are morally equivalent. It is dangerous because it distracts the Church from recognizing the intrinsic evil (“wrongness”) of certain moral acts and their deadly consequences, leading souls astray and paralyzing our ability to respond effectively.
The “seamless garment” philosophy also diverts attention from individual sin and culpability by focusing more on “collective” than personal sin. Under its influence, instead of a prophetic voice “crying out in the wilderness,” the Church becomes just another non-governmental organization (NGO), striving for “social justice” via a socially acceptable version of social reform eviscerated of the Gospel message of repentance.
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God…
Repent, and believe in the gospel. – Mark 1:14-15
‘Seamless Garment’: A Smokescreen
While the Church teaches that there are moral and social issues that are of greater gravity than others, the “seamless garment” mentality is a form of moral relativism that bulldozes these crucial moral distinctions. It is a philosophy that provides the death peddlers with the tools for deflecting attention from the abhorrent evils plaguing humanity and our cultures.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who advocate this philosophy tend to concentrate the heat of their outrage on the “collective” social ills (poverty, environmental degradation, etc.), while giving (at best) lip service to grave contemporary intrinsic evils like abortion or the demolition of marriage. To quote George Orwell, for proponents of the “seamless garment,” it sometimes seems that some moral issues are “more equal” than others. Usually the issues deemed “more equal” also happen to be more socially acceptable, and don’t demand deep personal conversion of heart.
Pope John Paul II clearly identified the inherent contradiction of this philosophy, when he wrote:
Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights – for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture – is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination. –Christifideles Laici, ¶38
Sadly, the influence of this mentality has stifled the courageous and unwavering preaching of the Gospel of Life from pulpits and classrooms for decades. John Paul II directly confronted this mentality with numerous Church documents like Evangelium Vitae and Veritatis Splendor. To see its ugly head reemerge is unsettling.
This mentality has aided in numbing the moral conscience of Catholics around the world. Priests are afraid to preach the Gospel of Life because of the backlash they will receive if they reference the evils of contraception, abortion, homosexual acts, fornication and euthanasia, instead preaching about fashionable issues that are far less controversial (i.e. the environment) – ignoring the violent assault on human life and its dignity, marriage and the family.
However, within Catholic social teaching there is a hierarchy of truths. Abortion and euthanasia, for example, are clearly condemned as direct assaults against innocent and vulnerable human life. They are among some of the greatest atrocities and injustices affecting humanity. To place these evils on equal par with other social issues – unemployment, poverty, homelessness – fails to represent the full spectrum of the Church’s moral and social teaching.
Some Evils Are Intrinsic Evils
Indeed, the crucial distinction that advocates of the “seamless garment” often carelessly fail to make is that between acts which are evil by their very nature (intrinsic evils), and therefore always sinful if carried out with knowledge, and more complex social problems. These latter, while at times posing serious threats to the dignity of human beings, are nevertheless caused by a variety of causes, with human sin only playing one part.
Fortunately, on this complicated issue the Church guides us and offers us counsel in the formation of our consciences and moral lives. She teaches that there are three elements of morality, which every moral act consists of: the objective act – what we do; the subjective goal or intention – why we do the act; and the concrete situation or circumstances in which we perform the act. In order to have a morally good act, all three must be good.
There are acts, which in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object: such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it. – Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶1756
Intrinsically evil acts are those that fundamentally conflict with the moral law – in other words, their moral object is evil. They can never be performed under any circumstances, and it is a serious sin to deliberately endorse or promote any of these actions. For instance, the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes it poignantly clear that an intrinsically evil act cannot be justified simply because the person performing it intended good to come of it, or because of the surrounding circumstances.
Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act, intrinsically evil by virtue of its object, into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice. – Veritatis Splendor, ¶81
The US Catholic Conference of Bishops in their pastoral Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship also makes it abundantly clear that not all issues are equal:
Our focus is not on party affiliation, ideology, economics, or even competence and capacity to perform duties, as important as such issues are. Rather, we focus on what protects or threatens the dignity of every human life… Not all issues are equal… Some involve intrinsically evil acts, which can never be approved. Others involve affirmative obligations to seek the common good (¶92).
In the case of abortion, the moral object is the intentional termination of innocent human life. As such, it is an intrinsic evil, and can never be justified. Homosexual acts and same-sex unions are also intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral due to an evil moral object – the deprivation of the marital act, which is unitive and procreative.
Church Leaders Giving Confusing Messages
Sadly, we live in a world in which countless millions of unborn babies are slaughtered every single year, direct attacks on the elderly and the vulnerable are growing daily, and powerful forces are concertedly seeking to undermine the truth about sexuality and the family. In light of this, the Church’s role ought to be blindingly clear – to preach the truth of the Gospel and the Church’s moral teachings, no matter the cost.
Instead, we are seeing a growing number of Church leaders giving confusing messages about the moral evils of contraception, abortion, euthanasia, homosexual acts and “same-sex marriage.” Instead of helping inform the conscience of their flocks and protect individual souls and the common good from the consequences of such evils, they minimize these atrocities by comparing them to other social problems. They refuse to explicitly identify these evils for what they fundamentally are: grave, intrinsic evils, which pose the most serious danger to the salvation of souls and the future of humanity.
The “seamless garment” mentality turns our attention away from the persons murdered by the violence of abortion and euthanasia and tries to focus our gaze upon institutions and social structures, which are always secondary. Like so many other culture of death tactics, the “seamless garment” is meant to divert attention from its evil acts and diffuse our efforts, making us ineffective. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be fooled.
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing email@example.com.