The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue says he doubts whether HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is a Catholic because she supports a woman’s right to choose an abortion, which – he says – is considered by the Catholic church to be “intrinsictly evil.” If you get your theology, history or impression of Catholics, Catholicism or Christianity from the loudmouths you see on TV (like Donohue), you might think he has a point. But you and he would both be wrong.
One of the little secrets Christianity keeps hidden is that our congregations, our clergy, our theologians, and our church do not speak with one voice on abortion.
An even bigger secret: They never have.
The pro-choice tradition
Although it is not apparent from public discourse, the Catholic position on abortion is pluralistic. It has both pro-choice and anti-choice tradition, and neither is either official nor “more Catholic.” The Vatican’s attempt to portray the Catholic anti-choice position as unambiguous and unchanging, ringing through 2000 years of blissful consensus, is simply false.
What most people — including most Catholics — think of as “the Catholic position” on abortion actually dates from the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii of Pope Pius XI. Prior to that, church teaching was a mixed bag.
Let’s begin with the 4th century and Saint Augustine. Reflecting the belief in a resurrection of all the dead at the end of the world, Augustine pondered whether early fetuses who miscarried would also rise. He said they would not. The early fetus did not have the status of person, nor would killing it fit the category of murder.
Some of the Christian Penitentials of the early Middle Ages (5th through 15th centuries) prescribed seven years of fasting on bread and water for a layman who committed homicide, seven years of fasting for sterilization, but only one to three and half years for performing an abortion. Abortion was not seen, by the church, as the equivalent of murder. It wasn’t even as bad a sin as sterilization.
Why? Because the prohibition of abortion was not pro-life, it was anti-sexual. The early Christian debate about abortion make clear that a primary reason for the occasional condemnations of abortion in theological sources, including early versions of Canon Law, was that the women who had abortions were assumed invariably to be adulteresses.
The anti-choice position was not seen as “pro-life,” because the fetus was not regarded as a “person,” so aborting it was not regarded as murder. One of the early and dominant ideas in the church was “delayed ensoulment” — the fetus did not gain a soul until the “quickening,” or when the fetus could first be felt moving in the mother’s womb. Before ensoulment, the fetus was not understood as a human person. This was the reason the Catholic church did not baptize miscarriages or stillbirths.
This delayed ensoulment view was confirmed as Catholic dogma by the Council of Vienne in 1312, and has never been officially repudiated by the Vatican. Pope Innocent III and Pope Gregory IX (ca. 1200) considered abortion to be homicide only when the fetus is “formed.” In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV in Sedes Apostolica recommended “where no homicide or no animated fetus is involved, not to punish more strictly than the sacred canons or civil legislation does.” This is rather startling to learn, because we tend to assume that the Vatican has always affirmed “immediate animation” — life beginning at conception.
Saint Thomas Aquinas, the most esteemed of medieval theologians (13th century), agreed with the delayed ensoulment view. Thus the most traditional and stubbornly held position in Catholic Christianity is that early abortions are not murder.
Many Catholics do not know that there exists a pro-choice Catholic saint who was also an archbishop and a Dominican. In the 15th century, Antoninus, the saintly archbishop of Florence, did extensive work on abortion. He approved of early abortions to save the life of the woman, a class with many members in the context of 15th century medicine. This became common teaching. He was not criticized by the Vatican for this. In fact, he was later canonized as a saint and thus a model for all Catholics.
In the 16th century, Saint Antonius de Corduba, a highly influential theologian, said that medicine that was also abortifacient could be taken even later in pregnancy if the mother’s health (and not just her life) required it. The mother, he said, had a jus prius, a prior right.
Jesuit theological Thomas Sanchez, who died in the early 17th century, said that all of his contemporary Catholic theologians approved of early abortion to save the life of the woman. None of these theologians or bishops were censured for their views. Their limited pro-choice position was considered thoroughly orthodox and can be so considered today.
On Sept. 2, 1869, the Vatican refused to decide a case that involved a very late-term abortion. It referred the questioner to the teaching of the theologians, whose business it was to discuss freely and arrive at a conclusion. This modesty and disinclination to intervene and decide is an older and perhaps wiser, more appropriate, Catholic model than that shown today.
In 1968, when Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the view that all mechanical or chemical contraception was sinful, the Catholic bishops of 14 different nations respectfully disagreed and told the faithful that they were not sinners if they could not accept this papal teaching.
