Copyright © Celia Chazelle, The College of New Jersey, October 2008
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  October 2008 (short version published in Theolog, 10/29/2008)

Abortion and Catholic Tradition

By Celia Chazelle*

In the last several years, various Catholic bishops have declared that Catholic politicians who support Roe v. Wade or pro-choice civil legislation should be denied communion. A number of them, one being Archbishop Chaput of Denver, criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for stating last August on the news program, Meet the Press, in defense of her pro-choice position, that the history of Christian thought shows no consensus on when during pregnancy human life begins.[1] From the perspective of ancient and medieval theology, Pelosi’s comment was basically correct. As both she and Chaput suggested, in weighing the different opinions expressed in the current debate, it is useful to have a clear view of that intellectual tradition.

For ancient and medieval Christian theologians, the critical issue to consider in asking when human life began was the nature and origin of the human soul. While most Greek and certain Latin Fathers taught that the soul was present from conception, [2] after the third century the dominant view in the Latin Church was that God wills the presence or development of a living or rational soul only once the fetus has acquired “form.”[3] St. Augustine, whom Pelosi cites, is uncertain about the soul’s origin,[4] but he notes that if some manner of soul is present before the fetus has form and bodily senses, it must be inanimate.[5] Although many writers are vague about precisely when the human or living soul comes to be present, others point to forty days or more after conception.[6] St. Thomas Aquinas, echoing Aristotle, asserts that the male fetus has form and receives from God a rational soul at forty days, the female fetus at ninety days.[7]

Despite the widespread belief in “delayed ensoulment,” virtually all ancient and medieval Christian writers who mention abortion at any point in pregnancy condemn it as a serious sin. Some, like St. Basil and Pope Alexander III, indicate it is murder no matter when it occurs.[8] But others differentiate abortion in the early weeks from homicide, since – in their view – the embryo or fetus does not yet have a living soul.[9] For Augustine, Gratian, Aquinas, Pope Gregory IX, and other Church leaders, early abortion did not involve taking human life but rather prevented life from beginning, by removing the body before a living soul was present. While the act was still deemed a mortal sin, it was not murder, they believed, but analogous to other acts such as sodomy, the use of contraceptives, and masturbation that were widely condemned for allowing sexual pleasure apart from marital procreation.[10]

It is important to stress that these varied teachings are fundamentally theological precepts. True, they reflect the distortions of ancient and medieval biological knowledge, and they owe much to Greek philosophy like the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Nevertheless, it is not certain that information from modern biology would have changed the beliefs of the scholars noted here, since at the core also lay theological reasoning grounded in the study (itself informed by ancient philosophy) of scripture, conciliar decrees, and the Church Fathers. Ancient and medieval theologians lacked modern evidence that the embryo is biologically alive from conception, but, as they realized, the problem of deciding when human life begins is one not simply of biology but of theology. Life is a spiritual as well as a physical condition. Not only our bodies but our souls set us apart from the rest of creation.

Catholic teaching today obviously recognizes this, but in contemporary theological discussions, there often seems too much emphasis on the findings of biology to define the theological understanding of human life and the soul’s presence. Scientific evidence is cited to shed light on something that is fundamentally a separate concern, a deep theological mystery.[11] Modern science and theology have yet to weld their distinct approaches in a way that is intellectually coherent or theologically satisfying. When does God will the soul’s presence in the embryo or fetus? No respectable biologist today would claim to know the answer.[12] In the past, too, ancient and medieval Latin theologians struggled with such questions, as did non-western Christian authors – Greek Orthodox, Monophysite, Asian Nestorian, and others. Neither within Latin Christianity nor within other streams of Christian faith can we speak of a single intellectual tradition.

For many Americans, the common (though not universally shared) notion of previous centuries that life in the embryo should be distinguished from life in the more developed fetus seems in line with common sense. While well aware that biological life begins at conception, many argue that stem cell research, early abortion, or the use of abortifacient contraceptives like the IUD is ethically different from abortion in the second or third trimester of pregnancy. Others disagree and hold that the critical matter is the life existing from the instant it is biologically conceived. The divergent opinions about when “human” life commences found in western Christianity before the Reformation presage the even wider spectrum of views in our own pluralistic society. If it were certain that the soul was present in the new embryo, rendering it fully human in theological terms, Christian doctrine would have to maintain that every abortion is homicide. But it is important to realize that the tradition underpinning our faith does not support certainty any more than biology does.[13]

From any moral standpoint abortion is a tragedy, yet there are sometimes other grave moral issues that must be weighed, as well, including the mental and physical health of the mothers and their ability, with the help of the Church and State, to provide adequate care and nurturance, the future quality of life for a severely deformed fetus, and the moral problems raised by rape and incest. When these issues are set alongside, first, the lack of consensus within the Catholic tradition about the stage at which abortion constitutes homicide, second, the ambiguity of modern science, which can never make a judgement on the existence of a soul, and third, the diversity of American culture, then even while abhoring and condemning the immorality of abortion, Church law should allow for the divergence of civil law in this area, just as the Church has traditionally allowed divergence on certain moral matters in the past when cultural pluralism has impeded consensus.[14] In the early weeks, where further ethical considerations like those just noted are present, it is appropriate for public law to leave the decision on whether to terminate a pregnancy to the mother. It is she who is responsible for the fetus and will have to wrestle with the moral implications of her decision, a decision that will affect both the child and her for the rest of their lives. In this light, it is also unjust to deny Catholic politicians who are elected to represent the views of their entire constituencies the right to receive communion.


