Thursday, April 21, 2011

Reprint of an Article by Pro-Choice Catholics

Abortion and Catholic Thought: The Little-Told History

This is a summary of Catholics for a Free Choice publication The History of Abortion in the Catholic Church.
Reprinted in the Autumn 1996 issue of Conscience

Most people believe that the Roman Catholic church's position on abortion has remained unchanged for two thousand years. Not true. Church teaching on abortion has varied continually over the course of its history. There has been no unanimous opinion on abortion at any time. While there has been constant general agreement that abortion is almost always evil and sinful, the church has had difficulty in defining the nature of that evil. Members of the Catholic hierarchy have opposed abortion consistently as evidence of sexual sin, but they have not always seen early abortion as homicide. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the "right-to-life" argument is a relatively recent development in church teaching. The debate continues today.

Also contrary to popular belief, no pope has proclaimed the prohibition of abortion an "infallible" teaching. This fact leaves much more room for discussion on abortion than is usually thought, with opinions among theologians and the laity differing widely. In any case, Catholic theology tells individuals to follow their personal conscience in moral matters, even when their conscience is in conflict with hierarchical views.

The campaign by Pope John Paul II to make his position on abortion the defining one at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 was just one leg of a long journey of shifting views within the Catholic church. In the fifth century a.d., St. Augustine expressed the mainstream view that early abortion required penance only for sexual sin. Eight centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas agreed, saying abortion was not homicide unless the fetus was "ensouled," and ensoulment, he was sure, occurred well after conception. The position that abortion is a serious sin akin to murder and is grounds for excommunication only became established 150 years ago.

A brief chronology cannot do justice to the twists and turns of theological thinking through the centuries. It can, however, put the abortion debate within the Catholic church into historical perspective and show the importance of continued debate and of open hearts and minds.
The First Six Christian Centuries
Early Christianity: Moving Away from Paganism

Pagan religions had a calm acceptance of abortion and contraception, including the use of barrier methods, coitus interruptus, and various medicines that prevented contraception or caused abortion.

Early Christian leaders, distinguishing Christianity from pagan beliefs, developed ideas about contraception and abortion, marriage and procreation, and the unity of body and soul. They taught that sex even for reproduction was bad and sex for pleasure heinous. Chastity became a virtue in its own right.

100 a.d.: The Debate Begins

One of the earliest church documents, the Didache, condemns abortion but asks two critical questions: 1) Is abortion being used to conceal the sins of fornication and adultery? and 2) Does the fetus have a rational soul from the moment of conception, or does it become an "ensouled human" at a later point? The matter of "hominization" — the point at which a developing embryo or fetus becomes a human being — would become one of the cornerstones of debate about abortion, and it remains a subject of debate even today.

St. Augustine: Early Abortion Is Not Homicide

St. Augustine (354-430) condemned abortion because it breaks the connection between sex and procreation. 1 However, in the Enchiridion, he says, "But who is not rather disposed to think that unformed fetuses perish like seeds which have not fructified" — clearly seeing hominization as beginning or occurring at some point after the fetus has begun to grow. He held that abortion was not an act of homicide. Most theologians of his era agreed with him.

In a disciplinary sense, the general agreement at this time was that abortion was a sin requiring penance if it was intended to conceal fornication and adultery.
The Middle Period: 600 -1500

circa 675: Illicit Intercourse is a Greater Sin

The Irish Canons place the penance for "destruction of the embryo of a child in the mother's womb [at] three and one half years," while the "penance of one who has intercourse with a woman, seven years on bread and water."2

circa 8th Century: Recognizing Women's Circumstances

In the Penitential Ascribed by Albers to Bede, the idea of delayed hominization is again supported, and women's circumstances acknowledged: "A mother who kills her child before the fortieth day shall do penance for one year. If it is after the child has become alive, [she shall do penance] as a murderess. But it makes a great difference whether a poor woman does it on account of the difficulty of supporting [the child] or a harlot for the sake of concealing her wickedness." 3

1140: Abortion of an Unformed Fetus Is Not Homicide

In 1140, Gratian compiled the first collection of canon law that was accepted as authoritative within the church. Gratian's code included the canon Aliquando, which concluded that "abortion was homicide only when the fetus was formed."4 If the fetus was not yet a formed human being, abortion was not homicide.

1312: "Delayed Hominization" Confirmed

The Council of Vienne, still very influential in Catholic hierarchical teaching, confirmed the conception of man put forth by St. Thomas Aquinas. While Aquinas had opposed abortion — as a form of contraception and a sin against marriage — he had maintained that the sin in abortion was not homicide unless the fetus was ensouled, and thus, a human being. Aquinas had said the fetus is first endowed with a vegetative soul, then an animal soul, and then — when its body is developed — a rational soul. This theory of "delayed hominization" is the most consistent thread throughout church history on abortion.5
Pre-Modern Period: 1500 - 175

1588: Abortion's Penalty Becomes Excommunication

Concerned about prostitution in Rome, Pope Sixtus V issued the bull Effraenatam (Without Restraint) and applied to both contraception and abortion, at any stage of pregnancy, the penalty designated for homicide: excommunication. There was no exception for therapeutic abortion.6

1591: Rules Quickly Relaxed

Only three years after Pope Sixtus V issued Effraenatam, he died. His successor, Gregory XIV, felt Sixtus's stand was too harsh and was in conflict with penitential practices and theological views on ensoulment. He issuedSedes Apostolica, which advised church officials, "where no homicide or no animated fetus is involved, not to punish more strictly than the sacred canons or civil legislation does."7 This papal pronouncement lasted until 1869.

