Abortion: III. Religious Traditions: B. Roman Catholic Perspectives

views updated


The following is a revision and update of the first edition entry "Abortion: Roman Catholic Perspectives" by John R. Connery. The Roman Catholic tradition has always treated abortion as a serious sin. Yet Catholic teaching on abortion has not always centered on the "right to life" of the individual fetus, nor has it always viewed all abortion as homicide. For several centuries, early abortion in particular was characterized more as a sexual sin than as killing, and was condemned as an interference in the natural outcome of the reproductive process, often assuming as its context an illicit sexual liaison.

The fact that Catholic views of the precise status of the fetus as human life have changed over time and that the church's position has a philosophical rather than a religious basis are key to late-twentieth-century church teaching on abortion. That teaching is that the fetus must be given the benefit of the doubt, and be treated as if it were a person from conception onward. This teaching is not stated as a sectarian religious proposition, but as a humanistic and philosophical truth to be recognized in civil laws guaranteeing appropriate protection to fetal life. Although exhortations to protect life in the womb have often been supported with religious allusions (for instance, to the will of the Creator or to the image of God in humanity), the duties to continue pregnancy and to sustain infants have been grounded primarily in the "natural law," understood as a shared human morality innate to all persons and knowable by reason.

In examining the foundations and development of the Catholic position, it is important to place modern teaching in the context of changing views of women's roles in family and society. Other factors influencing debates about Roman Catholicism and abortion are the relation of scientific knowledge about the beginnings of human life to the moral status of life; the relation among civil law, morality, and the church as an institutional actor; and contraception and population, especially in international perspective.

Historical Development

Although Catholic claims about abortion are not narrowly religious, certain biblical and early Christian characterizations of life in the womb no doubt have contributed to an ethos in which abortion is viewed negatively. The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) did not treat the killing of a fetus as the killing of an infant (Exod. 21:22), although the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew (early third century b.c.e.) adds a distinction between the formed and the unformed fetus, and presents abortion of the former as homicide. This distinction reflects the ancient Greek view (Aristotle) that the matter and form of any being must be mutually appropriate (the hylomorphic theory), and that the embryo or fetus could not have a human soul (form) until the body (matter) was sufficiently developed. Often quoting the Septuagint, patristic and medieval theologians maintained this distinction, which remained a key component of Roman Catholic discussion of abortion until at least the eighteenth century.

The Gospels do not address abortion explicitly, though the infancy narratives manifest interest in the importance of the individual before birth, at least in respect of God's will for him or her in the future (Matt. 1:18–25; Luke 1:5–45). In Paul's Letter to the Galatians (5:20) and in Revelation (9:21), condemnations of magical drugs (pharmakeia) associated with various forms of immorality, including promiscuity and lechery, may very likely extend to abortifacients. The connection is made clear in two early Christian texts, the Didache and the Epistle to Barnabas. "'You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not corrupt boys. You shall not fornicate. You shall not steal. You shall not make magic. You shall not practice medicine (pharmakeia). You shall not slay the child by abortions (phthora). You shall not kill what is generated. You shall not desire your neighbor's wife' (Didache 2.2)" (Noonan, p. 9).

Contraceptive and abortifacient drugs, as well as infanticide, were certainly used widely in the ancient world, not only to conceal sexual crimes but also to limit family size and conserve property. Early Christian authors such as Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine in the Western church, and Clement of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and Basil in the Eastern church, repudiated these practices. They did not, however, challenge their patriarchal social context, with its requirement that female sexuality serve the good of the family and its assumption that women seeking to avoid pregnancy were usually guilty of sexual infidelity. Local councils tended to support this stand. In 303 c.e., on the Iberian Peninsula, the Council of Elvira excluded from the church for the rest of her life any woman who had obtained an abortion after adultery. In 314, the Eastern church, at the Council of Ancyra (Ankara), reduced the period of penance to ten years, although it retained the lifetime ban for voluntary homicide. Such church laws made no distinction between the formed and the unformed fetus, but Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine considered that the sin of abortion might not be homicide until after ensoulment. (The fetus was considered by many ancient writers to receive a soul only after the body had "formed," or reached an appropriate level of development, at about three months.)

