When the late Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago first articulated the concept of the "seamless garment of life issues" two decades ago, liberal Catholics embraced it enthusiastically, as requiring a heightened moral seriousness on the part of American Catholics, a transcending of single-issue politics to a recognition that a broad range of public issues involve the sanctity of human life. Not only was the proposal considered a moral advance on the anti-abortion movement, liberals also predicted that it would make the anti-abortion stance itself more credible, as it became apparent that Catholics genuinely revere human life in all its stages.
Many anti-abortion activists were sceptical, even dismayed, by the proposal, fearing that it was an attempt to distract Catholics from the primacy of the abortion issue, that it might even lend legitimacy to the pro-abortion stance by broadening the definition of "pro-life." As these critics pointed out, there was no concrete political constituency for the "seamless garment." As a guide to voting, it was useless, since there were few candidates for office who espoused the consistency which Cardinal Bernardin insisted was required.
In theory liberal Catholics have remained anti-abortion, even as they demand that the issue be considered in a larger context. But liberal Catholics' response to the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade this year revealed that abortion is an issue which they can scarcely face in a forthright manner, that in effect they have to be counted as pro-abortion.
The National Catholic Reporter is the principal organ of American liberal Catholicism and for almost forty years has functioned as a battering ram against the full range of Catholic teachings, one of its fundamental premises being that the hierarchy of the Church is dishonest and addicted to power, protecting and defending doctrines and practices which the modern world has rendered untenable. Locked into that rigid stance, the paper's formal acceptance of the Catholic teaching on abortion has always been an uneasy one. The paper devoted a good part of its January 17 issue to an assessment of the situation thirty years after Roe v. Wade.
The direction of the discussion was set by John Cavanaugh O'Keefe, a pro-life activist with long connection to the political left, who pronounced the pro-life movement a failure. However, in the overall context of the NCRs stance the point was not to urge pro-lifers to a renewed commitment to their cause but precisely to sound a retreat. In ostensibly friendly fashion, the paper warned pro-lifers that they were wasting their energies and ought to turn to other things.
Although pro-lifers of course regret their failure to achieve their ultimate goals, the movement has had a profound effect on American society scarcely even noticed by the NCR's writers. The movement has successfully blocked most kinds of public funding of abortion and has finally achieved legislation to prohibit partial-birth abortions. Under the Bush administration the United States is practically the only Western nation strongly opposed to governments and international agencies promoting abortion throughout the world.
Above all the movement has kept the issue alive in the United States, in contrast to most other Western countries. One reader pointed out that the NCR itself had quoted pro-abortion activists warning that the "right" to abortion hangs on a slender thread in America, and the paper acknowledged that public opinion on the issue is deeply divided. Thirty years of officially sanctioned abortion, as well as unrelenting pro-abortion propaganda in the media, have not moved the public to a full acceptance of the practice.
Calling the movement a failure, however, relieves liberal Catholics of any lingering burdens of conscience, in that they can affirm their commitment to the cause while at the same time excusing themselves from what they pronounce to be an unrealistic struggle. …