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

by Donald DeMarco, PhD


In this continuation of Donald DeMarco’s previous article, he again proves, through the historical record, that the Catholic Church has always taught that abortion is a grave sin and cites Pope Pius XII as he stated, "Never and in no case has the Church taught that the life of the child must be preferred to that of the mother."

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, August-September 1984

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

Part II

The earliest explicit teaching against abortion is found in the Didache (The Lord's Instruction to the Gentiles through the Twelve Apostles). This work (c. 80) is the oldest source of ecclesiastical law and, after the New Testament, the first Christian catechism. The pertinent passage reads: "You shall not slay the child by abortion."24

The second reference to abortion appears in a theological tract known as the Epistle of the pseudo-Barnabas, written about 138. This work was highly regarded for centuries, especially by the theologians of Alexandria. The author treats abortion as a corollary to the law of fraternal charity: "You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not slay the child by abortion."25

Athenagoras, an Athenian philosopher, states in a letter to Marcus Aurelius (177) that: "All who use abortifacients are homicides and will account to God for their abortions as for the killing of men."26 Clement of Alexandria, the "Father of Theologians," wrote in 215 that abortions "destroy utterly the embryo and, with it, the love of man."27

Two early Church councils — of Elvira in Granada, Spain (c. 305) and of Ancyra in Galatia, Asia Minor (314)—condemned abortion. These councils established a firm historical precedent on the matter of abortion which later councils—the Council of Chalcedon (451) and Consillium Quinisextum (692)—ratified and strengthened. During the early period of Christianity many important writers clearly and emphatically condemned abortion as a grave evil. Among these writers are Hippolytus (235), Cyprian (258), St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (375), St. Jerome (d. 420), St. Augustine (d. 430), Caesarius, Bishop of Arles (d. 543), and St. Martin of Braga (580). The Christian respect for all human life during the early Christian era, exemplified in part by its opposition to abortion, contrasted markedly with the pagan world in which abortion and infanticide were common practices. This Christian attitude toward the unborn was all the more striking since it resisted the prevailing Stoic view that associated life with breath, holding that the fetus was not alive until it could breathe, and because it maintained its opposition to all abortion despite Septuagint teaching and Aristotelian thinking, both of which made distinctions between the formed and unformed fetus.

Abortion—Dangerous To Women

In summarizing the teaching and historical contribution of the early Church on the subject of abortion, John Noonan, Jr. writes:

The monks had transmitted the apostolic and patristic prohibition of abortion. The canon law set it out as a universal requirement of Christian behavior. The theologians explored the relation of the law to the theory of ensoulment, but on one basis or another condemned abortion at any point in the existence of the fetus. The prohibition was still absolute.28

The early period of Christianity established a firm and consistent opposition to abortion. Later periods were faithful to this tradition despite continuing attempts on the part of various ecclesiastical writers to find an exception to the church's condemnation of direct abortion in every instance. The Church did not always regard all abortion as simple homicide, however, although it regarded the abortion of an unformed or unanimated fetus (if there were such a thing) as anticipated homicide or homicide by intent because it always involved the destruction of a future human being. The distinctions between true homicide and quasi-homicide, and formed and unformed fetus had practical significance only with respect to legal classification and the grading of penances relative to the reconciliation of sinners.

The pronouncements by modern popes on the subject of abortion omit these obsolete distinctions. Hence, their opposition to abortion may appear more definitive and unqualified than statements made by earlier popes. Nonetheless, the Church's moral teaching that abortion is always a grave evil has remained intact throughout history.

One of the reasons cited for imposing a more severe penalty on late term abortions is that it represents a greater danger to the woman. But the danger to the woman of early abortion was also noted. Juan de Lugo, a Spanish Jesuit whom Alphonsus Liguori called the greatest moralist after Thomas Aquinas, drew attention to the fact that an abortion even in the earliest period of pregnancy is more dangerous to the woman than carrying the pregnancy to term. This was unarguably true given the state of medicine in the year 1642 when de Lugo wrote Justice and Right, a work that earned him his cardinal's hat.

