Our discussion of Catholics supporting abortion first targets the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. Rep. Pelosi’s comments involving abortion are famous, and have caused great scandal in the Church in
Pelosi made the controversial comments in August 2008, when she appeared on an episode of Meet the Press. During the interview, Pelosi was asked what she would say if Obama asked her when life began. This was her response:
“I would say that as an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue that I have studied for a long time. And what I know is, over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition. And Senator–St. Augustine said at three months. We don’t know. The point is, is that it shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose. . . So I don’t think anybody can tell you when life begins, human life begins. As I say, the Catholic Church for centuries has been discussing this.”
Pelosi turns to
It makes sense that Augustine would hold such a view concerning ensoulment due to the limited scientific understanding of gestation in his time. Aristotle was the scientist for 2,000 years after his death. Genetics and embryology would not develop until the mid-1800s, 1400 years after Augustine’s death, about 2100 years after Aristotle’s death. In that 2100 year period, the greatest thinkers of western civilization took the scientific philosophy of Aristotle, however incomplete it was, and used it in their philosophy. An estimation of 40 days made sense for ensoulment because that was when the child inside the mother first started moving around. It was clearly alive after 40 days, and thus Aristotle and those after him knew that by that time the fetus had been ensouled. The difference of time between male and female ensoulment was merely because men were seen as more rational than women, a statement which Rep. Pelosi would understandably deny.
But I digress. Lets return to Pelosi’s specific argument.
After some digging, I may have found the passage to which Rep. Pelosi was referring. The passage is from Augustine’s Enchiridion of Faith, Hope and Love, written in AD 421. Here is the passage (23.86) as translated by William Jurgens in The Faith of the Early Fathers (Vol. 3):
“It can be investigate and disputed most meticulously among the most learned men, though I know not whether man can find an answer, when it is that a human being in the womb begins to live, and whether there is also a certain kind of hidden life there which is not yet apparent in the movements of the living being. It seems very rash to deny that those fetuses ever lived, that are cut away and ejected limb by limb from the wombs of the pregnant, lest the mothers perish too, if the fetuses be left there dead. But from whatever time a man begins to live, from that time on certainly he is able to die.”
It seems at first glance that Pelosi is right. Augustine had no idea “when it is that a human being in the womb begins to live,” and to leave the argument with that quote is rather troubling. But reading the rest of the passage resolves the issue. Augustine says it is “very rash” to say the fetus was never alive when a doctor has to pull the dead fetus out if the mother miscarriages. The fetus was once alive, for it is now dead. It did not die in childbirth but before it, and at the birthing the mother expels a corpse. It is a sad image, but one which Augustine uses to teach a moral lesson, namely that the child inside the mother is alive and a person.
Elsewhere, Augustine is clearer in his stance against abortion. In his work "On Marriage and Concupiscence,” Augustine cites abortion as a sin against chastity and marriage. He writes in paragraph 17,
“It is, however, one thing for married persons to have intercourse only for the wish to beget children, which is not sinful: it is another thing for them to desire carnal pleasure in cohabitation, but with the spouse only, which involves venial sin. For although propagation of offspring is not the motive of the intercourse, there is still no attempt to prevent such propagation, either by wrong desire or evil appliance. They who resort to these, although called by the name of spouses, are really not such; they retain no vestige of true matrimony, but pretend the honorable designation as a cloak for criminal conduct.”
Augustine is making a statement against contraception. Married couples who have intercourse without the intention of bearing children is not a good thing, due to the centrality of childbearing in the marital act, but it is not a mortal sin. Those that use contraceptives, however, are the equivalent of adulterers. To artificially prevent conception in the way that contraceptives work is a more direct attack on the marital act, and is thus always evil. Augustine continues with his discussion:
“Having also proceeded so far, they are betrayed into exposing their children, which are born against their will. They hate to nourish and retain those whom they were afraid they would beget. This infliction of cruelty on their offspring so reluctantly begotten, unmasks the sin which they had practiced in darkness, and drags it clearly into the light of day. The open cruelty reproves the concealed sin. Sometimes, indeed, this lustful cruelty, or, if you please, cruel lust, resorts to such extravagant methods as to use poisonous drugs to secure barrenness; or else, if unsuccessful in this, to destroy the conceived seed by some means previous to birth, preferring that its offspring should rather perish than receive vitality; or if it was advancing to life within the womb, should be slain before it was born. Well, if both parties alike are so flagitious, they are not husband and wife; and if such were their character from the beginning, they have not come together by wedlock but by debauchery. But if the two are not alike in such sin, I boldly declare either that the woman is, so to say, the husband’s harlot; or the man the wife’s adulterer.”
Here Augustine deals with abortion directly. It is a mortal sin. Augustine is pretty clear in his condemnation of the practice. It attacks marriage as well as the baby, and thus is a double sin. In expounding this, Augustine is echoing a theme found throughout revelation, something which is equally clear in today’s world, namely that sins of violence are often connected with sexual sins. For example, David committed adultery with Bethsheba and had her husband killed. God told him to repent, and he did (see Psalm 51). In a similar way, the sin of artificial contraception (sexual) can lead to the sin of abortion (violent) if the contraception does not work. Augustine is clearly making this connection in the above cited paragraph, and it is equally clear that he would not support abortion if he were alive today, especially in the militant manner it is supported by Pelosi and other “Catholic” politicians. Those who hold that Augustine did not think abortions killed are sorely mistaken.
Next time, we will examine another politician who has scandalized many with his claim to be Catholic and support abortion.