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Thursday, February 18, 2010


I meant to post this yesterday, but got caught up in everything, etc.

What follows is a paper I wrote for a undergraduate class at Christendom College. Looking back over the paper, i realized that the whole thing was kinda, well, meh. Not that great. But I'm posting it anyway. Hopefully it still makes sense to the general reader.


            In 1930, just three years after his baptism and confirmation into the Anglican Church, T. S. Eliot published his conversion story.  It was his poem Ash Wednesday.[i]  He had converted amid tides of intellectuals rebelling against the over-secular society of the early twentieth century.  Ash Wednesday is the chronicle of this conversion, told in beautiful allegories and metaphors.  It portrays the struggle Eliot faced in converting.  “It is a poem about the difficulty of religious belief, about the difficulty of renouncing the temporal world.”[ii]  However, there is more in the poem than simply “the difficulty of religious belief;” the poem is at its core Christian.  The allusions reference prayer, great pieces of classical Christian literature, and the Bible. Therefore, one should not simply lump Ash Wednesday together with Eliot’s other social commentary poems, but instead look to it as an example of modern Christian literature. 
The poem’s title points the reader in the appropriate direction.  Caroline Philips notes that, “as the title suggests, Ash Wednesday is essentially a meditation associated with the prayer and penitence appropriate to the beginning of Lent: a coming to terms with one’s unworthiness.”[iii]  Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a period of penance and reparations for sins.  It culminates with Holy Week, containing Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, ending with Easter Sunday, the day celebrating Christ’s rising from the dead.  The title Ash Wednesday calls these feasts to mind, the suffering of Lent that leads to death and eventually salvation.  Salvation can only come about through suffering.  This theme is frequent throughout Western Literature, and does properly set up the poem. 
The poem opens with the following lines:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn. [iv]

Eliot perfected the art of lifting lines from other sources and placing them within his own poems (his great work The Wasteland is another prime example) to drive home the poem’s point.  Ash Wednesday is no different.  The opening lines reference two things.  The first is a short poem by Guido Cavalcanti, a friend of Dante, which contains the line “Perch’io non spero di tornar gia mai,” translated into the opening line of Ash Wednesday.  The other allusion here is more Christian, since the Cavalcanti reference is to a poem of despair.  The Epistle read at Anglican service from the Book of Common Prayer for Ash Wednesday is from Joel.  It reads, “Turn ye even to me, saith the Lord, with all your heart.”  The speaker in the poem, who represents Eliot himself, is responding to God’s call to turn to him in the negative.  He does not want to enter into the sufferings of Lent.  Therefore, he does not hope to turn to God.  He turned his back on the Lord.  He has despaired.  He asks why the Lord should try to save him: “(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)” (I. 6).  This allusion of the eagle and his wings has a Christian origin, particularly in St. Augustine’s Confessions,[v] as well as a biblical reference to Exodus 19:4: “I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself.”[vi]
            The speaker proceeds to list several negative comments:

Because I do not hope to know
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again (I. 9 – 15).

This litany of negatives “develops the idea of religious emptiness, of moving into the world of the Void, with a certain gloomy satisfaction.”[vii]  Because of the speakers apathetic view of existence he has ignored everything that is important, including that Power who keeps him in existence, that is, God.  He does not hope to know the “infirm glory of the positive hour,” that is, his death. 
            The speaker then moves into a discussion that is peculiar, and has been covered by many critics, but is not in particular Christian in subject.  It shows the speaker has some understanding of the world.  Time is time, and place is place.  The speaker proclaims, “I rejoice that things are as they are and,” (I.20) and what?  The speaker again slips back into despair:

I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice (I. 21 – 25).

