Religion and Abortion Part 3: The Catholic Position

Abortion Law in the USA

Until 1840, the US followed English common law, which allowed abortion until quickening, when a woman could feel the movement. Then newly professionalized medical doctors began pressing for laws restricting abortion on the grounds of a mother’s safety, although protection of the doctors’ businesses from competition figured prominently in their motivation. By 1900 all states had made abortion illegal, except for abortions performed by doctors. (See Holland, Tiny You: A Western History of the Anti-Abortion Movement, 2020).

When the Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade in 1973, the states were gradually liberalizing their abortion laws. Republican governor Ronald Reagan of California signed a bill in 1967 that virtually decriminalized abortion and in 1970 the Republican governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, signed the most liberal bill in the country. Many Protestant denominations were also reconsidering their traditional opposition to abortion. Before Roe v. Wade, in 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution supporting legalization of abortion and in 1973 they passed a resolution supporting the recent Supreme Court Decision.

Roman Catholics stood alone in their opposition. Evangelical opposition came only later and for different reasons. This blog post will examine the Catholic position. My next post will analyze the Evangelical position.

Changing Teaching

Right to Life

The Catholic position on abortion is absolutist, allowing no exceptions for rape, incest, or saving the life of a mother. Their position was unpopular. Since the 1960s polls have shown that Americans, including Catholics, overwhelming reject the absolutist position. Even prior to Roe v. Wade the Roman Catholic Church had organized the resistance to legal abortion. In 1967, alarmed by the liberalization of state abortion laws, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops established the National Right to Life Committee.

The slogan, “right to life” served strategic objectives. First, opposing abortion on the basis of a right to life bought into the civil rights movement language that came to prominence in the 1960s. Claiming a fetus’s right to life humanized, personalized, and individualized the fetus, making it a person. Photos and then ultrasound images facilitated these aims in graphic detail.

Second, feminists had been pushing the argument that women could not be fully equal if denied the right to control their bodies. Focusing attention on the fetus’s rights allowed the Church to ignore the woman. The Church’s right to life strategy forced a change to the Catholic Church’s traditional position on abortion.

Sacredness of Life

The Catholic Catechism (2nd edition, 1994) not only clearly states the Church’s uncompromising position but also their new strategical understanding of a fetus as a person:

Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his [sic] existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person—among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life (#2270).

Even though Jeremiah 1:5 and Psalm 139:15 have nothing to do with abortion, the Catechism quotes them to argue that God gives life from the beginning: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jer 1:15). The Jeremiah quotation occurs in the context of the prophet’s call and is meant to legitimate a g-d pre-ordain call. The text never mentions any aspect of reproduction.

In its next paragraph, The Catechism states the universal nature of its abortion ban: “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion” (2271). As evidence, it quotes Didache and the Letter of Barnabas, examined in my previous Blog II Historical Notes.

While on the surface this statement appears true, it twists history into an untruth. The use of “Church” assumes that the Roman Catholic Church of the twentieth century existed in the first and second century, a major sleight of hand. The followers of Jesus Anointed are in no sense “the Church.” These were small house groups figuring out who they were. They were not yet even Christians, much less Catholics.

The Catechism skips over the complete lack of mention of abortion in biblical writings. It never asks why Didache and the Letter of Barnabas forbid abortion. Nor does the Catechism explain how the Church can rationalize the appropriation of a Jewish rhetorical tradition. It also accepts the earliest date possible for Didache. For the Catechism, it is not the meaning of the prohibition but the fact of it that counts: tradition rules and constitutes the argument.

Mythical Mashup

Article 5 of the Catechism, in which the topic of abortion occurs, leads with the Fifth Commandment as the title—“Thou shall not kill.” The first paragraph begins:

Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end . . . no one can under any circumstance claim for himself [sic]the right directly to destroy an innocent human being. (2258)

The Fifth Commandment prohibits killing, not based on the sacredness of life, but the reservation of killing to the power of g-d. Since the sacredness of life would be hard to prove from the Bible, the Catechism quotes from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) document Donum Vitae (Gift of Life, 1987). The argument is implied, rather than made.

