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 The R. C. Church's
"traditional teaching"
on  abortion :
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abortion and R. C. thought;
the little-told history:

Source : This is a summary of "Catholics for a Free Choice" publication The History of Abortion in the Catholic Church. Reprinted in the Autumn 1996 issue of Conscience ( no longer online at http://faculty.cua.edu/Pe...w111/CatholicHistory.htm, but copy may still be online at https:// www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12178868 )

"Most people believe that the Roman Catholic church's position on abortion has remained unchanged for two thousand years. Not true. 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(stage) abortion as homicide. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the "right-to-life" argument is a relatively recent development in church teaching. The debate continues today.
       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.
       The campaign by Pope John Paul II to make his position on abortion the defining one at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 was just one leg of a long journey of shifting views within the Catholic church. In the fifth century a.d., St. Augustine expressed the mainstream view that early abortion required penance only for sexual sin.1 Eight centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas agreed, saying abortion was not homicide unless the fetus was "ensouled," and ensoulment, he was sure, occurred well after conception. The position that abortion is a serious sin akin to murder and is grounds for excommunication only became established 150 years ago.
       A brief chronology cannot do justice to the twists and turns of theological thinking through the centuries. It can, however, put the abortion debate within the Catholic church into historical perspective and show the importance of continued debate and of open hearts and minds.

early Christianity: moving away
from paganism during the
first six Christian centuries

Pagan religions had a calm acceptance of abortion and contraception, including the use of barrier methods, coitus interruptus, and various medicines that prevented contraception or caused abortion.
       Early Christian leaders, distinguishing Christianity from pagan beliefs, developed ideas about contraception and abortion, marriage and procreation, and the unity of body and soul. They taught that sex even for reproduction was bad and sex for pleasure heinous. Chastity became a virtue in its own right.
        100 a.d.: The Debate Begins
        One of the earliest church documents, the Didache, condemns abortion but asks two critical questions: 1) Is abortion being used to conceal the sins of fornication and adultery? and 2) Does the fetus have a rational soul from the moment of conception, or does it become an "ensouled human" at a later point? The matter of "hominization" the point at which a developing embryo or fetus becomes a human being would become one of the cornerstones of debate about abortion, and it remains a subject of debate even today.

St. Augustine: Early Abortion Is Not Homicide
       St. Augustine (354-430) condemned abortion because it breaks the connection between sex and procreation. 1 However, in the Enchiridion, he says, "But who is not rather disposed to think that unformed fetuses perish like seeds which have not fructified" clearly seeing hominization as beginning or occurring at some point after the fetus has begun to grow. He held that abortion was not an act of homicide. Most theologians of his era agreed with him.
       In a disciplinary sense, the general agreement at this time was that abortion was a sin requiring penance if it was intended to conceal fornication and adultery.

The Middle Period: 600 -1500

circa 675: Illicit Intercourse is a Greater Sin
        The Irish Canons place the penance for "destruction of the embryo of a child in the mother's womb [at] three and one half years," while the "penance of one who has intercourse with a woman, seven years on bread and water."2 circa 8th Century: Recognizing Women's Circumstances
       In the Penitential Ascribed by Albers to Bede, the idea of delayed hominization is again supported, and women's circumstances acknowledged: "A mother who kills her child before the fortieth day shall do penance for one year. If it is after the child has become alive, [she shall do penance] as a murderess. But it makes a great difference whether a poor woman does it on account of the difficulty of supporting [the child] or a harlot for the sake of concealing her wickedness." 3

1140: Abortion of an Unformed Fetus Is Not Homicide
        In 1140, Gratian compiled the first collection of canon law that was accepted as authoritative within the church. Gratian's code included the canon Aliquando, which concluded that "abortion was homicide only when the fetus was formed."4 If the fetus was not yet a formed human being, abortion was not homicide.