The speaker had joy, had understanding, but he rejected it, renouncing the voice and the “blessed face,” admitting that the only thing he had to rejoice about was something he himself created. 
The blessed face and voice could recall St. Paul’s when he heard the voice of the Lord, but did not see His face.  The speaker, like Paul, is being pushed in the direction of conversion.  God is on his side.  Another possibility is that the “blessed face” is a woman’s, the Lady that appears later in the poem.  If this is so, argues Craig Raine, “she cannot be the Virgin.”[viii]  This debate will be taken up later.  Either way the speaker is hopeless in own mind; he cannot hope.  “Under these circumstances Eliot almost wills himself to be positive, ‘having to construct something / Upon which to rejoice,’ and the succeeding prayer to God for mercy is, at least in part, that construct which will provide him with a framework for rejoicing.”[ix] 
The speaker moves on to a prayer for mercy, praying, “That I may forget,” forget what has made him turn away from God, that which has made him hopeless.  “Only thus can the serenity of faith emerge and the poet move on from ‘what is done, not to be done again.’”[x]  This passage calls to mind Psalm 130, where it states, “If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand” (Ps. 130:3).  Following this pleading for God’s mercy the speaker invokes another religious character, the Blessed Mother.  The ending line of the stanza is the last line in the Hail Mary: “Pray for us, now and at the hour of our death” (I. 39).  The invocation of Mary is a central aspect of the Catholic Church, one forbidden by the Church of England.  Not only is the speaker becoming Christian, he is becoming Catholic, or at least Anglo-Catholic like Eliot.  
            The image that opens the second stanza is a Lady with three white leopards.  The leopards have eaten the speaker.  They could represent the 3 beasts that Dante encounters at the start of the InfernoAs mentioned above, Raine does not hold that the Lady in this scene and Mary are the same person, for “She honours the Virgin in meditation,” (II. 10) and since Mary could not honor herself in meditation, she cannot be this Lady.  So who is this Lady?  She bears striking resemblance to Dante’s Beatrice, or even Lady Fortune in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, or other such noble ladies from past literature.  Philips offers an all encompassing answer: “This figure is not only the Virgin Mary, appealed to at the end of the first poem, but also the chivalrous ideal of medieval romance and Dante’s Beatrice.”[xi]  All three possibilities add to understanding the poem as Christian.  If the Lady is the Virgin Mary, the Christian symbolism is clear enough.  If the Lady is Beatrice or Lady Philosophy, the symbolism is still there.  Both Beatrice and Lady Philosophy are from the literary world of Catholic creators, Beatrice to a lesser degree since she was a real person.  Whichever of the three the Lady is, she is obviously a Christian symbol.  She is garbed in white, the symbol of purity, innocence, and holiness, the color of the garment the saved in the Book of Revelation wear.  White is.
            After the line with the Lady, another image appears, this one more blatantly Biblical in nature.  God speaks to the bones of the narrator and commands them back to life:

And God said. 
“Shall these bones live? Shall these
Bones live? (II. 5 – 7)

This references Ezekiel 37:3, the vision of Ezekiel where God brings the valley of dried bones back to life.  The bones in response cry praise to the woman, for her piety, purity, and wisdom.  The woman contemplates, resembling again Lady Philosophy in The Consolation of Philosophy.  The bones are purified, shinning white like the woman’s gown, because of the woman, who has allowed the leopards to eat all the organs of the bones, which represented the evil that was inside them.  There is no life in the bones now, and only God can and will give it back.
            After this image, there is the song of the bones.  It is a prayer, resembling countless invocations of Mary and the saints.  It seems that the bones invoke Lady as we do Mary.  This allusion then is of Our Lady.  Again the theme of a litany appears, as different names of the Lady are listed: “Rose of memory / Rose of forgetfulness” (II. 28, 29).  Philips presents a beautiful analysis of this passage:

The format of the song is effectively that of a prayer to the Lady.  Within her person she contains both temporal and eternal aspects – Beatrice and Mary – she embodies a unification of experience symbolized as ‘the single Rose’ which is also ‘the Garden / Where all loves end.’[xii]

The last line in the stanza states, “This is the land.  We have our inheritance” (II. 54).  This is an allusion to the Jews in the Old Testament and their struggle for the land promised to Abraham by God. 
            The next stanza has the speaker on his way to conversion.  He is at the point where he has decided to follow the Lady to the Lord.  It is a stairway, resembling Jacob’s stairway dream in Genesis 28, leading towards heaven.  It involves climbing, as Dante had to climb Mt. Purgatory in the Purgatorio
There is, however, another image.  As the speaker reaches the top of the three stairs, he utters a prayer to God:

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy

               but speak the word only (III. 23 – 25).

