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The Church on Abortion: A Misconstrued History

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 02, 2012

A reader called my attention this morning to the strange history of the Church’s position on abortion found on the Catholics for Choice website (The History of Abortion in the Catholic Church). The article is sixteen years old, but it might still be causing problems, so let’s take a look.

In a nutshell, the article attempts to argue, complete with supporting evidence, that the Church’s teaching on abortion has differed widely over the centuries, hardening only relatively recently into its current condemnation of abortion as homicide. It also argues that abortion has at times been condemned “only” if it is done to hide sexual sin, and points out that abortion has been at times condemned as a form of contraception but not homicide.

On the whole, it is not the facts that are wrong in this article, but the inferences from those facts. We will ignore in this discussion that the author fails to distinguish Magisterial teaching from the opinions of theologians, and seems to assume that as long as Catholic thinkers are not unanimous on the abortion issue, then the question must not be settled. We’re used to that mindset, and we already know why it is wrong.

But the implications of the history of Catholic moral teaching on abortion are completely misconstrued by this article. Here are the three corrections necessary:

  1. While the Church (along with her theologian-saints) has consistently condemned abortion as a grave sin (the article admits that there is evidence for this at least since the Didache in AD 100), the article makes much of the fact that the Church has not always been consistent in its explanation of the exact nature of the sin. But this is only because the exact nature of the sin depends on a scientific question, namely the moment at which the fetus becomes human. Before “hominization”, abortion is a form of contraception; after “hominization” it is murder.

    The moment of "hominization", of course, is the moment of ensoulment. The Church has always taught that God infuses the soul into the new being when the “matter is suitable” (that is, when the matter is fully human). But it took modern science to figure out definitively that the matter is fully human from the moment of conception. In the 15th century, the great moralist St. Antoninus, Archbishop of Florence, explained the problem (as had others before him) by noting the uncertainty of the time of ensoulment and commenting that if an abortion were done after ensoulment it would be homicide, and if it were done before ensoulment it would prevent the existence of a person who would otherwise be formed, an act very close to murder, and also a mortal sin. This discussion, far from diminishing the gravity of abortion, has always rather emphasized the gravity of contraception.

  2. The article further misconstrues the fact that the Church and her saints in earlier times tended to condemn abortion for the purposes of concealing a sexual sin (fornication). The article erroneously implies that this was the only reason it was condemned. But on the very face of the matter, this is not the case. For example, there has never been a condemnation of moving to a new town to have an out-of-wedlock baby in order to keep neighbors in the dark.

    No, manifestly we are dealing here with ancient authors who already understood that abortion is intrinsically sinful (as can be made amply clear in other citations from the same authors), and that the desire to conceal a sexual sin cannot justify it. In fact, this would be an ignoble and selfish reason to abort, whether it prevented a life or took a life—to save oneself embarrassment! There would be nothing wrong with avoiding embarrassment if the means of doing so were not already evil. The faulty line of thought is exactly like citing the Church’s condemnation of abortion in the case of rape or incest as evidence that the Church thinks abortion is wrong only when done to conceal rape or incest.

  3. Finally, the article cites differing penitential practices to allege a certain “waffling” in the Church’s teaching concerning the objective evil of abortion, noting that recommended penances have differed over the centuries, and that recommended penances for abortions have been less severe than for murder, and sometimes less severe than for adultery. But in addition to the uncertainty in some eras on the question of whether abortion was contraception or homicide at various points of gestation, which certainly affected the recommended penances, it is also true that recommended penances take into account more than just the objective gravity of the sin.

    Penitential practices cannot be used as fixed guides to varying levels of objective gravity, for exactly the same reason that civil law has often been willing to punish the abortionist severely while showing considerable mercy to the aborting mother, though the objective gravity of the act is the same for both. The likely subjective circumstances—the confusion of mind, the nature of the intentions, and the duress under which the sin is committed—are always taken into account. In penitential manuals, and even in Canon Law, what we might call the typical subjective element influences the prescribed penance. What is clear, however, is that abortion was uniformly regarded as a serious sin in Catholic penitential history.

Back in 2009, I reviewed a fine book by Dennis Di Mauro entitled A Love for Life: Christianity’s Consistent Protection of the Unborn. Di Mauro is a Protestant and he is concerned to demonstrate the pro-life core of the entire Judaeo-Christian tradition, but his history of the Catholic position is spot-on. The book is a good antidote to the poison of Catholics for Choice. I recommend it again for those who want more than I have presented here.

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