Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Catholic ethicist relates how respect for life is continuous teaching

By JEAN DRISKELL, Special to the Bulletin | Published February 23, 2017

ATLANTA—Cory Labrecque, Ph.D., presented a lecture on “The Seamless Garment of Life: Exploring the Catholic Church’s Ethic From Birth to Death” at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, on Jan. 23.

His lecture was hosted by the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory and sponsored by Stephen Crim. The presentation took place in the week of the 44th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions legalizing abortion, released Jan. 22, 1973.

A Catholic scholar, Labrecque, whose doctorate is in religious ethics, said the consistent ethic of life is a very pertinent topic in Catholic social and moral thought. He also said that it had great meaning in his own life.

Former students of Dr. Cory Labrecque attend his Jan. 23 lecture hosted by the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University. He spoke on the Catholic teaching on the consistent ethic of life. Shown (l-r) are Mark Gannott, Elizabeth Hibbler, Labrecque and Blair Ely. The former Emory professor now teaches in Quebec, Canada.

His lecture introduced his audience to the origins, development and criticisms of this “particular type of thinking on a very important issue,” which is the dignity of human life and the question of personhood.

He started with a story about his loving relationship with his grandmother and their journey of care when she developed Alzheimer’s disease. She went without speaking for two years before her death, but at one point during that time he said she opened her eyes and said, “God’s been good to me,” closed her eyes and never spoke again. This experience, he said, led him away from science and medicine to religion and ethics.

Labrecque is currently professor of ethics at Laval University, Quebec, Canada. He previously was Raymond F. Schinazi Scholar in Bioethics and Religious Thought and director of the master of arts in bioethics program at the Emory Center for Ethics. He served as co-director of Catholic studies at Emory.

He received a bachelor of science in anatomy and cell biology, a master of arts in religious studies with specialization in bioethics, and doctorate at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. He also served in the Diocese of St. Jean-Longueuil, outside Montreal, as a pastoral worker in catechesis.

Words spoken by Eileen Egan

Labrecque talked about the late Eileen Egan, a well-known Catholic activist and journalist, co-founder of the Pax Christi USA movement, who spent four decades working at Catholic Relief Services with a particular concern for protecting refugees and victims of war.

In a speech in the 1970s she said, “The protection of life is a seamless garment. You can’t protect some life and not others.”

“Immediately that image of the seamless garment stuck and held and started to develop within the Christian mentality,” he said.

The image, he said, comes from John 19:23-24 where, at the crucifixion, Jesus’ clothing was being divided by the Roman soldiers, except they casts lots for his seamless tunic.

“Before Eileen Egan, (seamless garment) has long been used as a symbol of Catholic unity in its moral doctrine,” Labrecque said. “This seamless garment as a symbol of unity unites all things under the dignity of the human life motif.”

He also said that first-century historian Josephus wrote about the seamless garment as the one attached to the role of the temple high priest. The seamless garment at Jesus’ crucifixion brings out this idea that Jesus, as High Priest, is making the ultimate sacrifice, he said.

“It becomes the symbol of unity and unbrokenness,” Labrecque said.

In the early 1970s, then-Archbishop Humberto Medeiros of Boston continued the language in a speech on “A Call for a Consistent Life Ethic and the Law,” Labrecque said. The speech said, “If we support the right of every fetus born, consistency demands that we equally support every man’s continuing right to a truly human existence.”

At the same time, two Ohio women, Pat Golz and Catherine Callaghan, who were active in the National Organization for Women, “had an issue with pairing together feminists’ principles and pro-abortion,” Labrecque said. They raised the concept that “if you’re feminists, you don’t have to be pro-abortion” and “started to argue against this motif,” he said.

He said Golz was asked to leave the Ohio Chapter of NOW and the two women started the organization Feminists for Life of America.

Labrecque quoted them: “FFL opposes ‘all forms of violence, including abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment, as they are inconsistent with the core feminist principles of justice, nonviolence, and non-discrimination.’”