These are the prayers before one receives communion in the Mass: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”  The stairs could be stairs leading up to the altar of sacrifice.  Once the speaker has reached the top, he prays for worthiness to stand before the Lord.  He knows he is not worthy and that in the end God’s mercy will determine if He heals him.  The speaker has converted.  He is now a Christian.
            The fourth stanza opens with more lines referencing the Lady:

Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary's colour (I. 4).

The reference of the Lady as Mary again comes up.  She is wearing her colors, white and blue, through violet.  Returning to the Lenten imagery, Violet, the color of penance, is the color of vestments worn by clergy during Mass throughout Lent.  Another analogy is noted by Philips: “The open-endedness of ‘Who walked between the violet and the violet,’ suggests the constancy of the concept of the Lady moving steadily through the poem; now in the foreground, now unseen, but with her presence always felt.”[xiii]  The Lady is there and not there, showing a sort of divine power. Suddenly the poem describes in beautiful images the place where the woman is walking.  It is an amazing garden, reminding one of the top of Mt. Purgatory in the Purgatorio.  It is like Eden, Paradise
The stanza ends with a line from the Hail Holy Queen, another Marian prayer: “And after this our exile” (IV. 29).  The implication is clear enough.  After our exile here on earth, that is (to use a Catholic phrase), our earthly pilgrimage called life, we will reach this Eden, this Paradise, but only if we turn to God.  The prayer is invoking Mary to pray for us, that we may be worthy, as the last stanza begged.  By stressing the word “our,” not “mine,” the speaker “reiterates the association of his life with that of all humanity.”[xiv]  This spiritual journey is not just for the speaker but for the entire human race. 
This leads into one of the most explicitly Christian passages of the poem, where the emphasis is on the Word, that is, the Word made Flesh, Christ.  It is a reference to the beginning of St. John’s Gospel, where the Christ is called the Word of God.  Dal–Yong Kim notes, “Eliot’s poetry attempts to bind human words to the Word or Christian Logos through repeated soul-searching.”[xv]  Ash Wednesday is the prime example of this attempt.  Throughout the passage are scattered references to Christ.  The poem reads:

Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word (V. 4 – 9).

This section reflects many of the statements concerning the Word in John’s Gospel.  There is even a reference to Isaiah 9:6 in the line “and the light shone in darkness.”  “In the absolute authority and power of the Lord, the penitent-poet finds ‘strength beyond hope and despair,’ after resisting puritanically all distraction, indecision, and temptation.”[xvi] 
            Another Christological reference is found in the repetition of the line “O my people, what have I done unto thee” twice in the stanza, which concludes with a fragment of the line.  The Catholic immediately recognizes the phrase as part of the Reproaches for Good Friday service, where Jesus asks the people of Israel why they have betrayed him, despite Him doing such great things for them.  The Reproaches themselves come from the Prophetic book of Micah in the Old Testament: “O my people, what have I done to you? / In what have I wearied you?  Answer me!”[xvii]  In Micah as well as in the Reproaches, God is admonishing sinners.  The place this phrase plays in Ash Wednesday is similar.  The speaker poet has fallen after his conversion, committed some kind of sin, etc, and needs to be forgiven. 
There is also another woman allusion:

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose (V. 20 – 27).

After stating the phrase of admonishing, the poet speaks on the woman again: “Will the veiled sister between the slender / Yew trees pray for those who offend her” (V. 29, 30).  This veiled sister is most likely another allusion to Mary, praying for the souls who have fallen away from the Word.  “As she embodies both human and divine it is she who is best able to act as an intermediary for those torn between the worlds of flesh and spirit.”[xviii]  We trust in Mary for her intercession, for she speaks to her divine son.
The next analogy the poem provides is that of a desert with a garden in it, a clear reference to Eden: “The desert in the garden the garden in the desert / Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed” (V. 34, 35).  Mary, the new Eve, spits out of her mouth the apple seed from the Garden of Eden.  Moody provides an interesting insight: “According to Christian legend, it was from the seed of the fruit plucked from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that grew the tree upon which Christ was crucified.  That is the one tree which can make ‘the garden in the desert.’”[xix]  So from one seed the Tree of Life is born, just as one act of turning can lead to conversion.
This leads to the last stanza, which opens with a converse of the poem’s opening lines:

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn (VI. 1 – 3).