The Church was also, and at all times, concerned about the woman's spiritual welfare. Since it regarded abortion as a grave sin, it believed that it posed a serious danger to the woman's immortal soul. Naturally, it wanted to discourage women from having an abortion since it regarded this violation of the commandment to love one's neighbor as a form of spiritual suicide.

Abortion Violates The Law Of Love

In the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas dealt with the question of whether it is permissible to section the uterus of a pregnant woman if this is the only way to baptize the fetus that is in danger of dying. The argument in favor of doing this is that the eternal life of the fetus is more important than the temporal life of its mother. Aquinas refuses to allow this and quotes St. Paul (Rom. 3:8) who says: "We should not do evil that there may come good." It is an impermissible evil, according to Aquinas, to impose direct physical harm on a pregnant woman (in all probability causing her death) even when the good that is intended—the eternal salvation of the fetus—might be construed in a particularly theological sense to be a greater good than continuing the temporal life of the mother.29 Aquinas does not believe that an unbaptized fetus is necessarily deprived of salvation; but the logic of his argument reveals his conviction that even if the fetus stood to suffer a greater loss than the loss of its mother's temporal life, the mother's right to be protected from assault remains inviolable.

The three-century theological discussion between 1450-1750 centered on whether a woman ever had a right to abort. The factor that sustained the discussion was a genuine and abiding concern that, in certain circumstances, continued pregnancy would endanger a woman's health, marriage, or reputation. No exception was found that would permit direct abortion, however, because no exception could be found that did not logically extend to other exceptions that were not prudent to make or failed to uphold the principle that all innocent human life warrants equal protection. But the debate continued in an effort to protect the pregnant woman as much as possible without violating more general principles that protected everyone.

The pregnant woman had a right to life and a right to be protected from assault. This was never questioned. But these rights implied other rights, particularly, a right to medical treatment in the event of illness. An important distinction was introduced in the sixteenth century by Antonius de Corduba, a Franciscan theologian, between medicine for the health of the mother (de se salutifera) and medicine for what would directly cause the death of the fetus (de se mortifera). Corduba reasoned that since the mother has a greater or prior right to life (ius potius), she has a right to therapeutic treatment even if that treatment results in the accidental death of the fetus.30

Corduba's contributions concerning the pregnant woman's right to therapeutic treatment united with those of many other writers. Eventually a rationale was developed which permitted indirect abortion in the interest of the mother's health. Pope Pius XII added his approval to this rationale when he said:

Deliberately we have always used the expression 'direct attempt on the life of an innocent person,' 'direct killing.' Because if, for example, the saving of the life of the future mother, independently of her pregnant condition, should urgently require a surgical act or other therapeutic treatment which would have as an accessory consequence, in no way desired or intended, but inevitable, the death of the fetus, such an act could no longer be called a direct attempt on an innocent life. Under these conditions the operation can be lawful, like other similar medical interventions—granted always that a good of high worth is concerned, such as life, and that it is not possible to postpone the operation until after the birth of the child, nor to have recourse to other efficacious remedies.31

Thus, it is morally permissible to remove the fallopian tube in the instance of an ectopic pregnancy or to remove a cancerous uterus since the primary purpose of these therapeutic procedures is to save the life of the mother, not to destroy the fetus, a consequence that happens indirectly or accidentally. The acceptance of indirect abortion, as Noonan remarks, indicates that Church teaching is something less than an "absolute valuation of fetal life."32

The Church has always upheld the principle that all innocent human life is deserving of protection. In trying to find exceptions to the abortion prohibition in the interest of providing better care for the pregnant woman, the Church never treated one form of human life as more important than another. Pope Pius XII makes this point clear when he states:

