Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Roman Catholic Church and Abortion: An Historical Perspective - Part I

by Donald DeMarco, PhD


Donald DeMarco gives the historical record of the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion, proving that the Church's teaching that abortion is a grave moral evil, has been clear, emphatic, and unwavering.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, July 1984

This is Part I of a two-part series. See also Part II of The Roman Catholic Church and Abortion: An Historical Perspective.

Part I

A carefully developed, historically accurate treatment of the Roman Catholic Church's teaching on abortion is valid and desirable in its own right, that is, for scholarly reasons alone. The moral teaching of the Church on abortion throughout history is obviously pertinent to the church historian, the moral theologian and the Catholic philosopher. The manner in which the current abortion debate is being conducted, however, provides an additional reason for such a treatment. Pro-abortion polemicists, after having sought to identify the antiabortion movement with the Catholic Church, have now attempted to discredit Church authority by arguing that its teaching on abortion has been, throughout history, inconsistent, self-contradictory, unscientific and politically inspired.

Two rather salient facts make it apparent that the anti-abortion movement is not identifiable with the new Catholic Church: 1) the presence of hundreds of thousands of non-Catholic individuals who actively oppose abortion, together with the existence of many anti-abortion groups who are affiliated with non-Catholic agencies and institutions; 2) the fact that the underlying reasons for the Catholic Church's condemnation of abortion are philosophical and humanitarian, based on the right to life of innocent human beings, and therefore are not peculiarly Catholic.

The assertion that Catholic Church teaching on abortion throughout history is confused and inconsistent is historically indefensible. The historical record shows beyond any doubt that the Church's teaching, namely that abortion is a grave moral evil, has been clear, emphatic, and unwavering. Therefore, an historically accurate treatment of the Church's teaching on abortion shows that the pro-abortionist's claims against the Church are without foundation. At the same time, such a treatment shows the Church to be not only a reliable and consistent teaching authority on the subject of abortion, but also a compassionate and balanced one, fully sensitive to the rights of everyone involved—including the pregnant woman—and deeply aware of abortion's psychological and social implications. It is with these considerations in mind that the following presentation has been prepared.

Church's Teaching Unwavering

The Church's teaching that direct, induced abortion is always a grave evil has been clear, emphatic, and unwavering. Nonetheless, surrounding this core of consistent teaching, and entirely extrinsic to it, have been other matters that people have often confused with Church teaching. It is important, therefore, to distinguish between what is and what is not Church teaching.

The first distinction to be made is between moral law (as conceived in the Catholic tradition) and canonical penalty. Whereas the Church's moral law has always classified every destruction of the unborn as gravely sinful, its canonical penalties have varied throughout history and were sometimes modified either by the cultural attitudes and scientific opinions of the day, or because of their lack of effectiveness. Rev. R. J. Huser's careful study of the development of canon law with regard to abortion provides extensive amplification of this point.1 In 1588, for example. Pope Sixtus V tried to discourage abortion by issuing severe penalties, such as reserving absolution from excommunication for all those who procured abortions to the Holy See. A few years of experience showed that the severity of this penalty was not only ineffective, but occasioned much spiritual harm inasmuch as it discouraged people from going to confession. Accordingly, in 1591, Pope Gregory XIV rescinded some of the harsher penalties of his predecessor and returned absolution to the local ordinary.2

Canon law does not determine the morality of abortion. It always assumes this and proceeds to determine how the Church, as a community, should deal with members who are guilty of abortion. The very fact that there have always been canonical penalties for abortion is a reflection of the Church's position that abortion is a grave evil; for canon law never prescribes penalties for venial sins —prayers and good works have always been regarded as sufficient for their remission.