Cardinal Bernardin’s lectures

Today the seamless garment is linked to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s lecture on the “consistent ethic of life” at Fordham University in 1983.

The cardinal was to speak on the U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter on nuclear war, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.” Labrecque said instead Cardinal Bernardin talked “about how nuclear war and the defense of human life in general is related to a variety of other issues.”

He spoke on “the role of the Church in public, moral discourse” and the need to dialogue with the world “as a sign of love for the world.”

In the lecture Cardinal Bernardin said, “The purpose of proposing a consistent ethic of life is to argue that success on any one of the issues threatening life requires a concern for the broader attitude in society about respect for human life.”

“Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us: the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker,” the cardinal’s lecture said.

The lecture received a mixed reaction—positive and negative—and is still being debated today, Labrecque said.

Laity, clergy, bishops “are divided on this issue,” Labrecque said.

“They are united on the fact that all humans are sealed with God’s image,” he said, but the division occurs because the consistent ethic of life seems to suggest a moral equivalency among issues, from abortion to the death penalty, from euthanasia to deprivation of food, medical care, shelter.

“Some people thought that all of these are very important but think that some things are gravely more important than others,” Labrecque said. “The Catholic Church does not have a list, but it certainly underlines the gravity of abortion and the gravity of euthanasia.”

Cardinal Bernardin gave another talk to address the criticism at St. Louis University in 1984. In that lecture, the cardinal said, “A consistent ethic does not say everyone in the Church must do all things, but it does say that as individuals and groups pursue one issue, the way we oppose one threat should be related to support for a systemic vision of life.”

“All people on both sides of the debate have agreed to this idea,” Labrecque said. “You can support one of these major issues, understanding that systemic vision of life that is unified in the Church without having to encapsulate it in the idea of the seamless garment.”

Who counts as a person?

Labrecque then brought forth the questions: Is there a difference between “human being” and “human person”? Who counts? Who decides who counts? Who doesn’t count? Who decides who doesn’t count?

He answered by presenting the concepts of physicalism and personalism, on the question of personhood.

“Physicalism says that you are a person if you are a human being,” Labrecque said. “The only criterion is humanhood, from conception to the end. We’re talking about a human being that is different from its parents. In the Catholic tradition we are physicalists.”

In this view the human being from the very moment of conception is also a human person, with rights.

On the other hand, “personalism,” Labrecque said, “is something we see in mainstream culture. This is the idea that you are a person cloaked with moral status if, and only if, you have certain capacities that you show and are actively functioning.”

He said personalists and scholars disagree on what functions determine personhood. Most mainstream scholars who hold the personalist perspective use self-consciousness and rationality as the two major criteria for personhood, he said.

The teaching of the Catholic Church does not agree with this concept.

In its instruction in 2008 on bioethical questions, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said, “The reality of the human being for the entire span of life, both before and after birth, does not allow us to posit either a change in nature or a gradation in moral value, since it possesses full anthropological and ethical status. The human embryo has, therefore, from the very beginning, the dignity proper to a person.”

And Pope St. John Paul II in 2004, speaking on the ethical dilemmas of those who are gravely ill, said, “I feel the duty to reaffirm strongly that the intrinsic value and personal dignity of every human being do not change, no matter what the concrete circumstances of his or her life. A man, even if seriously ill or disabled in the exercise of his highest functions, is and always will be a man, and he will never become a ‘vegetable’ or an ‘animal.’”

Rediscovering compassion

Labrecque said that the environmental encyclical of Pope Francis “is really a consistent ethic of life motif. It includes human dignity in the protection of the environment.”

Quoting from the encyclical, Labrecque said, “Every act of cruelty towards any creature is ‘contrary to human dignity.’”

The encyclical also said, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

Labrecque also quoted the words of Pope Francis in 2013 when he spoke in Lampedusa, Italy, where migrants drowned after trying in desperation to reach safe harbor in Europe.

“We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business.”

“We are a society which has forgotten how to weep,” Labrecque quoted the pope as saying.

Labrecque said, “This is a very powerful line. It is a challenge to our apathy in the face of injustice.”