Never and in no case has the Church taught that the life of the child must be preferred to that of the mother. It is erroneous to put the question with this alternative: either the life of the child or that of the mother. No, neither the life of the mother nor that of the child can be subjected to an act of direct suppression. In the one case as in the other, there can be but one obligation: to make every effort to save the lives of both, of the mother and the child.33

Although the Church's prohibition of all direct abortion has been clear and consistent throughout history, its overall treatment of abortion is highly comprehensive and extraordinarily complex owing to the many subtleties involved in its theological and philosophical discussions together with the intricate secondary issues of animation, formation, and the grading of penalties. This fact may help to explain why so many contemporary writers are either ignorant or confused about what the Church has actually taught on the subject of abortion. At the same time, there can be little doubt that in some instances the reason for misrepresenting Church teaching is rooted in anti-Catholic prejudice. Roger Wertheimer, himself an advocate of abortion, is as correct as he is candid when he declares:

I think it undeniable that some of the liberals' bungling can be dismissed as the unseemly sputterings and stutterings of a transparently camouflaged anti-Catholic bias…34

In Chandrasekhar's Abortion in a Crowded World, the presence of an anti-Catholic bias is both obvious and disturbing. Catholic doctrine on abortion is "rigid, irrational, and cast-iron";35 it is also "changeless and monolithic."36 In relation to the plight of modern man in an "overpopulated" world, the Church, in opposing abortion, is guilty of "sickly sentimentalism" and "foolish wickedness."37

Our Tradition Chooses Life

Chandrasekhar does not understand the meaning and limitation of law. A law should be just. And if it is just, it should not change to become unjust simply to avoid the criticism of being "rigid." But inasmuch as it is just, it is not compassionate. Justice is supposed to be nonpartisan; it is not supposed to feel differently toward one than toward another. Justice is "blind." Moreover, only human beings, not laws, are capable of expressing compassion. It is the combination of just laws and compassionate people that is needed. If people lack compassion it is folly to expect that compassion can be expressed by the law. The Catholic law, which forbids abortion, is an expression of a higher law, which obliges everyone to love their neighbor without prejudice.

Protestant theologian Harold O. J. Brown, in his book Death Before Birth, contends that the early Christian church "consistently taught" that "abortion is permissible" (though an evil) to "save the mother's life. "38 The only reference he offers to support this historically incorrect claim is from Tertullian, a Christian heretic of the third century. It is not at all clear that even Tertullian approved abortion under these circumstances. "But even if Tertullian were speaking with approval of the procedure," writes John Connery, "It would be the only explicit approval of an exception to the condemnation of abortion to be found in the first millennium."39

Wendell Watters, a Canadian psychiatrist, makes the unsupported claim that prior to 1869 and except for three years during the reign of Sixtus V (1588-1591), "The Church had officially accepted the theory of delayed animation for 500 years."40 This, of course, is completely untrue. The Church had never at any time "officially" accepted the theory of delayed animation. It did, however, mitigate punishment if the abortion was of an unanimated fetus. But it never taught that there was such a thing as an unanimated fetus; it gave the benefit of the doubt to the penitent that this might be the case in an early abortion. The only official Church teaching on the subject of animation is that of Pope Innocent XI which condemned the position that ensoulment took place at birth.41

Whether the fetus ever was unanimated, when it might have been animated, and how such a diagnosis might be made were all speculative questions that were wholly extrinsic to the fundamental teaching that abortion was wrong at anytime. In fact, there never existed an empirical method by which a judgment could be made that the fetus is indeed "not animate."

