The Washington Post made an attempt to show that there is a good bit of diversity among religious groups’ reactions to the Supreme Court’s decision on the Hobby Lobby case.* Ironically, the paper made the mistake of failing to comprehend how much diversity there’s always been among religions — especially among Christians** — on the issue of abortion. This was the lead:
U.S. faith groups were starkly divided in their reaction Monday to the Supreme Court’s decision affirming the religious rights of corporations, with some seeing a narrow decision protecting the religious liberty of business owners and others seeing a profane intrusion into the beliefs of employees.
Traditional Christians and Jews in particular celebrated Monday’s decision…
Did you catch the error? The writer and her editors assume that “traditional Christians” think life begins at fertilization of the egg and are opposed to abortion, writing as if this is a widely known and undisputed fact. It’s not, of course. What is a fact is that there is an ancient and official tradition within Christendom that contradicts that of the WaPo‘s “traditional Christians.”
(*In its challenge to the misnamed “contraception mandate” of the Affordable Care Act, Hobby Lobby falsely asserted that certain forms of birth control—Plan B, “ella,” and IUDs—cause abortion, thus violating the owners’ religious beliefs. **For a much deeper exploration of this issue, read Sacred Choices by Daniel C. Maguire and Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics by Jonathan Dudley.)
Since the Catholic branch of Christianity is the oldest, let’s look at the Catholic tradition. 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, most American Christians and, apparently, most American journalists do not know that there is 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.
The traditional Protestant arm of Christianity is no less diverse on the matter. “God does not regard the fetus as a soul no matter how far gestation has progressed,” wrote professor Bruce Waltke of the Dallas Theological Seminary in a 1968 issue of Christianity Today in 1968. The editor of Christianity Today back then was Harold Lindsell, the infamous advocate of the biblical “inerrancy” idea.
That same year, a symposium of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations produced A Protestant Affirmation on the Control of Human Reproduction that said:
The prevention of conception is not in itself forbidden or sinful providing the reasons for it are in harmony with the total revelation of God for married life” and that the “method of preventing pregnancy is not so much a religious as a scientific and medical question to be determined in consultation with one’s physician.
In 1971, the hyper-conservative Southern Baptist Convention issued this directive to its members:
Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.
So, no WaPo, “traditional Christians” do not share the Hobby Lobby owner’s fatally flawed understanding on fertilization and contraception. I believe the words you’re looking for may be “conservative,” “uninformed” or perhaps even “fringe,” but it’s most certainly not “traditional.”
Update: Being Christian, not Jewish, I was unsure of whether WaPo‘s assertion that “traditional … Jews” celebrated this SCOTUS decision was correct. So, I looked it up. WaPo is wrong again. (You’re shocked, I can tell.) From the Biomedical Ethics and Jewish Law:
An unborn fetus in Jewish law is not considered a person (Heb. nefesh, lit. “soul”) until it has been born. The fetus is regarded as a part of the mother’s body and not a separate being until it begins to egress from the womb during parturition (childbirth). In fact, until forty days after conception, the fertilized egg is considered as “mere fluid.” These facts form the basis for the Jewish legal view on abortion….
Turning to talmudic sources, the Mishnah asserts the following: “If a woman is having difficulty in giving birth [and her life is in danger], one cuts up the fetus within her womb and extracts it limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over that of the fetus. But if the greater part was already born, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for that of another.”
…The Talmud also explains that the embryo is part of the mother’s body and has no identity of its own, since it is dependent for its life upon the body of the woman…. This concept of the embryo being considered part of the mother and not a separate being recurs throughout the Talmud and rabbinic writings.
Starts to make me wonder what else we all take for granted is true that isn’t…..