The Religious Consultation
on Population, Reproductive Health  and Ethics
 


 revisiting the world's sacred traditions


The Moderate Roman Catholic Position
on Contraception and Abortion

By Professor Daniel C. Maguire, Catholic Theologian, Marquette University

Let's start with the Roman Catholic positions (note the plural) on contraception and abortion not because it is the oldest religious tradition---it is not---but because of its influence internationally on these issues. For one thing, the Catholic Church is the only world religion with a seat in the United Nations. From that seat, the Vatican has been very active in promoting the most restrictive Catholic view on family planning, although there are more liberating Catholic views that are also thoroughly and genuinely Catholic. The Vatican from its unduly privileged perch in the United Nations along with the "Catholic" nations---now newly allied with conservative Muslim nations---managed to block reference to contraception and family planning at the United Nations conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This alliance also delayed proceedings at the 1994 U.N. conference in Cairo and impeded any reasonable discussion of abortion. With more than a bit of irony, the then Prime Minister Brundtland of Norway said of the Rio conference: "States that do not have any population problem--in one particular case, even no births at all [the Vatican]--are doing their best, their utmost, to prevent the world from making sensible decisions regarding family planning."

The sudden rapport between the Vatican and conservative Muslim states is interesting. For fourteen centuries the relationship was stormy to the point of war and persecution. During that time abortions were known to be happening and yet this produced no ecumenical coziness. Is the issue really fetuses, or is it that these two patriarchal bastions are bonded in the face of a neew threat...the emergence free, self-determining women? Questions like this and all of the above summon us to make Roman Catholicism the first of our visits to the world religions.

One of the tragedies of human life is the separation of power and ideas. The Catholic tradition is more filled with good sense and flexibility than one would gather from its leaders. Religious leaders are often not equipped to give voice to the best in the tradition they represent. In Catholicism, popes and bishops are usually not theologians and often they do not express the real treasures of wisdom that Catholicism has to offer to the world. That is changing as lay people enter the field of Catholic theology and bring to it their real-life experience as workers, parents, and professionals. Catholic theology is no longer a clergy club, and that is gain.

One of these lay theologians is professor Christine Gudorf. Christine is an internationally known scholar teaching at The International University in Miami. She is also a wife and a parent. Catholic theology was done in recent centuries almost exclusively by men. That changed and women began in the last half of the twentieth century to enrich the tradition with their scholarship and experience as women.

Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit scholar, said that nothing is intelligible outside its history. The point is well taken. If we lost our personal history through amnesia, we would not even know who we are. Gudorf believes along with many scholars that there is nothing that clears the mind of caricatures like a bracing walk through history.

The Catholic Story

Gudorf points out that Christianity was born in a world in which contraception and abortion were both known and practiced. The Egyptians, Jews, Greeks and Romans used a variety of method of contraception, including coitus interruptus, pessaries, potions and condoms, and abortion appears to have been a widespread phenomenon. Knowledge of all of this was available to the Christians and although church leaders tried to suppress it they were never fully successful.

Surprisingly, abortion and contraception were not the primary means of limiting fertility in Europe even before the coming of Christianity. Infanticide was the main method as it was elsewhere in the world. Christianity reacted against infanticide, but there is evidence that it continued to be practiced. Late medieval and early modern records show a high incidence of "accidental" infant death caused by "rolling over" or smothering of infants or reporting their death as "stillborn." As Gudorf says, "the level of layings over could hardly have been fully accidental."

However, during the middle ages infanticide was much less common than abandonment. Most often infants for whom parents could not provide were left at crossroads, on the doorsteps of individuals, or in marketplaces in the hope that the child would be adopted by passersby. (More often it condemned the children to a life of slavery or an early death.) To ease this crisis, the church in the middle ages provided for "oblation." This meant that children could be offered to the church to be raised in religious monasteries. Many of them eventually became celibate nuns and monks, thus leading to further containment of fertility.

Another Catholic response to excess fertility was the foundling hospital. The foundling hospitals were equipped with a kind of "lazy Susan" wheel (ruota) where the child could be placed anonymously and then the wheel turned putting the child inside. The good intentions in this were not matched with resources and the vast majority of these infants, sometimes 90 percent of them, were dead within months. Because of the reliance on infanticide and abandonment, it is not surprising that there was not much discussion about abortion and contraception. As Gudorf says, "the primary pastoral battles in the first millennium were around infanticide, the banning of which undoubtedly raised the incidence of abandonment." Also the high mortality of children due to nutritional, hygienic, and medical debits was a common and cruel form of population control.

