In anticipation of the meeting the president would have with Pope
Benedict at the end of the G-8 summit, Obama held a small roundtable of
selected Catholic media representatives to engage some ideas and
questions. He tried to emphasize the influence former Chicago Cardinal Bernardin had on him in his younger years of community organizing.

Obama said his encounters with the cardinal continue to
influence him, particularly his “seamless garment” approach to a
multitude of social justice issues.

We have been through this before,
but it’s important to keep engaging that line of reasoning when it’s
raised because so few Catholics understand its fallacy. Bernardin wrote
in the NCRegister:

“I don’t see how you can subscribe to the consistent ethic [the seamless garment logic] and
then vote for someone who feels that abortion is a ‘basic right’ of the
individual.” He went on to say, “I know that some people on the left,
if I may use that label, have used the consistent ethic to give the
impression that the abortion issue is not all that important anymore,
that you should be against abortion in a general way but that there are
more important issues, so don’t hold anybody’s feet to the fire just on
abortion. That’s a misuse of the consistent ethic, and I deplore it.”

A year later, in a talk Bernardin gave, he said this:

The primary intention of the consistent ethic of life
[the seamless garment], as I have articulated it over the past six
years, is to raise consciousness about the sanctity and reverence of
all human life from conception to natural death. The more one embraces
this concept, the more sensitive one becomes to the value of human life
itself at all stages…

This consistent ethic points out the inconsistency of defending life in one area while dismissing it in another.

And yet Obama continues to promote the seamless garment logic as one
that treats all important issues equally. He probably knows about these
clarifications by Bernardin. But since so few Catholics do, he can
still misrepresent that teaching and use it to his advantage.

Especially since he has such strong support from so many Catholic
Americans, for whom the faith is likely something close to that
articulated by, say, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for example. Carl Olson
has this thorough examination of it at Ignatius Insight.

But you can’t fool Benedict, so Obama engaged him in a respectful exchange
of concerns over world affairs and critical concerns for humanity. That
much was expected, but the press was hoping the pope would pretty much
endorse Obama’s views.

However, a Vatican statement released soon after the
Friday meeting indicated that the Pope had spoken directly into a
discussion of issues involving the sanctity of human life, on which
Obama differs markedly from the Catholic Church. The Vatican said that
the “cordial” conversation “turned first of all to questions which are
in the interests of all and which constitute a great challenge for the
future of every nation and for the true progress of peoples, such as
the defense and promotion of life and the right to abide by one’s
conscience.”

The conversation also touched upon embryonic stem-cell research, and the Pope gave his guest a copy of Dignitas Personae,
the Vatican document that explains the Church’s teaching on cloning,
stem-cell research, and in vitro fertilization. Obama promised to read
the document during his flight to Ghana.

The Pontiff and the American president also spoke about the quest
for peace in the Middle East, concern for the environment, and efforts
to relieve poverty.

Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Vatican press office,
told reporters that the Pontiff was impressed by the American
president. Father Lombardi emphasized in his own comments to reporters
that President Obama had spoken at length about his commitment to
reduce the number of abortions performed in the US.

No explanation here of how he proposes to do that while expanding
access to them through the Mexico City policy, with taxpayer funding.

But he went off to Ghana with a signed copy of the pope’s new encylical Charity in Truth, and the last-minute add-on of Dignitas Personae (the Dignity of a Person). 

Maybe now he understands Cardinal Bernardin’s consistent ethic better.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....