How did the Catholic Church “position” on abortion and contraception come about? Many would point to “Humanae Vitae,” the encyclical issued during the papacy of Pope Paul VI, and whose 40th anniversary is to be observed this week, as the source of that “position.”
But it turns out that Catholics and Christians have been grappling with these issues—and terms clustered around them like sex, marriage, fertility, choice and self-determination—long before Paul VI put his signature on “Humanae Vitae.”
The source of our discussion is a book called “Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions,” written by Daniel Maguire, professor of ethics in the theology department of Marquette University (Fortress Press, 2001), and the discussion of the “Catholic story” in this matter is based in large part on studies by Christine Gudorf, a theologian and laywoman.
Christianity, points out Gudorf, “was born in a world in which contraception and abortion were both known and practiced.” Egyptians, Jews, Greeks and Romans used a variety of contraception methods, including coitus interruptus, pessaries, potions, and condoms; and abortion was believed to be widely practiced. But even before the coming of Christianity, abortion and contraception were not the only, or primary, means of limiting fertility in Europe. Infanticide was.
Gudorf cites records showing the high incidence of “accidental” infant deaths caused by “rolling over” or smothering of infants, or deaths reported as “stillborn.” During the Middle Ages, however, “infanticide was much less common than abandonment,” with infants left at crossroads, on doorsteps or in marketplaces in hopes that the babies would find adoptive parents.
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Alarmed by the number of abandoned babies, the Catholic Church provided for “oblation,” in which abandoned babies were “offered up” to the Church, raised in religious monasteries where many eventually became nuns and monks.
Coupled with this was the establishment of foundling hospitals, where an infant could be placed inside a rotating cradle anonymously, “surrendered” to the caring personnel inside. (A version of this may still be in use at the Hospicio de San Jose in Manila.) But Gudorf notes that the majority of abandoned babies were dead within a few months. “The primary pastoral battles in the first millennium were around infanticide, the banning of which undoubtedly raised the incidence of abandonment,” writes Gudorf.
“Catholic teaching on contraception and abortion has been anything but consistent,” notes Maguire. Before the issuance of the 1930 encyclical “Casti Connubii” of Pope Pius XI, through which the Pope hoped to “tidy up” the many traditions and beliefs on the issue, Church teaching was a “mixed bag.”
Writes Maguire: “Although it is virtually unknown in much public international discourse, the Roman Catholic position on abortion is pluralistic… The hierarchical attempt to portray the Catholic position as univocal, an unchanging negative wafting through 20 centuries of untroubled consensus, is untrue.”
“Ensoulment,” or when a fetus acquired a soul, was an issue for many theologians in the early years of the Church. Gudorf writes that “the common pastoral view was that ensoulment occurred at quickening, when the fetus could first be felt moving in the mother’s womb… Before ensoulment, the fetus was not understood as a human person. This was the reason the Catholic Church did not baptize miscarriages or stillbirths.”
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In the 15th century, Antoninus, the archbishop of Florence, did extensive work on abortion. “He approved of early abortions to save the life of the woman … and this became common teaching. He was not criticized by the Vatican for this. Indeed, he was later canonized as a saint and thus a model for all Catholics. Many Catholics do not know that there exists a pro-choice Catholic saint who was also an archbishop and a Dominican.”
In the 16th century, Antoninus de Corduba said that medicine that was also abortifacient could be taken even later in a pregnancy if the mother’s health required it. “The mother, he insisted, had a jus prius, or prior right. Some of the maladies he discussed do not seem to have been matters of life and death for the women, and yet he allowed that abortifacient medicine was morally permissible, even in these cases.”
In 1869, the Vatican was invited to enter a debate on a very late-term abortion requiring dismemberment of a formed fetus in order to save the woman’s life. The Vatican refused to issue a judgment, referring the questioner instead to the teaching of theologians on the issue. “It was, in other words, the business of the theologians to discuss it freely and arrive at a conclusion. It was not for the Vatican to decide. This appropriate modesty and disinclination to intervene is an older and wiser Catholic model,” comments Maguire.
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This short review of Catholic Church teaching on abortion and contraception, says Maguire, shows that a “pro-choice” position coexists alongside a “no choice” position in Catholic tradition and history.
Gudorf says that the Catholic position on abortion is “undeveloped,” with no coherent Catholic teaching on the matter. “Abortion was not the birth limitation of choice because it was, until well into the 20th century, so extremely dangerous to the mother.” Some Catholic scholars say all direct abortions are wrong, others assert that some exceptions exist, such as danger to the mother, rape, detected genetic abnormalities, etc. Gudorf, ever sensible, puts it this way: “The best evidence is that the Catholic position is not set in stone and is rather in development.”
