The Catholic Vote: The Seamless Garment Again


Our national election is upon us, or depending upon when you’re reading this, may have just taken place. Conventional wisdom has it that the Catholic vote made the difference and was responsible for the election of Bill Clinton four years ago. This time it is saying that the Catholic vote may well determine the election again. Why did Catholics, who are opposed to abortion which is a major issue, give majority votes to Bill Clinton, the most pro-abortion president in our history?

The answer lies in the seamless garment. This was introduced by Cardinal Joseph Bernadine. It entailed naming a list of about sixteen social issues. These included abortion, homelessness, poverty, problems in countries overseas, capital punishment, nuclear disarmament, and others. The seamless garment placed all of these issues on an equal plane and, in effect, gave them equal weight when a citizen decides upon his or her vote.

Assuming this is done, one then could reason that a candidate could be “right” on many of these issues and be wrong on abortion. But the fact of being right on so many of them could outweigh the negative of his or her pro-abortion position. Therefore, a pro-life Catholic voter could vote for the pro-abortion candidate with a clear conscience. To grossly understate the impact of this, we can only say that there were legions of traditional Democrat Catholics, both laity and religious, who used this type of rationalization to allow them to vote for a pro-abortion candidate such as Bill Clinton. This same rationale may well guide the votes of many Catholics today. In his defense, we recall that Cardinal Bernadine did clarify this and noted that the abortion issue was the most important of these various issues. In actual practice, this fell in many cases on deaf ears.

More recently we have had very definitive instructions by Catholic authorities on this issue. The one was a statement by the assembled American Catholic bishops in November of 1988. Another was an encyclical letter by Pope John Paul II entitled The Gospel of Life. Both of these unequivocally stated that you could not level all of these issues and give them equal weight. Both of these major statements emphasized the prioritization of abortion. Abortion is more important than any of the other issues, Catholics were told. In fact, it’s more important than all of the other issues put together. It is obvious, e.g., that you can’t be homeless if you haven’t been born in the first place. Therefore, for Catholics who will listen, this is authoritative teaching that should form their thinking in the voting booth.

The charge of single-issue voting has been thrown at pro-lifers. Understand, single-issue voting has an honorable tradition in this nation. It dates back to slavery. It was an acceptable practice during the Vietnamwar, the nuclear controversy, by labor unions, farmers and other interests. But when it began to be practiced by pro-life people, it was rather quickly given a bad name by the public media. It’s best not to use the term. Rather, let’s speak of “disqualifying issue.” Let’s assume for a moment that the Nazi holocaust was still occurring, and a candidate stood up to say he was permissive of this. Universally, people would say this candidate, by virtue of this evil position, was simply disqualified from holding public office, regardless of what other merits that person might have. It is the same with the abortion holocaust. If a candidate is in favor of the direct killing of almost every third baby conceived in America, and very probably wants you to pay for it, by virtue of that position, that candidate is disqualified from holding public office.

And so to Catholics who are listening, think long and hard before you consider voting for a pro-abortion candidate. Consider what the Pope and the bishops have said. Search your conscience. Pray about it. This is a profoundly serious, moral issue.

A Bishop Speaks
Bishop James McHugh, Rockville Center, Long Island, sent a letter to all his priests September 21. It stated, “No pro-abortion public official or candidate is to be invited to address Catholic agencies, organizations, school or parish groups, even if he/she does not intend to express their pro-abortion viewsÂ… The reason for this is that it would be foolish and counterproductive to provide a platform to those who favor or support a public policy of abortion-on-demand or of euthanasia or assisted suicide. It would also be extremely misleading to provide such persons a platform to promote their views, even on other issues, lest they claim that the Church somehow implicitly tolerates their rejection of Church teaching on pro-life issues.” The directive, which was “to take effect immediately,” was not limited to politicians. It noted that “Those who are pro-abortion or claim to be personally opposed to abortion, but unwilling to integrate their moral principles with civic responsibilities, are not to be given leadership positions in the diocese, parish, or other Church agencies or organizations, nor should they exercise any liturgical ministry.” He further stated, “Parishes and other diocesan agencies or organizations should not bestow public honors or privileges of any type on such persons.” The directive bans abortion supporters from speaking at graduation ceremonies, celebrated lectures, or from sitting as honorary chairpersons of events such as fundraisers. His letter resulted in the cancellation of 19 candidates’ forums previously set up by Catholic Charities. Bishop McHugh has long functioned as a Vatican representative to the United Nations.

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