Saturday, November 25, 2023

The Way of Spartacus, the Way of bar Kokhba, or the Way of Jesus

100 years before Jesus, Spartacus (c.10371 BC) who was a slave and gladiator, led a slave revolt against the

Kirk Douglas in the 1960 movie, 'Spartacus'

Roman Republic. After several stunning military successes, Spartacus and his army were defeated. 6,000 of the defeated rebel slaves were crucified. Spartacus' body was never identified, so it is unclear if he was among those crucified (though he was in the classic Kirk Douglas movie). If only he had borne our sins on the cross taking up the cross might mean something different and walking in his footsteps would be the way of holiness.

100 years after Jesus, Simeon bar Kokhba (died, 135) led a Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire. He also won several battles against the Roman legions and won independence for his people – for a few years. He was identified by some as the Messiah. Like Spartacus, bar Kokhba was eventually defeated and died fighting the Romans. If only he had risen from the grave and breathed his spirit upon us so we could be sure that living by his spirit was the way into the heart of God.

If either Spartacus or Simon bar Kokhba had been "the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (see Matthew 16:13-20), we could embrace our every fantasy of "good" violence.

Instead we have Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the Slaughtered Lamb. "When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly" (1 Peter 2:23), "leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps" (1 Peter 2:21).

Over against human wisdom and the pattern of this world (see Romans 12), the pattern of the cross, which is the wisdom of God, will always seem foolish (1Corinthians 1:22-25). And even many Christians will prefer the way of Spartacus or bar Kokhba to the way of Jesus.

If Jesus is Lord, we who follow him will walk in his way will:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21)

If Jesus is our Lord and Teacher, we will follow his example:

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. (John 13:12-17)

Ethiopian Icon of Jesus Washing the Feet of the Disciples

See also:

Guns, Myths, Redemption & Conversion

Gun Violence. Again . . .

Gun Violence, Sin, and Regulation: A Teaching for the Church

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Celebrating Our Mutual Dependence

One route I sometimes take on my morning walk takes me by the city water works. Another route takes me by the city sewage treatment plant. I do not know any of the people who work at either of these facilities. But I am immensely grateful for them. They are not generally celebrated but should be. There are no television dramas or movies about the exploits of people who work in such places as there are for police, fire fighters, and doctors,. They are not as celebrated as the military. But they are arguably every bit as essential to our well-being. Maybe more so. I remember hearing in a history class that no single technological development has done more for human flourishing and saved more lives than modern plumbing that assures that our drinking water is clean and our waste is managed. In this light, plumbers are heroes. Think of that the next time you turn on a water tap. Or flush a toilet. And give thanks for those involved in tending these most basic needs. Our wellbeing depends upon them. 

That got me thinking. My wellbeing and that of my neighbors is in the hands of people who work at the water works and the sewage treatment plant. People I do not know. Where else is that true? Once you start thinking about it, the answer is as clear as clean drinking water – everywhere. We are always and everywhere living at the hands of  mostly  unknown others. As suggested above, we do celebrate some, e.g., first responders and health professionals. And rightly so. But it is true of others less celebrated. Just about any civil servant/employees. It is true of utility workers. It is true of farmers and those who harvest, process, and deliver our food, along with those who work at grocery stores, and all involved in the agricultural and food delivery system. The clothes we wear depends others. We could add the merchants on Main Street and those who work in shops and restaurants. One graphic way to understand this is to imagine all the people involved in making sure the passenger of a commercial airplane makes it safely from one place to another. The same is true of trains and buses. Or when we “just” drive a motor vehicle anywhere. The list goes on and on. The fact that we pay some of these people for their service does not make us any less beholden to their labor.

If we were truly aware of how much our lives depend on all these others, we would move around the world in wonder. And we would be continuously moved to gratitude. Thank you. Thank you. And you and you and you . . .

We are, as Charles Williams would say, all knit to one another, ultimately, to every other, and to all creation in a great web of exchange. There is no autonomous individual. None of us is independent. We are all interdependent. I live in the hands of others. Others, God help me, live at my hands. Williams liked to use the classical theological term, coinherence, to name this reality. It is on the one hand inescapable. But we can live it it well or badly. When we embrace our coinherence with gratitude, harmony, and justice we experience our life and our life together as coherent, anticipating the New Jerusalem we read about at the end of the Revelation to John. When we try to reject our coinherence through selfishness and presumed independence, there is disharmony and injustice. Then our lives and our life together become incoherent and echo the desolation of Hell.

