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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 9. 1ts May 1973

The History of Catholic Opposition

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The History of Catholic Opposition

Self-proclaimed experts on every thing from atheism to zero-population, the local Trots have recently developed a new interest: that of Church history. 1 hey even appear to have appointed an official Church historian, one Jennifer Browne who is a former Catholic and President of the Training College's Labour Club.

Jenny's latest effort to discredit the Roman Catholic Church was her Salient article. "Catholics keep Women in the Home". She attempted, by a confusion of quotes from Popes, imaginary Popes, the International Socialist Review, medieval theologians," Aristotle and a woman by the name of Patricia Brown, to establish that the Church's position on abortion had changed over the past 2000 years and therefore is to be ignored.

Ms Browne begins her 600-word "examination of the Church's position on birth control and abortion" with the statement that, "In early Rome ... abortion was known and accepted as a means of birth control." She then goes on to present the Church as a reactionary force against this "freedom" for a woman to have an abortion. What Ms Browne neglects to mention is that infanticide by abandonment, by poison and by strangling were also "known and accepted" as means of avoiding unwanted children.

Seneca refers to the drowning of abnormal or weak children at birth as a commonplace Roman practice and as a reasonable kind of action (Seneca, "De Ira", 1:15). Suetonius speaks casually of the exposure of children by their parents, with the implication that the act depends entirely on the will of the parents (Suetonius, "Gaius Caligula" 5). In a generally uncomplimentary account of the Jews the Roman, Tacitus, finds it remarkable that they do not kill children born after the father had made his will; that is, children born when the parents no longer want offspring as heirs (Histories 5:5). It is against the background of this callous disregard for infant life as a whole that Ms Browne's lauding of the Roman attitude to abortion must be taken.

A further indication of how the early Christian opposition to abortion was interwoven with a respect for all human life can be taken from the full version of Ms Browne's quote "Thou shall not slay the child (sic) by abortions (sic)." Presumably she is referring to the Epistle of Barnabas, 19:5 an early second century document which in fact stated "Thou shaft not slay the foetus by an abortion or commit infanticide."

It would seem that Ms Browne found this close association of abortion and infanticide disturbing, and doctored her quotation accordingly.

Ms Browne then proceeds to a somewhat muddled examination of the classical and medieval concept of "ensoulment". Her initial statement claiming that "Aristotle believed that the male foetus was endowed with a soul 40 days after conception, and a female got hen after 80 days" and that "Jerome, Augustine and Thomas Acquinas (sic) accepted his thesis", is incorrect. Aristotle believed that a male foetus was ensouled after 40 days and a female after 90, not, as Ms Browne asserts, after 80 days. (Aristotle: "History of animals" 7:3). The acceptance by the Theologians she mentions of the 40 day and 80 day periods derived not from Aristotle but from the Mosaic Law which stated (Leviticus 12: 1-5) that a woman must spend forty days in becoming purified if she has given birth to a girl, and eighty if she has given birth to a boy.

Ms Browne's statement on this question that "The fact that no-one knew how to determine the sex of a fetus did not seem to bother them. The church fathers (sic) in their uncertainty were always careful to maintain a certain ambiguity on these questions" is also incorrect. Where penances were in fact lesser for the abortion of an "unsouled" fetus than for a "souled" fetus, the line was always drawn at 40 days, whatever sex the fetus turned out to be.

The statement that "Jerome, Augustine and Thomas Acquinas (sic) .... decided abortions were permissible for a male fetus until the 40th day, and until the 80th day for a female fetus" is also incorrect in saying that these theologians believed abortions before ensoulment were permissible. I would refer her to Augustine (Marriage and Concupiscence 1.15.17 CSEL 42: 229-230). "Sometimes this lustful cruelty, or cruel lust, comes to this, that they even procure poisons of sterility and, if these do not work, extinguish and destroy the fetus in some way in the womb, preferring that their offspring die before it lives, or if it was already alive in the womb to kill it before it was born. Assuredly if both husband and wife are like this, they are not married, and if they were like this from the beginning they come together not joined in matrimony but in seduction."

Ms Browne goes on to quote from a "Pope Cretian". In a conversation with George Fyson on Easter Saturday, he came out with the same quote and attributed it to a "Pope Gratian". Unfortunately for George, there was never a "Pope Gratian" either. I can only assume therefore that the text should read: "However, in 1140 a Cretian announced 'He is not a murderer who brings about an abortion before the soul is in the body.' "Just who this resident of Crete was and why he said it, remains to be seen.

She then goes on to point out that Gregory 9th upheld the ruling of this obscure fellow from Crete and that Thomas Sanchez, the theologian, had described a fetus that endangered a woman's life as an "invader" or "attacker". Just what Sanchez, respected as he is, is doing in the purported examination of official Church decrees, Ms Browne fails to point out. She also fails to indicate exactly where Sanchez said this. In fact, her article fails to give any sources for her statements, probably because they came mainly from the International Socialist Review.

Ms Browne then goes on to state, quite correctly, that "in 1588 Pope Sixtus 5th abruptly announced that Church and secular penalties should be the same for abortion and murder." Presumably she refers to the Papal Bull Effraenatum. However she ruins the pleasant surprise of this one correct statement, in her next sentence where she says "Three years later Gregory 16th reversed that decision and abolished all penalties before ensoulment." Gregory 16th, in fact, did not become Pope until the early 19th century. The Pope she refers to is no doubt Gregory 14th, who succeeded to the papacy in 1590 and in fact did remove the added penalties for all sex related sins that Sixtus had introduced.

It is here that Ms Browne makes an apparently valid point. However the equation of all abortion with homicide in Effraenatum was for the purpose of prescribing penances and did not infer a real change in the actual teaching of the Church. Abortion of an "unsouled" fetus, and indeed any method of contraception, was the "murder of the man to be" rather than an act of formal homicide. The prevention of life by unnatural means appeared to Sixtus as horrible a crime against God as murder. Hence he applied equal penalties. So while we can in no way approve of Sixtus' actions in prescribing such penances for abortion it is apparent that the actual teaching of the Church in this instance underwent no qualitative change.

Ms Browne then makes the astounding claim that "The Church justifies beforehand any policeman who kills in self-defence, any soldier who kills in time of war and any government that executes in error." What the Church in fact teaches is that a person may kill another only if the other is unjustifiably attempting to kill him. It has never justified "any soldier who kills in lime of war" - the war in question must be waged in the legitimate and probably successful defence of one's own country. With regard to a government's right to execution, the Church teaches that a nation has the right to take the life of a person in retribution for a crime against the people of that country. Where Ms Browne gels the peculiar notion that it "justifies beforehand any government that executes in error" is beyond me.

Abortion is not, however, comparable to any of those cases. The Church has always taught that "the end does not justify the means." In the situation where a person can defend his life against an unjust aggressor, the Church teaches that he may kill that aggressor since by his actions the aggressor has lost his right to life. A fetus is not an unjust aggressor, it has committed no crime, and the Church leaches that a woman is bound by the law of love to allow that child the right to continue growing.

In her conclusion, Ms Browne said "The Church hierarchy held women in contempt long before Thomas Acquinas (sic) described us as 'misbegotten males'". She makes no attempt to justify this statement apart from this "quote" from Acquinas. It was, in fact. Aristotle who so described females (he was speaking of all animals, not only man) in his work "The Generation of Animals" Acquinas directly negates this in Summa Theologica (1 q.92 article 1, ad 1) after quoting Aristotle's statement verbatim. Acquinas, in fact, held the view that women were born, not by chance or a misfiring of nature, but by direct, divine intervention.

Throughout her article, Ms Browne relied on false, unhistorical information. She misquoted, quoted out of context and attributed the beliefs of pagans to respected theologians. She has attempted, by this blatant distortion of truth to identify the pro-life movement in New Zealand with the Catholic Church. When people have to rely on such means to justify their case, I am inclined to believe that there is something very wrong with their aims.

Colin Feslier