Richard Doerflinger

Richard Doerflinger

We sometimes hear that American Catholics are divided: Some advance the church’s teaching on abortion, others promote its teachings on peace and economic justice. And those factions are at war.

I seldom saw this among the bishops or their national staff, where I once served. We each had areas of expertise, but we knew we were advancing one vision of human dignity. But the divide can exist among Catholic activists who don’t work day by day alongside good Catholics committed to other issues.

In the 1980s, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin addressed this divide through a “consistent ethic of life” uniting the church’s opposition to abortion and euthanasia, to unjust war and capital punishment. These stances form a “seamless garment” of respect for life. Catholics specializing in one issue should respect and support those advancing others.

This message helped. It also ran into problems. Some pro-abortion politicians declared themselves “pro-life,” saying they support most of the seamless garment. Some Catholics reacted by attacking the consistent ethic itself for undermining the church’s effort to protect unborn children.


Cardinal Bernardin was grieved by this. He said the consistent ethic never justifies abortion, and he abandoned the term “seamless garment” because some used it to treat all issues as equally fundamental. But he had mixed success in healing divisions.

Pope Francis has championed, not a consistent ethic, but a call to dig deeper than ethics. We must get back to basics — appreciating how specific moral norms are grounded in God’s boundless love for each and every person — and our call to love and forgive others as God loves and forgives us.

Our faith calls us to uphold the human dignity of others, and that demands joint action for the common good. But I understand why Catholics don’t want partisan warfare in their parish.

From this openness to others, this openness to life, we can see how moral teachings are joined at their root.

For example, abortion and migration are seen as very different issues, dividing the secular political parties. One is a fundamental issue about directly taking human life; the other is often about the plight of people fleeing persecution and terrorism abroad.

But in both cases, the Gospel calls us to the same attitude: We must welcome the visitor, the neighbor whose very life may depend on us. “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (Heb 13:2).

Yes, the “unplanned” unborn child makes demands on parents, who need our help in meeting their responsibilities. Yes, we must stop terrorists from entering our country.

But as Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, a leading voice on immigration, says of abortion: “Not one of us … has the right to decide who can live and who can die and when that time will come.” And as professor Robert George, a prominent advocate for the unborn, says: “The way to fight terrorists is not to close our doors — or our hearts — to their victims.”

A consistent attitude of openness to others also demands that I love those who disagree with me — including Catholics who think their favorite issue is more urgent than mine.


Rank-and-file Catholics seldom fall into warring pro-life and social justice camps. They come to Mass for spiritual sustenance, an encouraging word, a haven from conflict. They see secular politics becoming a battleground and they want none of it. This leads many to cry: “No politics in church!”

Our faith calls us to uphold the human dignity of others, and that demands joint action for the common good. But I understand why Catholics don’t want partisan warfare in their parish.

If we advocates for life and justice want to involve more of our fellow Catholics, we should ask whether we are acting like party operatives or messengers for a Gospel of life and love.


Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.