I am trying to live with the awareness of my interdependence. I am cultivating the practice of gratitude. I say thank you a lot to those I encounter. I especially make a point of saying thank you to public employees who make sure things keep working. If I ever see someone at the city water works or the sewage treatment plant, I intend to say, "Thank you for your service."

Monday, October 23, 2023

An Episcopal Bishop's Teaching on Abortion, Part 10: Conclusion

The 148th Convention of the Diocese of Fond du Lac requested that “the Bishop Diocesan, our Chief Teacher as expressed in the consecration service of the Book of Common Prayer, to provide a series of teachings and theological reflections on the issue of abortion to the members of this diocese.”

In response to that request, I wrote a series of teachings over several months.[1] I studied extensively sources by theologians of the Christian Tradition and by contemporary authors, including both men and women. I have invited others, within the diocese and beyond, both men and women (but mostly women), holding different perspectives to read each teaching and give feedback before it was published. I have had conversations in person, by phone, and via email. I have heard from people whose views on abortion have evolved over time, and people who have expressed mixed feelings about abortion. I have also engaged in conversation with those who are convinced a fully ensouled human person is present from the moment of conception and with those who believe that is not the case until birth. I have heard from women who had life-threatening pregnancies in places where procuring an abortion was difficult. I have also heard from many who have simply expressed appreciation for the teaching series. 

I set out the recent historical, cultural, and political context of current understandings of the issue which suggest that the contemporary divisions on the issue of abortion do not represent what the Church has always taught or practiced.

The several resolutions passed by the General Convention over the years on the morality of abortion were set out. I explained that those resolutions are not binding on the conscience and behavior of Episcopalians. The Episcopal Church’s teaching on this issue is not static. Further reflection and teaching would be welcome. But these resolutions do represent the closest thing we have to an “official” teaching. Because they have been passed by different General Conventions over several decades, they have an ad hoc character. They do not set out one straightforward teaching document. Consequently, there is some tension among them, and one might wonder if there is a lack of consistency or coherence. Taken together, these resolutions do challenge both what is usually referred to as the “Pro-choice” and the “Pro-life” positions.

The Episcopal Church acknowledges that “in this country [the United States] it is the legal right of every woman to have a medically safe abortion” and therefore, “We believe that legislation concerning abortions will not address the root of the problem.” (Resolution 1994-A054). General Convention has also asserted on behalf of the Episcopal Church,

“its unequivocal opposition to any legislative, executive or judicial action on the part of local, state or national governments that abridges the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy or that would limit the access of a woman to safe means of acting on her decision.” (Resolution 1994-A054).

The most recent General Convention, in 2022, asserted that it,

“understands that the protection of religious liberty extends to all Episcopalians who may need or desire to access, to utilize, to aid others in the procurement of, or to offer abortion services.”

On the other hand, while there is no assertion that we are fully human persons at conception, in the name of the Episcopal Church, General Convention has affirmed that,

“All human life is sacred from its inception until death. The Church takes seriously its obligation to help form the consciences of its 149th Convention 2023 Page 5 members concerning this sacredness. Human life, therefore, should be initiated only advisedly and in full accord with this understanding of the power to conceive and give birth which is bestowed by God.” (Resolution 1994-A054)

Therefore, “We regard all abortion as having a tragic dimension” (Resolution 1994-A054). General Convention has also “strongly condemn(ed) the act of abortion when the sole purpose of such action is the selection of the sex of the child” and that “abortion after the diagnosis of non-serious or trivial abnormalities, or abortion in a case where purely cosmetic abnormalities are discovered, is also strongly condemned” (Resolution 1982-A065). It has also expressed “grave concern about the use in the third trimester of pregnancy of the procedure known as intact dilation and extraction (commonly called "partial birth abortion") except in extreme situations” (Resolution 1997-D065). 

General Convention has also counselled that,

“Whenever members of this Church are consulted with regard to a problem pregnancy, they are to explore, with grave seriousness, with the person or persons seeking advice and counsel, as alternatives to abortion, other positive courses of action, including, but not limited to, the following possibilities: the parents raising the child; another family member raising the child; making the child available for adoption.”  (Resolution 1994-A054)  

Episcopalians seek to ground our teaching in scripture and look to the tradition of the Church for guidance in interpreting scripture. So, the teaching series included looking at both the Old Testament and the New Testament to see what instruction they contained on the morality of abortion or the question as to when the life in the womb is a fully human, ensouled person. We saw that there is little or nothing in the Bible that directly addresses or answers those questions.

