Sorry this is so late in coming, but hopefully, upon reading, you'll see why.
Note for the previous post: you can read the transcript of Rep. Pelosi’s interview on Meet the Press here.
“There is a debate in our church, as Cardinal Egan would acknowledge, that's existed. Back in ‘Summa Theologia,’ when Thomas Aquinas wrote ‘Summa Theologia,’ he said there was no--it didn't occur until quickening, 40 days after conception. How am I going out and tell you, if you or anyone else that you must insist upon my view that is based on a matter of faith? And that's the reason I haven't.”
Rep. Pelosi’s interview on Meet the Press caused a great scandal throughout the country, prompting lectures from bishops and cardinals, including Pelosi’s own bishop, directed towards the Speaker of the House, trying to explain to her how wrong she was. Her response to this correction will be seen next time, but for now we’ll stick with the immediate fallout.
As a result of her interview, Vice-President Joe Biden, at that time a senator and now-President Obama’s running mate, appeared on Meet the Press to discuss political issues (the transcript of the interview can be found here. As before, Tom Brokaw brought up the issue of when life begins. Biden explained his view thus:
“I know when it begins for me; it’s a personally and private issue. For me as a Roman Catholic, I am prepared to accept the teachings of my Church. . . . But that is my judgment. For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society.”
Biden later defended his stance in the quote at the beginning of this post. It is an appeal to the greatest thinker in the Catholic Church, quite possibly the greatest thinker of all time: St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, Biden recalled, held life did not begin until “quickening,” about 40 days after conception. Like Pelosi’s appeal to Augustine, Biden’s appeal to Aquinas is wanting and does not take into account many factors. As with Pelosi, we will examine the validity of Sen. Biden’s claims concerning
Biden was a little more specific in his citation of Thomas than Pelosi was of Augustine. Biden references the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas’ greatest work and one of the greatest works of Western Civilization. It consists of three parts, containing hundreds of articles dealing with everything from the existence of God to the sacraments to morality to the proper ordering of the state. It encompasses all Christian thought to that time. To reference it vaguely as Biden did is like saying “It was somewhere in the Bible. . . .” Fortunately, many men throughout the centuries have commented on and indexed subjects from the Summa and from Aquinas’ other works, making an investigation into
We begin with the issue at hand: Did St. Thomas Aquinas hold that ensoulment occurred after conception. Thomas discusses ensoulment in regards to the nature of man, and it does seem Aquinas assents to the view, as discussed in the previous post, that the rational soul entered the fetus at “quickening,” around 40 days for men and around 80 days for women, which correlates with when the unborn child is felt moving in the mother’s womb. The science behind Aquinas’ understanding of “quickening” is strikingly different from our current understanding of embryology and human development. The fact that the child starts moving around 40 days means, according to Aquinas, that the rational soul has appeared in the child. The body of the fetus prior to ensoulment does not lack a soul. Rather, it is a lesser, non-rational soul. It is a process of sorts, as Thomas discusses in his other great work, the Summa Contra Gentiles (2.89), where he says
“The more noble a form is and the further removed it is from the elemental form, the more numerous must be the intermediate forms, through which the ultimate form is reached step by step, and, consequently, the intervening generative processes will be multiplied too. That is why, in the generation of an animal and a man, wherein the most perfect type of form exists, there are many intermediate forms and generations—and, hence, corruptions, because the generation of one thing is the corruption of another. Thus, the vegetative soul, which is present first (when the embryo lives the life of a plant), perishes, and is succeeded by a more perfect soul, both nutritive and sensitive in character, and then the embryo lives an animal life; and when this passes away it is succeeded by the rational soul introduced from without, while the preceding souls existed in virtue of the semen.”
This process of ensoulment dates back to Aristotle. What occurs, according to Aquinas, is the semen from the man mixes with menstrual blood from the woman, which then somehow turns into a fetus. It is the woman’s contribution to this whole thing that provides the matter for development (see
It becomes clear, when examining Thomas’s philosophy of humanity in light of his place in the history of science, that he was onto something. There is something basic about what makes us human. Aquinas held that our rational soul distinguishes us from the animals, as clearly shown in his understanding of ensoulment, but even at our material level there is something special about men. When in the early stages of man’s life, Thomas says, the animal attributes of man are suppressed and controlled by the human attributes, it can be said that the resulting creature is a man, pure and true. This statement concerning human nature is not a theological statement, however, but a philosophical one, which men can discuss and have discussed over the centuries. The philosophical declaration of Aquinas concerning ensoulment is not a theological explanation and should not be treated as such. This debate of history does not mean that there is not a final answer to the question, one which Thomas had actually rejected. This finale to the ensoulment debate will be discussed in the next post, where the declarations of modern science, which has picked up where the philosophy of
So the short answer to Biden’s statement is yes, Thomas Aquinas did believe that the rational soul entered after conception. Thomas holds that there is already human life, which is more than what many today hold, but it is not fully human. It is a point that Biden did not qualify in his comments.