A second distinction separates official Church teaching from the expressed opinions of individual ecclesiastical writers. The Church may consider various opinions without adopting them as her official teaching. For example, in 1679 a decree of the Holy Office, under the authority of Innocent XI, condemned the positions of two important writers of that century: Thomas Sanchez and Joannis Marcus. Sanchez, a Jesuit theologian, held that abortion is lawful if the fetus is not yet animated when the intention is to prevent a girl, detected as pregnant, from being killed or defamed. Marcus, the Proto-physician of Bohemia, claimed that the fetus lacks a rational soul until birth.3

If Church teaching is to remain clear and consistent, it is a necessary to exclude confusing and contradictory opinions. At the same time, if Church teaching is to develop, it is necessary that there be research and debate. No one familiar with the development of the Church's teaching on abortion throughout history could fail to recognize that it is indeed clear and consistent and has, in fact, developed in an atmosphere of meticulous research and lively debate.

Theories On Ensoulment Developed

A third important distinction divides essential Church teaching on abortion from the prevailing opinions of contemporary scientists. This distinction is of particular historical importance with regard to the question of the time of ensoulment. But this question, concerning the age or stage of the fetus when the rational soul is infused, was always extrinsic to the Church's fundamental teaching that abortion is a grave evil. The ensoulment (or animation) question never deflected the Church from her contention that abortion is always a grave evil. Thus, scholar John A. Hardon, S.J. can write:

The exact time when the fetus becomes 'animated' has no practical significance as far as the morality of abortion is concerned. By any theory of 'animation,' abortion is gravely wrong. Why so? Because every direct abortion is a sin of murder by intent. It is, to say the least, probable that every developing fetus is a human being. To deliberately kill what is probably human is murder.4

John Connery, S. J., who spent several years carefully researching the Roman Catholic Church's treatment of abortion in history, comes to the same conclusion:

Whatever one would want to hold about the time of animation, or when the fetus became a human being in the strict sense of the term, abortion from the time of conception was considered wrong, and the time of animation was never looked upon as a moral dividing line between permissible and immoral abortion.5

Given these three important distinctions, it becomes easier to understand how the Church's teaching on the immorality of abortion remained constant throughout its history. A constant teaching prevailed despite the fact that it was accompanied by a variety of extrinsic factors that did change: canonical penalties, the opinions of individual ecclesiastical writers, and the speculations of contemporary scientists. There is consensus on this point by all scholars who have studiously investigated the Church's teaching on abortion. Some representative examples:

Germain Grisez writes:

The Roman Catholic tradition is marked by clear, consistent, comprehensive, and firm teaching against abortion in general.6

According to John Hardon, S. J.:

On the level of morality, Roman Catholicism has always held that the direct attack on an unborn fetus, at any time after conception, is a grave sin. The history of this teaching has been consistent and continuous, beginning with the earliest times and up to the present.7

Finally, in the words of scholar David Granfield:

To summarize, throughout its history, the Catholic Church has resolutely opposed the practice of abortion. From the first recorded condemnation in ecclesiastical writings in the Didache . . . to the most authoritative recent pronouncements . . . we find no authoritative deviation from the doctrine that abortion, at any stage, is a serious sin against God, the Creator of all human life.8

One of the key sources of the ensoulment or animation debate, which proved to have a long and controversial history, is a most improbable one—the Septuagint translation of a passage in Exodus. The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, made in the third century before Christ. Ptolemy II of Egypt is supposed to have brought seventy (or seventy-two) scholars to Alexandria, and in seventy (or seventy-two) days they are supposed to have completed the translation from Hebrew to Greek.

The passage in Exodus (21:22-25), an ordinance of Moses, prescribes the appropriate punishment for causing an accidental miscarriage. The Hebrew text clearly states that a man who causes a miscarriage must pay a fine if the woman does not die, but if the woman dies, he must be put to death according to the more general law: "Whoever strikes another so that he dies, must be put to death" (Exodus 21:12).