Formation of the fetus became a consideration in assigning penance in private confession during the seventh century, but it was not universally recognized in church law until the decree Sicut ex of Innocent III in 1211. The decree dealt with irregularity, which could be incurred for homicide. An irregularity is a canonical impediment that bars a man from receiving or exercising holy orders. Irregularities are based on defects (such as mental or physical illness) or crimes (including attempted suicide, murder, and abortion). According to the decree, irregularity would not be incurred for abortion unless the fetus was animated. Since the time of animation was identified with formation, the decree implied that only abortion of the formed fetus was considered homicide. Following Aristotle, forty and ninety days were accepted as the time of animation for the male and the female fetus, respectively. Confusion arose, however, from a parallel tradition that extended the notion of homicide not only to the abortion of the unformed fetus but also to sterilization. Both traditions claimed a factual base, the one in the premise that the "man" is contained in miniature in the male seed, and the other in Aristotle's reported observation of aborted fetuses. During the Middle Ages, the distinction between formed and unformed was generally accepted, notably by Thomas Aquinas, and only the abortion of the formed fetus was classified as homicide, even in reference to sacramental penances. Earlier abortions were not murder, but they were still forbidden as serious sins because they interfered with the procreative outcome of sexual acts.

In the early fourteenth century, the Dominican John of Naples introduced an exception, subsequently accepted by several others: It would be permissible to abort the unformed fetus in order to save the life of the mother. Later theologians, particularly Thomas Sánchez (sixteenth century), used the argument of self-defense against an unjust aggressor (so characterizing the fetus) or the principle of totality (looking on the fetus as part of the mother). In 1588, Sixtus V reaffirmed a more rigid position, classifying even sterilization as homicide, and (in the decree Effraenatam) making excommunication a penalty of the universal church for the sin of abortion. A modification in 1591 again limited the provision to the case of the animated fetus, at either forty or ninety days. This legislation remained in effect until 1869, when Pius IX extended it to all direct abortion. Twenty years later, the Holy Office of the Vatican declared that neither craniotomy nor any other action to destroy the fetus directly would be permitted, even if without it both mother and child would die. Until that point, the exception to save maternal life had been debated by the theologians without receiving official condemnation. While theologians sought a balance of the value of the fetus with other values, especially the life of the mother, papal legislation moved toward a reinforcement of the abortion prohibition.

A moderating influence that continues today was exerted via the principle of double effect. This principle, pertaining to acts that have both good and evil effects, permits a moral distinction between direct and indirect abortion. Only direct abortions are absolutely prohibited in official Roman Catholic teaching. Indirect (permitted) abortions are those operations that have as their primary effect the saving of the mother's life, with the death of the fetus a foreseen but not directly intended secondary effect. The classic example is the removal of the cancerous uterus of a woman who is pregnant. In this case, the death of the fetus is neither in itself the desired outcome of the intervention, nor even willed and caused as the means by which the woman's life is saved. The removal of the cancer, not the fetus, heals. Double effect may also be applied to the removal of a fallopian tube in the case of an ectopic pregnancy. The premise behind the justification of indirect abortion is that while the direct killing of an innocent human being is immoral, the woman's life is at least equal in value to that of her unborn offspring, so that she has no duty to assume serious risk to her own life in order to sustain the child.

Contemporary Teaching

In his 1930 encyclical on marriage, Casti connubii, Pius XI affirmed the equal sacredness of mother and fetus, but condemned the destruction of the "innocent child" in the womb, who can in no way be considered an "unjust assailant." (The sticking point here, of continuing interest to moralists, is whether it is necessary to have an unjust intention to qualify as an unjust aggressor, or whether unintentionally posing an unjust danger to another is sufficient. Soldiers in war, for instance, may have noble personal intentions, yet validly be viewed by their opponents as unjust attackers.) The Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et spes, no. 51) referred to abortion and infanticide as "unspeakable crimes." The complex agenda of and challenges to current church teaching are well focused by the 1974 Vatican "Declaration on Abortion."