On the basis of this misunderstanding, Watters then concludes that the elimination of the distinction between the animated and unanimated fetus in 1869 "was a pivotal one in the history of abortion." Prior to 1869, according to Watters, "Abortion before ensoulment was tolerated by the Catholic Church."42 Watters also fails to recognize the difference between opposing abortion because it is homicide and opposing it because it is homicide by intent. He illogically assumes that if the Church, at certain times and in certain circumstances, regarded abortion as less than homicide it probably "tolerated" or even "sanctioned" abortion. This is roughly equivalent to arguing that it must be all right to kill a privately owned racehorse because such an act does not constitute homicide. At any rate, Watters insists that the real reason the Church opposed abortion was not moral or religious but political."43

Watters' book, promoted as one destined to become the "definitive book about abortion," has the appearance of scholarship. This makes it all the more dangerous because uncritical reviewers repeat as Gospel the distortions Watters claims to be facts. Thus, one reviewer can blithely announce in a woman's magazine, concerning Watters' treatment of Church history:

Readers may be surprised to discover that the Catholic Church's position on abortion has varied widely over the years. Until just over 100 years ago, the Vatican's attitude towards abortion was relatively tolerant."44

Eugene C. Bianchi, a former Catholic priest, expresses the complaint that: "Other voices need to be heard from the Catholic tradition that argue for openings on the yes side of the abortion issue."45 Bianchi seems unaware of Church history on the subject in which every conceivable rationale for justifying abortion was brought forward, heard, and thoroughly scrutinized before being dismissed. But his "yes" to abortion is rhetoric at its emptiest. The Catholic tradition is in continuity with the Jewish tradition on the matter of saying "yes," but a saying "yes" not to death but to life. The Old Testament is a continuous affirmation of the goodness of life. A striking example of this attitude occurs in Deuteronomy. After summarizing the entire code, the lawgiver calls attention to the fundamental moral choice that must be made: "See, today I set before you life and prosperity, death and disaster."46 To love and serve God is to choose life; to reject God and depart from him is to choose death.

Choose life, then, so that you and your descendents may live, in the love of Yahweh your God, obeying his voice, clinging to him; for in this your life consists, and on this depends your long stay in the land which Yahweh swore to your fathers . . .47

Books, reviews, magazines, pro-abortion leaflets, and newspapers commonly misrepresent the Church's teaching on abortion. Newspapers are especially notorious in this regard. A typical example of newspaper distortion is the following:

Abortion was only declared illegal and condemned by the Roman Catholic Church in the 1800's; the Catholic church condoned abortion until the fetus "quickened," meaning the time when a pregnant woman first feels the unborn child moving.48

Nor are Catholics excepted from gross misrepresentations of Church teaching. One author, who identifies himself as a Catholic, has written a book, which purports to tell the facts about matters pertaining to human sexuality. In this rather lengthy work, he summarizes the Catholic teaching on abortion in the following way:

Catholicism. Although Catholic teaching on abortion has shifted through the centuries, the current position is clear: abortion is murder. This position has been fixed since 1869, when Pope Pius IX reinstituted the doctrine that the soul enters the body at the moment of conception; from that moment on, the fetus is therefore a person. Furthermore, because the fetus has a soul it must be baptized in order to remove original sin. Catholics therefore believe that not only is abortion murder, but it also condemns the unborn person to hell.49

This passage, stated gratuitously with no supporting references, is particularly remarkable because it contains nine major errors in the space of four sentences, and fails to make a single correct point concerning the Catholic Church's teaching on abortion. It provides an unusually concentrated example of academic incompetence, demonstrating in embarrassing detail the author's poor diction, faulty logic, bad theology, and ignorance of history.

Catholic teaching, of course, has not "shifted" through the centuries. Although the word "murder" has been used by some ecclesiastical writers, the Church does not identify abortion with murder. "Murder" is a legal term and involves a judgment about the disposition, knowledge, and intention of the alleged murderer. Murder and homicide (the killing of a human being) are not the same thing. Immediate animation is not a doctrine, and Pope Pius IX did not "reinstate" any doctrine concerning abortion in 1869.

Critical Thinking Required

The assertion that the fetus must be baptized in order to remove original sin is theologically indefensible. Aquinas maintains that children in the womb can "be subject to the action of God, in Whose sight they live, so as, by a kind of privilege, to receive the grace of sanctification; as was the case with those who were sanctified in the womb."50 The most celebrated instance of this form of sanctification is John the Baptist who, as a six-month-old fetus in the womb of Elizabeth, "leapt for joy" at the salutation of Mary who was "with child of the Holy Spirit."51 Furthermore, the Church teaches that, in addition to water, there is baptism by blood and desire.