Abortion Always A Serious Sin

But an incorrect translation (intended or unintended) in the Septuagint version gives a totally different meaning to this Mosaic Law. The word "zurah" or "surah," which means "form," is erroneously used for the word "ason," which means "harm."9 Thus, the Septuagint version conveys the meaning of the fetus "not being further formed" rather than the woman "not being further harmed." The penalty, therefore, was now understood to be a fine if the fetus was not formed, but death if the fetus was formed. Thus, through a mistranslation by Hebrew scholars who were conversant with Greek thought, the distinction between the "formed" and "unformed" or "pre-formed" fetus was given moral significance and Biblical authority. Hebrew thought had never divided man into body and soul. The notion that the fetus could be unformed was more compatible with contemporary Greek thought, which had already believed that human life begins at some stage in fetal development when "ensoulment" or "animation" takes place. Aristotle had identified this time of animation with observable movement and believed it differed according to sex:

In the case of male children the first movement usually occurs on the right-hand side of the womb and about the fortieth day, but if the child be a female then on the left-hand side and about the ninetieth day.10

This erroneous statement of fact, with its curious numerical pinpointing of the time of animation for male and female, was to have a long life in biological and legal circles. The authority of Aristotle, which was based on his genius for observation and systematic thought, influenced the uncritical acceptance of this error.

The Septuagint mistranslation of the Exodus passage had allowed Greek thinking in biological matters to gain a theological respectability it did not deserve. Nonetheless, this thinking, involving the distinction between the preformed and formed fetus, provided the basis for a lively debate that continued for several centuries. In one sense the Septuagint text provides a strong argument against abortion by implying that killing a fetus already formed—which would exact the death penalty for the assailant—is equivalent to homicide. At the same time, it provides a basis for the claim that aborting a fetus not yet formed is neither immoral not unlawful.

Tertullian (240 A.D.) is the first Christian to use the distinction between the pre-formed and formed fetus in the early Christian era. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444), commenting on the Septuagint text from Exodus, states that the fetus does not belong to the human species until after forty days, that is, until it is formed. Theodoret (c. 393-457), Bishop of Cyrus (near Antioch), also following the Septuagint text, reasoned that God did not infuse the human soul until the body was formed. Accordingly, he taught that Moses had decreed that abortion of a formed fetus is homicide, but it is not homicide if the fetus is not formed."11

Augustine, in his commentary on the Septuagint passage, argues that the Mosaic Law did not want to treat the accidental abortion of an unformed fetus as homicide. Nonetheless, Augustine speculates that in some way the unformed fetus might be animated, that is, human, even before it is fully formed or recognizably human.12 In another context, Augustine conjectures that all who have begun life will rise again, even those who have not been "formed."

Early Christian writers consistently classified abortion as a grave evil even though they did not uniformly agree that all abortion (particularly of the unformed fetus) is equivalent to homicide. St. Basil the Great, however (374-5), found the distinction between formed and unformed too subtle to be morally relevant:

A woman who deliberately destroys a fetus is answerable for murder. And any fine distinction as to its being completely formed or unformed is not admissible among us.13

The notion that the fetus passed through distinct stages of formation was used as a basis for determining private penances during the following centuries. The Penitential of Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury (668-690), for example, exacts a penance of one year or less if the aborted fetus has not yet reached forty days of development, but three years after that time.14 The Old Irish Penitential (c. 800) required three and one-half years of penance if a conceptus is aborted, seven if it is "formed," and fourteen if the "soul" has entered.15

The first time the distinction between the formed and unformed fetus became legally operative in Church history is in Gratian's Decretum of 1140. This monumental work is the first fully systematic attempt to compile ecclesiastical legislation and earned Gratian the name "Father of the Science of Canon Law." Basing his position on writers such as Ivo of Chartres, Augustine, and Jerome, Gratian states: "He is not a murderer who brings about abortion before the soul is in the body."16 He did not, however, indicate when the fetus is formed.

The Decretals of Pope Gregory IX in 1234, which formally legislated for the whole Church, sustained Gratian's distinction concerning the formed and unformed fetus, though in an ambiguous fashion. Commentators on the Decretals drew the conclusion that while all abortion is gravely sinful, the abortion of an unformed fetus should be considered as quasi-murder, that is, murder in some sense.

