Moderate Roman Catholic Position
on Contraception and Abortion
Daniel C. Maguire, Catholic Theologian, Marquette University
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
Teaching on Contraception and Abortion
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.
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.
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."
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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."
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
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.
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.
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."
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