Justice, Life, and the “Seamless Garment” Argument

One can oppose abortion while supporting morally licit forms of killing:

There are some believers – especially some Catholics – who seek to argue that the Christian should be “fully” prolife and oppose all killing – certainly things like capital punishment, along with things like abortion. Sometimes this is referred to as a “consistent life ethic” and the like.

But is this a fully biblical position to hold to? And is it morally and mentally coherent? I and many others – including many Catholic ethicists – believe it is not. I have discussed this matter before, but it keeps arising. So let me give it another hearing.

Here I want to just look at capital punishment and how it differs from abortion. One person recently came to my site seeking to make the “seamless garment” case. I get folks like this quite often. In this recent case I told the person:

I – along with so many others – am a social conservative and biblical Christian who fully agrees with the rightness of capital punishment. I strongly differ with those who want to push the claim that we should oppose abortion AND capital punishment. The two could not be more different: Abortion involves the unjust murder of the innocent while the death penalty involves the just killing of the guilty. So there is no moral equivalence here whatsoever. See here for more on this: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/02/21/difficult-bible-passages-james-213/

What I said there should really suffice, but let me tease it out further. First, as I have argued often enough, killing and murder are NOT the same. The Sixth Commandment proscribes the latter, but not the former. I have in some detail made the case for three biblically and morally licit forms of killing in previous pieces.

On self-defence, see this: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/12/20/self-defence-and-scripture/

On just war theory, see the many articles featured here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/category/war-and-peace/

And here are 23 articles making the biblical, moral and social case for the death penalty: https://billmuehlenberg.com/category/ethics/capital-punishment/

Second, as I have sought to argue elsewhere, there most certainly is a place for the death penalty in Catholic social teaching. Even some supporters of the seamless garment recognise this reality. See here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/05/05/killing-and-catholic-social-teaching/

Third, much of this has to do with the biblical concept of justice. Too often folks – including many believers – think that love and mercy somehow trump justice, or are more important. See the piece on James 2:13 above that looks at one such passage they appeal to. But let’s look at justice further.

Image of The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction
The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction by J. Budziszewski (Author) Amazon logo

One brilliant thinker who specializes in philosophy, politics and ethics, and strongly appeals to the teaching of Thomas Aquinas and natural law theory, J. Budziszewski is well worth appealing to here. He has penned many important volumes that could be drawn upon, but let me restrict myself to his vital 2009 work, The Line Through the Heart. In his chapter on capital punishment he writes:

Justice is giving each what is due to him. So fundamental is the duty of public authority to requite good and evil in deeds that natural law philosophers consider it the paramount function of the state, and the New Testament declares that the role is delegated to magistrates by God Himself….


So weighty is the duty of justice that it raises the question whether mercy is permissible at all. By definition, mercy is punishing the criminal less than he deserves, and it does not seem clear at first why not going far enough is better than going too far. We say that both cowardice and rashness miss the mark of courage, and that both stinginess and prodigality miss the mark of generosity; why do we not say that both mercy and harshness miss the mark of justice? Making matters yet more difficult, the argument to abolish capital punishment is an argument to categorically extend clemency to all those whose crimes are of the sort that would be requitable by death.


I ask: Is there warrant for such categorical extension of clemency? Let us focus mainly on the crime of murder, the deliberate taking of innocent human life. The reason for this focus is that the question of mercy arises only on the assumption that some crime does deserve death. It would seem that at least death deserves death, that nothing less is sufficient to answer the gravity of the deed. Revelation agrees. As Genesis instructs: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Someone may object that the murderer, too, is made in God’s image, and so he is. But this does not lighten the horror of his deed. On the contrary, it heightens it, because it makes him a morally accountable being. Moreover, if even simple murder warrants death, how much more does multiple and compounded murder warrant it? Some criminals seem to deserve death many times over. If we are considering not taking their lives at all, the motive cannot be justice. It must be mercy.


The questions to be addressed are therefore three: Is it ever permissible for public authority to give the wrongdoer less than he deserves? If it is permissible, then when is it permissible? Is it permissible to grant such mercy categorically?