In light of the recent debates in the Philippine Congress over House Bill 00017, or the “Reproductive Health, Responsible Parenthood and Population Development Act of 2007,” it is imperative to educate ordinary Filipino Catholics regarding the most important issue at stake in modern society and politics.
in the At Large section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, 07/22/2008
by Rev.Fr. Eric Nielsen, LC
Miss Jimenez-David begins her article with a correct assertion. The Catholic Church did not pull its “position” on abortion and contraception out of its hat with the signing of Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI in 1968. That Encyclical was indeed fruit of a long process of development, which is precisely what gives it its theological weight. Popes do not define theological concepts or teach with magisterial authority by their own whims. What they do is express the unbroken tradition of the Church in a given matter. While it is true that many of these truths may be “implicit” in Scripture and Tradition, and never explicitly stated, they are nonetheless present. Such has been the case with many aspects of the Church’s increasingly defined teaching on procured abortion, which necessarily has depended upon and been complimented by advances in medical science and our understanding of the mechanics of human life.
She is also correct in stating that there has always been a “Catholic Plurality,” although the manner in which she uses this concept seems faulty. The Church is a highly pluralistic place. It’s name, “Catholic” (meaning “universal”) implies its embracing every race, culture and epoch. All of its many rites and religious traditions are fired by a universal mission of salvation. The one Church embraces hundreds of religious orders and spiritual families. It showcases saints of every type, from every age and every walk of life. All of this bespeak an immense plurality.
On a theological plane, the Church also boasts a great plurality. In effect, wherever a question has not been authoritatively resolved there is room for a plurality of opinions. And where the Church has taught in an authoritative manner plurality is not diminished, nor freedom of thought stifled. Every definition provides the theologian with a firm point upon which to pursue further advances in theology. We wouldn’t dream of accusing a doctor of “stifling freedom of thought” whenever he finds a new cure. Nor would we accuse him ignoring the past simply because his predecessors thought differently about the workings of the human body.
The gist is that Magisterial teachings are true advances in theology, and that they do not ignore, but build upon past theology, often times by correcting the past errors of commonly-held (but non-Magisterial) theological ideas.
Miss Jimenez-David proceeds to correctly point out the fact that Christianity “‘was born in a world in which contraception and abortion were both known and practiced.’ Egyptians, Jews, Greeks and Romans used a variety of contraception methods, including coitus interruptus, pessaries, potions, and condoms; and abortion was believed to be widely practiced. But even before the coming of Christianity, abortion and contraception were not the only, or primary, means of limiting fertility in Europe. Infanticide was.”
The ancient world did indeed know contraception, abortion and infanticide, and the Church was counter-cultural in fighting all three.
The crux of her article comes about, however, when she quotes Daniel Maquire as saying, “‘Catholic teaching on contraception and abortion has been anything but consistent… Although it is virtually unknown in much public international discourse, the Roman Catholic position on abortion is pluralistic… The hierarchical attempt to portray the Catholic position as univocal, an unchanging negative wafting through 20 centuries of untroubled consensus, is untrue.”
This is a half-truth.
The Church has always been against abortion. Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus of Rome, Lactantius, The First Council of Nicaea, and St. Augustine are all examples of this. What has changed has been our scientific understanding of what happens at conception, which has in turn enriched our theological understanding of why abortion is wrong under all circumstances.
A word about “Ensoulment.”
Maguire refers to the centuries-old, and now outdated concept of ensoulment. This concept, based upon Aristotelian metaphysics and biology, stated that the material element of any life form requires a given level of perfection for it to receive and maintain its “soul” (or life-force). Thus plants have a vegetative life-force incapable of sensory stimulus, while animals are mobile, with sensory stimulus, but are incapable of spiritual functions, such as reasoning or praying. The human being (according to this theory), having a nobler, “spiritual” soul, needs to mature to a greater degree of perfection than other beings before his body is capable supporting a spiritual, human soul. Thus is correct that: “‘Ensoulment,’ or when a fetus acquired a soul, was an issue for many theologians in the early years of the Church. Gudorf writes that ‘the common pastoral view was that ensoulment occurred at quickening, when the fetus could first be felt moving in the mother’s womb… Before ensoulment, the fetus was not understood as a human person.’”
This is precisely the point. Before the 20th Century, medical science was not sufficiently advanced to determine what happened in the early stages of human reproduction. They did not know about DNA. We now know beyond a doubt that from the moment of conception a unique and autonomous member of humanity is created. Even abortion advocates do not deny this. If such is the case, is it possible that it not be a human person? And if an innocent person, its life can never be directly taken.