This document is a response to changed Western abortion laws, as well as to population measures in developing nations. Even as it resists these pressures, it adapts its message on abortion to cultural and legal contexts characterized by the emancipation of women and the need to control births. The document responds to the Western political value of free choice by asserting that "freedom of opinion" does not extend further than the rights of others, especially the right to life. It observes that while ensoulment has been debated historically, abortion has always been condemned. Most important, the document insists that human reason can and should recognize respect for human life as the most fundamental of all goods, and the condition of their realization. It sees modern science as confirming that human life begins with fertilization, though allowing that science can never definitively settle what is properly a philosophical question. Still, "it is objectively a grave sin to dare to risk murder" if there is doubt as to whether the fetus is fully a human person.

The "Declaration on Abortion" recognizes that pregnancy can pose serious burdens for the health and welfare of women, families, and children themselves. It advocates that individuals and nations exercise "responsible parenthood" by natural means of avoiding conception. It also exhorts "all those who are able to do so to lighten the burdens still crushing so many men and women, families and children, who are placed in situations to which in human terms there is no solution" (no. 23). It excludes abortion as an answer but also concludes that what is necessary "above all" is to "combat its causes" through "political action" (no. 26). The "Declaration" anticipates later efforts, notably by the U.S. episcopacy, to advocate moral consistency on killing, in that it contrasts growing protests against war and the death penalty with the social vindication of abortion. From the standpoint of both the Vatican and the U.S. bishops, the unborn should be included within a greater respect for life in general, and be protected by more stringent social limits on killing of all kinds.

Critical Debates

Among the debated questions regarding the Roman Catholic tradition on abortion are certainly the following. First, is it reasonable and scientifically sound to urge that the fetus be treated as a "person" from conception onward, especially if to do so will have dire consequences for the woman who bears it? While most Roman Catholic theologians assume a conservative attitude toward the value of prenatal life, not all accept that full value is present at the outset; rather, it increases in some developmental fashion, at least through the earlier stages. Several authors (Tauer; McCormick; Shannon and Wolter) have pointed to the time of implantation, at about fourteen days, as a "line" after which individuality appears more settled (the possibility of "twinning" being past) and the chance of survival greatly magnified (for a discussion, see Cahill).

Second, is the equality of women, and the substantive legal, social, and material support for women and families enjoined by the "Declaration," really as high on the practical pro-life agenda of Roman Catholicism as is the enactment of punitive sanctions for abortion? A deep skepticism about whether this is so gives the "abortion rights" cry of many feminists its immense symbolic value in the struggle for gender and sexual equality. While some Catholic feminists believe that sexual self-determination and effective birth control is a better way to ensure women's liberation than recourse to a form of killing, other Catholic feminists insist that the choice to terminate pregnancy must be available to women as long as a patriarchal church and society identify women's roles as reproductive and domestic in order to constrain women's moral agency and to exclude women from the range of social participation available to men.

Third, even granted that the fetus has significant value, can and should restrictive abortion laws be kept in place—or reenacted in nations that have moved toward liberalization? John Courtney Murray (ch. 7) distinguishes between law and morality. Morality in principle governs all human conduct, while law pertains to the "public order," the minimum moral requirements of healthy social functioning. Modern nations vary in the degree of restraint on abortion choice they see public order as requiring (see Glendon). Abortion policy debates, especially in more lenient systems like that of the United States, challenge Roman Catholicism to reshape the social consensus about the value of the unborn. Any legislation not backed by a consensus favoring enforcement will lead both to disrespect for the law and to the proliferation of unregulated extralegal alternatives. A precondition for a less permissive abortion consensus is the creation both of avenues other than "abortion rights" for the exercise of women's social and personal freedoms, and of social supports encouraging women and families to raise children.