Society is justly ordered when each person receives what is due to him. Crime disturbs this just order, for the criminal takes from people their lives, peace, liberties, and worldly goods in order to give himself undeserved benefits. Deserved punishment protects society morally by restoring this just order, making the wrongdoer pay a price equivalent to the harm he has done. This is retribution, not to be confused with revenge, which is guided by a different motive. In retribution the spur is the virtue of indignation, which answers injury with injury for public good. In revenge the spur is the passion of resentment, which answers malice with malice for private satisfaction. We are not concerned here with revenge.


Retribution is the primary purpose of just punishment as such. The reasons for saying so are threefold. First, just punishment is not something which might or might not requite evil (as, for example, it might or might not rehabilitate the criminal); requital is simply what it is. Second, without just punishment evil cannot be requited. Third, just punishment does not require any warrant beyond the requiting evil, for the restoration of justice is good in itself. True, just punishment may bring about other good effects. In particular, it might rehabilitate the criminal, it might physically protect society from him, or it might deter crime in general. Although these might be additional motives for just punishment, they are secondary. In the first place, punishment might not achieve them. In the second place, they can sometimes be partly achieved apart from punishment. Third and most important, they cannot justify punishment by themselves. In other words, we may not do more to the criminal than he deserves – not even if more would be needed to rehabilitate him, make him harmless, or discourage others from imitation. If a man punches another man in the nose, we may not keep him in a mental institution forever just because he has not yet become kind in spirit, nor may we kill him because we cannot be sure that he will never punch again, nor may we torture him because nothing less would deter other would-be punchers-in-the-nose. For these reasons, rehabilitation, protection, and deterrence have a lesser status in punishment than retribution.

I encourage you to read his entire chapter – indeed, his entire book. But I note that there is a fairly similar version of this chapter online: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2004/08/capital-punishment-the-case-for-justice

Let me finish with four more quotes on this (three of them from Catholics). They once again highlight the very real differences between the taking of life in capital punishment and in abortion:

“Capital punishment is obviously a ‘right-to-life’ issue. But it is often misunderstood. One could legitimately argue against both abortion and, on prudential grounds, capital punishment. But the two cases are not the same since the unborn child is innocent and the convicted murderer is not. One could therefore also legitimately argue against abortion and in favor of capital punishment. The liberal chic position today, however, is to oppose the killing of convicted criminals but to approve the killing of innocent children in the womb. It is a symptom of debased humanism to protest a murderer’s deserved punishment while acquiescing in the killing of innocents through abortion. The prudent use of the death penalty can emphasize, as no other penalty can, that malefactors are responsible for their own actions and that the deliberate, willful taking of innocent life is the most abhorrent of all crimes precisely because the right to life is the most precious of all rights.” (Charles Rice, “The Legitimacy and Prudence of Capital Punishment”) https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/legitimacy-and-prudence-of-capital-punishment-12014

“As Christians, we are not contradictory when we support the death penalty yet oppose abortion. Yes, both actions will end the life of a human being. But while the death penalty ends the life of a convicted murderer, abortion ends the life of an innocent baby. It is immoral for us to fail to see the difference between these two categories of humans. When I proclaim, ‘I am opposed to abortion”, what I am really saying is, ‘I am opposed to the unjustified killing of innocent human beings.’ This is the difference between taking the life of a fetal human and taking the life of a convicted killer. If I believed convicted murderers were innocent human beings, I would be opposed to taking their lives as well.” (J. Warner Wallace, “How Can We Be Pro-Life and Pro-Death Penalty at the Same Time?”) https://coldcasechristianity.com/writings/how-can-we-be-pro-life-and-pro-death-penalty-at-the-same-time/

“The failure of the ‘Seamless Garment’ was that, despite the explicit words of its founder, it was turned into a one-size-fits-all pro-life tee shirt that would fit those who were for abortion and euthanasia but be used to strangle actual pro-lifers who disagreed with others on what the Compendium calls ‘contingent questions.’ If there was consistency in the consistent ethic of life, it was largely political.” (David Paul Deavel, “A Seamless Garment That Fits”) https://crisismagazine.com/opinion/seamless-garment-fits