  • The sacredness of life derives from the Genesis creation myth.
  • Greek myth and philosophy give us the notion of the soul.

These myths form the basis of a theological conclusion: the Christian god-created soul makes life sacred. While in the Catechism’s statement the soul is not mentioned, the paragraph from which the CDF Donum Vitae quotation comes makes it explicit: “the spiritual soul of each man [sic] is ‘immediately created’ by God.” The Catechism acknowledges the creation of the soul in its definition of the human person in paragraph 33: “The soul, the ‘seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material,’ can have its origin only in God.”

What is missing in the Catechism is any acknowledgement of the problem of ensoulment. The teaching is presented as permanent and eternal, all the way back to the first century. But this is not the case. As we saw in Blog II Historical Notes, both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas accepted Aristotle’s successive souls, with the human soul coming only in the last stage of fetal development (quickening). This was the position of the Church until 1869 when Pius IX (Apostolicae Sedis) imposed excommunication as the penalty for any abortion, even of an unformed fetus. Neither Augustine nor Thomas Aquinas thought that was murder. The Catholic Church’s absolutist position on abortion is a recent innovation, dictated by its novel right to life strategy.

Innocent Life

What does “innocent” life mean? The Catechism offers no clue. The notion that a fetus is innocent is a modern idea, a result of the Church’s strategy to personalize the fetus. Augustine, who considered all sex sinful, thought the unbaptized were stained with original sin and worried that they would go to hell. Medieval theologians eventually solved this problem by inventing limbo, an in-between place where the unbaptized did not suffer the pains of hell or purgatory, but neither did they obtain the beatific vision, which was reserved for those in heaven. The Baltimore Catechism (1885) states the traditional position:

Q 632 . . . A. Persons, such as infants, who have not committed actual sin and who, through no fault of theirs, die without baptism, cannot enter heaven; but it is the common belief they will go to some place similar to Limbo, where they will be free from suffering, though deprived of the happiness of heaven.

The Catechism does not mention limbo (except in its index), but in paragraph 1261 it reads, “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God.” So, while limbo has disappeared, the Catechism has no answer. But unlike Augustine, who worried about their going to hell, the Church trusts God’s mercy. In 2007 the International Theological Commission issued a statement, “Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized,” which did away with limbo and argued, “there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness, even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in Revelation.” How this can be, it does not explain.

Innocent life creates a problem for the doctrine of original sin and for the necessity of baptism for salvation. But the Commission argues that this should not be used to argue against redemption for the unbaptized. “Rather, there are reasons to hope that God will save these infants precisely because it was not possible for them to do what would have been most desirable—to baptize them in the faith of the Church and incorporate them visibly into the Body of Christ.” Personalizing a fetus paves the way to salvation for the unbaptized; how that can be is not explained.

Strategy Drives Doctrine

Right-to-life rhetoric creates the position that from the moment of conception a fetus is an innocent human person. This is a new teaching that is causing problems for the Catholic Church’s historic teachings.

The Catechism states in the second paragraph on Abortion that “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion” (2271). This is a claim for the universal and fixed nature of the Church’s teaching, qualifying that teaching as dogma. It implies that the Church has not changed its teaching and cannot change it. It rules out any admission that the Church’s position could evolve or has evolved, which it evidently has. If the Church admitted development, it would have to argue its new position, but it lacks a rationale. Therefore, the Church argues that its current position has always been true and has never changed.

What’s Missing?


That the Catechism and various Vatican-authorized documents on abortion do not acknowledge the rights of women should not be surprising. A major aspect of the strategy of right to life is to ignore women’s rights and characterize the fetus as a human person. This strategy has been very successful, but at the price of ignoring and even demeaning the rights of women.


The Catholic Church is a highly patriarchal religion that has consistently failed to recognize women as leaders, agents, or even fully human persons. It argues that the priesthood is reserved for men because Jesus was male and he only appointed male apostles. This argument has failed to convince any of the Protestant denominations. If a priest represents Jesus, why assume that his genitals are the primary point of comparison? Why not his religion? Why shouldn’t all priests be Jewish? Why not Galilean?