When we turned to the traditional teaching of the Church, we saw that from its beginning Christianity proclaimed a radically new valuing of all human beings of all sorts and conditions. This included a valuing of children that was more affirming of them as persons than had been common in the ancient world. With that was a clear rejection of infanticide, a common and accepted practice in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Christians treated abortion as similar to infanticide.

But we also saw that most Christian teachers through most of Christian history did not consider the life in the womb in the early parts of a pregnancy to be fully human. This was true in the teaching of most major theologians and Doctors of the Church. It was true in the on-the-ground practice of pastoral care of women who resorted to abortion. And the life of the mother took precedence if giving birth threatened her life. It was only a little over 150 years ago in 1869 that understanding was reversed in the Roman Catholic Church – mostly due to its teaching on the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

Given all of this, I have suggested something consistent with the tradition and in line with the current teaching of the Church of England that “all life is God-given but that [fully ensouled human] life emerges only gradually as does our moral responsibility towards that life.” Though less clearly articulated, this seems to be the direction of the various resolutions of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. I made the case that this seems in keeping with Job 10:11-12 and Psalm 139:12-14. That understanding recognizes that the holy mystery of becoming fully human is a gradual process in the womb and that the pregnant woman is not merely a passive vessel of that process of becoming. The moral balance at first tilts toward the agency of the pregnant woman (usually along with the father) and gradually tilts to include the baby developing in her womb.

We looked at how this applies when looking at the biology of pregnancy and the development of an embryo – fetus – baby. Though this goes beyond what the General Convention of the Episcopal Church has said, I suggested that at around 20 weeks we can be fairly certain that the fetus has developed to the point that it makes sense to speak of it as having the capacity to be a fully ensouled human being. At that point, the rest of the community has more of a stake in its well-being such that it is reasonable for there to be more regulation of abortion beyond that point. In keeping with the teaching of the Church, the pregnant woman’s life still takes precedence if it becomes threatened. Though it was not my intention when I started the teaching, series this is similar to what the law was in Wisconsin before Roe v Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court.

I also made the case for moving beyond simply pitting the individual life in the womb against the individual life and choice of the pregnant woman. We are not simply individuals with competing rights. We are interdependent beings in communion with one another with mutual obligations. This is not just about the responsibility a woman (and the man with whom she has gotten pregnant or her partner) has toward the life in the womb. The wellbeing of mothers and children, born and unborn, is the responsibility of the community. There are things we as a community – whether in our churches, our states, or as a country – can do to address the reality of unwanted or difficult pregnancies, reduce the number of abortions, and reduce maternal mortality. This includes things like better sex education and the availability of birth control, insuring better prenatal and post-natal care, paid parental leave, subsidized daycare, etc.

It would seem possible to both advocate for safe, legal, and available abortion, at least in the first half of a pregnancy, and support efforts to reduce the frequency of abortion including advocating for policies that make it easier for women pursue other options. It would not be inconsistent to also advocate for restrictions on abortion in the second half of a pregnancy. In any event, shaming women is not the way of mercy.

Taking all this together, it appears that the Episcopal Church’s teaching is that abortion should be a legal and readily available option for women. But various resolutions passed by the General Convention also suggest that abortion is not necessarily morally neutral or that all abortions at whatever stage of pregnancy are morally equivalent. Some reasons for abortion are morally problematic, others less so. The stage of the fetus’ development is also morally significant. But problematic pregnancies are also a reality. Simply criminalizing abortion is not required by the Bible or the broad teaching of the Church’s tradition. Nor does it address the complexities of pregnancy and the reasons women resort to abortion. The Episcopal Church has sought to faithfully grapple with those complexities.

I commend Enriching Our Worship 5 Liturgies and Prayers Related to Childbearing, Childbirth, and Loss which contains liturgies, prayer for discernment, and confession authorized by General Convention regarding various aspects of pregnancy, including abortion.[2]

[1] An Episcopal Bishop’s Teaching on Abortion, ‘An Odd Work of Grace’, Blogspot


[2] Enriching Our Worship 5 Liturgies and Prayers Related to Childbearing, Childbirth, and Loss



Part 1: The Episcopal Church’s Stated Position on Childbirth and Abortion

Part 2: Context

Part 3: Old Testament

Part 4: New Testament

Part 5: Tradition

Part 6: Tradition, continued

Part 7: Back to the Bible

Part 8:  Wisdom and the Glorious Works of Nature

Part 9: Rights, Choice, Obligations, and Community

Monday, October 16, 2023

An Episcopal Bishop's Teaching on Abortion, Part 9: Rights, Choice, Obligations, and Community

Many of the questions surrounding the morality of abortion have to do with language about rights – the right to life, reproductive rights, the right to choose, the right to bodily autonomy, personal rights vs communal rights, etc.