The document, Donum Vitae, signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), while not carrying doctrinal weight, states it thus:
“From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a new life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. To this perpetual evidence ... modern genetic science brings valuable confirmation. It has demonstrated that, from the first instant, the programme is fixed as to what this living being will be: a man, this individual-man with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization is begun the adventure of a human life, and each of its great capacities requires time ... to find its place and to be in a position to act’. This teaching remains valid and is further confirmed, if confirmation were needed, by recent findings of human biological science which recognize that in the zygote [cell produced when the nuclei of the two gametes have fused] resulting from fertilization the biological identity of a new human individual is already constituted. Certainly no experimental datum can be in itself sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul; nevertheless, the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo provide a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of this first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?”
What can be said of earlier Church figures who stated that abortion is not murder, or even allowed for it to save a mother’s life?
Church figures who allowed for abortion to save the mother’s life did so precisely out of respect for life: They did not all think the child fully human, and so deemed that in danger to the mother’s health it could be killed. In other words, the value of human life – in this case, of the mother – trumps all.
This does not mean that abortion was blithely admitted by Church theologians. Thomas and others considered abortion a grave sin of mutilation (of the mother), not of murder. While it is not ordinarily admissible to remove a human organ, or otherwise damage a person out of respect for the dignity of life, when that same organ itself becomes a threat to life it may be removed without incurring guilt of mutilation. Thus, for example, a cancerous kidney may legitimately be removed, while the practice of organ sales for profit is morally reprehensible.
Vatican in 1869: Why the Vatican did not intervene is not up to us to determine. The most likely answer is the pervading doubt as to the humanity of the child due to lack of biological evidence, which is now beyond discussion. Perhaps it did not see the need to intervene in a cultural climate which clearly found the concept of abortion as morally abhorrent. But what can we make of Maguire’s comment that “It was, in other words, the business of the theologians to discuss it freely and arrive at a conclusion. It was not for the Vatican to decide. This appropriate modesty and disinclination to intervene is an older and wiser Catholic model”? When the Magisterium does intervene is its voice to be ignored? Is it the only theological voice not to be allowed admittance?
Above philosophical questions as to the rightness or wrongness of abortion, we face an issue of faith. Does or doesn’t the Church have teaching authority to be adhered to in faith by all Catholics? More importantly, on what grounds does a Catholic theologian reject a teaching made by means of the Church’s ordinary Magisterium, as is the case of an Encyclical (such as Humanae Vitae or Evangelium Vitae)? On what grounds does a Catholic theologian ignore the teachings of a Church Council, an extraordinary form of Magisterium with the same infallible weight as an Ex-Cathedra declaration from the Pope: “Abortus necnon infanticidium nefanda sunt criminal,” or “abortion, and equally infanticide, are unspeakable (or ‘nefarious’) crimes”? (cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 51)
When Miss Jimenez David states, “Gudorf, ever sensible, puts it this way: ‘The best evidence is that the Catholic position is not set in stone and is rather in development,’” she is flatly wrong. She cites different theologians throughout history to defend the concept of a “Catholic plurality.” Yet none of these spoke with Magisterial weight. None of them claimed, or could claim to speak with the “voice of the Church.”
That the Magisterium refrained from issuing definitive declarations on this issue for the better part of two thousand years should neither surprise us nor concern us. The true surprise would have come about were the Church to have done so at a time when the mysteries of human biology were as unknown as the mysteries of black holes.
As for “concern,” it is well to remember that the Church had to wait nearly 300 years from the death of Christ to define such a fundamental concept as his true divinity (Council of Nicea, 325 AD), 1200 years to specify the nature of Transubstantiation (Lateran IV, 1215 AD), 1840 years to define the qualities of the Pope’s jurisdiction (Vatican Council I, 1870 AD) and 1920 years to define the doctrine of the Assumption (Munificentissimus Deus, 1950).
What the Magisterium has always and univocally proclaimed is that “the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral” (cf. Evangelium Vitae, 57). From the moment at which modern science made it clear that the human embryo is in fact a unique human being from the moment of conception, the Church never doubted in affording it all the dignity and protection due to innocent human life.
Contrary to Fr. Maguire’s assertion, Catholic tradition on this point has been constant. To cite an extensive portion of Evangelium Vitae:
“Christian Tradition-as the Declaration issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith points out so well61-is clear and unanimous, from the beginning up to our own day, in describing abortion as a particularly grave moral disorder. From its first contacts with the Greco-Roman world, where abortion and infanticide were widely practised, the first Christian community, by its teaching and practice, radically opposed the customs rampant in that society, as is clearly shown by the Didache mentioned earlier. 62 Among the Greek ecclesiastical writers, Athenagoras records that Christians consider as murderesses women who have recourse to abortifacient medicines, because children, even if they are still in their mother’s womb, “are already under the protection of Divine Providence”.63 Among the Latin authors, Tertullian affirms: “It is anticipated murder to prevent someone from being born; it makes little difference whether one kills a soul already born or puts it to death at birth. He who will one day be a man is a man already”.64
Throughout Christianity’s two thousand year history, this same doctrine has been constantly taught by the Fathers of the Church and by her Pastors and Doctors. Even scientific and philosophical discussions about the precise moment of the infusion of the spiritual soul have never given rise to any hesitation about the moral condemnation of abortion.