Likewise, the argument that Jesus only made male apostles is suspect on historical grounds. The evidence that the named (twelve) apostles were associated with the historical Jesus is very weak (See The Acts of Jesus, pp. 71–2). Even more, the argument ignores scriptural evidence that Paul knows female apostles (Romans 16:7). It is also nearly impossible to show any connection between priesthood and the historical Jesus. Priests are remarkably lacking in the earliest years of the Jesus movements. Even if you grant for the sake of argument that he did appoint apostles or ordain them priests, why would their genitals be the primary point of comparison?

The Church’s primary rationale for maintaining an all-male priesthood is the same for maintaining its ban on abortion: tradition—it’s always been that way!!

Birth Control

The power of patriarchy in the denial of women’s right to control their own bodies is also on exhibit in the issue of birth control. Pope John XXIII had appointed a commission to consider birth control and the bishops at the Vatican Council II were also set to consider the issue. John XXIII’s commission reported back in favor of change in the Church’s teaching on birth control. But the newly elected Paul VI reserved the question for himself. Leon-Joseph Cardinal Suenens of Belgium, on the floor of the Council meeting, asked Paul VI to reconsider, saying, “[L]et us avoid a new ‘Galileo affair.’ One is enough for the Church.” But to no avail.

Paul VI appointed his own commission to study birth control. Even though the commission was stacked in favor of the traditional teaching, the commission divided, with the majority supporting a change in the Church’s teaching. Paul VI overruled his own commission and issued Humanae Vitae (1968), reaffirming the so-called traditional teaching. Patriarchy and the erasure of female experience remained firmly in place.

Patriarchy has tied the Church into a knot of issues associated with sex: celibacy and virginity versus married life, the rejection of homosexuality, birth control, misogyny, and male-only priesthood. As Gary Wills has maintained, “Catholic priests are charged with maintaining The Big Crazy on sex all the time.”


The problem of what life is and when it begins from a scientific point of view is a very difficult question. Biologically, life is a continuity. Fertilization does not mark a move from non-existence to existence. That move is based on the notion of a soul, a mythical idea. When does a fetus become a human is an equally daunting question. What makes a human? Consciousness? Again, not an easy question to answer. Taking science seriously would have complicated the question greatly, introduced nuance into an overly simple position. But it would also have offered a competing authoritative voice and challenged the Church’s absolutism.

When Augustine and Thomas Aquinas used Aristotle to understand ensoulment, they were employing the best science of their day to understand and solve a problem. But the modern Catholic Church decided to stick with tradition and patriarchy, ignoring the relevance of contemporary science. Instead, they innovated, changed their position, for political ends, while denying their innovation.

Woman holding sign

Consistent Life Ethic

Once the Church had committed itself to the sacredness of unborn life, the question quickly arose whether all life was sacred. The “seamless garment” idea (Eileen Egan, 1971) and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (1983) affirmed the sacred character of all life. Pope John Paul II threw his considerable weight behind this position in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life, 1995). He even put the Church in opposition to the death penalty.

But the seamless garment notion never caught on. Those committed to the right to life remained focused on life before birth, largely ignoring life after birth. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) wrote to the American bishops in 2004 rejecting a moral equivalence argument by pointing out that the Church viewed abortion and euthanasia as more serious wrongs than capital punishment. Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has led a group of American bishops who want to deny communion to Catholics who support a woman’s right to an abortion, including the churchgoing President of the United States, Joe Biden.


The Roman Catholic Church led the opposition to Roe v. Wade. Its absolutist position on abortion is recent, not historical, and it rests on the Church’s right to life strategy. That strategy has two aims: 1) to humanize and personalize the fetus as an innocent human being from conception; 2) to hide and thereby eliminate a woman’s role and rights. Undergirding its position is the Church’s commitment to patriarchy, which supersedes all other commitments, historical, theological, moral, and ethical. To recognize a woman’s rights over her own body would run counter to the Church’s patriarchal nature, calling into question its celibate, male-only priesthood and a host of associated traditions. The Roman Church set the agenda for other conservative Christians who adopted the Catholic strategy to oppose abortion. It was a match made in heaven, the topic of the next blog post.

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