Rebutting the Pelosi anti-catechism

The Speaker of the House apparently has her own account of Catholic teaching on the subject of abortion. At least she is to be credited for tackling the philosophical and theological issues instead of dodging them like St. Barack, who professed it was “above my pay grade.” She is to be credited for courage because she knew the rebuttals would come, in spades.

Kathleen Parker, one of my favorite columnists, offers a biting summary of the best rebuttals. Read it, enjoy it, follow it up. I’ve addressed the history of abortion teaching in my Development and Negation treatise thus:

In the case of abortion, for example, the Church’s teaching has developed toward greater strictness and gravity. Somehow that seems objectionable to many people who nonetheless have no problem with greater moral strictness about warfare, capital punishment, and domestic violence now than in the past; but I shall leave that fact aside as one of more psychological and political than theological interest. To be sure, the Church has always considered abortion immoral; and many early Christian writers condemned it as murder (see, e.g., Didache 2:2 and this list). But that injunction appears to have applied only to women who are unmistakably pregnant, either by their appearance or by the detection of quickening. It was not clear on that account that procuring abortion at any stage of gestation is a form of homicide, which is what the Church teaches now.

St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, held that the process of conception required forty days for boys and eighty for girls before the conceptus was ready for the infusion of the rational soul (Commentary on the Fourth Book of Sentences, d. 31 exp. text.). And that was the common view through the eighteenth century. Abortion prior to said infusion was not held by the Church to be the killing of a human person; it was condemned only as a particularly nasty form of contraception. What changed that, of course, was the development of the modern disciplines of obstetrics, gynecology, and above all genetics.

As soon as it became clear to the Church that even the blastocyst, under normal conditions, was a genetically unique individual member of homo sapiens—twinning being a separate, still controversial case—Pope Pius IX included abortion at any stage of gestation as a form of homicide in his renewed list of offenses incurring excommunication (Acta Apostolicae Sedis [1869]). And so the teaching and discipline remain today. The reasonable-enough assumption has been that whatever is a genetically unique individual member of the species is a human person, not just part of a person such as an organ or a gamete. Disputes about the time or process of ensoulment thus recede into obsolescence. A good defense of that development, for which pro-lifers of varying or no religious affiliation are rightly fond of citing natural science, may be found in Robert George and Patrick Lee, Acorns and Embryos. Granted that science just by itself has nothing to say about moral norms, its considerable relevance to this question is the chief basis for claiming that opposition to legal abortion needs no specifically religious premises. That of course is politically very important.

The change here, then, has not been in the precept that abortion is gravely immoral but in the explanation why: due to the advance of science, the Church now condemns all, or almost all, abortion as murder, not merely abortion after a certain stage of gestation. What’s changed is the understanding of the empirical conditions under which the Fifth Commandment is applicable.

Of course there’s always the CCC itself for those who, unlike the “ardently Catholic” Speaker, actually believe it.

[Originally published at Sacramentum Vitae]


4 Responses

  1. Pelosi’s attempt to stand on its head the consistent teaching of the church catholic from 33 AD to the present is old hat among U.S. politicians.

    What is so sad is that Christian voters are so poor catechized that many actually swallow this dross.

  2. I found the following segment, almost at the very end, most intriguing:

    [A] “And this is like maybe 50 years or something like that. So again, over the history of the church, this is an issue of controversy. [B] But it is, it is also true that God has given us, each of us, a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. [C] And we want abortions to be safe, rare, and reduce the number of abortions. [D] That’s why we have this fight in Congress over contraception. My Republican colleagues do not support contraception. If you want to reduce the number of abortions, and we all do, we must–it would behoove you to support family planning and, and contraception, you would think.”

    Fascinating stuff.

    Let’s take the first sentence, A. By the logic she is trying to employ in that sentence, she could not only find “wiggle room” on abortion, but also, (“as an ardent, practicing Catholic,” mind you!) could do away with the dogma of the Assumption and the validity of the Second Vatican Council. Impressive! What’s more, she undercuts her own appeal to St. Augustine, or any father, since the same “50-year stricture” could be applied to any father, pope, council, dogma, etc., if placed in the right historical window. A single example: St. Augustine’s most fundamental views on grace could be brushed aside in one stroke by saying they were, as of 420, only about 50 years old and thus controversial at that time, so they were more or less trivial in the bigger picture.