* I am very grateful to an anonymous collaborator for patient editing of this essay, providing ideas, and writing certain passages incorporated here. The argument has been significantly strengthened as a result.

[1] Pelosi’s comments are quoted in the response of Archbishop Chaput, On the Separation of Sense and State. Speaker Pelosi did not deny the modern scientific evidence that the embryo is biologically alive from conception. The issue to which she alluded was, rather, when this life should be deemed “human,” and to answer this question she felt it proper to turn to Catholic tradition. That theologians of the past have expressed different viewpoints is clearly shown in the book by John Connery that Chaput cites against Pelosi: Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1977). Since Catholic tradition has in the past given divergent answers, Pelosi argues, her Catholicism allows her to support public law on behalf of “the woman's right to choose.”

[2] Tertullian states that the soul is generated along with the body: De anima, esp. cc 4, 25, 27. In his Ambiguorum liber, Maximus opposes the notion that before the body takes form, the soul is not animate or rational and hence not fully human: PG 91, cols 1339-42. On Basil and other Church Fathers, John T. Noonan, Jr., “An Almost Absolute Value in History,” in The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives, ed. John T. Noonan, Jr. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), pp. 1-59, at 11-18.

[3] Connery, Abortion, Chapters 4-7.

[4] Augustine, De anima et eius origine, PL 44, col. 526-27. Cassiodorus implies sympathy with Augustine’s uncertainty about the soul’s origin in, On the Soul, trans. James W. Halporn, Translated Texts for Historians, 42 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2004), pp. 260-61. For a brief survey of western thought about the soul, see the Catholic Encyclopedia.

[5] Augustine, Quaestiones in Heptateuchum, PL 34, col. 626. Cf. idem, De nuptiis et concupiscentia, 1.15, PL 44, col. 424, which became the canon, Aliquando; and Enchiridion, 85, PL 40, col. 272.

[6] Joseph Donceel, “Immediate Animation and Delayed Hominization,” Theological Studies 31 (1970), pp. 76-105, esp. 76-79. Also to note are David L. Perry, “Abortion and Personhood”; and Kenneth L. Pennington, “Abortion and Catholic Thought”.

[7] Commentarium in librum III Sententiarum, d. 3, q. 5, a. 2. See John Haldane and Patrick Lee, “Aquinas on Human Ensoulment, Abortion and the Value of Life,” Philosophy 78 (2003), pp. 255-78, at 264-67; Donceel, “Immediate Animation and Delayed Hominization,” 78-84.

[8] Basil notes the distinction between the formed and unformed fetus but says the penalty should be the same: Ep. 188, c. 2, PG 32, col. 671. Jerome implies that the fetus must be formed for abortion to be homicide, in Ep. ad Algasium, 4, PL 22, col. 860; but elsewhere he implies that abortion at any time is murder. For Pope Alexander III, the intent to prevent animation through abortion makes it murder. See Connery, Abortion, pp. 52-53 (on Jerome), 93 (on Alexander III).

[9] Connery surveys well the range of teachings: Abortion, Chapters 4-7. The English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, c. 366, states that “every spiritual soul is created immediately by God - it is not ‘produced’ by the parents - and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.” “Immediately” here translates the Latin immediate, which means “un-mediatedly.” The statement affirms God’s direct, unmediated creation of the soul, as distinct from the body which is mediated or “produced” by the parents. See the Latin text, Catechismus Catholicae Ecclesiae, c. 366.

[10] See Noonan, “Almost Absolute Value,” 15-18. The classic text in the west, repeated in later canon law collections, is Augustine’s Aliquando (PL 44, col. 424). Chaput’s claim in his reply to Pelosi (above, n. 1) that the Fathers invariably saw abortion as a “unique evil” and “an attack on life itself” is wrong.

[11] The article by Haldane and Lee exemplifies this approach: “Aquinas on Human Ensoulment,” especially the section, “Aquinas’s Position and Contemporary Embryology,” pp. 268-73.

[12] It is worth mentioning, though, that the failure of 20% of naturally conceived embryos to implant might well lead a biologist to challenge the notion that God wills the presence of souls from the moment of conception: Noonan, “Almost Absolute Value,” 55-56.

[13] See David M. Feldman, “This Matter of Abortion,” in Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality: A Reader, ed. Elliot N. Dorff and Louis E. Newman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 382-91.

[14] Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism: New Edition (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994), pp. 1007-11.