There is no clear doctrine of the Church concerning what happens to unbaptized infants after they die. Since the twelfth century, the opinion of the majority of theologians has been that these unbaptized infants, because they are innocent of any actual sin, are immune from all pain of sense. This was taught by St. Thomas Aquinas, Scotus, St. Bonaventure, Peter Lombard and others, and is now the common teaching in the Church. St. Thomas says: "Although unbaptized infants are separated from God as far as glory is concerned, yet they are not separated from Him entirely. Rather are they joined to Him by a participation of natural goods; and so they may even rejoice in Him by natural consideration and love."52 Again, he says: "They will rejoice in this, that they will share largely in the divine goodness and in natural perfections."53

The claim that Catholics believe abortion condemns the unborn to Hell is one that is baseless and invidious. There is not a shred of evidence that the Church has ever taught this or that Catholics do indeed believe it.

The so called "information explosion," which is greatly facilitated by the mass media and its pressing day-to-day needs, has created a wide gap between information and scholarship. Although there is more print available to the general public today than ever before, people have less time and, perhaps more importantly, less inclination to discuss, digest, criticize, and challenge what they read. The gross misrepresentations that frequently appear on so important a matter as the Church's teaching on abortion should inspire a renewed interest in scholarship and, one may hope, a renaissance in critical thinking.

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 University 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.


24 Didache, II, 2, tr. J.A. Kleist, S.J., Ancient Christian Writers, 6 (Westminster, 1948), 16.

25 Epistle of Barnabas, II, 19.

26 Legatio pro Christianis, c. 35.

27 Octavius, c 30, nn. 2-3.

28 John T. Noonan, Jr., "Abortion in the Catholic Church: A Summary History," Natural Law Forum, 12 (1967), p. 104.

29 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, q. 68, a. 11, ad. 3.

30 Antoninus de Corduba, Quaestionarium theologicum, q. 38, dub. 3 (Venice, 1604).

31 Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 43 (1951), p. 855.

32 Noonan, p. 125.

33 Acta Aposlolicae Sedis, p. 43. Pope Pius XI had said in Casti Conubii that, "The lives of both [the woman and her unborn child] are equally sacred and no one, not even public authority can ever have the right to destroy them."

34 Roger Wertheimer, "Understanding the Abortion Argument," The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion, ed. Cohen, Nagel & Scanlon (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Univ. Press, 1974), p. 29, f.n. 6.

35 S. Chandrasekhar, Abortion in a Crowded World (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1974), p. 26.

36 Ibid., p. 36.

37 Ibid., p. 37.

38 Harold O.J. Brown, Death Before Birth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1977), p. 22.

39 Connery, p. 42.

40 Wendell W. Watters, Compulsory Pregnancy: The Truth About Abortion (Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 1976), p. 90.

41 See Connery, p. 308: "The only opinion the Church has ever condemned was that which identified animation with the time of birth. It has never taught immediate animation."

42 Watters, pp. 90-1.

43 Watters, pp. 92-3.

44 Penney Kome, "Woman's Place," Homemaker's Magazine, 1976.

45 Eugene C. Bianchi, "Compassion is Needed," National Catholic Reporter, June 8, 1973.

46 Deuteronomy 30:15.

47 Deut. 30:19-20.

48 Ann Lukits, "The Agony of Abortion," Kingston, Ont. Whig Standard, Sat. Sept. 24, 1983, p. 1.

49 Michael Carrera, Sex: The Facts, The Acts, and Your Feelings (New York: Crown, 1981), p. 290.

50 ST. III, q. 68, a. 11, ad. 1.

51 Luke, Chap. I.

52 St. Thomas Aquinas, In II Sent., dist. XXXIII, Q. ii, a. 5.

53 Ibid. a. 2.

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

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