This change from “Because” to “Although” signifies the completed conversion.  The speaker knows what he was attached to before, this life, is only temporary, and that he cannot hope in that temporary.  He still fears leaving his comfort, but that does not mean he will not.  “At the end of his poem, although he is equally without hope, he turns again; he is unable to renounce the temporal world – although he knows the temporal world to be an illusion.”[xx]  He has a better grasp now of picking himself up when he falls in his new Christian life.  There is an allusion to the sacrament of Penance with a small line “(Bless me father)” (VI. 7) cutting to his confession. 
            There is also one last litany to the Lady: “Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden” (VI. 25).  Again it closely resembles a litany to Mary.  At the end of the litany there is another reference, showing that it is not just Mary the poet is invoking:

Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee (VI. 32 – 35). 

The first references are again to Mary, but the last two are towards Christ.  “Suffer me not to be separated” is part of the Anima Christi.  The line reads “Suffer me not to be separated from thee.”  If Eliot had included the entire line, it would have completed the couplet, of “And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea, / Suffer me not to be separated.”  However, he wanted to extend the prayer a little bit.  The rhyme for “sea” is still “Thee,” but it is preceded by, “and let my cry come unto.”  This extension of the prayer, of which this section is an example, invokes one last plead to God to hear the prayer of the writer.  It is the culmination of a spiritual poem, ending in a prayer. 
            It is quite plain to see that T. S. Eliot wrote Ash Wednesday as specifically a Christian poem, not simply a religious meditation.  The images in the text are not just generally religious but Anglo-Catholic specifically.  Critics who clump Ash Wednesday into the category of Eliot poems that are critiques of modern society miss the point of the poem.  There is more behind the words than just social commentary.  Eliot would not accept anything less.

[i]Peter Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot (New York: Simon and Schuster Inc., 1984), 162.

[ii]Craig Raine, T. S. Eliot (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 22.

[iii]Caroline Philips, The Religious Quest in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1995), 49.

[iv]T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday in Collected Poems: 1909–1962 (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1991), I. 1–3. All citations of Ash Wednesday will be from this edition and will be cited by stanza and line number as follows: (I. 1–3).

[v]A. David Moody, Thomas Stearns Eliot: Poet (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 138.

[vi]KJV.  All quotations from the Bible will be from this edition, unless otherwise noted, and henceforth will be cited parenthetically by book, chapter and verse, as such: Ex. 19:4.

[vii]Philips, 50.

[viii]Raine, 25.

[ix]Philips, 51.


[xi]Ibid. 53.

[xii]Ibid., 54.

[xiii]Ibid., 57.

[xiv]Ibid., 58.

[xv] Dal–Yong Kim, Puritan Sensibility in T. S. Eliot’s Poetry (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1994), 16.

[xvi]Ibid., 17.

[xvii]Micah 6:3, RSV.

[xviii]Philips, 59.

[xix]Moody, 151.

[xx] Raine, 33.  

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Beating the dead horse of abortion part 4: "The Teachings of My Church"

“I am a practicing Catholic, although they're probably not too happy about that. But it is my faith. . . . I practically mourn this difference of opinion because I feel what I was raised to believe is consistent with what I profess, and that is that we are all endowed with, a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And that women should have that opportunity to exercise their free will.”

“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.”