A Verdict Of Murder

The distinction between the formed and unformed fetus (animated and unanimated), though recognized and accepted by many jurists, philosophers, and theologians, was used only for purposes of classification and distinguishing penalties. The first person in the Christian tradition to suggest that the distinction might be used as a basis to justify abortion in special cases is a Dominican, John of Naples (c. 1450). In an unpublished work, the Quodlibeta, John argues that a doctor may and should give the mother an abortifacient medicine if it is necessary to save her life, provided he is certain that the fetus is not animated. This opinion was brought to light by another Dominican, Antoninus, Archbishop of Florence.17 Discussion of this exception occupied the attention of theologians for the next three or four centuries, until theories of delayed animation—on which it was based—became obsolete.

The exception introduced for discussion by John of Naples met with considerable opposition, although it did claim some followers, particularly, the Jesuit theologian Thomas Sanchez. Sanchez' argumentation to justify abortion in certain instances (and when it was determined that ensoulment had not yet taken place) was eventually condemned in 1679 by Pope Innocent XI. A French Jesuit, Theophile Raynaud (1582-1663) was the first author to argue in favor of aborting an animated fetus to save the mother's life. Raynaud's position was unique for his time and had no adherents for the next two centuries.

In the seventeenth century, two scientists—Thomas Fienus and Paolo Zacchia —who rejected the Aristotelian theory of delayed animation, made important historical contributions that led ultimately to the Church's abandoning the speculation that there is such a thing as unanimated (or non-human) fetus.

Fienus, a professor of medicine at Louvain, published a biomedical treatise in 1620 on the formation of the fetus (De formatrice fetus liber). He concluded that the soul is infused on the third day. The Aristotelian notion of a succession of souls or "functions" of one soul (first vegetative, then sentient, and finally rational) made no sense to him. He developed nine lines of argumentation to support his thesis. In general, Fienus argues that the soul must be present at the beginning in order to organize the body. Moreover, in order to avoid an unnecessary multiplicity of explanatory factors, there must be one soul from the beginning that establishes the specific unity and individual continuity of the developing embryo.18

Concerning the Septuagint passage in Exodus, Fienus stated that it does not oblige one to believe that the unformed fetus has no rational soul, but only that it is an incomplete man. He also points out that the Latin (Vulgate) text, which is authoritative in the Church, makes no distinction between the formed and unformed fetus. St. Jerome had translated the Bible into Latin directly from Hebrew and therefore avoided the erroneous Septuagint version of the celebrated Exodus passage.

Zacchia, physician general of the Vatican State, published a book, also in the year 1620 (Quaestiones medico-legales) in which he argues a position remarkably similar to that of Fienus. He concludes that the rational soul is created and infused at conception. He also maintains that the development of the fetus is a continuum, rather than a series of distinct stages. Like Fienus, he reasons that the soul must always organize the body if development is to be determined from within.19

The Unborn A person At Every Stage

Concerning the Septuagint passage, Zacchia argues that it is commentary and not inspired text. The dichotomy between animated and non-animated fetuses, he contended, is maintained by lawyers because they want to distinguish the punishments for abortion. Besides, early pregnancy is an uncertain fact and the law takes the less strict possibility.

In 1644, Pope Innocent X conferred upon Paolo Zaccharia the title of "General Proto-Physician of the Entire Roman Ecclesiastical State."

The rejection of the theory of delayed animation by these two scientists was met with considerable opposition. Nonetheless, the reasonableness of their arguments—which received added confirmation from the scientific research of Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood, Gassendi, DeGraaf, and others—gradually found acceptance. By the end of the seventeenth century important theologians such as Caramuel of Prague and the Spanish Jesuit, Juan Cardenas, found the distinction between the animated and unanimated fetus to be of no practical significance. Cardenas argued that abortion to save the life of the mother is impermissible if there is any reason to suspect the presence of a rational soul. But, Cardenas added, this suspicion is always present. It took another century, however, before immediate animation was generally accepted.

In 1869, Pope Pius IX officially removed the distinction between the animated and unanimated fetus from the penal legislation of the Church. This was, of course, disciplinary and in no way involved Church teaching on abortion.20 Henceforward, every direct killing of human life after conception would be treated in the same way, that is, the penalty of excommunication applied to all abortions.

The Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1917, states that all who procure abortion ("not excepting the mother") incur an automatic excommunication.21 It further advises that all aborted fetuses, if delivered alive should certainly be baptized and if doubtfully alive, should be baptized conditionally.22 In addition, it directs the baptism of a child in its mother's womb if there is no hope that it will be born in a normal manner. 23 These canons make it clear that the Church recognizes that the unborn child is a person at every stage of its development.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is an associate professor of philosophy at St. Jerome's College at the University of Waterloo. He studied theology at the Gregorian in Rome and earned his Ph.D. at St. John's University in New York. He is the author of Abortion in Perspective, Sex and the Illusion of Freedom, and Today's Family in crisis. His most recent book is The Anesthetic Society (Christendom, 1982). Born in Massachusetts, he resides now with his wife and five children in Kitchener, Ontario. He is a frequent contributor to HPR.

See also Part II of The Roman Catholic Church and Abortion: An Historical Perspective.


1 Roger J. Huser, The Crime of Abortion in Canon Law (Washington D.C.: Catholic Univ. Press, 1942). 'The Church has always held in regard to the morality of abortion that it is a serious sin to destroy a foetus at any stage of development. However, as a. juridical norm in the determination of penalties against abortion, the Church at various times did accept the distinction between a formed and a non-formed, an animated and a nonanimated foetus." Preliminary Note.

2 Lucius Farraris, Bibliotheca iuridica moralis theologica (Roma: 1885) I, 36-38.

3 Denzinger-Schoenmetzer, Enchiridion symbolorum (Rome: Herder, 1965), 2134-2135.

4 John A. Hardon, S. J., "A Catholic View," The Human Life Review, Fall 1975, p. 46.

5 John Connery, S. J., Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective (Chicago: Loyola Univ. Press, 1977), p. 304.

6 Germain Grisez, Abortion: the Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments (New York: Corpus Books, 1970), p. 165.

7 Hardon, p. 93.

8 David Granfield, The Abortion Decision (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971), p. 66.

9 Ibid., p. 44. It is likely that the Septuagint translators deliberately introduced a variant translation because it was more in agreement with current practice in their own community or with their own conception of justice. See Immanuel Jakobovits, Jewish Medical Ethics (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1959). See also Sidney Jellicoe, The Septuagint and Modern Study (London: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1968).

10 Aristotle, "History of Animals," The Works of Aristotle, Vol. II (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), Bk. 7, Ch. 3, 583b, p. 109. Felinus Sandaeus of Ferrara (d. 1503) calculated that animation took place on the fortieth day for the female and on the eightieth day for the male fetus.

11 Migne, "Quaestiones in Eoxdum," Patrologia Graeca, 48, 80:271-74.

12 Augustine, "Quaestionum in Heptateuchum," ii, 80; Patrologia Latina, XXXIV, 626.

13 St. Basil the Great, "Three Canonical Letters," Loeb Classical Library, III, 20-23.

14 Medieval Handbooks of Penance, transl. J.T. McNeill and Helena Gamer (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1938), p. 197.

15 Ibid., p. 166.

16 Gratian, Concordia discordantium canonum, Decretum, Ad. c8, C. XXXII, q. 2.

17 See Connery, pp. 114-116. Some authors have questioned whether John of Naples really advocated induced abortion or merely allowed treatment aimed at curing some maternal ailment.

18 Thomas Fienus (Feynes), De formatrice fetus liber (Antwerp: 1620), pp. 157-181.

19 Paolo Zacchia, Quaestiones medico-legales (Lyons: 1701), lib. 6, tit. 1, qu. 7, 16.

20 Codicis Iuris Canonici Fontes, 9 vols. (Rome, 1923-39), n. 552.

21 Canon 2350, paragraph 1.

22 Canon 747.

23 Canon 746.

Part II of The Roman Catholic Church and Abortion: An Historical Perspective

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