1312: "Delayed Hominization" Confirmed
        The Council of Vienna, still very influential in Catholic hierarchical teaching, confirmed the conception of man put forth by St. Thomas Aquinas. While Aquinas had opposed abortion as a form of contraception and a sin against marriage he had maintained that the sin in abortion was not homicide unless the fetus was ensouled, and thus, a human being. Aquinas had said the fetus is first endowed with a vegetative soul, then an animal soul, and then when its body is developed a rational soul. This theory of "delayed hominization" is the most consistent thread throughout church history on abortion.5

Pre-Modern Period: 1500 - 1750

1588: Abortion's Penalty Becomes Excommunication
        Concerned about prostitution in Rome, Pope Sixtus V issued the bull Effraenatam (Without Restraint) and applied to both contraception and abortion, at any stage of pregnancy, the penalty designated for homicide: excommunication. There was no exception for therapeutic abortion.6

1591: Rules Quickly Relaxed
        Only three years after Pope Sixtus V issued Effraenatam, he died. His successor, Gregory XIV, felt Sixtus's stand was too harsh and was in conflict with penitential practices and theological views on ensoulment. He issued Sedes Apostolica, which advised church officials, "where no homicide or no animated fetus is involved, not to punish more strictly than the sacred canons or civil legislation does."7 This papal pronouncement lasted until 1869.

1679: Pregnant Girls Facing Murder by Their Families
        Consistently, abortion had been considered wrong if used to conceal sexual sins. Taking this idea to its extreme, Pope Innocent XI declared abortion impermissible even when a girl's parents were likely to murder her for having become pregnant.
       The church was still teaching delayed hominization, sure only that hominization occurred some time before birth.

The Modern Era: 1750-Present

1869: Excommunication for All Abortions
        Completely ignoring the question of hominization, Pope Pius IX wrote in Apostolicae Sedis in 1869 that excommunication is the required penalty for abortion at any stage of pregnancy.8 He said all abortion was homicide. His statement was an implicit endorsement -- the church's first -- of immediate hominization.

1917: Doctors and Nurses Targeted
        The 1917 Code of Canon Law, the first new edition since Gratian's code in 1140, required excommunication both for a woman who aborts and for any others, such as doctors and nurses, who take part in an abortion.9

1930: Therapeutic Abortions Condemned
        In his encyclical Casti Connubii (Of Chaste Spouses), Pope Pius XI condemned abortion in general, and specifically in three instances: in the case of therapeutic abortion, which he called the killing of an innocent; in marriage to prevent offspring; and on social and eugenic grounds, as practiced by some governments.10
       Pius's stance on abortion remains the hierarchical view today. The encyclical Casti Connubii did not purport to be infallible teaching, but as an address by the pope to the bishops, it carries great authority.

1965: Protection from the Moment of Conception
        The Second Vatican Council, in Gaudium et Spes (section 51), declared: "Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception; abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes." Here, abortion is now condemned on the basis of protecting life, not as a concealment of sexual sin.

1974: The "Right-to-Life" Argument
        In 1974, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith issued the "Declaration on Procured Abortion," which opposes abortion on the grounds that "one can never claim freedom of opinion as a pretext for attacking the rights of others, most especially the right to life." The key to this position is that the fetus is human life from the moment of conception, if not necessarily a full human being. With this position, the church has fully changed the terms of its argument.

Today: Abortion Ban Is Absolute
        The Catholic church hierarchy today does not permit abortion in any instance, not even in case of rape or as a direct way of saving the life of a pregnant woman."

       1.St. Augustine, De nuptiis et concupiscentia, 1.15.17 (CSEL 42.229-230).
       2.John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance (New York: Octagon Books, 1974), pp. 119-120.
       3.McNeil and Gamer, p. 225.
        4. John T. Noonan, ed., The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), p.20.
       5.Joseph F. Donceel, S.J., "Immediate Animation and Delayed Hominization," Theological Studies, vols. 1 & 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), pp. 86-88.
       6.Codicis iuris fontes, ed. P. Gasparri, vol. 1 (Rome, 1927), p. 308.
       7.Ibid., pp. 330-331.
       8.Actae Sanctae Sedis, 5:298.
       9.Codex iuris canonici, c. 2350.
       10.Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 22:539-92.

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