The history of Catholic teaching on abortion isn’t as clear cut as you think

Its position has hardly been “unchangeable” throughout the past two millennia.

The history of Catholic teaching on abortion isn’t as clear cut as you think

Its position has hardly been “unchangeable” throughout the past two millennia.

Even though 56 percent of U.S. Catholics believe that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, it’s a commonly held belief that being “pro-choice” is incompatible with being Catholic. That’s not surprising, given the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion seems pretty clear cut: abortion is a murder. The Catechism of the Catholic Church even says, “Since the first century, the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable.”

That’s not exactly true, though.

While it’s fair to say that the Catholic Church has always leaned anti-abortion, history does not support that its position has been “unchangeable” throughout the past two millennia. Rather, the lives and writings of Catholic saints and papal decisions show that the Church has adapted its position on abortion many times, and that there’s still room for discussion on the matter.

The abortion debate in the Catholic Church has largely coalesced around two main issues: the Church’s preference for chastity and the question of when human life begins.

Sex is, uh, a complicated matter in Catholicism. While the “conjugal embrace” is celebrated within the confines of marriage (and then only if the marriage is “open” to procreation), power within the Church is reserved for men who swear to practice celibacy. For centuries, the main issue with abortion in the Catholic Church was that in order to have an abortion, you first needed to have had sex. Abortion was sinful because it nullified the only acceptable reason for having sex: procreation. In their book, A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion, philosophers Daniel Dombrowski and Robert Deltete call this the “perversity view,” and explain that because the only permissable reason to have sex was procreation, “abortion perverts sex and is immoral in the same way that contraception is immoral.”

But sometimes when sex that resulted in pregnancy occured outside of marriage, undoing it was considered a miracle.

Ireland has long been known as one of the most Catholic nations in the world. In the early 1980s, more than 90 percent of the country attended Catholic Mass weekly, and in 1983 Ireland ratified a constitutional amendment that banned abortion in almost all cases (this amendment was only repealed in 2018). At the time, many decried the amendment as “medieval”. However, in medieval Ireland, there are multiple instances of abortion being listed as a miracle performed by Catholic saints.

In records of their lives from the first millennia, saints Brigid of Kildare, Ciarán of Saigir, Cainnech of Aghaboe, and Áed mac Bricc all have abortions recounted among their miracles.

“What strikes me most is that these aren’t insignificant saints performing these taboo actions,” said Dr. Maeve Callan, an associate professor of Religion at Simpson College and specialist on Medieval Irish history. “Brigid is arguably the most beloved Irish saint.”

In the hagiography of St. Brigid’s life, the strength of her faith that enables her to perform a miraculous abortion that restores virtue to a horny nun.

“A certain woman who had taken the vow of chastity fell, through youthful desire of pleasure and her womb swelled with child. Brigid, exercising the most potent strength of her ineffable faith, blessed her, causing the child to disappear, without coming to birth, and without pain.”

While the Brigid abortion largely focuses on the perversity view (breaking the vow of chastisty), other miraculous abortions are more focused on the question of when human life begins. Such is the case of Ciarán of Saigir. Before his story begins, St. Ciarán had rescued a nun who had been kidnapped and presumably raped by a local king.

“When the man of God returned to the monastery with the girl, she confessed that she was pregnant. Then the man of God, led by the zeal of justice, not wishing the serpent’s seed to quicken, pressed down on her womb with the sign of the cross and forced her womb to be emptied.”

“Before Ciaran performs his miracle, there was a sense that what was in the womb wasn’t fully human yet,” says Callan. In Catholic teaching, human life begins when a fetus gains a human soul, an event known as ensoulment. However, the Church has no clear answer on when ensoulment happens.

In the fifteenth century, St. Antonius, Archbishop of Florence, defended abortions that were medically necessary for a pregnant woman so long as they occured before ensoulment.

The Church’s longest held belief on this matter is one of “delayed hominization,” or that a fetus could not gain a soul until it was “formed.” St. Thomas Aquinas, a major heavyweight in the Catholic Church in the 13th century, took after Aristotle and believed that being formed enough for ensoulment happened at around 40 days for males and about 80 days for females. More commonly, ensoulment was deemed to happen at the “quickening,” the moment when a pregnant woman first feels her child move, normally around 18 weeks into a pregnancy. While Catholic law frowned upon abortion, it ruled that it was only homicide if it occured after the fetus gained a human soul.

