My bi-weekly meditations on Catholic Social Teaching (CST) continues with a series on various aspects of the controversial issue of abortion, including reactions to the recent Dobbs decision by the Supreme Court.
Let us begin with a brief history of traditional Catholic teaching on the objective morality of the act of abortion which terminates fetal life. There is no clear explicit biblical teaching on this issue. The Hebrew scriptures speak tenderly of God forming each new life in the womb (Jer 1:5), but say nothing about the morality of abortion. In the Gospels, Jesus explicitly forbids some practices, such as divorce, but does not include abortion. In his epistles, the Apostle Paul consistently condemns sexual immorality but does not mention abortion.
The earliest Christian condemnations of abortion are found in first century documents. For example, the Didache, probably written near the end of the first century, clearly states: “You shall not kill the fetus in the womb by abortion,“ a procedure widely practiced in the pagan world. A document written about the same time known as the “Epistle of Barnabas” condemns abortion as a violation of Christ’s command to love our neighbor. By the fifth century, Augustine representing a growing consensus in the Christian East and West, condemned abortion at all stages of fetal development. In the thirteenth century Aquinas, who thought that a fetus only gradually acquired a human soul, still taught that abortion at all stages of fetal development is “a grave sin against the natural law” and after ensoulment at 40 days a “graver sin of homicide.”
By the sixteenth century there was still a solid Christian witness against abortion. The reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin both condemned abortion, even though they found no explicit biblical prohibition of it. Calvin, for example, taught that the fetus “enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy.”
In an 1864 encyclical, Pope Pius IX attached excommunication to the crime of “direct abortion” from the moment of conception, but he did justify “indirect abortion” when saving the life of the mother would involve the death of the fetus, as in the case of removing a cancerous pregnant uterus.
In his 1996 encyclical “The Gospel of Life,“ Pope John Paul II echoed Vatican II in condemning abortion as an “unspeakable crime” and added a pastoral word to women who have had an abortion, reminding them that the Father of mercies offers them forgiveness and peace. Pope Francis has frequently reaffirmed the traditional teaching of the Church calling abortion “a crime,” “an absolute evil” and even “murder.” At the same time, Francis has expressed compassion for women who procured an abortion under extreme pressure of an “existential and moral ordeal,” which made them feel it was their only option.
This brief selective history provides strong support for the Church’s long and consistent opposition to abortion. It also invites further reflection on the moral and pastoral implications of the shift from the primitive Aristotelian biology to modern embryology.
What is my personal reaction to this traditional teaching?