1679: Pregnant Girls Facing Murder by Their Families

Consistently, abortion had been considered wrong if used to conceal sexual sins. Taking this idea to its extreme, Pope Innocent XI declared abortion impermissible even when a girl's parents were likely to murder her for having become pregnant.

The church was still teaching delayed hominization, sure only that hominization occurred some time before birth.
The Modern Era: 1750-Present

1869: Excommunication for All Abortions

Completely ignoring the question of hominization, Pope Pius IX wrote in Apostolicae Sedis in 1869 that excommunication is the required penalty for abortion at any stage of pregnancy.8 He said all abortion was homicide. His statement was an implicit endorsement -- the church's first -- of immediate hominization.

1917: Doctors and Nurses Targeted

The 1917Code of Canon Law, the first new edition since Gratian's code in 1140, required excommunication both for a woman who aborts and for any others, such as doctors and nurses, who take part in an abortion.9

1930: Therapeutic Abortions Condemned

In his encyclical Casti Connubii (Of Chaste Spouses), Pope Pius XI condemned abortion in general, and specifically in three instances: in the case of therapeutic abortion, which he called the killing of an innocent; in marriage to prevent offspring; and on social and eugenic grounds, as practiced by some governments.10

Pius's stance on abortion remains the hierarchical view today. The encyclical Casti Connubii did not purport to be infallible teaching, but as an address by the pope to the bishops, it carries great authority.

1965: Protection from the Moment of Conception

The Second Vatican Council, in Gaudium et Spes (section 51), declared: "Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception; abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes." Here, abortion is now condemned on the basis of protecting life, not as a concealment of sexual sin.

1974: The "Right-to-Life" Argument

In 1974, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith issued the "Declaration on Procured Abortion," which opposes abortion on the grounds that "one can never claim freedom of opinion as a pretext for attacking the rights of others, most especially the right to life." The key to this position is that the fetus is human life from the moment of conception, if not necessarily a full human being. With this position, the church has fully changed the terms of its argument.

Today: Abortion Ban Is Absolute

The Catholic church hierarchy today does not permit abortion in any instance, not even in case of rape or as a direct way of saving the life of a pregnant woman.

1.St. Augustine, De nuptiis et concupiscentia, 1.15.17 (CSEL 42.229-230).

2.John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance (New York: Octagon Books, 1974), pp. 119-120.

3.McNeil and Gamer, p. 225.

4. John T. Noonan, ed., The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), p.20.

5.Joseph F. Donceel, S.J., "Immediate Animation and Delayed Hominization," Theological Studies, vols. 1 & 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), pp. 86-88.

6.Codicis iuris fontes, ed. P. Gasparri, vol. 1 (Rome, 1927), p. 308.

7.Ibid., pp. 330-331.

8.Actae Sanctae Sedis, 5:298.

9.Codex iuris canonici, c. 2350.

10.Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 22:539-92.


  1. What I found interesting about this article is that Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas both held a similar theory of "delayed ensoulment". Buddhism generally does not talk in terms of soul, but has an idea of a radiant point that does anchor in the heart beat place and is a focal point for a "primordial presence" (awareness resting in awareness as awareness). There are differences, some of them may be revised as our biological and physiological understanding of fetal development grows. But both views question the zygote formation as the key point in ethical consideration of the fetal rights.

    My sense is that the bardowa would need the fetus to develop the main energy channel from the crown chakra to the heart chakra (and the whole tube down to the sacrum really), have the heart beat powerfully enough to generate a certain kind of magnetic field, and enough higher brain activity to create a certain kind of "self reflection". The formation of the zygote by itself would not be enough to anchor this.

  2. Footnote2: I have been having a curious experience with looking up the references to books, letters, and writings that were footnoted in the articles like the above. I have been going over the internet for its source of online books, found about 1,000 pages of text that Saint Augustine wrote, from CONFESSIONS, to ON GENESIS,to quite a few other books, but have been trouble finding ON EXODUS, and then the same trouble trying to find the specific letter of Saint Jerome that was quoted. There is a summary of the letter, but not then content. There was one book that I did find, but the indexing was different, and another time the text was not found translated from the Latin.

    I like to quote source material and in large enough chunks, and with enough repeated references, if possible, to show that an opinion was held by a number of people, each who sometimes contributes to their own difference perspectives and sides to the opinion.

