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Abortion Condemned From Apostolic Era

by Father David Liptak, Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut

Sometimes it is argued that the Catholic Church's oppostion to abortion is relatively new, and that the early Church did not condemn abortion as sinful. It is also contended that the Church is holding back ecumenical progress because of its stubborn anti-abortion stand. How can these arguments be answered?

It can be stated categorically that the Catholic's Church's firm repudiation of direct abortion dates from the beginning, and has remained constant through the centuries. The earliest condemnation of direct abortion appears in the "Teachings of the Apostles" (The Didache), probably published during the apostolic age, definitely prior to the year 90. It reads: "You shall not kill the fetus by abortion, or destroy the infant already born" (2; 2).

A similar norm is found in the ancient "Epistle of Barnabas", written before the year 138. Section 19; 5 stipulates: "Do not kill a fetus by abortion, or commit infanticide."

A third early, specific condemnation of direct abortion appears in the "Teacher" (Paedogogue) of Clement of Alexandria (d. 215). This document accents the dehumanizing nature of abortion; women who directly take the life within the womb are said to destroy their own humanity as well.

From the beginning, rejection of direct abortion as an evil was linked with that of infanticide; doubtless the two sins were always associated in Christian moral thought. Church laws regarding abortion date from at least 305, during the Council of Elvira, in Spain. Canon 63 of the Council levels a servere excommunication in case of abortion or infanticide in the context of adultery.

In 314, the Council of Ancyra, in Galatia prescribed lengthy penance for a woman who destroys a fetus; the context here is fornication. Those who prepare lethal drugs for abortion are also cited (Canon 21).

Saint Basil the Great (330-379) discussed Church penalties (including a ten year penitential period) for abortion in a series of letters he wrote to a bishop of Iconium. Canon 2 of these letters required that anyone who took the life of a fetus must pay the same penalty as one guilty of homicide.

Among the Western Church Fathers, Saint Augustine was a most signigicant voice against abortion specifically. He described it as one of the most differentiating marks of the pagan, as contrasted from the Christian. He stresses the fact that the fetus is not part of the mother, but a separate human being - a fact assailed by some abortionists to-day.

The historical record is replete with statements by Church synods, the Fathers and orthodox theologians reiterating the traditional Catholic doctrine in this area. See, for example, Father John Connery, "Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective" (Loyola University Press, 1997). As new dimensions of the abortion question arose (e.g. so called "therapeutic abortion," "contraceptive abortion"), the Church repeatedly reaffirmed its stance in relevant terms.

As for the allegations that ecumenism is being retarded by the Church's uncompromising anti-abortion position, it is absurd. There is no true ecumenism save that which is based on truth. Those who espouse abortion are the ones who can be said to hinder ecumenical progress. The Bible is a clear witness on behalf of reverence for human life.

Curiously enough, writes Father Connery, "the Church to-day finds herself in a position quite similar to the one which prevailed at the beginning of the Christian era. In those days it was surrounded by a society in which abortion (and infanticide) was practiced frequently" (page 312).

Are we living in neo-pagan times?

[Editor's Note: Perhaps we are, and I take comfort from it. We have been through this before, the Romans and other pagans threatened the Church at every turn and in everything. The Church not only survived, it triumphed and grew. So it will again. Now, to get through the next decade...]

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