Bench Memos

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The Seamless Garment--Again


The head of the U.S. Catholic Bishops conference–Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane–recently wrote to President Bush about Justice O’Connor’s successor. Skylstad said that it is not for the bishops to endorse or oppose specific nominees, and he is right: The Church’s pastors should articulate and defend the moral principles at stake in public affairs. They have no special competence when it comes to specifically applying those principles, and surely claim no expertise in jurisprudence. Bishop Skylstad’s letter nonetheless falls short in two important ways. First, on abortion. He calls for jurists who “pre-eminently” would protect human life from “conception until natural death, especially those who are unborn, disabled, or terminally ill.” Bishop Skylstad would have served the Church–and the nation–better had he had used the word “abortion”, and had he urged the president to consider it in more forceful terms. The letter further weakens the message on abortion by unfurling the well-worn “seamless garment.” This is the term Catholics use to describe it when their leaders water down the pro-life message by lumping abortion with other issues–as Bishop Skylstad does in his letter to Bush. He asked the president to consider “jurists who are also cognizant of the rights of minorities, immigrants, and those in need; respect the role of religion and of religious institutions in our society and the protections afforded them by the First Amendment; recognize the value of parental choice in education; and favor restraining and ending the use of the death penalty.” Not content with this laundry list Bishop Skylstad referred to other (unnamed) “fundamental matters,” too. But not to marriage or the family or to the homosexual insurgency or to Lawrence v. Texas, in any way, shape, or form. And that is, to put it very mildly, a real shortcoming in a message meant to identify the moral stakes in the coming appointment.


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