Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Scarlet Letter

Many years ago in his novel, The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne wove deftly into his morality tale the letter “A” sewn to Hester Prynne’s clothing. Of course, the emblem enabled Hawthorne to develop a story that probed a number of important norms about our human existence. I would like to borrow his use of the letter “A” in its reddish fashion—perhaps recalling the color of blood—to probe another question which has once again surfaced frequently in the news regarding the position of various influential people who hold high public office. But here the red letter “A” does not refer to concupiscence but to abortion. Since the question of what does the Church teach has recently surfaced once again by prominent public officials who claim allegiance to the Catholic Church and her teachings.

But, what are those teachings? Perhaps this brief anthology may help all of us who ask questions about the views expressed by prominent persons about the Church’s teachings:

We might begin with that extraordinary fragment of the Didache from the first century that is pregnant, if you will, with several important teachings: Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not corrupt boys; do not fornicate; do not steal; do not practice magic; do not go in for sorcery; do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant… Do not be double-minded or double-tongued, for a double tongue is a deadly snare

Tertullian affirmed the essential principle in the early second century: To prevent birth is anticipated murder; it makes little difference whether one destroys a life already born or does away with it in its nascent stage. The one who will be a man is already one.

The first Council of Mainz in 847 reconsidered the penalties against abortion which had been established by preceding Councils. It decided that the most rigorous penance would be imposed on women who procure the elimination of the fruit conceived in their womb.

The Decree of Gratian reported the following words of Pope Stephen V: That person is a murderer who causes to perish by abortion what has been conceived.

Moving forward in time, we might consider the 1679 Decree of the Holy Office (the predecessor of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) condemning a number of positions including the following: it is permitted to bring about an abortion before the animation of the foetus, lest the girl found pregnant be killed or defamed; it seems probable that every foetus (as long as it is in the womb) lacks a rational soul and begins to have the same at the time that it is born; and consequently it will have to be said that no homicide is committed in any abortion.

In 1974, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had this to say: The gravity of the problem comes from the fact that in certain cases, perhaps in quite a considerable number of cases, by denying abortion one endangers important values to which it is normal to attach great value, and which may sometimes even seem to have priority. We do not deny these very great difficulties. It may be a serious question of health, sometimes of life or death, for the mother; it may be the burden represented by an additional child, especially if there are good reasons to fear that the child will be abnormal or retarded; it may be the importance attributed in different classes of society to considerations of honor or dishonor, of loss of social standing, and so forth. We proclaim only that none of these reasons can ever objectively confer the right to dispose of another’s life, even when that life is only beginning. With regard to the future unhappiness of the child, no one, not even the father or mother, can act as its substitute—even if it is still in the embryonic stage—to choose in the child’s name, life or death.

For those who are attracted to both the spirit and the texts of the Second Vatican Council, we have in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World this: Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator… For God, the Lord of life, has conferred on men the surpassing ministry of safeguarding life in a manner which is worthy of man. Therefore from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes.

And this from Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae in 1995: It is frequently asserted that contraception, if made safe and available to all, is the most effective remedy against abortion. The Catholic Church is then accused of actually promoting abortion, because she obstinately continues to teach the moral unlawfulness of contraception. When looked at carefully, this objection is clearly unfounded. It may be that many people use contraception with a view to excluding the subsequent temptation of abortion. But the negative values inherent in the “contraceptive mentality”—which is very different from responsible parenthood, lived in respect for the full truth of the conjugal act-are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived. Indeed, the pro- abortion culture is especially strong precisely where the Church’s teaching on contraception is rejected. Certainly, from the moral point of view contraception and abortion are specifically different evils: the former contradicts the full truth of the sexual act as the proper expression of conjugal love, while the latter destroys the life of a human being; the former is opposed to the virtue of chastity in marriage, the latter is opposed to the virtue of justice and directly violates the divine commandment “You shall not kill”. But despite their differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree. It is true that in many cases contraception and even abortion are practised under the pressure of real- life difficulties, which nonetheless can never exonerate from striving to observe God’s law fully. Still, in very many other instances such practices are rooted in a hedonistic mentality unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality, and they imply a self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfilment. The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs, and abortion becomes the only possible decisive response to failed contraception.

These are but a few points made over the millennia of the Church’s teachings on the question of abortion. Those who claim to know this tradition may wish to consult these sources and the many others that exist and are readily accessible. But regardless of the source or the period in which it was promulgated, the teachings remains the same in spite of what some influential voices may suggest to the contrary.

RJA sj


Araujo, Robert | Permalink

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