Nancy Pelosi is right on the history of Catholic thinking on when human life begins

There’s a lot of rewriting of history going on.  Nancy Pelosi isn’t the one doing it.

The current Roman Catholic church teaching on abortion defends ‘The inviolability of the innocent human being’s right to live “from the moment of conception until death”‘ and ‘The human being must be respected – as a person – from the very instance of his existence‘ (Donum Vitae – Congregation of the Doctrines of the Faithful, 1987).

This has not always been church teaching, a fact that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi remarked on the NBC program Meet the Press on Sunday, August 24 (official transcript).  Tom Brokaw referred to Senator Obama’s response to the question “When does life begin?”, that it was “above [his] paygrade”, and asked Ms Pelosi what she would tell Obama if he asked for advice:

I would say that as an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue that I have studied for a long time.  And what I know is, over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition.  And Senator–St. Augustine said at three months.  We don’t know. The point is, is that it shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose.  Roe v. Wade talks about very clear definitions of when the child–first trimester, certain considerations; second trimester; not so third trimester.  There’s very clear distinctions.  This isn’t about abortion on demand, it’s about a careful, careful consideration of all factors and–to–that a woman has to make with her doctor and her god.  And so I don’t think anybody can tell you when life begins, human life begins.  As I say, the Catholic Church for centuries has been discussing this, and there are those who’ve decided…


When the subject of recent church teaching that life begins at conception was raised by Brokaw, she said:

I understand.  And this is like maybe 50 years or something like that.  So again, over the history of the church, this is an issue of controversy.  But it is, it is also true that God has given us, each of us, a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions.  And we want abortions to be safe, rare, and reduce the number of abortions.  That’s why we have this fight in Congress over contraception.  My Republican colleagues do not support contraception.  If you want to reduce the number of abortions, and we all do, we must–it would behoove you to support family planning and, and contraception, you would think.  But that is not the case.  So we have to take–you know, we have to handle this as respectfully–this is sacred ground. We have to handle it very respectfully and not politicize it, as it has been–and I’m not saying Rick Warren did, because I don’t think he did, but others will try to.

There has been a storm of criticism from Catholic authorities on this, but what she says is correct.  While Augustine condemned abortion as breaking the link between sex and procreation he did not believe that abortion was homicide, asking “But who is not rather disposed to think that unformed fetuses perish like seeds which have not fructified?” (Enchiridion).  Aquinas agreed, and believed that males were “ensouled” by God at 40 days, females at 80 days (this referred to what Aquinas called the rational soul).

In 1211, Pope Innocent III issued an exception to a decree forbidding men who had shed blood to enter the priesthood.  If the blood had been shed in an abortion of a fetus not yet “ensouled”, the candidate was not forbidden, the reasoning being that this was not homicide because no soul was present.  In 1588, Pope Sixtus V decreed that abortion “at any time” was homicide, but his successor Gregory XIV rejected this interpretation as excessive and modified the law so that there was an exception when the fetus was not “animated”, in line with Augustine, Aquinas and other early thinkers.  In 1869, Pius IX rescinded that exception.  The church militant (ordinary Roman Catholics) remain divided on the question.  Nancy Pelosi’s views represent a significant faction within the church, and quite possibly the view held by the majority of Catholics.  Although the Papacy holds a different view, no  Pontiff has made an infallible statement on the question.

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