Abortion: “A Bracing Walk in History”

There can be few hot-button issues in the church so calculated to arouse the passions as abortion.  Yesterday, I read a post by William Lindsey at Bilgrimage on the current debate – or lack of rational debate.  What should be reasoned discussion, has instead been appropriated for other reasons:

Most of all, I’m unpersuaded because I don’t really hear anti-abortion activists trying to persuade me. Not through reason, that is. Not through the same kind of reason that all other groups, religious or otherwise, seek to use in the public square, when they want to get the rest of us to buy into the legitimacy of a moral or political argument.

I feel bullied, threatened, shouted at. I don’t feel engaged in a reasonable discussion. I haven’t found any of the anti-abortion activists I know or observe in the media or at public gatherings focusing on reason at all. I find them doing something else, and that is the starting point for my fundamental concerns about the anti-abortion movement, and what it intends.

Typically for any writing about abortion, this has itself generated discussion in the comments, some reasoned, some simple ridicule. Bill has followed up since with a follow-up “Reader Responds” post, reflecting on an extended comment by Colleen Kochinvar – Baker.

For what its worth, my own view has sympathy with both sides, and so I tend not to have strong feelings on the matter. I am pro-life, in that I am instinctively opposed to abortion in general as morally wrong.  I am also pro-choice, in that I believe we should respect the right of others to disagree in good conscience.

But I do not want to get into the substance of the abortion debate here.  Instead, I would like to share some further ideas from my internet ramblings yesterday.

At Nihil Obstat, I read a post by Karen Doherty on  Reason Revelation and the Catholic Mind, containing two instructive quotations from Benedict XVI in his visit to Prague.

“What will happen if our culture builds itself only on fashionable arguments, with little reference to a genuine historical intellectual tradition, or on the viewpoints that are most vociferously promoted and most heavily funded,” he asked.

“He also underlined the need to mend “the breach between science and religion.”

Indeed. If only he could apply these principles to current Vatican thought on abortion (or, for that matter, homosexuality), which patently ignores the views of medicine and science generally.

Then, in looking for information on contraception, I found instead a penetrating review of the church teaching on abortion in historical perspective, written by the (Catholic) Professor of Theology, Donald C Maguire.

Maguire introduces his piece with some pertinent remarks on how theology is being transformed by the modern emergence of lay theologians, including women, who bring a welcome breath of fresh air, reinvigorating theology that had become ossified by being restricted to a (male ) priesthood:

One of the tragedies of human life is the separation of power and ideas. The Catholic tradition is more filled with good sense and flexibility than one would gather from its leaders. Religious leaders are often not equipped to give voice to the best in the tradition they represent. In Catholicism, popes and bishops are usually not theologians and often they do not express the real treasures of wisdom that Catholicism has to offer to the world. That is changing as lay people enter the field of Catholic theology and bring to it their real-life experience as workers, parents, and professionals. Catholic theology is no longer a clergy club, and that is gain.

One of these lay theologians is professor Christine Gudorf. Christine is an internationally known scholar teaching at The International University in Miami. She is also a wife and a parent. Catholic theology was done in recent centuries almost exclusively by men. That changed and women began in the last half of the twentieth century to enrich the tradition with their scholarship and experience as women.

Amen to that.  McGuire then quotes Gudorf, and the Jesuit theologian, on the importance of of an understanding of history in making sense of any controversy:

Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit scholar, said that nothing is intelligible outside its history. The point is well taken. If we lost our personal history through amnesia, we would not even know who we are. Gudorf believes along with many scholars that there is nothing that clears the mind of caricatures like a bracing walk through history. (emphasis added).

McGuire then takes us on just such a “bracing walk though history”.  The heart of the Catholic position is that an unborn child is nevertheless fully human:  but when does an foetus become an unborn child, and not just an embryo? Augustine considered this question, wondering whether foetuses which had miscarried early would join in the resurrection of the dead. He concluded they would not.

The conclusion reached by Latin American Catholic theologians in a recent study is this: “It appears that the texts condemning abortion in the early church refer to the abortion of a fully formed fetus.” The early fetus did not have the status of person nor would killing it fit the category of murder.

Later, Aquinas argued that “ensoulment”,  or the progress from embryo to unborn child, occurred at the “quickening” or first movement in the womb. Others shared this view.

Thus the most traditional and stubbornly held position in Catholic Christianity is that early abortions are not murder.

There were other deviations from what are now assumed to be the “standard” Catholic view.  In the 15th c, St Antoninus of Florence  who did extensive work on abortion,  held that early abortions were justified to save the life of the mother, as she had a stronger claim to protection.

He approved of early abortions to save the life of the woman, a class with many members in the context of fifteenth century medicine. This became common teaching. For this he was not criticized by the Vatican. Indeed, he was later canonized as a saint and thus as a model for all Catholics. Many Catholics do not know that there is a pro-choice Cathlic saint who was also an archbishop.

In the following century, Antoninus of Cordoba and the Jesuit Thomas Sanchez agreed.

Professor McGuire agrees, as do I, that the traditional view is “generally” against abortion.  Where he takes issue with the views now propagated as “standard”, is that its dogmatic rigidity is not traditional.  Early theologians accepted that early term abortions were not murder, and even later term abortions could be justified if the mother’s life was in danger.

Catholic teaching on contraception and abortion has been anything but consistent. What most people–including most Catholics- think of as “the Catholic position” on these issues actually dates from the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii of Pope Pius XI. Prior to that, church teaching was a mixed and jumbled bag. The pope decided to tidy up the tradition and change it by saying that contraception and sterilization were sins against nature and abortion was a sin against life.

Although it is virtually unknown in much public international discourse, the Roman Catholic position on abortion is pluralistic. It has a strong “pro-choice” tradition and a conservative anti-choice tradition. Neither is official and neither is more Catholic than the other. The hierarchical attempt to portray the Catholic position as univocal, an unchanging negative wafted through twenty centuries of untroubled consensus, is untrue. By unearthing this authentic openness to choice on abortion and on contraception in the core of the tradition, the status of the anti-choice position is revealed as only one among many Catholic views.

This is exactly in keeping with Mark Jordan’s description of the Vatican’s rhetoric on homosexuality:  constant repetition of its own beliefs by insisting that it is the unchanging historical view, without presenting any evidence from history for such a statement.

Once again, I find that (if McGuire’s analysis is correct) my instincts are more in sympathy with the real tradition of the church than the modern view which claims to be traditional.  I repeat once again my objections to modern presentations of the Magisterium, which again and again attempts to read history backwards,  selecting from the past only those  elements which support the views of establishment theologians.

I fully endorse Pope Benedict’s urging that we “make reference to a genuine historical tradition”:  but I caution that this history must be informed by the best modern theologians and historians, including the lay theologians now coming into prominence, and not just those in the Vatican establishment.

Further Reading:

Donald c Maguire:  Sacred Choices



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2 Responses to “Abortion: “A Bracing Walk in History””

  1. colkoch Says:

    Great post Terence. My biggest issues with the lack of debate on this issue are two fold: the first is that like Aquinas we have no idea when ensoulment occurs and according to consistent Catholic tradition a soul is necessary to be fully human.

    Second is the use of an absolute position on the morality of abortion which is not present in any other situation when it comes to the taking of human life. This essentially gives a one day old conceptus an ontological distinction not given to the born. It’s crazy thinking in it’s worst form.

    • queeringthechurch Says:

      Thanks Colleen – but you got me started here, with your observations on Aquinas. And you’re absolutely right on the stupidity of the absolutist position.


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