“Seamless Garment enthusiasts also state flatly that one cannot be truly pro-life if he is not both anti-abortion and anti-death penalty. This is worse than a comparison of apples and oranges; it is literally a comparison of grapes and watermelons. Once again, Seamless Shroud supporters ignore the central points of the comparison;

• The preborn baby has committed no harm against anyone, while those who receive the death penalty have been found guilty of the most heinous of crimes in most cases, many heinous crimes. Pro-aborts may argue that the preborn baby commits harm against the mother just by existing, but this heartless argument totally neglects the fact that intent is missing. Nobody who kills another person unintentionally will be sentenced to death – the crime may instead be manslaughter.

• The criminal has been tried by a jury, in front of a judge, and both ‘sides’ have presented evidence. The preborn has no jury, no judge, not even a charge (other than existing), and he is simply sentenced to death. He does not have the slightest chance of defending himself.

• Execution of a killer is a matter of utmost seriousness. It is true that some innocent people may have been executed, but it is also true that the ‘system’ has expended great efforts in discerning his guilt. On the other hand, almost all abortions are committed for the most trivial of reasons, as described in Chapter 87, “Statistics on Abortion.” If the same philosophy was applied towards crime, all of our jails would be empty, because the death penalty would be automatic for such petty crimes as larceny and DUI.

As evidence of this last point, every day in this country, more innocent unborn babies die than all the criminals executed in this country’s history! Abortion and the death penalty cannot logically be compared.” (American Life League) https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/seamless-garment-death-for-the-prolife-movement-9621

For further reading

I will need to post a separate reading list on this, but let me mention just one important volume on this:

Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment. Ignatius Press, 2017.

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17 Replies to “Justice, Life, and the “Seamless Garment” Argument”

  1. And God said to Abraham: “Kill and eat”. So then, how about the sixth commandment: “Thou shalt not Kill”? As such, it appears that the sixth commandment is at contradiction to “kill and eat”.
    As I understand it, the sixth commandment actually says ‘Thou shalt do no murder’ which actually applies to all life. In this, the separation is clear in that there is a great difference between kill and murder.
    The unborn child, as Bill says, is free from any blame or threat. In this, the killing of the unborn, unless it be a mortal danger to the mother, is murder and breaches the sixth commandment.
    John Abbott

  2. I think the issue here is whether capital punishment is always about ‘punishing the guilty.’ I do not think it is- there have certainly been cases of miscarriages of justice. And as someone who cares deeply and passionately about the right to life of the disabled, might I also point out that there are some very definite concerns about disability discrimination when it comes to sentencing decisions. I oppose disability discrimination when it comes to abortion and euthanasia and certainly when it comes to the death penalty as well.

    However, this is an academic argument when it comes to Australasia, Britain and Canada, where the death penalty thankfully no longer exists. Might I also point out the inconsistency in your argument? If one is pro-life, one cares for the rights of humans from the time of conception until natural death. Like abortion and euthanasia, capital punishment is not a form of natural death. Moreover, can you honestly blame disabled pro-lifers and their allies for feeling deeply uneasy about others sanctioning lethal injections when it comes to capital punishment, given some of the people involved are behaviourally and developmentally disabled in both instances? And when proponents of the death penalty set forth preconditions for the use of capital punishment, there is also a strong resemblance to establishing equally questionable criteria in the context of abortion. To many seamless garment proponents, both look morally unacceptable.

    There’s also the doctrine of original sin involved. It’s theologically wrong to say that the unborn child is somehow without sin, because sin came into the world with the Fall and as a consequence, sin is a constant throughout our existence. And when it comes to euthanasia, the affected individual is, or has been, a fully conscious individual who has sinned in their past. So the sinless individual argument does not really work in this context. And again, are all people subjected to capital punishment guilty?