    Now what about B and C? In B, she immediately hedges her hedging by trying to add moral gravitas to what she has just tried to explain is morally inculpable. This is also an impressive maneuver. In C, she reinforces this inconsistency by adding even more gravitas-ishness, which now seems to outweigh the offhanded remarks she made in A. But that is not all that C accomplishes. The language of C, as well as its logical connection to B, indicates that the gravitas and risk and general ungoodness of abortion has nothing to do with the babies, er, contingencies being deprioritized, and everything to do with the women going for them. A “safe” abortion is just as egregious a euphemism as “safe” sex, since the former term only applies safety to the would-not-be mother, and the latter only applies safety to the would-not-be parents and their STD track record. An abortion can only be called “safe” safety only matters for the woman; it is entirely UNSAFE for the fetal person being killed. But once you deny they are persons with rights, safety standards are not a big deal. (The same for “safe sex”, in that it begins with a degraded view of sex as something should be KEPT SAFE, and then tries to manage by keeping the roving genitalia safe.) The only reason “we” want to keep abortions rare, in Pelosite Catholicism, is because it has potential adverse effects on the women. Those harmful effects are bad, do not think I am trying to ignore them, but it is already such a fundamental compromise of Catholic morality for the would-be babies to have to earn and justify their human rights over against the possible woes of their abortive mothers.

    D just adds more fuel to the fire, since now an ardent, practicing Catholic not only advocates contraception, but also does so as the next phase in her larger fetal control strategy. The irony is that while Dr. Liccione notes how abortion in earlier ages was seen by the Church as a nasty form of contraception, Pelosi sees contraception as a gilded and glorified form of abortion! It seems Pelosite Catholicism could not be any more inverted from orthodox Catholicism.

  3. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, held that the process of conception required forty days for boys and eighty for girls before the conceptus was ready for the infusion of the rational soul (Commentary on the Fourth Book of Sentences, d. 31 exp. text.). And that was the common view through the eighteenth century. Abortion prior to said infusion was not held by the Church to be the killing of a human person; it was condemned only as a particularly nasty form of contraception. What changed that, of course, was the development of the modern disciplines of obstetrics, gynecology, and above all genetics.

    I’m not sure this is correct, or at least so clear cut as you seem to think. Just because the fathers, theologians, and early councils may have held ideas about post-conception vivification, it does not follow that they held abortion in the presumed non-vivification stage as nothing more than contraception.

    “The Fathers of the Church unanimously maintained the same doctrine. In the fourth century the Council of Eliberis decreed that Holy Communion should be refused all the rest of her life, even on her deathbed, to an adulteress who had procured the abortion of her child. The Sixth Ecumenical Council determined for the whole Church that anyone who procured abortion should bear all the punishments inflicted on murderers. In all these teachings and enactments no distinction is made between the earlier and the later stages of gestation. For, though the opinion of Aristotle, or similar speculations, regarding the time when the rational soul is infused into the embryo, were practically accepted for many centuries still it was always held by the Church that he who destroyed what was to be a man was guilty of destroying a human life. (Cath Ency. 1907 edition)”

    It seems likely to me that most who held the idea of post-conception vivification did so as a theory, a possibility. Because of this, the sin of intent comes into play “The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder. With us there is no nice enquiry as to its being formed or unformed. In this case it is not only the being about to be born who is vindicated, but the woman in her attack upon herself; because in most cases women who make such attempts die. The destruction of the embryo is an additional crime, a second murder, at all events if we regard it as done with intent.” (St Basil). St Jerome goes so far as to include among murderers those who drink potions to avoid conception. The Second Council of Braga (A.D. 527) classed together infanticides with those who procure abortion or contracept.

  4. DB:

    I don’t at all deny that the Church has often seen fit to treat as murderers women who abort their fetuses even when there was theological disagreement about the time of ensoulment. As you point out, “the sin of intent comes into play.” But in the sorts of cases I have in mind, that is a pastoral policy rather than a doctrinal norm.

    When a woman is visibly pregnant, the pregnancy is already past the point of “ensoulment,” i.e. when, according to various metaphysical theories, her fetus has become a human being. In such cases, abortion is objectively a sin of homicide, and the Church has always maintained that. But that is not the sort of case I have in mind when I say that the Church condemned abortion prior to that temporal point as “a particularly nasty form of contraception.” Rather, the Church typically treated the intent behind abortions done prior to that point as if it were the intent to commit homicide. Thus, even if the abortion was not objectively an act of homicide, it was considered just as grave a sin. But that was not irreformable doctrine; it was a pastoral policy adopted for the reasons you’ve cited.

    That’s what explains why Pius IX issued the decree he did in 1869, when it had become clear that most embryos are genetically unique individual human beings very shortly after conception, if not already at conception. Such a decree would not have been necessary, or even called for, if the Church had already and definitively been teaching that abortion prior to quickening was, objectively, homicide. She did not. But she started to back in the mid-19th century, for excellent reasons.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: