Has the Catholic Church Always Condemned Abortion?
Almost everyone knows that the Catholic Church opposes abortion. However, few are aware of the long and rich history of the Church’s reverence and respect for human life, and fewer still can explain exactly why the Church cannot change her teachings on abortion.
This article will address a number of common questions regarding the teachings of the Catholic Church on abortion.
The Catholic Church on Abortion: Misconceptions
Misconception 1: The Catholic Church Holds a “Position” on Abortion.
The Church does not take a “position” on abortion, nor does she have a mere “opinion” on it. Positions and opinions are temporary decisions based on a subjective understanding of current circumstance, and therefore are liable to change. The Church interprets the natural law, which she cannot change any more than she can repeal the principles of magnetism and gravity. This interpretation is by necessity objective and permanent.
Our understanding of this interpretation of natural law may be refined, but the principle itself is never changed.
Misconception 2: The Catholic Church Once Permitted Abortion.
The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) summarizes the most important pro-abortion misconceptions about the early history of Church teachings regarding abortion. RCRC said:
“Catholic theology, which now regards the early fetus as a person, did not always do so. The Church first adopted the belief of Aristotle, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas that ensoulment occurs several weeks after conception. Pope Innocent III, who ruled at the turn of the 13th Century, made that belief part of Church doctrine, allowing abortion until fetal animation. It was not until 1869 that the Church prohibited abortion at any time and for any reason.”1
To begin with, the Catholic Church has never approved of or condoned abortion during any part of its history. Various Middle Age-era theories about ‘formed’ and ‘unformed’ fetuses and ‘delayed ensoulment’ or ‘delayed animation’ were intellectual exercises focused on more accurately understanding the development and nature of the soul, but not on determining the morality of abortions.
This is shown by the fact that theologians who held these views consistently condemned abortion in the strongest possible terms. As far back as the fourth century, St. Basil the Great, who was obviously familiar with this controversy, said, “The hairsplitting difference between formed and unformed makes no difference to us. Whoever deliberately commits abortion is subject to the penalty for homicide …. Let her that procures abortion undergo ten years’ penance, whether the embryo were perfectly formed or not.”2
Just as importantly, the Catholic Church has never accepted the theory of delayed animation. The only time that the Church has ever addressed this question is when Pope Innocent XI officially condemned the theory that animation took place at birth.
Misconception 3: Church Teaching on Abortion is Inconsistent
Like other abortionists, illegal practitioner Ruth Barnett knew that she would drum up a lot more business if she could convince Catholic women that the Church was being “inconsistent” on the subject. She wrote:
“Until the end of the 16th Century with the reign of Pope Sixtus V, the Church did, indeed, permit the termination of pregnancies within 40 days of conception for a male and 80 days for a female — the old Aristotelian concept … But I believe that a case can be made — and many intelligent Catholics have agreed with me — that the Church’s attitudes towards abortion have varied in past history, are not always consistent and can, like other elements of Catholic dogma, be changed to meet man’s increased enlightenment and changing social conditions.”3
The teachings of the Catholic Church have been uniformly against abortion in any form, and have been stated and restated consistently through the centuries.
The earliest surviving written catechism is the Didache, or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, which dates back to the late first century. It said, “You shall not murder.… You shall not procure abortion, nor destroy a newborn child.”4
In the year 197, Tertullian wrote in his Apologeticus:
“For us [Christians], murder is once and for all forbidden; so even the child in the womb, while yet the mother’s blood is still being drawn on to form the human being, it is not lawful for us to destroy. To forbid birth is only quicker murder. It makes no difference whether one takes away the life once born or destroys it as it comes to birth. He is a man, who is to be a man; the fruit is always present in the seed.”
An overwhelming number of other early Church theologians carefully examined the methods, motives, morality and metaphysics surrounding abortion. They unanimously described all abortions as a heinous sin, including:
- Barnabas (in A.D. 137)
- Athenagoras of Athens (A.D. 177)
- Minucius Felix (c. 200-225)
- Hippolytus, Bishop of Pontius
- Ephraem the Syrian
- Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage
- Ephipanius, Bishop of Salamis
- Methodius, Bishop of Olympus
- St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople
- Clement of Alexandria, known as “The Father of Theologians”
- St. Augustine of Hippo
- St. Jerome
- St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan
- St. Basil the Great
- The assembled Councils of Ancyracanon (314), Elvira in Granada, Spain (305), Chalcedon (451) and Ancyra in Galatia, Asia Minor (314).5
Keep in mind that all of these condemnations of abortion by theologians and councils took place before the beginning of the sixth century, and Church condemnation of abortion in all cases has continued uninterrupted since that time.
Misconception 4: Popes Regularly Change Church Teaching on Abortion
The popes have always taught — in accordance with Church teachings — that abortion is murder. However, some confusion exists because the penalties for the murder of a preborn child have been changed several times in the history of the Church.