These two quotes are from Rep. Pelosi and then-Sen. Biden respectively. They highlight the disturbing belief among Pro-Choice Catholics that the Church has not officially condemned abortion, or if it has, it is a non-binding condemnation, and that Catholics might support or even have abortions. In an article entitled “Abortion and Catholic Thought: The Little-Told History” from Catholics for a Free Choice, the claim is made that,

“Church teaching on abortion has varied continually over the course of its history. There has been no unanimous opinion on abortion at any time. While there has been constant general agreement that abortion is almost always evil and sinful, the church has had difficulty in defining the nature of that evil. Members of the Catholic hierarchy have opposed abortion consistently as evidence of sexual sin, but they have not always seen early abortion as homicide. . . . Also contrary to popular belief, no pope has proclaimed the prohibition of abortion an "infallible" teaching. This fact leaves much more room for discussion on abortion than is usually thought, with opinions among theologians and the laity differing widely. In any case, Catholic theology tells individuals to follow their personal conscience in moral matters, even when their conscience is in conflict with hierarchical views.”

Some of these claims have been discussed in the earlier posts in this series. This final post will examine the issue of abortion as addressed by both Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. The post will refute the above shocking claims, and hopefully clear up the mess that has developed over the years concerning the Catholic Church and abortion.

Let’s travel back to examine the early Church. The early Church was a unique group in the first century. Although the pagans of the Greco-Roman world were more open to the true God (see my earlier blog series on Christmas) than their more demonic counterparts (see The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton for a really good analysis of this comparison), the Greco-Roman world was not particularly Pro-Life. Recall, for example, the Roman obsession with gladiators and other blood sports. Roman society at the time of the early church supported abortion and infanticide (killing new born babies). One wonders if this might be the reason why there is no mention of the infanticide of King Herod in extra-biblical sources. Abortion through surgical and chemical means is described in several classical Roman works, including one by the famous writer Pliny the Elder. St. Hippolytus of Rome, a Christian writing around 222 (and the only antipope that converted and became a saint), notes that some women take drugs and “bind themselves” to expel the growing fetus. Citations such as these show that abortion and infanticide was pretty prominent during the early years of the Church.

It is no surprise, then, that abortion is addressed in one of the earliest works of post-Biblical Catholic literature, the Didache, which was written in the first half of the 2nd century. There we read the phrase “You shall not procure abortion, nor destroy a new-born child” (2:2). The close association between abortion and infanticide shows that in the earliest Church Fathers saw not only the evil of abortion, but may have equated it with murder. As mentioned earlier, St. Hippolytus of Rome condemned abortion, as did many other Church Fathers. Tertullian states that, “It is anticipated murder to prevent someone from being born; it makes little difference whether one kills a soul already born or puts it to death at birth. He who will one day be a man is a man already” (Apologeticum, 4:8, quoted in John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 61). St. Basil the Great, one of the great Eastern Church Fathers, says that “A woman who has deliberately destroyed a fetus must pay the penalty for murder. . . . Those also who give drugs causing abortions are murders themselves, as well as those who receive the poison which kills the fetus” (“Letter to the Bishop of Iconium,” 188:2, 8). Other Early Fathers addressed abortion, including St. Augustine (see part 2 of this series); even if the Church Father did not condemn abortion as murder, as was the case with some of them, the act of procuring an abortion was always seen as a severe, mortal sin.

Did this condemnation carry on into the rest of Church history? As we saw in our discussion of St. Thomas Aquinas, abortion was condemned in the middle ages as a mortal sin. Whether it was condemned as a sin of murder or a sin against chastity, medieval scholars agreed that abortion was a sin against nature, intrinsically evil. While philosophers and scientists debated the exact moment of ensoulment, the Church remained firm in its condemnation of abortion. As the late John Paul II noted in great encyclical Evangelium Vitae, “Throughout Christianity’s two thousand year history, this same doctrine has been constantly taught by the Fathers of the Church and by her Pastors and Doctors. Even scientific and philosophical discussions about the precise moment of the infusion of the spiritual soul have never given rise to any hesitation about the moral condemnation of abortion” (Evangelium Vitae, 61).

It was not until relatively recent Church history that there was any debate over the condemnation of abortion. This was due to developing medical practices from the early Renaissance, when the means of removing a fetus to “save a woman’s life” became possible. This was eventually condemned by Pope Sixtus V in 1588 in his Papal Bull Effraenatum, along with all abortions at all points during pregnancy. The penalty for abortion in this Sistine Canon Law was the same as murder, as well as an added excommunication. Pope Gregory XIV, who succeeded Pope Sixtus V, wrote in his letter Sedes Apostolica in 1591 that abortion was still condemned, but only “where no homicide or no animated fetus is involved,” and that procurer of abortion was “not to punish more strictly than the sacred canons or civil legislation does,” which was a rather mute point in that the laws against abortions were still almost as strict as Sixtus had declared.