    Finally, it is not only Catholics who are calling for the end of capital punishment across the world as well as abortion and euthanasia, or who believe in the seamless garment of life. There are also evangelical Protestant Christians who believe that the sanctity of human life should encompass those under threat from capital punishment and who also adamantly oppose abortion and euthanasia. Some of those people are conservative evangelicals and some conservatives are adamantly opposed to capital punishment. Some US Republicans have voted to end it.

    One suggestion occurs to me, Bill. You have been known to provide lists of contrasting authorities when it comes to theological issues. Might it not be possible to provide something similar when it comes to the death penalty?

  3. Thanks Rhona. All your objections I have covered often enough, some of them in this very piece. But if you care to see how one might respond to them even further, read on.

    As to wrongful convictions or “miscarriages of justice” I have already dealt with that at some length, so you can have a read here for starters if you want to learn more:


    Obviously one can oppose ‘disability discrimination’ while still fully supporting the divinely ordained death penalty, so that is just a straw man in this regard I am afraid. EVERY thing in a fallen world can be misused and abused – including Christianity itself – but that is no reason to jettison these things therefore.

    You are also wrong to accuse us of inconsistency. The Christian is not only concerned about life – he is also concerned about justice as I sought to argue in this piece. Both are to be promoted fully by the biblical Christian. They do not oppose each other but stand together. God has every right to take life, and he HAS delegated this authority to others, including the state. If it is God himself who set up the death penalty – and he has – then if it is not to our liking because we think we might be more loving or moral than God is, then we will need to argue that case with him! I for one do not think I am wiser or more compassionate than God is.

    It is the same with your dislike of what God has said as to “preconditions” or reasons for capital punishment. He has already told us that in places like Genesis 9:5-6 which is quoted in my article. Once more, I prefer to run with what God has said on this, and not think that I have a better take on things.

    And I never said the unborn child is without sin. We are all born with sin, and it is the work of Christ that deals with it. You simply are making a category mistake here. When I spoke of murdering an ‘innocent unborn child’ I of course meant it in the sense of how any court of law would consider it: they are NOT guilty of fraud or theft or rape or murder. In THAT sense they are legally innocent, but not in a theological sense of how we all stack up before God’s perfect holiness. In that latter sense, we are of course ALL guilty.

    Also, I never said only Catholics run with the seamless garment train of thought. What I clearly said was this: “some believers – especially some Catholics.” But even the terminology overwhelmingly comes from Catholics. For example, back in 1971 Boston Archbishop Humberto Medeiros spoke of “a consistent ethic of life”. And the “seamless garment” argument was given a huge boost by the Catholic prelate from Chicago Joseph Bernardin in 1983. It still is largely the preserve of some Catholic thinkers – although as I made clear, plenty of Catholics resist this argument, and prefer to run with the long-standing traditional Catholic social teaching on the death penalty.

    Finally, I did say say a biblio/reading list would be forthcoming, and yes that does/will feature pro and con works on the topic.

    So I am afraid thus far nothing you have said makes me want to change my mind in any way on this matter! But thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Indeed by taking an innocent life one has forfeited the right to one’s own life under the rules of justice. The attenuating factor is, of course, grace which must also apply under all circumstances.

    There must be absolute proof before the death penalty is even remotely considered and then the chances of repentance and rehabilitation must also be considered.

    Yes God has given us the right, as a society, to take the life of those who are incorrigibly wicked murderers but we will give account for our decisions.

  5. Thanks Michael, although most legal systems around the globe speak of guilt that is proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” since in a fallen world there is very little of anything that can be attested to with ‘absolute proof’.

  6. We need to remember the Biblical standards of justice.

    1. Presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
    2. Following on from 1 above: Protection of the innocent is ‘higher’ than punishment of the guilty on earth. Do not pervert justice to get a conviction.
    3. No partiality. Not to the poor. Not to the rich, etc.
    4. Eye-witness testimony. At least 2 independent lines of eye-witness testimony that stands after “diligent inquiry” and cross-examination. All the more important in an age when ‘deep fake’ is becoming a huge problem.
    5. If a witness is shown to be false, the penalty of the alleged offence must be applied to that false witness.

