Following last week’s remarks by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claiming that Church teaching on the sinfulness of abortion has changed, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Pro-Life Activities has issued a two-page fact sheet called “Respect for Unborn Human Life: The Church’s Constant Teaching” to explain that it has not.
Rep. Pelosi, a California Democrat, made what a USCCB press release calls “misleading remarks” in an August 24 interview with Tom Brokaw, where she cited an interpretation of St. Augustine as justification for her stand on abortion. On August 26 Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, joined Bishop William Lori, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, in issuing a statement to correct their remarks. Other bishops released similar statements of their own.
“This well documented fact sheet will help Catholics and others form their consciences in accordance with the Church’s unchanging teaching in defense of unborn human life,” said Deirdre McQuade, Assistant Director for Policy and Communications at the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities.
The fact sheet quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s paragraph 2271, which states “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.”
The fact sheet tells how the earliest Christians were distinguishable from pagan cultures in part because of their rejection of abortion and infanticide, as shown in early Christian writings such as the Didache and the Letter of Barnabas.
Pre-modern Christian thinkers generally drew from the biological writings of the fourth century, BC philosopher Aristotle. Such theories taught that there is a period of between the conception of the fetus and its reception of a soul in a process called “ensoulment.” However, the fact sheet explains, “such mistaken biological theories never changed the Church’s common conviction that abortion is gravely wrong at every stage.”
Turning to St. Augustine, the 5th century AD bishop quoted by Nancy Pelosi, the fact sheet insists “rejection of abortion at every stage was affirmed by the great bishop-theologian St. Augustine.”
Noting that Augustine based his thoughts regarding abortion on both ancient biology and a mistaken Bible translation, the fact sheet says he nonetheless “wisely warned against misusing such theories to risk committing homicide.”
“He added that God has the power to make up all human deficiencies or lack of development in the Resurrection, so we cannot assume that the earliest aborted children will be excluded from enjoying eternal life with God,” it continues.
While granting that Church law was often informed by ancient biological theories, and thus distinguished between late and early abortions, “abortion at all stages continued to be seen as a grave moral evil,” the fact sheet says.
After the advances of nineteenth century biology, the fact sheet explains, “from 1869 onward the obsolete distinction between the ‘ensouled’ and ‘unensouled’ fetus was permanently removed from canon law on abortion.”
“Modern science,” the fact sheet insists, “has not changed the Church’s constant teaching against abortion, but has underscored how important and reasonable it is, by confirming that the life of each individual of the human species begins with the earliest embryo.”
The fact sheet says that the Church’s opposition to abortion rests upon the principle that “each and every human life has inherent dignity, and thus must be treated with the respect due to a human person.” Claiming that some living human beings should not be treated as persons because of changeable factors like “age, condition, location, or lack of mental or physical abilities,” is to deny that there is such a thing as inherent human worth.
“Such a claim undermines respect for the lives of many vulnerable people before and after birth,” the fact sheet concludes.