Catholic Teaching on Contraception and Abortion

Catholic teaching on contraception and abortion has been anything but consistent. What most people--including most Catholics- think of as "the Catholic position" on these issues actually dates from the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii of Pope Pius XI. Prior to that, church teaching was a mixed and jumbled bag. The pope decided to tidy up the tradition and change it by saying that contraception and sterilization were sins against nature and abortion was a sin against life. As Gudorf says, "both contraception and abortion were generally forbidden" in previous teaching but both were often thought to be associated with sorcery and witchcraft. Pope Gregory IX in the Decretals of 1230 treated both contraception and abortion as "homicide." Some of the Christian Penitentials of the early middle ages prescribed seven years of fasting on bread and water for a layman who commits homicide, one year for performing an abortion, but seven years for sterilization. Sterilization was considered more serious than abortion because the issue was not framed as "pro-life" but rather, the driving bias was anti-sexual. The traditional Christian attitudes toward sexuality were so negative that it was only reproductivity that could justify this activity. Abortion frustrated fertility once; sterilization could frustrate it forever and therefore it was more serious. Also, since the role of the ovum was not learned until the nineteenth century, the sperm were thought to be little homunculi, miniature people, and for this reason male masturbation was sometimes called homicide. Clearly Christian historical sexual ethics is a bit of a hodge podge. To really understand it and to arrive at an informed judgment on Catholic moral options it is necessary to be instructed by a little more history.

Catholic and Pro-choice

Although it is virtually unknown in much public international discourse, the Roman Catholic position on abortion is pluralistic. It has a strong "pro-choice" tradition and a conservative anti-choice tradition. Neither is official and neither is more Catholic than the other. The hierarchical attempt to portray the Catholic position as univocal, an unchanging negative wafted through twenty centuries of untroubled consensus, is untrue. By unearthing this authentic openness to choice on abortion and on contraception in the core of the tradition, the status of the anti-choice position is revealed as only one among many Catholic views.

The bible does not condemn abortion. The closest it gets to it is in Exodus 21-22 which speaks of accidental abortion. This imposes a financial penalty on a man who "in the course of a brawl" caused a woman to miscarry. The issue here is the father's right to progeny; he could fine you for the misdeed, but he could not claim "an eye for an eye" as if a person had been killed. Thus, as conservative theologian John Connery, S.J. said, "the fetus did not have the same status as the mother in Hebrew Law."

Following on the silence of scripture on abortion, the early church history treats it only incidentally and sporadically. Indeed, there is no systematic study of the question until the fifteenth century. One early church writer Tertullian discusses what we would today call a late term emergency abortion where doctors had to dismember a fetus in order to remove it, and he refers to this emergency measure as a "crudelitas necessaria," a necessary cruelty. Obviously this amounted to moral approbation of what some call today inaccurately a "partial birth abortion."

One thing that develops early on and becomes the dominant tradition in Christianity is the theory of delayed animation or ensoulment. Borrowed from the Greeks, this taught that the spiritual human soul did not arrive in the fetus until as late as three months into the pregnancy. Prior to that time, whatever life was there was not human. They opined that the conceptum was enlivened first by a vegetative soul, then an animal soul, and only when formed sufficiently by a human spiritual soul. Though sexist efforts were made to say the male soul arrived sooner---maybe a month and a half into the pregnancy---the rule of thumb for when a fetus reached the status of "baby" was three months or even later. As Christine Gudorf writes, the common pastoral view was "that ensoulment occurred at quickening, when the fetus could first be felt moving in the mother's womb, usually early in the fifth month. Before ensoulment the fetus was not understood as a human person. This was the reason the Catholic church did not baptize miscarriages or stillbirths."

"Reflecting the pious belief in a resurrection of all the dead at the end of the world, Augustine pondered if early fetuses who miscarried would also rise. He said they would not. He added that neither would all the sperm of history rise again. (For that we can all be grateful.) The conclusion reached by Latin American Catholic theologians in a recent study is this: "It appears that the texts condemning abortion in the early church refer to the abortion of a fully formed fetus." The early fetus did not have the status of person nor would killing it fit the category of murder.

This idea of delayed ensoulment survived throughout the tradition. St. Thomas Aquinas, the most esteemed of medieval theologians, held this view. Thus the most traditional and stubbornly held position in Catholic Christianity is that early abortions are not murder. Since the vast number of abortions done today in the United States, for example, are early abortions, they are not, according to this Catholic tradition, murder. Also, all pregnancy terminations done through the use of RU 486 would not qualify as the killing of a human person according to this Catholic tradition of "delayed ensoulment."

In the fifteenth century, the saintly archbishop of Florence, Antoninus, did extensive work on abortion. He approved of early abortions to save the life of the woman, a class with many members in the context of fifteenth century medicine. This became common teaching. For this he was not criticized by the Vatican. Indeed, he was later canonized as a saint and thus as a model for all Catholics. Many Catholics do not know that thre is a pro-choice Cathlic saint who was also an archbishop and a Dominican.

In the sixteenth century, the influential Antoninus de Corduba said that medicine that was abortifacient could be taken even later in a pregnancy if required for the health of the mother. The mother, he insisted, had a jus prius, a prior right. Some of the maladies he discussed do not seem to have been a matter of life and death for the women and yet he allows that abortifacient medicine even in these cases is morally permissible. Jesuit theologian Thomas Sanchez who died in the early seventeenth century said that all of his contemporary Catholic theologians approved of early abortion to save the life of the woman. None of these theologians or bishops were censured for these views. Note again that one of them, St. Antoninus, was canonized as a saint. Their limited "pro-choice" position was considered thoroughly orthodox and can be so considered today. In the nineteenth century, the Vatican was invited to enter a debate on a very late term abortion, requiring dismemberment of a formed fetus in order to save the woman's life. On September 2, 1869 the Vatican refused to decide the case. It referred the questioner to the teaching of theologians on the issue. It was, in other words, the business of the theologians to discuss it freely and arrive at a conclusion. It was not for the Vatican to decide. This appropriate modesty and disinclination to intervene is an older and wiser Catholic model.

