Over at First Things last week, Prof. Robert George published a clever thought experiment. Prof. George, in case you don’t know, is one of the rarest of specimens these days – an openly and proudly pro-life, pro-family, and faithfully Catholic faculty member at an Ivy League university, in this case Princeton University.
In his article, however, Dr. George urges his readers to imagine what would happen if he suddenly began to insist that he is a “secular progressive.” Naturally, other secular progressives would immediately protest that he is no such thing, since he doesn’t support abortion, or the LGBT cause, or such things as the Obamacare contraception mandate. To which, Prof. George writes, he could very easily respond:
Hey, but I was educated by secular progressives. I went to Swarthmore, then Harvard, then Oxford: All secular institutions dominated by progressives. I teach at Princeton—super secular and progressive. I learned the secular progressive catechism. I know it by heart. I can quote it to you verbatim. My secular progressive teachers largely shaped who I am. I’m grateful to them every day for the fine education they provided. That’s part of my life, man.
And you know what else? It’s in my family! My maternal grandfather was a secularist. He was an anti-clerical Italian. He was even a freemason. I loved and adored that man. He was a big influence on me!”
Or, he adds, he might point out that, well, sure, he’s not strictly pro-choice, but he does believe in helping the poor, and reforming the criminal system, and treating immigrants humanely. And, after all, these issues are progressive, and in fact he believes they “are at the heart of what it means to be a secular progressive.” And so, it turns out he’s really a very good secular progressive after all! “And, by the way,” he might add, “who are you to question my secular progressive faith? I define who I am, not you.”
Biden’s Fluffy “Devout” Catholicism
It’s hard not to laugh at Prof. George’s article. Because it’s precisely the sort of hot air that Catholics hear all the time from supposedly “Catholic” politicians like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi. When pro-lifers point out that such stridently pro-abortion politicians are scarcely Catholic, they (and their supporters) will typically respond with a bunch of gobbledygook about how they went to a Jesuit school, or a school run by nuns, or how they’re actually very pro-life because they believe that everybody should be nice to other people. Or they might mention that their family has been Catholic for generations, and how important this Catholic cultural background is to them.
In fact, a video put out earlier this month by Joe Biden, touting his Catholic faith, is practically a parody of the approach that Prof. George was lampooning in his piece. In it, he begins by talking about a meeting he had with Pope Francis, and how when he left that meeting, he saw a group of nuns. Those nuns, he said, reminded him of the importance of “generosity to other people,” “reaching out,” and “making it a point to understand that we are our brother’s keeper.” This is what the nuns “symbolize to me,” he said.
This sort of thing has as much substance as a cream puff. Yet, the Democratic convention posted the article with this unironic comment: “This is the kind of moral conviction we need in the president of the United States.” However, there’s scarcely a person on earth, of whatever religion or belief system, who doesn’t agree that people should basically look out for and be nice to one another. If this proves that someone is a “devout” Catholic, or has some exceptional “moral conviction,” then we’ve set the bar way too low.
Phony Faith as a Political Tool
Meanwhile, questionably Catholic liberal publications are running interference for Biden, running pieces that valiantly attempt to prove that Biden’s faith runs deep, much deeper than most people give him credit for. Inevitably they dismiss his militant rejection of Catholic teaching on issues like abortion and marriage with a wave of their hands, instead emphasizing how Biden often invokes his faith when talking about issues like race, solidarity with the poor, and immigration.
Of course, Biden’s stance on these issues just happens to be a stance that comes with absolutely no political costs. And so, on these issues Biden can have his cake and eat it too: he can appeal to religious voters by claiming that his stance is somehow motivated by his “devout” faith, but he can simultaneously woo secular voters by taking positions they already agree with.
Interestingly, Biden never talks about how he would never “impose” his “religious beliefs” about immigration, or helping the poor, on other people. However, when it comes to abortion, he suddenly becomes very concerned about imposing his faith on others. “I accept my church’s position on abortion,” he claimed in a 2012 vice-presidential debate. “I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews.” Indeed, the moment Biden’s “devout” faith might lead him down a path that would cost him support among progressive Democrats, it seems it is always his faith that gives way.
Misusing the “Seamless Garment” to Ignore Abortion
Pro-Biden Catholic supporters inevitably attempt to justify Biden’s pro-choice and anti-family views with some garbled version of the so-called “seamless garment” theory. In its basic form, this theory simply notes that all moral issues are interconnected. Opposing abortion is one way to be pro-life, and so is working to stop war, or to end poverty, or racism.