A major point of debate within Roman Catholicism is the level of legal compromise acceptable to those who would accord the fetus more value than does the current consensus. Following the principle that law and morality are not coterminous, some argue that a policy that encourages early abortion and restricts it to "hard cases" (e.g., threat to life or health, rape, incest, serious birth defects) could command enough broad support to justify it as a practical advance in the limitation of abortion. Advocates of a more stringent position insist that the full weight of the church's moral authority be marshaled behind a policy that would outlaw abortion altogether.

Finally, can the church credibly defend its antiabortion position while disallowing the most effective forms of birth control? It is relevant to this question that many nations' aspirations to economic and cultural prosperity are plagued by limited freedom for women in marriage and family, and by increasing overpopulation. In the industrialized countries, the abortion controversy tends to focus on individual rights, either of the fetus or of the mother, with Roman Catholic proponents framing the issue in terms of a legally protectable right to life. In such nations, the church tends to address itself to the absolutization of private choice over what it sees as human life, and the trivialization of the abortion decision as it becomes a substitute for sexual responsibility and contraception.

However, the Roman Catholic church is an international organization, with a substantial or growing membership in, for example, Latin America, the Philippines, and Africa. In many nations, the question of women's freedom to combine family with public vocation as the context for the abortion debate is overshadowed by dire poverty; the inaccessibility of education, adequate employment, and healthcare; the ambiguous economic implications of a large family in rural, agricultural settings; and the radically disadvantaged position of girls and women within the family in some traditional cultures. Especially in the absence of ready access to contraception, abortion may appear to such women, to families, and even to government agencies to be a desperate but necessary means of controlling fertility. As the 1974 "Declaration on Abortion" indicates, the global Roman Catholic position on abortion must go beyond the condemnation of abortion as murder to address personal and social situations in which abortion appears as the only viable answer to deprivation or oppression.

lisa sowle cahill (1995)

SEE ALSO: Authority in Religious Traditions; Christianity, Bioethics in; Conscience, Rights of; Embryo and Fetus: Religious Perspectives; Feminism; Genetic Testing and Screening: Reproductive Genetic Testing; Human Dignity; Moral Status; Natural Law; Population Ethics: Religious Traditions, Roman Catholic Perspectives; and other Abortion subentries


Abbott, Walter M., ed. 1966. The Documents of Vatican II: All Sixteen Texts Promulgated by the Ecumenical Council, 1962–1965. New York: America Press.

Ashley, Benedict, and O'Rourke, Kevin D. 1978. Health Care Ethics: A Theological Analysis. St. Louis: Catholic Hospital Association.

Cahill, Lisa Sowle. 1993. "The Embryo and the Fetus: New Moral Contexts." Theological Studies 54(1): 124–142.

Connery, John R. 1977. Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective. Chicago: Loyola University Press.

Glendon, Mary Ann. 1987. Abortion and Divorce in Western Law: American Failures, European Challenges. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Grisez, Germain G. 1970. Abortion: The Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments. New York: Corpus.

Jung, Patricia Beattie, and Shannon, Thomas A., eds. 1988. Abortion and Catholicism: The American Debate. New York: Crossroad.

McCormick, Richard A. 1984. Health and Medicine in the Catholic Tradition: Tradition in Transition. New York: Crossroad.

Murray, John Courtney. 1960. We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. New York: Sheed and Ward.

Noonan, John T., Jr., ed. 1970. The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pius XI, Pope. 1930. Casti Connubii. In Matrimony, pp. 219–291, tr. Michael J. Byrnes. Papal Teachings Series. Selected and arranged by the Benedictine monks of Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Solesmes. Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1963.

Shannon, Thomas A., and Wolter, Allan B. 1990. "Reflections on the Moral Status of the Pre-Embryo." Theological Studies 51(4): 603–626.

Tauer, Carol A. 1984. "The Tradition of Probabilism and the Moral Status of the Early Embryo." Theological Studies 45(1): 3–33.

Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. 1974. "Declaration on Abortion." Origins 4: 386–392.

About this article

Abortion: III. Religious Traditions: B. Roman Catholic Perspectives

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article