    I like to get a substantial feeling of understanding of what is going on about an issue this way. It has been harder than usual to accumulate and represent an opinions this way. The internet style on both sides of an issue seems to be to quote smaller chunks with smaller "word-bytes", sometimes with a quick, not so nice, denouncement of the opposing side. Most of the denouncements, in fact all of the ones that I found so far, have been from the anti-abortion side to the pro-choice side. I am not saying that there is no denouncement going on the other way, but that I have just not bumped into one yet, and I have been going through at least 100 sites at this point in my study.

  3. Footnote3: It seems from the pro and con positions online that there is an agreement that Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas both held belief in the "delayed ensoulment theory" first proposed in written form by Aristotle. This is no surprise, since Saint Thomas uses the basic logic and metaphysics of Aristotle as his starting point and general language, and essentially "christianizes" Aristotle's viewpoint. It seems that Nancy Pelosi and the "Catholics for Pro-Choice" are behind a number of articles, with some of the source material quotes by other sites. I have been wading through a number of articles that attack her for holding the position that she holds. She seems to like linking herself with the position held by Saint Augustine, and "staying by it". The articles against her either agreeing that she is right Saint Augustine held a similar view and then saying both were wrong, or saying that her position is different from Saint Augustine and saying that she is wrong, or saying that she is not acknowledging the teaching authority of the cardinals in this matter and is even wrong for presenting a contrary opinion, and presuming that she should not be a theologian and should stick to her job. I actually do admire her stance in that she is taking a doubly unpopular opinion as a pro-choice liberal Catholic. I do feel that she is qualified to have an opinion, because she is in the legislature and helping forming laws that the country is meant to abide by, should, because of separation of church and state, a foundation of this culture, she should not be a ventriloquist puppet for a highly specific religious authority. I found the analysis of what she is saying to not be fair, at least from what I have been able to discern so far. She seems to be making only two points. One is that the Catholic Church has had more than one opinion about abortion throughout its history and two is that Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas did hold to the "delayed ensoulment theory" along with quite a few other saints and even popes, and those sources did believe that early abortion was not murder. They still generally believed that abortion was still "sin", but did not prescribe the penance required if it was a murder. The statement "Abortion has always been considered a sin by the Catholic Church" would be true, but the statement "Abortion at all stages of gestation has always been considered murder by the Catholic Church" would not be. The other point that I think Nancy Pelosi might be making is that, she is holding at least one opinion in common with two of the greatest saint philosophers of the Catholic Church, that of Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine, but she is threatened with excommunication for doing so and they are remaining canonized saints whose books have "imprimaturs" on them for the soundness of their teachings and beliefs. I did gather so far that she is quoting them accurately in this regard. Some of the opposing views give concede this point and present other arguments against her views.

  4. Footnote4: Some may be wondering why a Buddhist would be interested in the tensions being processed by the Catholic Church in this regard. There is a similar range of opinion in Buddhism and curiously similar arguments at times. Buddhism does differ in that the Buddha taught people to light their own path and live by their own conscience. Buddhism gives each individual follower not only the permission, but also the obligation, to form their own opinion from their own experience. It is ultimately between their reasoning, their responsibility for their actions, the law of karma, and how they interact with their teachers. A Buddhist accepts that they might be wrong in their views, need to revise their opinions, accepts the karma for those mistakes, and corrects them when their reason requires this. Karma is like a feedback system which allows life experience to teach us. Studying other religions can be a source of learning from the historical experience of others so that we have less karma to walk through ourselves.

  5. Footnote5: Amritayana Buddhism is supportive of feminism and the rights of women. What I have found interesting is how little the rights of the woman to choose not to be pregnant and not to sign up for being a mother, decisions that profoundly effect their future history (an important difference engine), is not the subject of the discussions. Some liberal theologians, who are usually pastors with churches, have seen the angst that woman can have with an unwanted pregnancy. This is compounded if they are already labeled sinners, sometimes already feeling ashamed for thinking about having an abortion, and not feeling that they can get support to even have some compassionate listening in this regard. The other "Fathers of the Church" would already have them doing penance for their sexual sin of getting pregnant in the first place. Some of the liberal pastors want to give women going through this kind of trial a more loving space to work through their process, especially since if later term abortions is more morally questionable, since they are on a time line to present their highest quality thinking and help the women come to their own highest thoughts about this, so that they can be at peace with whatever decision that they make. Yet their right to even have the final choice about what goes on in their womb is not even validated a lot of the time.

    I personally want to honor the feminine and all women as much as they deserve to be honored. I have grown by holding that sentiment, feeling, value, and intention. I have found that there are overt and subtle forms of dishonoring of women, and many of them are within the very way the abortion issue is being discussed.

    I really hope that the thoughts that I share do feel female honoring and female supportive especially here, regardless of what decision women make about what is going on in their wombs. I sometimes think that patriarchal males have a fear of the feminine, that they secretly are afraid to give the final power for the decision about whether or not to go through with a pregnancy to be that of the woman and the woman alone. But I trust the feminine, know that they would never take the situation lightly by their very nature, and have not found any woman who has taken this situation lightly (unless she was addicted to and on some pretty bad drugs). When I enter this trust, the peace of my own enlightenment deepens, rather than gets weaker.


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