Abortion is not the only issue about which we use the language of rights. There are also notions of the right to bear arms, the right to self-defense, the right to free speech, the right to private property, the right to marry whom we will, the right to work, the right to unionize, etc. More recently we have had debates about the right to wear or not wear a mask and the right to refuse to be vaccinated. The list goes on.

On the one hand, the idea of rights has undoubtably been liberating. The Bill of Rights in the American Constitution was a welcome development in organizing political life and setting limits on government. The idea of individual rights has also been liberating for minorities, women, and others who have historically had the ability to exercise their gifts and pursue their dreams limited by laws or communal norms.

It is certainly the case that until very recently, women were accorded fewer rights than men and had their agency over their own lives constrained. Women were not “allowed” the right to vote until 1920 (though in many places it was much later for women of color). They were not assured of the right to open a bank account or have a credit card in their own name until 1974 and without a husband cosigning. Only in 1993 had the right to legal protection from marital rape in all fifty states. Women still do not always receive equal pay for equal work. And sexual harassment and assault, either publicly or domestically, is still all too common. The idea of personal rights is a powerful one and has often been the impetus for welcome change.

On the other hand, from a Christian perspective, no personal rights are straightforward or absolute. And some of the above might actually be suspect from a Christian perspective. If we look at the Bible, we can infer certain human rights, but the Scriptures are much less interested in our rights than it is with the will of God and our obligations to God and others.[1] In a society increasingly shaped by radical individualism, some have begun to point out the problems if the language of rights is all we have.

In the social ethic of individual rights, people claim their rights over and against other people’s in an argument that quickly leads into a trap. Are my rights more important than yours? Whose rights matter more: the person who wants to carry a gun or the person threatened by the proliferation of guns in our society? The person who says a hateful thing on social media or the person forced to listen to such speech without recourse? “When rights are taken to be the fundamental moral reality, we are encouraged to take an ultimately degrading perspective on society,” writes Esther Reed. “No real society can exist when its citizens’ only way of relating is in terms of noninterference. The language of ‘rights’ . . . encourages us to live as if we had no common interests or beliefs.[2]

From a Christian perspective we are not autonomous individuals with competing rights, but persons woven into a web of relationships. We do have common interests even with those with whom we might not have common beliefs. Our interests are bound up with one another and we are obligated to love and care for one another even when our immediate interests seem to be at odds. As Simone Weil wrote, “[There is a] "chain of eternal obligations that bind every human being to every other one."[3] And as Edith Stein wrote,

It is most peculiar how the very thing that causes us to be totally on our own―our freedom―at the same time chains us inseparably to all others and creates a true community of fate. We are responsible for the well-being of all others. and they for ours.[4]

This is all relevant to the conversation about abortion. At least in some of the more partisan rhetoric, things get reduced to the competing rights and interests of just two individuals – the pregnant person and the developing person in her womb. But then these are pitted against each other and there is a temptation to minimize the significance of one or the other of these individuals.

The partisan political rhetoric surrounding abortion does not capture the complexities on the ground. Many who identify as pro-life are not dismissive of the difficult choices faced by women and their loved ones when with a difficult pregnancy and seek to give them aid. Among those who identify as pro-life there are those who hold to a consistent ethic of life that seeks to defend all life. Among pro-choice advocates there is often a recognition of the significance of the life developing in the womb and the recognition that ending a pregnancy is no small matter. Women who have abortions do not do so casually and the reasons for doing so are complex and varied. Acknowledging the complexities does not settle the moral questions but does keep our hearts empathetic and merciful as we engage those questions.