Taken at face value, the seamless garment theory isn’t wrong. Moral issues are deeply intertwined. Philosophers as far back as Aristotle also spoke of the “unity” of the virtues. St. Augustine endorses a version of this idea in De Trinitate, when he notes that to the extent that a person possesses one virtue, he also in some measures possesses all the rest, since the virtues cannot be separated. As Cardinal Mueller put it in a 2015 talk, the “seamless garment” image is used, “to illustrate how Catholic moral teaching is a consistent whole – uniting ethical, religious, and political threads in a unified moral vision.”
Or, as the USCCB put it in their document Living the Gospel of Life:
Adopting a consistent ethic of life, the Catholic Church promotes a broad spectrum of issues “seeking to protect human life and promote human dignity from the inception of life to its final moment.” Opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care. Therefore, Catholics should eagerly involve themselves as advocates for the weak and marginalized in all these areas. Catholic public officials are obliged to address each of these issues as they seek to build consistent policies which promote respect for the human person at all stages of life.
No Excuse to Support Abortion
“But,” adds the document in a crucial clarification:
…being “right” in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the “rightness” of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community. (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 22)
And there’s the rub. In practice, liberal Catholics and other dissenters have tended to use the seamless garment image to blur the line between various moral issues, putting a lesser emphasis on those issues that they don’t happen to care about (i.e. abortion and euthanasia), or actively dissent from Catholic teaching on, while trumpeting their “Catholic” positions on other, more trendy issues (i.e. nuclear proliferation, the death penalty). Often, in fact, they will even claim that some pro-choice Catholic politician is really “pro-life,” because of his position on some other issue!
As Cardinal Mueller put it, some people use the seamless garment image in an “intellectually dishonest” manner,
…to allow or at least to justify turning a blind eye to instances of abortion, contraception, or public funding for embryonic stem cell research, as long as these were simultaneously accompanied by opposition to the death penalty or promotion of economic development for the poor – issues which are also part of the fabric of Catholic moral teaching.
We Must Re-sensitize People to the Violence of Abortion
It seems fair to say that Joe Biden is a master of this particular form of intellectual dishonesty. For instance, in a recent eulogy delivered at George Floyd’s funeral, Biden emphasized how he “grew up with Catholic social doctrine,” which taught him “that faith without works is dead, and you will know us by what we do.” We have to work, he said, “to ensure that all men and women are not only created equal, but are treated equally.”
Indeed, we do. But, we might well ask, how can we possibly ensure that all men and women are treated equally, if we are simultaneously promoting the murder of innocent children in the womb? That is like praising the right hand for saving lives, while the left engages in murder. Unfortunately, too many squishy Catholics are perfectly willing to give Biden a pass on his support for child killing, but will gush about his “Catholic” roots and “devout” faith, pointing to his “compassionate” positions on other, lesser issues.
In the end, the root of the problem is that people have become desensitized to the beauty of human life, seeing it merely from a utilitarian perspective, as a material commodity, and to the horror of abortion. Abortion is the violent, brutal killing of a living human being. That is simply a fact. The abortion industry, however, has become expert at “sanitizing” abortion, ensuring that when people talk or think about abortion, they talk or think about anything but a dead baby. This is why when referencing abortion, I always speak of it as a violent act against the unborn child and the mother. One dies and the other is wounded for life. The only reason anybody can view a politician’s support for abortion as just one, small, forgivable “plank” of their platform is because the abortion industry and the media have been so successful at drawing our attention away from the violence of abortion.
Abortion is the “Preeminent” Issue of our Time
I believe anti-lifers and progressives use the dishonest “seamless garment” approach to distract and divide us, making us feel ashamed for talking so much about one issue – abortion – while there are so many other important issues. Of course, there are other important issues. But Catholics have every reason to unashamedly defend the immutable dignity of every person, from its beginning to its natural end, and to hold politicians (especially self-proclaimed Catholic ones) to account on the foremost threat to human dignity and life today. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote: “An extreme sensitivity akin to a holy reaction is felt when attempts on life are made in the form of famine, war, and terrorism; yet, one cannot find this feeling of sensitivity when faced with abortion, which takes the lives of innumerable innocent beings.”
The USCCB recently reaffirmed Church teaching and confirmed their position in naming abortion as the “preeminent” issue of our time. As they wrote: “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed.” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, no 22)
Today’s world is filled with many social ills, which are interconnected and need to be fully addressed. But we cannot even begin to address the various forms of violence and degradation that afflict our society, if we do not first agree on the urgent need to stop the violent, deliberate, and widespread attack on the most innocent among us. As we cannot allow politicians to get away with claiming they are somehow “devout” Catholics because they once went to Catholic school, when they consistently oppose Church teaching on this most critical of moral issues.