    Does a faithful adherence to the above mean that some murderers will get away with it and escape punishment? Sure, but only in this life. There is a Judgement coming!

    Do you agree? Have I left out anything?

  7. Thanks Douglas. One could add: Do not pervert justice by allowing the guilty to go unpunished. And of course another general feature of biblical justice is that of restitution. But I will need to pen more pieces looking at some of these broader principles of law and justice as found in Scripture.

  8. Actions have consequences, but the liberal chic position seems to be to divorce the two.

    Pregnancy is the consequence of sexual actions. Abortion is the ‘solution’ whereby the innocent son, daughter, or children conceived are subject to ‘capital punishment’.

    In thinking about it there is a perverse parallel to Jesus’ crucifixion in that said child(ren) is\are killed for the sins of their parents – or convenience in the case of married women not wanting children, and those involved are akin to the crowd baying for Jesus’ blood and wanting the freedom of Barabbas.

    Capital punishment is the (potential) consequence for committing a capital crime. While not always a guaranteed outcome, the liberal chic position is that blood for blood (or the shedding of a great deal of blood), is never justice – peculiar given their support for the innocent (abortion, euthanasia, even perhaps infanticide) being put to death.

  9. As regards Rhona’s point about guilt and miscarriages of justice, yes that can happen, such as when witnesses lie or prosecutors aim for a conviction despite knowing the defendant is innocent, but if the law is designed right and if no misconduct occurs, honest mistakes should not happen. Or must we abolish all laws and punishments because errors may occur some day?

    As for the disability argument for sentencing, I would argue the reverse. In Australia it is common for perpetrators to not be held accountable because they are ‘disabled’ due to their mother drinking so much alcohol while pregnant that the offender suffers fetal alcohol syndrome, or having an abusive, drug & alcohol affected home etc. Do victims and their families not deserve justice simply because the perpetrator has a sob story? Indeed couldn’t it be argued that disabled offenders guilty of the most heinous of crimes are more deserving of capital punishment because their inability to comprehend their wrongdoing means that society is limited to requiting evil or not, and physically protecting itself from evil or not? This is in contrast to the Nazis, some of whom did repent of the evils they’d done.

    If natural death is limited to aging or disease then no, capital punishment is not natural. But if it is considered the natural consequence of an individual’s actions it may be viewed as such. Sadly, justice for capital crimes does not exist in Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Canada, and a great many other jurisdictions. Why some disabled pro-lifers and their allies would be opposed to justice in the form of capital punishment is unfathomable to me. Nor do I comprehend how preconditions for the use of capital punishment could be equated with questionable criteria for abortion. How is justice and its conditions to be equated with abortion?

    Clearly not only am I not a seamless garment proponent, I struggle to see how such a position can be held by anyone giving more than superficial thought to the matter.

  10. Thank you Bill.

    Absolutely agree. (Whilst adhering to a ‘2 eye-witness standard’, beyond all reasonable doubt level of proof)

    Yes! Of course there is that in the case of non capital punishment cases – in my post I was considering the death penalty offences, but did not make myself clear.

    I look forward to more articles you pen on Biblical justice!

    Perversion of justice using deep fake evidence and/or AI is really scary.

    Still praying for you, as are many.

    God bless, Doug

  11. Thank you ever so much Bill. I needed this laid out for me. No more seamless garment for me.

  12. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this, Bill. I would add that while some conservative evangelicals do indeed support the death penalty, there seems to be a clear theological differentiation between Calvinists on the one hand and Anglican, Methodist and Lutheran conservative evangelicals on the other. While I deeply respect and admire some conservative Calvinist evangelicals like the late Francis Schaeffer (particularly over his contribution to raising awareness over the sanctity of life when it came to abortion), that particular theological tradition has some deepset problems with the temptation toward antinomianism within its constituency. The elect is viewed as “sinless” and predestined to be virtuous. One particularly infamous example over here in New Zealand was the Christian Heritage Party, led by a Reformed Church minister called Graham Capill. Although Aotearoa/New Zealand ditched capital punishment in 1961, the CHP kept campaigning for its reintroduction despite this, driving many potential conservative evangelicals and Catholics alike away from voting from it. Eventually, a rival conservative Christian party, the Christian Democrats, came into existence because of that. In 2005, Capill was convicted of pedophilia and imprisoned for six years. Yet, Capill was brought up in a conservative evangelical school in Christchurch, where his father was vice-principal for most of the seventies.