If we are not simply autonomous individuals with competing rights we need to recognize that somehow we are all in this together. Thus, the developing life in the womb is not insignificant. But, especially in the early weeks and months of a pregnancy, that life, which even official Vatican documents acknowledge is only “probably” an ensouled person, does not necessarily outweigh the realities of the actual person in whose womb it is developing. Before that, we are talking about a potential human being. As such, it is still sacred and perhaps increasingly so. The burden of deciding to bear it is mainly that of the mother, ideally along with the father. Still, “. . . the ends of all members of a relationship must be carefully considered. A woman facing the decision of whether to terminate a pregnancy must include a sense of what she owes to those with whom she shares or will share her life with. [This includes the father], the unborn, existing young human beings, as well as other people including elderly dependent relatives.”[5]

The Episcopal Church’s teaching is that abortion should be a legal and readily available option for women. But various resolutions passed by the General Convention also suggest that even in the case of a developing embryo/fetus that is not yet a fully ensouled person, abortion is not necessarily morally neutral or that all abortions at whatever stage of pregnancy are morally equivalent. Some reasons for abortion are morally problematic, others less so. But that is different from whether or not it should be a legal and safe option.

As the fetus develops, and particularly after the 20th week of pregnancy, the moral calculus shifts with the recognition that the fetus is now “formed” and has the capacity to be a fully ensouled human person. At this point, society as a whole has more of a stake in caring for the person in the womb as well as the woman bearing it and might enact legal restrictions on abortion as long as delivering the baby does not threaten the life or physical well-being of the mother. This 20 week distinction was actually the abortion statute in Wisconsin before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson.[6] I recognize that this is at odds with the most recent resolution passed by the Episcopal Church’s General Convention which emphasizes autonomy and advocates for “no restrictions” on the timing of an abortion.[7] But I would argue that that is inconsistent with many other resolutions passed by General Convention.[8] And it is inconsistent with the Church’s historic teaching.

But the rest of the community’s stake in the life of the unborn is not limited to whether or when or what restrictions on abortion might be desirable. Because of our fundamental connectedness, the social and economic environment we create affects us all, not least women who get pregnant. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was otherwise opposed to abortion, pointed out that the rest of the community is implicated when a woman feels there are few viable alternatives to abortion.

A great many motives may lead to an action of this kind; indeed in cases where it is an act of despair, performed in circumstances of extreme human or economic destitution and misery, the guilt may often lie rather with the community than with the individual. Precisely in this connection money may conceal many a wanton deed, while the poor [person's] more reluctant lapse may far more easily be disclosed.[9]

Ours is a society content to tolerate an alarmingly high maternal mortality rate – far higher than any other industrialized nation.[10] There are no guarantees of prenatal or postnatal medical care. There is no guarantee of adequate maternity – let alone paternity – leave or affordable childcare. And there does not always seem to be the will to protect women from sexual harassment, assault, or rape including by partners and family members. Merely making abortion illegal and putting the burden on the woman is inadequate in such an environment. And then shaming women who resort to abortion regardless of the complex reasons that might lead them to choose abortion is unjust and unmerciful.

A critical flaw in the singular emphasis on autonomy and individual rights is that it reinforces a libertarian impulse by which everyone is promised noninterference, but everyone is also left to fend more or less for themselves. But Christians affirm that we are interdependent beings in communion with one another with mutual obligations. This is not just about the responsibility a woman (and the man with whom she has gotten pregnant) has toward the life in the womb. The wellbeing of mothers and children, born and unborn, are the responsibility of the community. There are things we as a community – whether in our churches, our states, or as a country – can do to address the reality of unwanted or difficult pregnancies and reduce the number of abortions. Including things like, better sex education and the availability of birth control, ensuring better prenatal and post-natal care, paid parental leave, subsidized daycare, etc. If we really believe we belong to one another and we truly care for women, couples, families and the life in the womb, we will create an environment of support and invest in that care.

[1] John j Collins, What are Biblical Values?, (Yale University Press), pp. 40-44

[2] Jonathan C. Richardson, “The Language of Rights and It’s Limits”, The Christin Century, March 14, 2023


[3] Simone Weil, The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind

[4] Edith Stein, ‘World and Person’, quoted in An Edith Stein Daybook

[5] Susan Martinelli-Fernandez, ‘Abortion, Polyphonic narratives, and Kantianism’ from Interdisciplinary Views on Abortion, Martinelli-Fernandez, Baker-Sperry, McIlvaine-Newsad, ed. (McFarland & Company), p. 113-114

[6] Madeline Kasper, Jillian Slaight, Isaac J. Lee, A Brief History of Abortion Laws in Wisconsin (rev. ed.), p. 7


[7] Resolution 2022-D083: Addressing the erosion of reproductive rights and autonomy (