Writings from the time show that abortion was a widespread and largely socially accepted practice, and in some cases, supported by church leaders. In the fifteenth century, St. Antonius, Archbishop of Florence, defended abortions that were medically necessary for a pregnant woman so long as they occured before ensoulment. Antonius wasn’t a controversial figure. The pope at the time declared him to be a “brilliant theologian and a popular preacher,” and Antonious’ view was shared by many influential theologians.

Things changed in the late 1580s when Pope Sixtus V came to power. Sixtus V was a notoriously harsh man. Prior to his papacy, he was recalled from his role as the inquisitor general in Venice due to his intensity. In 1588, he issued a papal bull declaring that abortion at any stage of a pregnancy was homicide, and that the punishement was excommunication that could only be lifted by traveling to Rome to beg for forgiveness. However, Sixtus V seemed to be uninterested in enforcing this bull, and frequently granted special dispensations to bishops to handle matters themselves and did not wish for women who procurred abortions to be treated as if they had committed homicide.

This hardline stance on abortion lasted only three years. In 1591 the new Pope Gregory XIV reversed the decision, declaring abortion to only be homicide if it took place after ensoulment, which he determined took place 166 days into a pregnancy, or well over halfway through the second trimester. This decision lasted for 278 years until Pope Pius IX reversed the decision yet again in 1869 and made abortion after conception a sin that automatically excommunicated those involved in its procurement from the Catholic Church. There are only nine sins that have automatic excommunication as a punishment. This new ruling elevated abortion to the same level of sinfullness as punching the pope.

In other words, typewriters, electric batteries, and elevators were all invented before the Catholic Church hardened its stance on abortion. Pope Pius IX didn’t change the Church’s stance on abortion, however, because he believed that ensoulment happened at conception. Rather, he believed that conception gave the potential for ensoulment, and that that potential must be protected. For some, this argument is wildly unpersuasive. Daniel Maguire, a professor emeritus of theological ethics at Marquette University, a Catholic institution, wrote in The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health & Ethics, “The argument is heard that the fetus is ‘potential life.’ That's wrong. It's real life. It just has not reached personal status. It is potentially a person, but the potential is not actual. After all, gentle reader, you and I are potentially dead but would not like to be treated as if that potentiality were fulfilled.”

He goes on to say, “There may be serious and justifying reasons for killing pre-personal, fetal life. The decision on that belongs naturally to the woman who carries that life. Women have a far better track record than men when it comes to cherishing and protecting life. Let's leave abortion decisions up to them”

For some, the primacy of conscience gives sufficient room within the Catholic Church for individuals to make up their own minds on abortion.

Even though Catholicism is a religion with a strict and prominent hierarchy, it has a deep respect for individual reason and choice. When navigating complex moral questions, a person must first look to their own conscience to find the correct answer — not Church leaders. This principle is known as the “primacy of conscience,” and the Catechism goes further to say, “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.” This emphasis on personal reason is so important that when Pope Francis was recently accused of spreading heresy for valuing individual conscience over established church teaching, he doubled down and said, “The primacy of conscience must always be respected.”

For some, the primacy of conscience gives sufficient room within the Catholic Church for individuals to make up their own minds on abortion. It’s the principle behind Catholics for Choice (CFC), a nonprofit made up of Catholics who advocate for access to abortion and contraception from a Catholic standpoint. While the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops routinely rejects CFC’s identification as a Catholic organization, its views are far more representative of practicing American Catholics.

But while a majority of America’s 51 million Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, their views are not advocated for by the Church hierarchy. And for non-Catholics, this has consequences.

Catholics only make up 22 percent of the U.S. population, but one in six of our hospital beds are in a Catholic facility, a number that has increased 22 percent since 2001. Catholic hospitals follow a set of directives about healthcare from the U.S. Conference of Bishops. These directives forbid their hospitals from providing contraception, sterilization, many infertility treatments, and abortion care, even when a woman is not Catholic and her life and health are in danger.

Saying that being pro-choice is incompatible with being Catholic reflects a very narrow understanding Catholic history and theology. Catholicism is complex, and so are Catholics. A vast majority of Catholics practice behaviors denounced by the Catholic hierarchy, such as using birth control, having oral sex, and supporting abortion, while still practicing Catholicism faithfully. Maybe it’s time for them to include prayers to St. Brigid and St. Antonius while they do so.

Molly Monk lives in Iowa and writes about religion, politics, and the Midwest.