The next milestone in the Church’s treatment of abortion came in 1869, when Blessed Pius IX reaffirmed the immorality of abortions and reaffirmed the penalty for abortions as excommunication. It was Pius that solemnly declared that ensoulment occurred at conception. By this time, microbiology was in its early stages, and several developments in science had shown what St. Thomas Aquinas and those before him had missed as far as the development of the human embryo is concerned. As David Albert Jones notes, this declaration “reflects a recognition that thirteenth century science could no longer be relied upon as a guide to human embryology.” The penalty of excommunication for procuring an abortion was formally canonized as Church law in the promulgation of the 1917 Code of Canon Law. The Church did not then, and has not yet, declared a civil punishment for procuring or aiding in procuring an abortion. Such a declaration is up to civil authorities.

The popes which followed the 1917 Code of Canon Law have strongly supported the Church’s view on abortion. Pius XI, in his encyclical Casti Connubii, continued the condemnation, although it “did not purport to be infallible teaching,” as Catholics For a Free Choice noted in their essay quoted earlier. The Second Vatican Council (aka, Vatican II) condemned abortion in its decree Gaudium et Spes (paragraph 51). Paul VI condemned abortion in his controversial letter Humane Vitae in 1968, and John Paul II likewise condemned abortion in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae in 1993.

It is clear from examining the above cited texts that the Church has since its founding condemned abortion. But are the Pro-Choice Catholics correct in asserting that “no pope has proclaimed the prohibition of abortion an "infallible" teaching?” How would we know if a pope has declared a teaching as infallible? To find the answer we need to go back to the First Vatican Council, where the dogma of papal infallibility was defined.

Vatican I declared that

“The Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when carrying out the duty of the pastor and teacher of all Christians in accord with his supreme apostolic authority he explains a doctrine of faith and morals to be held by the universal Church, through the divine assistance promised him in Peter, operates with that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished that His church be instructed in defining doctrine on faith and morals; and so such definitions of the Roman Pontiff from himself, but not from the consensus of the Church, are unalterable.” (Vatican I, as recorded in Henri Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, paragraph 1839)

In other words, when a pope declares a doctrine or teaching on faith and morals, declaring said teaching in his position as pope, the position handed to Peter from Jesus, that teaching that the Pope declares is infallible. That teaching is true, always and forever.

Pro-Choice Catholics have argued that none of the popes have prohibited abortion infallibly. Are they correct, or is there an instance in papal declarations of a pope prohibiting abortions using the language of an infallible statement?

The answer is that yes, there is an infallible papal declaration concerning abortion. To find the declaration, we turn again to Evangelium Vitae, written by our former pontiff Pope John Paul II.

Evangelium Vitae, or The Gospel of Life, is Pope John Paul II’s examination of life issues, particularly those which have been debated in recent years. He spends a good chunk of the encyclical discussing abortion, but it is in paragraph 62 that the late pope examines 20th century Catholic teachings on abortion. John Paul reviews the teachings of Popes Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, and the Second Vatican Council, showing that his predecessors and the most recent ecumenical council condemned abortion, holding that all life from conception to natural death is sacred. He also examines the Code of Canon Law, reflecting on how the newer promulgation of the Code in 1980 retained the punishment of excommunication for those who procure or help someone procure an abortion that was extant in the 1917 Code. After reflecting on these teachings, John Paul makes the following statement:

“Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops-who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine-I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church's Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.”

