Recently I stayed with a friend in her comfortable, airy country house. Dottie is a collector. Among a jumble of art objects depicting dogs, camels, and fish, her home is particularly saturated with images of birds. You can’t glance in any direction without your gaze falling onto a winged creature. There’s a magnificent colored stained-glass window of swallows in flight. The front door encases a frosted-glass scene of doves resting on tree branches. Needlepoints of orioles, watercolors of nuthatches, and paperweights of black-chinned sparrows nestle around the room.
The bathroom wallpaper has a strip of rosy-throated birds cheerfully dancing above the sink. Blackbirds encircle the mirror. On the toilet tank, a tiny felt cat improbably cradles a little felt bird in its arms like a baby. A real nest is filled with speckled candy eggs, presided over by a yellow plastic bird. A ceramic hummingbird perches on a dish, offering individually wrapped guest soaps. A huge fat robin carved of a block of wood crouches near the shower floor, fretfully watching you bathe.
Behind the back porch door is a loaded gun. Dottie keeps it there to shoot the woodpeckers that riddle her house with their incessant drilling. She also shoots at the herons who feed in her koi pond. She keeps an enormous dog trained to react to the first sign of wild turkeys on her property.
I don’t mention to Dottie the irony of adorning her home with multitudes of lovely fake birds while being intent on killing or repelling the real ones that show up on the grounds. But this is how we people are. We may be nuts about the idea of birds, but not every species is necessarily welcome. I myself put out feeders for hummingbirds in my yard and am maddened when the finches drink them dry. Our inconsistency is one of our more consistent traits. We can all be very judgmental of people who are critical of others and scarcely notice the discrepancy.
Every October is Respect Life month in the Catholic world. This isn’t to say that we disrespect life for the other 334 days of the year. Rather, this month we’re invited to focus on the ways we honor the gift of life in all of its forms. We also reflect on how we may be neglecting our stewardship of this fundamental privilege.
Of course by now most of us appreciate that respecting life doesn’t end with the unborn. Those already born are equally precious in God’s eyes. When Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago chaired the Pro-Life Activities Committee of the U.S. Bishops in 1983, he fostered a commanding definition of being pro-life that involved a “seamless garment” of life issues.
The seamless garment metaphor originates in John’s gospel (19:23), where it describes the tunic worn by Jesus. At his crucifixion, this garment is gambled for since it’s woven of one piece from top to bottom and can’t be easily divided among the soldiers.
Catholic pacifist Eileen Egan is credited with the first use in 1971 of the seamless garment as a reference to the protection of human life. Like the tunic of Jesus, life issues are of one piece and can’t be separated without the whole premise unraveling. Archbishop Humberto Medeiros of Boston used the same metaphor later that year. Later, staff writer Father J. Bryan Hehir incorporated the term “consistent ethic of life” into the language of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
By the time Cardinal Bernardin began promoting the seamless garment approach to the value of life, he was convinced that the two greatest evils afflicting the human race were the specter of nuclear war and the casual embrace of abortion. Yet, he said, “The spectrum of life cuts across the issues of genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare, and the care of the terminally ill.”
Bernardin acknowledged that these issues are distinct. Each requires its own moral analysis. They may not carry the same moral weight in every circumstance. Yet each contributes to the overall cheapening of life and together put the acceptance of the sanctity of life in jeopardy.
Clearly, Cardinal Bernardin didn’t invent the thesis that our respect for life must be integral and consistent. He himself notes that, 20 years earlier, “in a single sentence, the Second Vatican Council condemned murder, abortion, euthanasia, suicide, mutilation, torture, subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, and disgraceful working conditions.” It could be argued that Jesus demonstrably promoted the forgiveness of sins, the sheathing of swords, the love of enemies, the welcome of the stranger, and justice for all in the kingdom coming.
Since Bernardin’s time, the notion of a seamless garment of life issues continues to grow. In the 20th century, the threat of nuclear war apocalyptically loomed over the nations. Today, it would be impossible to speak of life issues without beginning with the imminent danger posed by climate change. We have to talk about all the ways we normally do business: heating our homes, lighting our offices, running our cars, growing our crops. A consistent ethic of life has to challenge our throwaway culture, the byproducts produced in manufacturing, even the composition of our diets and what it costs the planet that we consume so much meat.
Catholic leaders after Bernardin—including, most notably, Pope Francis—have added more urgent appeals against capital punishment and the injustice of our present ratios of incarceration. Modern warfare can no longer hide behind a mantle of “just cause,” since the present terms of warfare too easily lead to the obliteration of whole cultures and peoples. Racist structures that are built into the normal operation of our society must be dismantled and white privilege confessed, repented, and relinquished. Pope Francis also warns that climate change will lead to an increasing crisis of migrants and refugees, whose welcome and welfare must also be factored into what it means to be a people who stand for life.
In plain English, being pro-life has to mean we’re for life in all of its miraculous permutations and combinations. If we take scissors to the seamless garment, snipping out the parts that don’t appeal to us or concern us—justice for the LGBTQ community, literacy for girls as well as boys across the globe, affordable housing for all, antisemitism—our claim to respect life quickly unravels. We can’t love some birds and shoot others and consider ourselves good enough in our avian appreciation. No matter how many lovely carvings we collect on our shelves, the gun behind the door tells the real story.
Does this make every voting season complex and challenging for those who champion the pro-life ethic? You bet it does. We have to assess the present moral dangers facing our world and our society and act on them. This will require prayer and reflection, study and information, discussing the options with trusted spiritual guides, and attending to the teachings of the church as well as to the voice of our informed conscience. Like everything else about discipleship, being pro-life isn’t as simple as checking a box. The more our discernment costs us, the more valuable and genuine it will likely be.
Read more Testaments:
- At a dining room for the unhoused, a glimpse of God’s justice
- What is St. Paul’s ‘holy kiss’?
- Scripture interpretations are never set in stone
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