The next logical question stems from the now established fact concerning Aquinas and human life. Did Aquinas accept abortion? Surely he would disagree with the modern view that abortion is wrong, since life does not begin at conception. Would he approve of Biden’s Pro-Choice views, that the abortion issue is not an issue that has a set right or wrong stance?
The specific topic of abortion is only occasionally mentioned in
In Book IV, distinction 31, art. 3 (not distinction 1, as a Letter to the Editor of The New York Times dated
LATIN: “Qui vero venena sterilitatis procurant, non conjuges, sed fornicarii sunt. Hoc peccatum quamvis sit grave, et inter maleficia computandum, et contra naturam, quia etiam bestiae fetus expectant; tamen est minus quam homicidium; quia adhuc poterat alio modo impediri conceptus. Nec est judicandus talis irregularis, nisi jam formato puerperio abortum procuret.”
ENGLISH: “Whoever then procure a drug of sterility, are not spouses, but fornicators. This sin however is grave, and should be reckoned among evil deeds, and against nature, because even beasts await their young; however it is less than homicide; because so far there was another method to impede conception. Nor should it be judged to be as irregular [or “lesser”], [except] when the infant is already well-formed when the abortion is procured.”
Taking a “drug of sterility” is a phrase which usually covers both contraception and abortions. This sin is a mortal one according to Aquinas (for those who don’t know basic Catholic morality, a mortal sin separates the soul from God, and if not forgiven condemns the soul to Hell). It is a sin against chastity, and a married couple who uses such drugs is acting not as a married couple but as fornicators, those who opt for a one night stand to satisfy sexual desires. It is an attack on marriage and the marital act, but is it against life? Aquinas seems to say so. Although the sin is “less than homicide,” which makes sense in light of Aquinas’s view concerning ensoulment, it is still against life in that it prevents conception, or if the abortion is early enough, prevents the rational soul from entering the already formed body. This is why it is a mortal sin: abortion and contraception attack life at its earliest stages. As for abortions “when the infant is already well formed” (that is, with a rational soul), Aquinas is saying that this sin is even worse than preventing conception. The abortion of a fetus with a rational soul is not the mortal sin of preventing life but rather is the sin of murder.
Aquinas explains the gravity of these sins later in his exposition, when he notes the following:
LATIN: “et in primo semper est peccatum mortale, quia proles sequi non potest, unde totaliter intentio naturae frustratur”
ENGLISH: “And in the first it is always a mortal sin, because offspring cannot follow, from which the whole intention of nature is frustrated.”
Not only is the sin of contraception (and early abortion) a mortal sin, but it is specifically a sin against nature. This is not merely a matter of Catholic theology or morality. This is an issue of natural law, of the fundamental principles that regulate our lives. To fight against such a law would be like trying to fight against gravity. The whole world starts to fall apart. This is perhaps the most frightening aspect of Biden and his fellow Pro-Choice politicians, Catholic or not, and their stance on abortion. Their support of abortion and contraception is against the natural law and is an attack on humanity and nature. To allow it because it is “someone else’s point of view,” as Biden does, is dangerous, as the appealer to that logic directly supports an attack against nature. In an age where people place so much emphasis on complying with nature, it is upsetting to see a blatant disregard for nature take such a prominent place in the public square.
The Commentary on the Sentences is not the only place where Aquinas discusses abortion, although elsewhere the discussion is in reference to unintentional miscarriages. In the Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 64, a 8 (Part 2 of the Second Part, Question 64, article 8), Thomas discusses accidental murder. One of the objections cites the passage in Exodus 21:22, which says “When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.”
After revealing the evidence, it becomes clear that then-Senator Biden’s appeal to Thomas Aquinas was risky. Biden was right in saying that Thomas held human life began 40 days after conception, if by human life one means the actualization of the rational soul. If the question was whether or not the human embryo is human, then Thomas would say it is, since it is made up of the matter from human parents. Also, Thomas’s other teachings concerning abortion and life issues are opposed to the position taken by Biden and other Pro-Choice people. The purpose of Biden’s reference to Aquinas was merely to show that there was disagreement in the history of the Catholic Church on when human life began. This point does not take into account errors in the scientific philosophy of Aquinas and other philosophers who lived prior to the advent of genetics.
The appeal to Aquinas also ignores the deep devotion of the Angelic Doctor to the Magisterium of the Church. Aquinas frequently states throughout his works that if there is a disagreement between his writing and the Magisterium, that the Magisterium is correct and that he, Thomas, is wrong. Would Thomas today hold that the soul enters the body 40 days after conception, as he had when he was alive? The answer lies in the position taken by the Magisterium of the Church. The position of the Magisterium should solve the problem for Catholic politicians of where to stand in the abortion debate, and the position reveals where Augustine and Aquinas would stand if they were alive today.