In his syndicated column (Toronto Star, etc.), Tom Harpur has argued that the Vatican has not always held that from the moment of conception the child in the womb is a full human being and that to end its life is murder.  For centuries, the fetus was held to be a person only after a rational soul was infused in it.  Following a conjecture of Aristotle’s, this was thought to be at about 40 days for a male and 80 for a female.  “Abortion before this point was an evil,” Harpur writes, “but not a grievous one.”

This view prevailed, he says, from Gratian’s Code (1140), to the ruling of Pius IX in 1869, which changed everything: “Pius rightly saw that emerging knowledge of embryology made it seem ridiculous.”  Not only St. Thomas Aquinas, but several popes, including Innocent III (1196-1216) and Gregory XIV (1590-1591), Harpur says, taught this foolishness as authoritative dogma.

The present pope’s stand may seem clear enough, Harpur goes on, yet a recent statement by Cardinal Ratzinger, “the man responsible for orthodoxy,” makes it seem that the situation is still confused:

“When the Roman Catholic Church says that the human embryo must be considered as a human being, it does not state explicitly that the human fetus has a soul from the moment of conception…The Church has never taught definitively that the human embryo is animated (ensouled) from the moment of conception.”

If this is so, asks Harpur, how can anyone argue that the fetus in its earliest stages is a person?  “Until Rome can resolve this contradiction,” he concludes, “its stand on abortion will remain what it is now – a muddle.”

Others would agree with Harpur.  Wendell Watters of McMaster University writes that, until 1869 and except for three years during the reign of a sixteenth-century pope, “the Church had officially accepted the theory of delayed animation for 500 years,” and so “abortion before ‘ensoulment’ was tolerated by the Catholic Church.”  Professor Angus McLaren of the University of Victoria in B.C., recently stated in the Globe and Mail, that “It was only in 1869 that Pope Pius IX subjected to excommunication anyone involved in the abortion of an embryo.  The advancement of this claim of absolute protection for the human embryo from the point of conception was a novelty in Roman Catholic tradition…When, therefore, in 1869 Pius declared excommunication for all who procured abortion, he was carrying out a revolution in theological thinking.

The same claim may be found in Henry Morgentaler’s Contraception and Abortion and in arguments of pro-abortionists going back to the sixties.

Clear teaching

In a pamphlet entitled The Roman Catholic Church and Abortion: An Historical Perspective, philosopher Donald DeMarco insists that “The Church’s teaching that direct induced abortion is always a grave evil has been made clear emphatic and unwavering Catholic moralists say the same thing.  Germain Grisez writes that “The Roman Catholic tradition is marked by clear, consistent, comprehensive, and firm teaching against abortion in general.”  Historian Alphonse de Valk, in Appendix IX of his volume Morality and Law in Canadian Politics, entitled “Abortion in the Christian Tradition” concludes:  “Throughout its history, the Christian Church has held that it is a serious sin to destroy the fetus in any stage of its development.” (p.174)  How can we resolve the contradiction between such statements and the view of Harpur, Watters and McLaren?

DeMarco says that we must make a distinction between moral law in the Catholic tradition and canonical penalties.  The Church’s moral law has always classified every destruction of the unborn as gravely sinful, but the canonical penalties have varied throughout history.  Was Pius IX’s decree a revolutionary innovation?  Here is Basil the Great in 374-5: “A woman who deliberately destroys a fetus is answerable for murder.  And any fine distinction as to its being completely formed or unformed is not admissible among us.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia supports this view:

“The Sixth Ecumenical Council determined, for the whole Church, that anyone who procured abortion should bear all the punishment inflicted on murderers.  In all these…enactments no distinction is made between the earlier and the later stages of gestation.  For, though the opinions  of Aristotle, or similar speculations, regarding the time when the rational soul is infused into the embryo, were accepted for many centuries, still it was always held by the Church that he who destroyed what was to be a man was guilty of destroying life.”

Nevertheless, DeMarco shows, the canonical penalties varied from time to time.  In 1588, Pope Sixtus V tried to discourage abortion by issuing severe penalties.  For example, the Holy See reserved to itself absolution from excommunication of all those who procured abortions.  A few years of experience showed that this penalty was too harsh, and so the next pope, Gregory XIV, returned responsibility for absolution to the local bishop.

A debate went on for three hundred years, from 1450 to 1750, on whether a woman ever had a right to abort.  But no exception was found which would permit direct abortion, because all possible exceptions violated the principle that all innocent human life deserves protection.  A very influential Jesuit theologian, Thomas Sanchez, held that abortion is lawful if the fetus is not yet animated when the intention is to prevent a pregnant girl from being killed or defamed: but this proposition was condemned in 1679.  So Watters is quite wrong in saying that abortion before ‘ensoulment’ was tolerated by the Catholic Church.

But what about the Ratzinger statement that the Church has never taught definitively that the human embryo is ensouled from the moment of conception?  This is of course, the simple truth: no one knows when God infuses the soul into the body.  In the absence of certain knowledge, we rely on probabilities.  There is a positive argument for conception as the decisive moment of humanization, and this argument comes from science: at conception the new being receives its genetic code.  This genetic code determines its characteristics and ensures that it is a self-evolving human being.  A being with a human genetic code is a human being.

The teaching of a religious body may embody insights which are of importance to those outside it.  One theory, a theory Harpur has espoused in previous columns, is that we can distinguish between human lives; some are more important than others, and it is reasonable to sacrifice a poor, undeveloped life for a rich, developed one.  To those who hold this viewpoint, a religious teaching which asserts the basic equality of all men must seem annoying.  But the assumption of the basic equality of all people has been the assumption of Western humanism as well.

To withdraw the protection of society from one class of human beings is to breach the equality principle.  This makes it a little easier to withdraw protection from other groups – the aged, the infirm, the psychotic, and so on.  Besides giving a distorted view of the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion, therefore, Tom Harpur undermines the religious concept of the sanctity of life and the humanistic concept of the intrinsic value of life – quite apart from religious considerations.  The muddle is surely his own.