  13. Thanks again Rhona. I always find it curious when folks come along saying they ‘will agree to disagree’, as if it is the end of the discussion, but then they go on to argue some more! So three quick replies if I may. One, for 2000 years the overwhelming majority of believers and Christian leaders and theologians (including basically all the church fathers) supported the death penalty (well before there were any Methodists or Calvinists!). And for what it is worth, if you wanted to discuss mainline denominations which today are more likely to be theologically liberal, they would include the ones you mention, while those in the Reformed camp tend to be far more theologically conservative. Be that as it may, it is still the case that plenty of non-Reformed folks adhere to the traditional understanding on this issue. It has NEVER been just a Calvinist belief. See my new piece on this for example: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2023/08/14/jesus-justice-and-the-new-testament/

    Two, you will NOT get any sort of antinomianism coming out of any major Reformed figure that I am aware of. No one reading their works without an axe to grind can ever accuse them of that! Quite the opposite. They all made it perfectly clear that passages like Hebrews 12:14 are NOT mere advice but utterly essential for salvation. But this too is a straw-man argument and a red herring – it has nothing at all to do with how one views what Scripture says about the death penalty.

    And three, I of course know nothing of Capill. While the story might be of some interest, your use of it here does not constitute an argument of course! The implication is that those who believe in the death penalty will go on to become paedophiles! If we wanted to play that game, I am pretty sure we could find those opposed to the death penalty who have gone on to become paedophiles as well. But this of course is another logical fallacy, known as the genetic fallacy (rejecting a belief or argument because of who held it, or where it came from).

    So if you want to make your case here, you will have to do a bit better than this I am afraid. But thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

  14. Minor correction to Rhona’s Capill claim, he was not convicted of paedophilia, there is no such crime – paedophilia is a sexual orientation. Capill pled guilty to 3 charges – indecent assault, rape, and unlawful sexual connection against 3 girls under the age of 12.

    It’s also not quite accurate to describe him as a Reformed Church minister. Yes he became a minister of the Reformed Church of Dunedin in 1988, but a decade later was attending an Anglican church in Christchurch, though described himself as Presbyterian by conviction. He led the Christian Heritage Party from 1990-2003, briefly worked as a police dispatcher, then moved to police prosecutor at the Christchurch District Court. He was stood down early 2005 pending criminal charges. The actual offending occurred during the time he sought political office.

    Nor does capital punishment appear to be the reason for the Christian Democrat Party’s brief existence. Whereas the Christian Heritage Party was for Christians only, Graeme Lee, a former National Party member and cabinet minister, wanted a party promoting Christian\conservative values, not a party exclusively for Christians. The party was founded in 1995 but merged into the centrist United Party in 2003, which itself dissolved in 2017.

    Most of these details are quite easy to find, though I have a small advantage in that I recognise the name and know someone who knew part of the family – I forget whether it was a sibling and\or the Vice Principal father at the, then, evangelical school in Christchurch.

    This may not be relevant enough to the topic at hand to post here but possibly useful as background info to Rhona’s tangent.

  15. Thanks Bill. I agree with you that capital punishment should be brought back in for people like Ivan Mallet Killers will take a second thought before killing a person if capital punishment is brought back in and our society might not have things like 3 month old babies being raped to death or paedophilia like 4, 5 and 7 year old boys being used as sex slaves and satanic ritual abuse. The Australia One Party lead by Riccardo Bosi wants to bring capital punishment back in for these very reasons plus would the untested vaccines have being mandated if pharmaceutical company CEOs, Bill Gates etc allowed to put something on the market that may injure or kill a person if capital punishment laws apply.

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