A “Seamless Garment” Approach to Theological Ethics

Mark Gorman

In the early 1980s, Roman Catholic prelate Joseph Cardinal Bernardin urged a holistic approach to the ethics of life. Adopting an allegorical reading of John 19:23, Cardinal Bernardin said that Christians should treat life as a “seamless garment,” rather than dividing the garment into pieces and setting them against each other. While some took Cardinal Bernardin to be downplaying prolife advocacy for unborn children, many recognized that he was simply giving a label to Catholic social teaching. Thus the more recent 2015 papal encyclical Laudato si’, on the need for a Christian commitment to creation care, uses the word “integral” twenty-five times in the English translation, commending the kind of holistic framework of Bernardin’s “seamless garment.”

At the time that Bernardin introduced the phrase, “seamless garment” meant holding a consistently prolife position on issues of abortion and euthanasia as well as nuclear weapons, capital punishment, and poverty. Today the scope of this holistic life ethic might be expanded to articulate Christian positions, employing Christian reasoning, not only on environmental justice, as in Laudato si’, but also on antiracism or on human migration. A 2018 conference at Fordham University explored some of these possibilities and invited ecumenical and interfaith reactions to the “seamless garment.”

One of the reasons I find the “seamless garment” compelling is that it has much in common with the doctrine of divine simplicity, a central tenet of the Christian doctrine of God. In the doctrine of God, we affirm that God is loving, just, omnipotent, good, and so on. Divine simplicity means these different attributes of God do not constitute different parts within God’s life—a just part of God, or a loving part of God, for example. Rather, God is One, and the oneness of God means that God’s justice is God’s love, which is God’s goodness, which is God’s omnipotence. Negatively, we cannot set divine love, for instance, against divine power. Positively, we could say that Christians hold to a “seamless garment” doctrine of the divine attributes. In this light, a “seamless garment” ethic is less about taking the “right” stance on abortion or the death penalty and more about a living faithfulness to who we know God to be, and to what we know God to be like: the God of Life.

To the best of my knowledge, few Methodists have adopted the “seamless garment” approach, although the theological ethics of Stanley Hauerwas certainly has much in common with it. That’s a shame, because, despite what Randy Maddox and others have recognized as the “holistic” nature of our Wesleyan theological heritage, Methodism lacks a clearly articulated, consistent posture with respect to a wide array of social concerns. I say this as a United Methodist especially about United Methodism, but my sense is that it characterizes Methodism/Wesleyanism more broadly.

United Methodist social teaching, to the extent that there is one, can be found in three documents: the Social Principles, the Social Creed, and the Book of Resolutions. It can be challenging to find much consistency even within the particular issues addressed by these documents, let alone a consistency across diverse issues. Some parts of UM social teaching are so loosely worded as to allow or justify multiple conflicting positions; in some cases this ambiguity is intentional. Worse still, nearly everything in these documents feels ad hoc, with only a trivial grounding in theology or doctrine. As a consequence, UM social teaching tends to be selective, rather than holistic, and reactive, rather than proactive. This, in turn, in my experience, frequently leads to accusations that party politics are being smuggled into the church under the guise of Christian ethics.

This month is the annual March for Life, a time when the tensions and contradictions within UM social teaching are on full display, reflecting profound national disagreements in the US over abortion. With recent indications that the US Supreme Court may roll back or significantly narrow Roe v. Wade, now is a good time for Christians, regardless of denomination, to return to the “seamless garment.” The “seamless garment” ethic is one tool for Christians trying to resist being subsumed under the party politics that are playing out right now and will undoubtedly worsen should the Supreme Court act decisively. Whatever we might say, good or ill, about any particular political party, no party exists for the sake of a living faithfulness to who we know God to be, and to what we know God to be like.

Methodists and Wesleyans who desire to offer a holistic witness to the God of Life would do well to consider adopting, or adapting, the “seamless garment” for ourselves as a framework for a theological ethics reflective of the Christian doctrine of God: an ethics not of what we are for or against but of who God is and what God is like.

Posted Jan 10, 2022

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