Why the mixed messages? Because the Bible neither approves of nor condemns abortion. The closest it gets is in Exodus 21:22, which speaks of accidental abortion. This imposes a financial penalty on a man who caused a woman to miscarry “in the course of a brawl.” The issue here is the father’s right to progeny. He could fine you for the misdeed, but he could not claim “an eye for an eye” as if a person had been killed. Thus, the fetus did not have the same status as the mother in Hebrew Law.
Following scripture’s silence on abortion, early church history treats it only incidentally and sporadically. Indeed, there isn’t even systematic study of the question until the 15th century.
Current Christian thought
Despite the impression left by listening to our news media, politicians, and pundits, Christianity — both Catholic and Protestant — remains unsettled about abortion. Nor are the various views simplistic enough to categorize as “pro” or “anti,” because very few are either for banning all abortions under all circumstances or allowing all abortions under any circumstances. Where the line is drawn is a deep religious struggle for Christians as individuals and groups, never mind finding an answer for the whole.
Not even the popes claim that the position forbidding all abortion and contraception is infallible. Teachings on abortion are not only not infallible, they are “undeveloped.” A pro-choice position coexists with a no-choice position in Catholic history, and neither position can claim to be more Catholic or more authentic than the other.
Protestants, too, have both positions within their faith, and neither can claim to be more genuine. Some examples:
The general board of the American Baptist Churches noted in 1988 that there are legitimate differences among their members. Some oppose all abortion, some support legalized abortion “as being in the best interest of women in particular and society in general.” Both are good Baptists.
In 1988, the Episcopal Church defended “the legal right of every woman to have a medically safe abortion.”
The Presbyterian Church (USA) in five of its general assembly meetings, approved of abortion until the fetus is viable. The assembly approved “a public policy of elective abortion, regulated by the health code, not the criminal code… Abortion should be a woman’s right because, theologically speaking, making a decision about abortion is, above all, her responsibility.”
The United Church of Christ in 1987 insisted that “abortion is a social justice issue … (requiring access to) safe, legal abortions.”
In 1970 and again in 1989, the Quakers stated their support for “a woman’s right to follow her own conscience concerning child-bearing, abortion and sterilization… That choice must be made free of coercion, including the coercion of poverty, racial discrimination, and the availability of service to those who cannot pay.” No one can doubt the Quaker commitment to the sanctity of life, but they see the sanctity of life as requiring the right to choose an abortion.
The United Methodist Church in 1988 rejected “the simplistic answers to the problem of abortion which, on the one hand, regard all abortions as murders, or, on the other hand, regard all abortions as procedures without moral significance…”
None of the three Lutheran synods — Missouri, Wisconsin and ELCA (ELCA is the nation’s 5th largest denomination) — supports either a total lack of regulation of abortion or a ban on all abortion. In a policy statement that could be used to state the position of Christianity as a whole (and of Americans as a whole), the ELCA writes: “In the case of abortion, public policy has a double challenge. One is to be effective in protecting prenatal life. The other is to protect the dignity of women and their freedom to make responsible decisions in difficult situations.”
The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice has done us the favor of gathering the official statements from U.S. religious bodies. What these statements prove is that the right to choose an abortion is a religiously grounded right.
Abortion as a First Amendment right
Although you’d never guess it, the most traditional and stubbornly held abortion position in Christianity is pro-choice. We try to keep this a secret, because admitting it forces us to admit that the right to an abortion is a religious right, protected by the First Amendment. (This, according to Dr. Daniel C. Maguire , who teaches moral theology and ethics at the Catholic Marquette University in Milwaukee. Here, I’ve distilled the main points from his book Sacred Choices, as it applies to American Christianity and abortion.)
Some in the church have other reasons, of course, for keeping the secret. So long as the truth is hidden: they can claim that their view is the only Christian view; they can continue to demonize those who disagree with them; and they can gain both wealth and influence by building walls between groups of people. So long as the secret is kept, they can claim the religious question of abortion is settled, proclaim abortion is murder, and focus on fighting the right to privacy as the basis for the right to an abortion.
The question, however, is anything but “settled.” Both Protestants and Catholics have both pro-choice and anti-abortion voices in their pasts and presents. Laws that take sides in the religious debate and try to “settle” the question by banning abortion are guilty of partiality and of violating the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.
First Amendment religious freedoms also extend to both non-religious Americans and the non-Christian religions, such as Islam and Judaism. These religions also have pro-choice traditions and voices that are, like their echoes in Christianity, mostly either ignored by or drowned out in typical public debates on abortion.
Like the rest of us, Kathleen Sebelius is, despite Donohue’s assertion, free to make her own conscientious decisions. And like millions before her, including a saint, she can do so and still be a Catholic.