When Cardinal Bernadin popularized the idea of the "seamless garment" back in the early 1980s, it looked a lot like a scheme to minimize the evil of abortion.
He later made clear that he never meant it that way, but there was no lack of people eager to exploit it. This caricature of the seamless garment, or "consistent ethic of life," shifted that uncomfortable spotlight away from this particular kind of killing. Sure, abortion was terrible, the reasoning went, but then so were lots of other things--capital punishment, nuclear warfare, and all manner of undesirable social and economic policies. Unless you were just as heavily invested in the eradication of all these other evils as you were in protecting unborn babies, you had no credibility in some people's eyes.
It reminded me of the little girl in The Incredibles resisting her mother's instructions to downplay her family's superpowers. Don't try to stand out, her mother urges her, because "everybody is special."
"If everybody's special, nobody's special," her daughter retorts. She has a point. If every cause is special, no cause is special. If every injustice is egregious, no injustice is egregious.
I've been rethinking my objections to the seamless garment idea (or its caricature). I haven't changed my mind about abortion. Not in the least. But now I see "seamless garment" thinking as the corruption, the twisting and watering down, of something altogether legitimate and crucial: the unity of the virtues, and its flip side, the unity of vice.
The Planned Parenthood videos that reveal representatives buying, selling, and haggling over the tiny organs of aborted children makes the unity of vice unmistakeale. It's horrible enough to kill babies, to sneer at the sanctity of their lives, and to sow seeds of bogus ambiguity about how some human beings count as persons and others don't make the cut. But then the buying-and-selling element is added. Should we divide up into two camps: those who decry the consumerism and those who decry the anti-family angle? Of course not. The point is not to measure merciless bloodthirstiness against cold, hard greed--it's that somehow it all goes together. It's all one: a seamless garment of evil. Evils don't compete; they feed on each other.
We're used to dividing ourselves into culture-war Catholics and social-justice Catholics. But you can't be blind to one kind of evil without it affecting your ability to see the other kind.
Those who chafe at Pope Francis' attacks on consumerism may need to take a step back and see that it's all of a piece. If the dignity of the person is your starting point, you see how it all goes together--the throwaway culture that damages the environment and is also behind sex trafficking and abortion. It's what inspires the enterprising young developers of the Tinder app, which lets you order a no-strings-attached "partner" with all the efficiency and convenience of a call to Domino's Pizza when the craving for a large pepperoni strikes.
It's right to draw attention sometimes to one evil and sometimes to another. And the hierarchy of goods is real: there's no deep-down moral equivalence among all goods and all evils.
But the seamless garment of evil is real, too.