[8] An Odd Work of Grace Blog, The Episcopal Church’s Stated Position on Childbirth and Abortion (

[9] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York; Macmillan, 1965) 175-6

[10] Jamila Taylor, ‘The Worsening U.S. Maternal Health Crisis in Three Graphs’, The Century Foundation (


Part 10: Conclusion


Part 1: The Episcopal Church’s Stated Position on Childbirth and Abortion

Part 2: Context

Part 3: Old Testament

Part 4: New Testament

Part 5: Tradition

Part 6: Tradition, continued

Part 7: Back to the Bible

Part 8:  Wisdom and the Glorious Works of Nature

Thursday, August 10, 2023

An Episcopal Bishop's Teaching on Abortion, Part 8: Wisdom and the Glorious Works of Nature


We have seen that until relatively recently there was a wide consensus in the Christian tradition that the life in the womb is not a fully ensouled human until later in the pregnancy. For many that has meant what is called “delayed animation,” meaning God imparted the soul into the body after it was sufficiently developed. A related understanding is called “gradual animation,” meaning the soul develops along with the body until both together are fully human. We saw in the last post that that was the teaching of Gregory of Nyssa, along with his sister, Macrina, who he called his teacher. It is an approach that also makes biblical sense given passages like Job 10:11-12 and Psalm 139:12-14.

We’ve looked at scripture and tradition for wisdom to inform our understanding of the beginning of life and the morality of abortion. Another place Christians have looked for wisdom is in the rest of creation. For example, according to the great Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker (1554-1600), we should seek wisdom in the “the glorious works of nature”:

"Some things [Wisdom] openeth by the sacred books of Scripture; some things by the glorious works of nature; with some things she inspireth them from above by spiritual influence, in some things she leadeth and traineth them only by worldly experience and practice. We may not so in any one special kind admire her that we disgrace her in any other, but let all her ways be according unto their place and degree adored.”[1]

Wisdom opened to us in the study of embryology and pregnancy reveals not just the conception, development, and eventual birth of a new human being. It also reveals the fundamental maternal-fetal biological connection. The gestating mother is not just an abstraction. “Gestation is not just a temporary nutritive dependency analogous to a patient on a feeding tube or connected to a ventilator. The fetus is a developing human being uniquely interconnected with its mother, within her body.”[2] And she is not a passive vessel. We will come back to that.

In this post, we will look at the beginning of life at conception through pregnancy and what light that might shine on the questions we have been asking. Wisdom opened to us in the science of embryology gives us information that can help us discern when the life in the womb has developed sufficiently to be an actual human body and soul. I am going to suggest that it can shed light on the “gradual animation” approach which I argue is most faithful to the Church’s tradition. I will suggest that there are milestones along the way.

Science Can Reveal Much, But Cannot Answer All the Questions

However much we know from science about the process of conception, pregnancy, and birth, it remains an awe-inspiring wonder. Two human beings come together, giving themselves to each other in sexual intimacy, one hopes in the context of commitment and mutual affection. And from that union, there is new life. One of those two, the mother, nurtures this new life with her own body. It is a sacred mystery – not because we don’t understand the biology of it, but because there is a holy depth to it all.

Science does not remove the sacred mystery and wonder of new life. But it also, on its own, cannot answer the basic questions we’ve been asking in this series of posts. It can describe the process of fertilization and conception and subsequent development. It can describe the interplay of the life of the mother and the life in the womb. But it cannot tell us when the life in the womb becomes a fully human person. Or, to use the theological language, it cannot tell us when it is fully ensouled. Nor can it answer for us the difficult moral questions related to abortion.

This uncertainty is acknowledged even by the Roman Catholic Church in its official documents. In its Declaration on Procured Abortion, The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “leaves aside the question of the moment when the spiritual soul is infused. There is not a unanimous tradition on this point [whether or not the soul is fully present at conception] and authors are as yet in disagreement. . . it suffices that this presence of the soul be probable. . .”[3] But they do not make a case for why it is probable. “Probable” is a technical term in the Christian moral tradition. But Catholic bioethicist, Carol A. Tauer, “argues that there are fallacies in the way these documents assign certainty to the notion of fetal personhood . . .”[4]

When and How Does a Human Person Develop?

