Roger Chapman is a professor of history at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida.
In the current edition of Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first word listed in the index is abortion. The two-page section on abortion begins with the statement: “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the moment of his 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.
The Catechism characterizes the “moment of conception” as an “existence” that is “human” and automatically endowed with the “rights of a person” – even if during the first twelve hours after conception, everything is only one cell. . There is no Bible verse for this interpretation, but of course the Catholic Church sees itself as the living institution that published the Bible and therefore has the right to issue extrabiblical statements regarding matters of faith.
Interestingly, the Catholic Catechism‘s commentary on abortion does not use the term “unborn.” In the Gospel of John, in one of the most famous teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the term “born again” is used and it links birth to life. In this passage, Jesus says to Rabbi Nicodemus: “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Here the words of Christ imply that the unborn child is not yet flesh, in other words, not life. Also, this passage uses birth as a metaphor for becoming a Christian, but nowhere does it suggest that one is already a Christian before one’s spiritual “birth”.
For biblical justification, the catechism cites Psalm 139. However, this is problematic since the passage is poetry, which involves metaphorical language. Two verses are proposed: “Before forming you in the womb, I knew you, and before your birth, I consecrated you” (God speaking) and “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was created secretly worked intricately. from the depths of the earth” (the psalmist speaks). These statements are hardly biblical proof that the fetus/embryo has the status of a person. Rather, it would be more accurate to read these puffs of verse as statements about fate (especially that of King David).
In section 2271 of the catechism, there is the bold assertion: “From the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of all induced abortion.” This is audacious because the New Testament, written in the first century, does not offer a single verse on abortion. Given the attention given to abortion in conservative Catholic and Protestant churches, one would think that there would be a lot of specific scripture underlying the position taken. The apostle Paul, who wrote two-thirds of the New Testament, listed many “sins” that believers should avoid, but his words pay no attention to abortion.
The omission of abortion in the New Testament is, however, compensated for by the Catholic catechism which uses the Didache, an extrabiblical text that should be translated as “The Teachings.” Section 2271 quotes this document: “You shall not kill an embryo by abortion and you shall not perish the newborn. Here is claimed evidence of a position dating back to the first century, although some scholars date the Didache in the second century. Strangely, until a manuscript was found in 1873, scholars only knew the Didache from second-hand sources. In fact, the text was rejected for inclusion in the New Testament because some considered it false. The lack of many extant copies of the Didache suggests that this text was less important in the past than the Catholic Church is in the present.
What is very misleading in the Catholic Catechism is that immediately after this sentence from the Didache another quotation is proposed from 1965! This is the same paragraph that begins by stating that the Church’s position against abortion dates back to the first century. The block quote from 1965 follows the Didache block quote. Part of this second statement reads: “Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: Abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.” A causal reader will easily consider the 1965 statement to be part of the first century, and it seems that the writers of the catechism should have realized that this could happen.
The remainder of the catechism section on abortion, which makes up more than half of the commentary, are official Catholic statements from 1983 and 1987. Section 2273 uses the term “inalienable right” – a borrowing not from Jesus or Paul, but to the philosophers of the Enlightenment! in order to confer on the unborn child the status of a full person with all human rights. Yet the philosophers of the Enlightenment considered rights as belonging to those who are born, as the French revolutionaries put it in the first sentence of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights”. The Catholic use of “inalienable law” is obviously a veiled attempt to subsume religious doctrine within the larger human rights movement.
Why do many comments on abortion in the catechism date back to the 1980s? Maybe it has to do with the culture wars. In the United States, it was the decade when a broader pro-life movement was emerging. In response to 1973 Roe vs. Wade Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, which prohibits the States to ban abortion purely and simply, the conservative Protestants reacted by engaging more politically. In 1979, the Moral Majority was founded and was instrumental in electing Ronald Reagan, who ran for president as a pro-life candidate (although previously, as governor of California, he had signed a historic law making abortion legal in that state). Catholics, beginning with the founding of the National Committee for the Right to Life in 1968, have long dominated the pro-life movement. Maintaining this dominance was undoubtedly partly behind the Vatican’s many pronouncements on abortion in the 1980s. world of America.
The pro-life position is a faith-based position, but ironically it stems from textual and historical ambiguity. It is no wonder that all Christian believers, whether Catholic or Protestant, do not subscribe to the narrow view that the moment of conception marks full personhood. Judging by the many American Catholic women who have had abortions over the years, it is obvious that not all Catholics believe what their catechism teaches. Judaism does not share the Catholic view on design. Of course, the no, the non-religious or unaffiliated, would not be natural endorsers of the Catholic vision.
Soon the Supreme Court, with two-thirds of the Catholic justices, will decide whether (1) a woman has the right to terminate her pregnancy, or (2) an unborn child has a status as a person that trumps what a woman can do with her body. Yes Roe vs. Wade is overturned, it will be a decision based on faith. The high court could simply declare that the states should decide the issue, but any decision eliminating a constitutional right to abortion would obviously be the consequence of Catholic religious influence on the judges.