The more recent Papal Magisterium has vigorously reaffirmed this common doctrine. Pius XI in particular, in his Encyclical Casti Connubii, rejected the specious justifications of abortion. 65 Pius XII excluded all direct abortion, i.e., every act tending directly to destroy human life in the womb “whether such destruction is intended as an end or only as a means to an end”.66 John XXIII reaffirmed that human life is sacred because “from its very beginning it directly involves God’s creative activity”.67 The Second Vatican Council, as mentioned earlier, sternly condemned abortion: “From the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care, while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes”.68
The Church’s canonical discipline, from the earliest centuries, has inflicted penal sanctions on those guilty of abortion. This practice, with more or less severe penalties, has been confirmed in various periods of history. The 1917 Code of Canon Law punished abortion with excommunication. 69 The revised canonical legislation continues this tradition when it decrees that “a person who actually procures an abortion incurs automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication”.70 The excommu- nication affects all those who commit this crime with knowledge of the penalty attached, and thus includes those accomplices without whose help the crime would not have been committed. 71 By this reiterated sanction, the Church makes clear that abortion is a most serious and dangerous crime, thereby encouraging those who commit it to seek without delay the path of conversion. In the Church the purpose of the penalty of excommunication is to make an individual fully aware of the gravity of a certain sin and then to foster genuine conversion and repentance.
Given such unanimity in the doctrinal and disciplinary tradition of the Church, Paul VI was able to declare that this tradition is unchanged and unchangeable. 72 Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops-who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine-I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. 73
No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.”
For Catholics who believe in the infallibility of the Church’s teaching authority, the case has long been closed.
In A.D. 195, Clement of Alexandria wrote, "Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted" (The Instructor of Children 2:10:91:2).
Hippolytus of Rome wrote in 255 that "on account of their prominent ancestry and great property, the so-called faithful [certain Christian women who had affairs with male servants] want no children from slaves or lowborn commoners, [so] they use drugs of sterility or bind themselves tightly in order to expel a fetus which has already been engendered" (Refutation of All Heresies 9:12).
Around 307 Lactantius explained that some "complain of the scantiness of their means, and allege that they have not enough for bringing up more children, as though, in truth, their means were in [their] power . . . or God did not daily make the rich poor and the poor rich. Wherefore, if any one on any account of poverty shall be unable to bring up children, it is better to abstain from relations with his wife" (Divine Institutes 6:20).
The First Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council and the one that defined Christ’s divinity, declared in 325, "If anyone in sound health has castrated himself, it behooves that such a one, if enrolled among the clergy, should cease [from his ministry], and that from henceforth no such person should be promoted. But, as it is evident that this is said of those who willfully do the thing and presume to castrate themselves, so if any have been made eunuchs by barbarians, or by their masters, and should otherwise be found worthy, such men this canon admits to the clergy" (Canon 1).
Augustine wrote in 419, "I am supposing, then, although you are not lying [with your wife] for the sake of procreating offspring, you are not for the sake of lust obstructing their procreation by an evil prayer or an evil deed. Those who do this, although they are called husband and wife, are not; nor do they retain any reality of marriage, but with a respectable name cover a shame. Sometimes this lustful cruelty, or cruel lust, comes to this, that they even procure poisons of sterility [oral contraceptives]" (Marriage and Concupiscence 1:15:17).
The apostolic tradition’s condemnation of contraception is so great that it was followed by Protestants until 1930 and was upheld by all key Protestant Reformers. Martin Luther said, "[T]he exceedingly foul deed of Onan, the basest of wretches . . . is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes, a sodomitic sin. For Onan goes in to her; that is, he lies with her and copulates, and when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed. Accordingly, it was a most disgraceful crime. . . . Consequently, he deserved to be killed by God. He committed an evil deed. Therefore, God punished him."
John Calvin said, "The voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between man and woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall on the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is to extinguish the hope of the race and to kill before he is born the hoped-for offspring."
John Wesley warned, "Those sins that dishonor the body are very displeasing to God, and the evidence of vile affections. Observe, the thing which he [Onan] did displeased the Lord—and it is to be feared; thousands, especially of single persons, by this very thing, still displease the Lord, and destroy their own souls." (These passages are quoted in Charles D. Provan, The Bible and Birth Control, which contains many quotes by historic Protestant figures who recognize contraception’s evils.)