After the Patristic period, as the church increasingly became the Catholic Church, attitudes toward abortion shifted. The church saw life as beginning at quickening (when the mother could feel the baby move). This derived from the combining of Grecian thought with Christian thought that we’ve seen in other contexts.
Much of following material is modified from Religious Tolerance —
Augustine (354-430 CE) returned to the Aristotelian (Grecian) concept of “delayed ensoulment.” He wrote that a human soul cannot live in an unformed body. Thus, early in pregnancy, an abortion is not murder because no soul is destroyed (or, more accurately, only a vegetable or animal soul is terminated). Only abortion of a more fully developed “fetus animatus” (animated fetus) was punished as murder.
Jerome (circa 340 – 420) wrote in a letter to Aglasia: “The seed gradually takes shape in the uterus, and it [abortion] does not count as killing until the individual elements have acquired their external appearance and their limbs.” This, of course, happens much sooner than quickening.
Starting in the 7th century CE, a series of penitentials were written in the West. These listed an array of sins, with the penance that a person must observe as punishment for the sin. Certain “sins” which prevented conception had particularly heavy penalties. These included:
- practicing coitus interruptus (withdrawal of the penis prior to ejaculation)
- engaging in oral sex or anal sex
- becoming sterile by artificial means, such as by consuming sterilizing poisons.
Abortion, on the other hand, required a less serious penance. Theodore, who organized the English church, assembled a penitential about 700 CE. Oral intercourse required from 7 years to a lifetime of penance; an abortion required only 120 days.
However, penitentials seem to have been written locally and may not have reflected the position of Rome. And because these were written as guides for imposing penance, rather than doctrinal tracts, the language may have not been as formal as we’d find in, say, a papal bull. Therefore, a relatively light penalty for “abortion” may well have been understood locally as referring to a pre-quickening abortion, as a post-quickening abortion may well have been dealt with under “murder,” as Rome quite plainly taught that second and third trimester abortions were murder.
Pope Stephen V (served 885-891) wrote in 887 CE: “If he who destroys what is conceived in the womb by abortion is a murderer, how much more is he unable to excuse himself of murder who kills a child even one day old.” Epistle to Archbishop of Mainz.
Pope Innocent III (circa 1161-1216):
- He wrote a letter which ruled on a case of a Carthusian monk who had arranged for his female lover to obtain an abortion. The Pope decided that the monk was not guilty of homicide if the fetus was not “animated.”
- Early in the 13th century he stated that the soul enters the body of the fetus at the time of “quickening” — when the woman first feels movement of the fetus. After ensoulment, abortion was equated with murder; before that time, it was a less serious sin, because it terminated only potential human life, not human life.
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) also considered only the abortion of an “animated” fetus as murder.
Pope Sixtus V (1471-1484) issued a Papal bull “Effraenatam” in 1588 threatening those who carried out abortions at any stage of gestation with excommunication and the death penalty.
Pope Gregory XIV (1535-1591) revoked the Papal bull shortly after taking office in 1591. He reinstated the “quickening” test, which he determined happened 116 days into pregnancy (16½ weeks out of 40, hence, the end of the first trimester).
Finally, well before the 20th Century, the Catholic Church returned to the early church’s position.
Pope Pius IX (1792-1878) reversed the stance of the Roman Catholic church once more. He dropped the distinction between the “fetus animatus” and “fetus inanimatus” in 1869.
Leo XIII (1878-1903) issued a decree in 1884 that prohibited craniotomies. This is an unusual form of abortion used late in pregnancy and is occasionally needed to save the life of the pregnant woman.
He issued a second decree in 1886 that prohibited all procedures that directly killed the fetus, even if done to save the woman’s life. The church required excommunication for abortions at any stage of pregnancy. This position has continued to the present time.
In 1995 Pope John Paul II declared that the Church’s teaching on abortion
is unchanged and unchangeable. Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his successors . . . 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. 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
(Evangelium Vitae 62). However, the Catholic Church makes an exception for abortions necessary to save the life of the mother.
Thus, after Augustine, abortion was sin if pre-quickening but only murder after quickening. At no stage was abortion at any point in the pregnancy considered moral, much less a right.
The platform of the Democratic Party, adopted only a few days ago, declares —
The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.
Opposition to “any and all efforts to weaken” the right to abortion quite obviously is support for the “right” to late-term abortion, even well after quickening.
In short, there is no way to reconcile the teachings of the Democratic Party and the teachings of the early church or the Catholic Church. The church has never considered anyone as having a “right” to an abortion. At all stages of pregnancy, abortion has always been considered sin.
Senator Pelosi is right that the views of the Catholic Church have changed over the years, but the amount of change has not been great. Indeed, the Catholic Church has been far more uniform on abortion than on countless other issues!
Now, abortion is but one of many issues on which both parties take positions, and many of those issues have a moral element. The Republicans don’t escape criticism just because the Democrats are seriously wrong on this point. But it’s an important point.
And I’m no Catholic. I am, however, a Christian, and I feel obliged to point out that as the Democrats reach out to the more conservative elements within the church, they seek to make a moral case for their views. And some of their positions are indeed moral. But when they run into a disagreement between the church’s doctrine and the Party’s platform, the effort is to conform doctrine to Party, not Party to doctrine.
I mean, as bad as it is for any political party to be arguing against basic morality, it’s even worse when the very powerful machinery of a political party is abused in an effort to persuade people that the Democrats know the Bible and doctrine better than the church! Obviously, they don’t.
Fortunately, at this point, even the press sees that Sen. Pelosi has overreached. See this AP story, for example.
Hopefully, the Democrats will stop contending that their position on abortion has roots in Christianity. It doesn’t. Its roots are in paganism. The ancient Greeks had no objection to either abortion or infanticide. But then, they weren’t God fearers.