Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

On spiritual fat—and is an unborn child a person, or not?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 30, 2023

Several us here have been wondering what Pope Francis was trying to say when he responded to a question about abortion in his recent interview with Telemundo (Pope, in interview, describes unborn child as ‘a living being, I’m not saying a person’). One wag suggested that perhaps Pope Francis did not want to call a pre-born baby a “person” from the moment of conception because he or she is not yet capable of acting “synodally”. In any case, it’s a good thing to wonder about.

We cannot resolve this question definitively, of course. That would require mindreading. But we know two things about Pope Francis: First, he has frequently upheld the identity of the baby in the womb as a person. Second, he has frequently spoken confusedly during interviews, betraying an inability to respond clearly off-the-cuff—an inability that suggests his interviews should be rare or non-existent. None of this is news to us.

Still, I find it interesting to speculate—and that is all we can do—on what the Holy Father was trying to get at in these ill-chosen remarks:

I say this about abortion: in any second-year university embryology book it says that a month after conception, even before the mother is aware [she is pregnant], the entire organ system is already drawn inside and the DNA is clear. In other words, it is a living being. I’m not saying a person, it’s a living being.
So, I ask myself a question: is it lawful to eliminate a living being to solve a problem? Second question: Is it lawful to hire a hitman to solve a problem? And there you have it. You’re not getting me out of there. Because it is the truth.

The context was a question intrinsically sympathetic to one of the hard cases—indeed the case which was most frequently used in the mid-twentieth century to argue for legal abortion—namely, the problem of requiring a woman who is pregnant as the result of rape to bring her child to term and give birth. I can remember debating precisely this question as a young college professor with colleagues who likened the case to an adult who needed a woman’s blood to survive and so forcibly attached himself to the woman’s blood stream in a manner which would result in his death if the woman disconnected him, thereby forcing the woman to change her entire lifestyle to keep this man alive. Of course, I said then (as I do now) that such a case highlights only one aspect of the problem, without being morally comparable.

So the question to the Holy Father was this: “We know what the Church’s position is, but do you think that a woman who was raped has the right not to have her child, one that is the product of that rape?” And the Pope, who was clearly a bit annoyed by the question, ended his answer by exclaiming that the questioner was not going to succeed by this question in getting him to deviate from his pro-life stance: “And there you have it. You’re not getting me out of there.”

An argument of sorts

It looks very much as if Pope Francis thought that to defend the personhood of the unborn child would, in this instance, be to go down a distracting philosophical path. It is fairly clear that he wanted to emphasize instead that from the first moment of conception, the unborn child is a human being. Equally clearly, he did not want his answer to depend on the concept of “personhood”, which he deliberately left out of the discussion, presumably because he thought that in this context it would be a distraction. What he wished to emphasize, apparently, was that—the definition of personhood aside—it is clear from the moment of conception that the unborn child is a human being.

Thus Francis had already stressed that we know from basic embryology that the entire organ system is already laid out and the DNA is clear within a month of conception. Indeed, we know more; we know that the fundamental human structure is already mapped at the moment of fertilization, but the Pope was clearly using his own assertions as evidence of that, not as an excuse for allowing abortions in the first month of pregnancy. Look (he was saying) at how quickly the fetus becomes recognizably human. Notice (he insisted) that there is no room for doubt even for rank beginners in the study of embryology.

The problem, of course, is that the Pope undermined his own message through his habitually sloppy way of expressing himself when he has no prepared text: “In other words, it is a living being…. So, I ask myself a question: Is it lawful to eliminate a living being to solve a problem? Second question: Is it lawful to hire a hitman to solve a problem?”

The entire context screams that what the Pope meant to refer to by the words “living being” is “living human being”. The word “hitman” leaves this beyond doubt. A hitman is neither a big game hunter nor a pest control expert. Unfortunately, however, the answer to his first rhetorical question is “yes”, not “no”. It is in fact lawful to eliminate a “living being” to solve a problem. We can morally swat mosquitos or even take direct steps to reduce the population of wolves preying on livestock. Many such problems arise within the imbalance of nature in a fallen world.

Undoubtedly we humans are sometimes short-sighted in how we deal with them, but it is not intrinsically immoral to hunt or to eat or to eliminate pests. In fact, on the lower levels of the chain of life at least, we cannot avoid doing so more or less constantly. I defy anyone to live through even a single day without causing the death of some other “living being”.

Oh so sloppy…

But the sloppiness remains, and it is both vexing and tiresome. Without even making any negative judgment of Pope Francis’ intentions, we are faced with ever-growing evidence of his fundamental inability to be careful about either his choice of words or his willingness to make their meaning clear within each context. This is both sad and trying, and should be brought to prayer, but one can reel off a string of favorite words which he fails to clearly define no matter how often he uses them. Perhaps we cannot really add “being” and “person” to terms like “proselytism”, “rigidity” and “synodality”. But it is astonishing in itself that Pope Francis has required the Church throughout the world, at every level, to engage in a process that has been left so undefined that nobody can be charged with being right or wrong about what it is supposed to mean.

This is the Pope who said very early in his pontificate that he likes to make a mess, and has frequently urged others to do so, sometimes for uncertain reasons. One has always hoped against hope either that the Church will break out of its widespread docile refusal to challenge a deadly secularized culture (which would be messy more in a worldly sense or perhaps in a suffering sense than in a spiritual one) , or that Pope Francis, by deliberately stirring things up, would enable whatever is unhealthy in the ecclesiastical broth to be skimmed off the top. It is in the nature of the bad to rise in turbulence, and if it is not removed as it comes into view, it destroys the flavor of the whole.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: padre3536 - May. 31, 2023 9:40 AM ET USA

    there is this: Nov. 22, 2022 interview with America Magazine Pope said same thing: 'Therefore, there is a living human being,” he said of the month-old fetus. “I do not say a person, because this is debated, but a living human being.”' BUT, Donum Vitae, teaching document of Congr. for the Doct of Faith, says that “The human being must be respected – as a person – from the very first instant of his existence". Obviously the Spirit of Truth who Teaches the Truth to the Church doesnt debate it.

  • Posted by: padre3536 - May. 31, 2023 9:21 AM ET USA

    Pentecost with God the Holy Spirit and His Gifts of Courage/Fortitude and Wisdom...please don't dance around the point and reality, it is much more than sloppiness and much more than a mess and even much more than the flavor of the whole - its about evil, lies which murder and God outraged to His very Face and souls endangered and led to the resurrection of death, eternal...'we have not received a spirit of timidity but of power and love and a sound mind', 'proclaim from the rooftop'! Blessings

  • Posted by: esalex947010 - May. 30, 2023 11:05 PM ET USA

    Ok I watched that interview in Spanish and while it is true what he said about 'person' was admittedly very weird the statement as a whole was vehemently anti-abortion. The word 'sicario' as well has a much, much stronger effect in Spanish than 'hit-man' does in English. It is something like 'assassin'. And it was strong enough to force the journalist to change the subject.