In 1588, Pope Sixtus V tried to discourage abortion by reserving absolution to the Holy See alone. It soon became evident that such an arrangement was impractical, and so in 1591, just three years later, Pope Gregory XIV returned absolution for abortion to the local bishop.6
In 1679, Pope Innocent XI condemned the writings and teachings of two theologians, Thomas Sanchez and Joannis Marcus, who believed that abortion was lawful if the fetus was not yet animated or ensouled and the purpose of the abortion was to prevent shame to the woman.7 This act showed decisively that the Church did not tolerate abortion, and was willing to correct those who spread error regarding child-killing.
Misconception 5: Abortion Was Not Forbidden Until 1869, in Pope Pius IX’s Reign
Abortion supporters allege that, in the year 1869, Pope Pius IX condemned abortion for the very first time.
In reality, what Pope Pius did was officially remove the distinction between the animated and unanimated fetus from the Code of Canon Law.8 This action dealt not with theology, but with discipline, and simply made the punishment for abortion at any stage uniform. The Pope removed the distinction in order to support the Church’s teaching that life and ensoulment both begin at conception.
Pro-abortionists allege that Catholics can ignore a Church teaching that has not been held from the very beginning of its history, implying that, if it had been taught from the beginning, they would be obliged to obey it. From the very beginning of her history, the Catholic Church on abortion has been consistent: she has always taught that abortion is gravely sinful.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
“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” [¶2271].
 Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (now RCRC). June 1978 propaganda pamphlet entitled “ABORTION: Why Religious Organizations in the United States Want to Keep it Legal.”
 St. Basil the Great, priest (c. 329-379), First Canonical Letter, from the work Three Canonical Letters. Canons 2 and 8. Loeb Classical Library, Volume III, pages 20 to 23.
 Ruth Barnett. They Weep On My Doorstep [Beaverton, Oregon: Halo Publishers], 1969, pages 106 and 107.
 The Didache (“The Lord’s Instruction to the Gentiles through the Twelve Apostles”). II, 2, translated by J.A. Kleist, S.J., Ancient Christian Writers, Volume 6. Westminster, 1948, page 16.
 Barnabas (c. 70-138), Epistle, Volume II, page 19; Athenagoras of Athens, letter to Marcus Aurelius in 177, Legatio pro Christianis (“Supplication for the Christians”), page 35; Minucius Felix, theologian (c. 200-225), Octavius, p. 30; Tertullian, theologian (150-225), Treatise on the Soul, pages 25 and 27; Clement of Alexandria, priest and the “Father of Theologians” (c. 150-220), Christ the Educator, Volume II, page 10; St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430), De Nuptius et Concupiscus (“On Marriage and Concupiscence”), 1.17; Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (c. 200-258), Letters, page 48; St. Jerome, Bible Scholar and translator (c. 340-420), Letter to Eustochium, 22.13 Hippolytus, theologian and Bishop of Pontius, Refutation of All Heresies 9.7(A.D. 228); Lactantius, Divine Institutes 6:20 (A.D. 307); Ephipanius, Bishop of Salamis (c. 315-403); Ephraem the Syrian, theologian (306-373), De Timore Dei, page 10; St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (c. 339-397), Hexameron, 5.18.58; St. Basil the Great, priest (c. 329-379), First Canonical Letter, from the workThree Canonical Letters. Canons 2 and 8. Loeb Classical Library, Volume III, pages 20 to 23; St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 24 (A.D. 391); the Council of Ancyracanon 21, (A.D. 314); Council of Elvira in Granada, Spain (305), Canons, 63 and 68; Council of Ancyra in Galatia, Asia Minor (314), Canon, 21. The Declaration on Procured Abortion tells us that “It is true that in the Middle Ages, when the opinion was generally held that the spiritual soul was not present until after the first few weeks, a distinction was made in the evaluation of the sin and the gravity of penal sanctions. Excellent authors allowed for this first period more lenient case solutions which they rejected for following periods. But it was never denied at that time that procured abortion, even during the first days, was objectively grave fault. This condemnation was in fact unanimous” [¶7].
 Lucius Farraris, Bibliotheca Iuridica Moralis Theologica. Roma: 1885, I, pages 36 to 38.
 Denzinger-Schoenmetzer. Enchiridion Symbolorum [Rome: Herder], 1965, pages 2,134 to 2,135.
 Codicus Iuris Canonici Fontes. 9 Volumes. Rome, 1923 to 1939, specification number 552.
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Dr. Brian Clowes has been HLI’s director of research since 1995 and is one of the most accomplished and respected intellectuals in the international pro-life movement. Best known as author of the most exhaustive pro-life informational resource volume The Facts of Life, and for his Pro-Life Basic Training Course, Brian is the author of nine books and over 500 scholarly and popular articles, and has traveled to 70 countries on six continents as a pro-life speaker, educator and trainer.