What this brief tour of history shows is that a "pro-choice" position coexists alongside a "no-choice" position in Catholic history and neither position can claim to be more Catholic or more authentic than the other. Catholics are free to make their own conscientious decisions in the light of this history. Not even the popes claim that the position that forbids all abortion and contraception is infallible. The teaching on abortion is not only not infallible, it is, as Gudorf says "undeveloped." Abortion was not the "birth limitation of choice because it was, until well into the twentieth century, so extremely dangerous to the mother." There was no coherently worked out Catholic teaching on the subject, as our short history tour illustrates and there still is not. Some Catholic scholars today say all direct abortions are wrong, some say there are exceptions for cases such as the danger to the mother, conception through rape, detected genetic deformity, or other reasons. Gudorf's sensible conclusion: "The best evidence is that the Catholic position is not set in stone and is rather in development."

Sex, Women, and the Sensus Fidelium

As we will see, debates about sexuality and reproduction are always influenced mightily by certain cultural assumptions. These usually involve attitudes toward women and sex. A culture that looks on women as sources of evil like Pandora and Eve is going to have trouble justifying having sex with them and may conclude that only reproduction could justify sexual collusion with women. That is exactly what happened in Christianity. Augustine said that if it were not for reproduction there would be no use for women at all. In his words, "in any other task a man would be better helped by another man." Early attitudes toward women were poisonous. The Mosaic law assumed male ownership of women. Early church writers said women lack reason and only possess the image of God through connection to men. Luther saw women as being like nails in a wall, prohibited by their nature from moving outside their domestic situation. And St. Thomas Aquinas said females are produced from male embryos that were damaged through some accident in the womb, turned into females. As Professor Gudorf says in her refreshingly sensible book Body, Sex and Pleasure, the church has rejected all of that nonsense but "continues to teach most of the sexual moral code which was founded upon such thinking."

Small wonder there is new thinking on sexual and reproductive ethics now. As Gudorf says: "The Roman Catholic Church (and Christianity in general) has in the last century drastically rethought the meaning of marriage, the dignity and worth of women, the relationship between the body and the soul, and the role of bodily pleasure in Christian life, all of which together have revolutionary implications for church teaching on sexuality and reproduction. In effect, the foundations of the old bans have been razed and their replacements will not support the walls of the traditional ban."
Gudorf and other Catholic theologians do not stand alone in the church on this dramatic and important change in Catholic teaching. Pope Pius XII in 1954 laid the groundwork for a change in Catholic teaching when he permitted the rhythm method. Though he quibbled about what means could be used he did bless contraceptive intent and contraceptive results. He even said there could be multiple reasons to avoid having any children at all in a marriage. In 1968 when Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the view that all mechanical or chemical contraception was sinful, the Catholic bishops of fourteen different countries respectfully disagreed and told the faithful that they were not sinners if they could not accept this papal teaching.

Most of the laity, of course, had already made up their minds. The birth rates in so-called "Catholic" nations in Europe and in Latin America are close to or below replacement levels and, as Gudorf wryly puts it, "it is difficult to believe that fertility was cut in half through voluntary abstinence from sex." Such dissent from hierarchical teaching by Catholic laity is actually well provided for in Church teaching. The sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful is one of the sources of truth in Catholic theology. This means that the consciences and experiences of good people are a guidepost to truth that even the hierarchy must consult.

Catholicism in its best historical realizations is not as hidebound and authoritarian as many bishops, popes, and fearful conservatives would make it seem. There is, as Catholic theologian Charles Curran says, dissent from hierarchical teaching that is "in and for the church." Through much of Catholic history the hierarchy taught that all interest-taking on loans was a sin of usury--even the smallest amount. The laity saw that this was an error and decided that too much interest was sinful and that a reasonable amount was not. A century or two later, the hierarchy agreed...especially after the Vatican opened a bank and learned some of the facts of financial life. The laity are again, along with the theologians, leading the church on the moral freedom to practice contraception and to use abortion when necessary as a backup. Perhaps if the hierarchy were married with families, they could follow the wisdom of the laity in this at a faster pace. It would be a shame if it took a century or two for them to respect the conscience of the laity, graced and grounded as that conscience is in the lived experience of marriage and children.

Professor Christine Gudorf is hopeful in this regard. She believes that within a generation or two Catholic hierarchical teaching "will change to encourage contraception in marriage and to allow early abortion under some circumstances." She continues: "This change will occur because as the Catholic Church confronts the reality of a biosphere gasping for survival around its teeming human inhabitants it will discern the will of God and the presence of the Spirit in the choices of those who choose to share responsibility for the lives and health and prosperity of future generations without reproducing themselves, even if that choice involves artificial contraception and early abortion."

Back to Top

Send this page to a friend!

Home   About Us   Newsletters   News Archives