Is this statement infallible? Let’s examine the wording. John Paul says “by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors,” meaning that he is invoking his papal authority in this statement. He is not talking as a mere theologian or philosopher, as St. Thomas Aquinas did. John Paul is speaking as pope, by virtue of his authoritative position. He next says “in communion with the Bishops-who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine,” showing that this stance on abortion is not some idea off the top of the pope’s head, but rather is one which the Universal Magisterium has taught. The entire teaching authority of the Church supports this decision. Then there’s the statement: “I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.” This is papal decree. Abortion is always evil, specifically because it kills “an innocent human being.” This is a blatant condemnation of abortion as murder from a pope who is invoking his papal infallibility. The crucial last statement of this section “seals the deal,” so to speak, when the pope concludes, “This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church's Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.” When a pope declares something as infallible, the teaching is never original to that document. There is always some history behind the teaching. Such is the case with abortion. John Paul knows this, and thus notes that his papal decree is in union with these earlier teachings.

He has declared abortion immoral, because it is murder, in a decree using his papal infallibility.

How do we know, one might object, that he was using this language to be infallible? Well, let’s look at another passage in Evangelium Vitae, specifically the one dealing with the death penalty (56). The pope first introduces the issue death penalty, then discusses the theological views about the necessity of the death penalty in today’s society, then explains the reasoning behind limiting the amount of executions in modern society, and then in the end states “the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” The statement of the pope on this matter is more a suggestion than a requirement. That suggestion carries a lot of weight coming from the pope, but it is not a moral declaration, with the formal language of his above quoted condemnation of abortion.

Let’s look at another passage, this one dealing with the universal condemnation against murdering innocent human life. This is a teaching even Pro-Choice Catholics (hopefully) support, as it is clearly a teaching of both Scripture and the Church. John Paul says

“Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.” (57)

The language used to condemn murder is the same language used to condemn abortion, and later euthanasia (65). This should leave no doubt that John Paul II condemned abortion infallibly, thus invalidating the claims of Pro-Choice Catholics that such a declaration has never occurred.

The final point we approach in this post is that of Free Will. The Catholics for a Free Choice, Rep. Pelosi, and then-Sen. Biden all refer to the free will of other people. We as Catholics, they say, should not “impose” morality on others. It is an interesting and important point because we cannot force others to act a certain way. God made Man with an intellect and free will, so that Man might draw closer to God. As a result, man has a conscience to lead him to God.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1782) notes that “Man has the right to act in conscience and freedom so as personally to make moral decisions.” That means if one’s conscience tells him or her to do something, it is best to follow it. However, an ill-formed conscience might lead someone to do evil. For example, a person with an ill-formed conscience might not see anything wrong with robbing a store. His spiritual development has been marred by his circumstances, and thus his morality is askew. That being said, if a person such as this little thief meets one who has a better developed conscience, who knows right from wrong, IT IS THE MORAL DUTY OF THE PERSON WITH A BETTER DEVELOPED CONSCIENCE to explain to the one with an ill-formed conscience what he is doing is wrong.

This is the case with abortion. When someone meets someone who supports abortion, it is the duty of those who know it is wrong (and anyone, especially any Catholic, who has read this blog series should know by now that it is morally evil) to tell the other and try to explain why.

However, there is a difference between educating others about immoralities and allowing or encouraging them. This is its own sin, the sin of scandal. Both Rep. Pelosi and Sen. Biden have made reference to how they think abortion is wrong, but that they do not want to impose their beliefs on others, since other people have free will, and thus they vote to allow abortion. As mentioned in the previous post, this is a very grave mistake. This view of “I don’t want to impose” soon becomes encouragement for abortion. Support for abortion is support for an immoral act. It is similar to not having laws against stealing because one does not want to impose his or her moral views on stealing on the populous. Yet stealing is illegal in the US because there is a universal right to property. To steal is an invasion of this right. Following Pelosi and Biden’s views of morality, however, stealing should be legal. One does not want to impose one’s moralities, after all, on an unwilling people. But basic moralities are the pillars upon which a society stands. To remove such pillars can only lead to collapse and rubble. Ignoring moralities leads to such rubbles, and even more rubbish. Rubbish and ruin is the direction in which a society heads when it does not respect morality, particularly that which involves life.

I hope that this series has been helpful for its readers, and that someone, somewhere, might come to a better understanding of the Catholic Church’s view on abortion.

Thank you, and God Bless.