Given what we know, it actually seems unlikely that a fully human soul is present from conception.  First of all, fertilization itself is more complicated than simply sperm meets egg and is more of a process than a singular event. It is significant that for the first days to two weeks after fertilization the embryo is not a stable entity. In those early days before the embryo has implanted on the uterine wall, it is possible for it to split into identical twins or quadruplets. Strange as it sounds, it is possible for those twin embryos, or for two separate eggs fertilized as in fraternal twins, to “fuse” into back into one, producing one person.[5] It is hard to see how the fertilized egg can be one person or one soul at this point if it can split into two or more or, where there were two, fuse into one.

Adding to this fundamental instability is the fact that a large percentage of early embryos do not survive to implant in the uterus for natural causes. Though some estimates are much higher, careful analysis of research indicates that as many as 40% of embryos do not survive this early stage under natural conditions.[6] Even many who generally oppose abortion have pointed out that it is problematic to imagine such a high percentage of human souls never seeing the light of day. Others point out that if we really believed these were truly human souls, we would invest lots of money in research to determine how to save them.

Further, about 2% of fertilized embryos end in ectopic pregnancies in which the embryo attaches somewhere other than the uterus’ The most common place this can happen is inside the fallopian tubes. This means that not only can the embryo not survive, but it can also be deadly to the mother.[7]

Given that in the early days after conception the embryo is a ball of cells and not a stable entity, it is hard not to agree with the majority view in the Christian tradition that “it would not be possible to style the unformed embryo a human being, but only a potential one.”[8] So, implantation is something of a milestone. It is also about the same time a pregnant woman misses her period and may begin to feel different due to the release of the hormones associated with being pregnant. Still, at this point, the embryo can hardly be recognized as “formed” as a human being.

Some Milestones Along the Way

Around the same time as implantation, gastrulation occurs, at which point various cells of the developing embryo begin to be “assigned” the role they will play in the organism, e.g., part of the digestive tract. Implantation and gastrulation make for a basic milestone on the way to being formed as a human being. What might some other milestones be? The beginning of a heartbeat at about four weeks of gestation is an emotional milestone for many. But, as all but the most primitive animals have a heartbeat, it does not seem to be a particularly significant milestone.

A more significant milestone is reached around the fourteenth week at the beginning of the second trimester. At that point, the fetus looks proportionally like a newborn human baby. This is significant because our bodies matter. We communicate with our bodies, and we recognize one another as fellow human beings because we share the human form.

Another important milestone occurs between weeks sixteen and twenty-one. It is somewhere in that range that a mother first begins feeling the fetus moving. Traditionally this is referred to as “quickening.” Due to modern scientific observation, we know that the fetus is moving before that. But some have argued that when the woman feels the life stirring within her something changes in their relationship and a sort of moral covenant is formed between them. Abortion was legal in Wisconsin before"quickening" until 1858 [9]

Viability is another significant milestone. But viability is something of a moving target. Generally, obstetricians set viability at between 20 and 26 weeks of gestation. The earliest premature baby to survive was born at just 21 weeks.[10] But a high percentage of babies born before the 27th week do not survive and only then with extensive medical intervention. This is because their basic organs, particularly their brains and lungs, have not fully developed.

By week twenty-six, the end of the second trimester, the fetus’ brain has the essential structure of a post-natal brain. We know that the brain continues to develop from then through birth and into young adulthood. But the basic structure is in place at this point. The fact that some babies born earlier prove to be viable, however, suggests that the brain is developed enough several weeks earlier.

The final milestone is when the baby is born. It takes its first breath which is biblically significant.[11] With birth the baby is physically separate from the mother.


Earlier, I noted that during pregnancy the mother is not a passive vessel housing the developing baby, doing no more than providing nutrition, oxygen, and space for growth. Even before conception, no sperm cell would make it to the egg without the active assistance of the woman’s body. From there on there is an intimate interaction between the mother’s body and that of the fetus. They might not be exactly the same body. But neither are they totally separate bodies. In any event, pregnancy takes place within the particular body of a particular woman. Therefore, pregnancy and the life in the womb should not be talked about without accounting for the lived reality of the pregnant woman and her agency. I will say more about that in the next post.

Toward the end of the second post in this series, I wrote,

“the holy mystery of becoming fully human is a gradual process in the womb and that the pregnant woman is not merely a passive vessel of that process of becoming. The moral balance at first tilts toward the agency of the pregnant woman (usually along with the father) and gradually tilts to include the baby developing in her womb.”

It might  seem simpler to say that we are fully human from the point of conception. But we have seen that conception alone does not create a stable enough entity to be considered a person or a soul. And, in any event, that has not been the teaching of most of the Church for most of its history. It might also seem simpler to set birth as the demarcation of when we become actual persons. Though that is closer to the Jewish understanding, we have seen that even in Judaism it is not that simple. And that has never been the Christian view. For most of the Church’s history some version of delayed or gradual animation (being given or becoming a human soul) has been the teaching.

I believe this remains a persuasive and faithful understanding. Thus, if abortion is ever the taking of a person’s life, it is not so in the early weeks or months of a pregnancy. Given the combination of a body that looks like the human form, the quickening, and the earliest point at which there is enough brain and lung development for any hope of survival outside the body of the mother, I would argue that 20 weeks of gestation is when we can with some confidence say a human person is fully formed, body and soul. Before that, we are talking about a potential human being. As such, it is still sacred and perhaps increasing so. But until that point, the burden of deciding to bear it is mainly that of the mother, ideally along with the father.

The question of whether at 20 weeks and beyond the rest of society also has a stake in protecting the life in the womb along with the life of the mother is part of what we will look at in the next post.

[1] Richard Hooker, On the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book II, par. 4

[2] Margaret D. Kamitsuka, Abortion and the Christian Tradition: A Pro-Choice Theological Ethic (Westminster John Knox) p. 106

[3] Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion (1974), n. 19

[4] Margaret D. Kamitsuka, Abortion and the Christian Tradition: A Pro-Choice Theological Ethic (Westminster John Knox) p. 109. The article itself can be found at Carol A. Tauer, “The Tradition of Probabilism and the Moral Status of the Early Embryo,” Theological Studies 45 (1984)


[5] Rachel Hosie, “Woman with rare birthmark discovers she is her own twin”, The Independent, Friday 02 March Dec. 13, 2018 (

[6] Jarvis GE.” Early embryo mortality in natural human reproduction: What the data say”. F1000Res. Nov 25, 2016 ( A summary of this essay is here: University of Cambridge. "Human reproduction likely to be more efficient than previously thought." ScienceDaily. June 13, 2017.

[8] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Holy Spirit, Against the Macedonians ( See the previous post in this series (

[9] Lloyd Steffen, Life/Choice: The Theory of Just Abortion, (Pilgrim Press, 1994) p. 113-116

Abortion was legal in Wisconsin before"quickening" until 1858. See: Bridgit Bowden and Evan Casey, ‘How Wisconsin's 1800s-era abortion ban came to be: While the letter of the law remains the same, the conversation around abortion has changed,” Wisconsin Public Radio, August 7, 2023 ('s%20original%201849%20abortion,quick%20child%22%20to%20be%20manslaughter)

[11] Many passages in the Bible seem to equate breath and life, e.g., Genesis 2:72 Maccabees 7:21-23Ecclesiastes 11:5Job 12:10Job 27:3, Job 32:8Job 33:4Job 34:14Ecclesiastes 11:5Ecclesiastes 12:7Isaiah 42:5Acts 17:25


Part 9: Rights, Choice, Obligations and Community


Part 1: The Episcopal Church’s Stated Position on Childbirth and Abortion

Part 2: Context

Part 3: Old Testament

Part 4: New Testament

Part 5: Tradition

Part 6: Tradition, continued

Part 7: Back to the Bible

Monday, May 15, 2023

An Episcopal Bishop's Teaching on Abortion, Part 7: Back to the Bible

Earlier in this series we saw that the Bible has almost nothing to say about abortion. Neither is there much in the scriptures about when a human being becomes a human being. There are a few passages that hint at this question. They support the conviction among most Christian thinkers in the tradition before the 19th century that the life in the womb, however sacred, is not a fully ensouled human being at conception.

Remember that you fashioned me like clay;
            and will you turn me to dust again?
Did you not pour me out like milk
            and curdle me like cheese?

(Job 10:9-10)

“Did you not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese?” It is not hard to imagine what the question is getting at. Our ancestors were less squeamish about some things than we often are. The understanding behind it is the idea that male semen interacted with female blood in the womb similar to the way milk interacted with rennet to make cheese. There it “curdled” or “coagulated” to gradually form a new baby. As with the making of cheese, the making of a new human was a gradual process. This was a common understanding in the ancient world and Middle Ages across different cultures. The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, used this image. The buddha is recorded as having used it. It shows up in the medieval Muslim world and medieval Europe.[1] It is this understanding that informs one of Hildegard of Bingen’s visions though she does not reference Job. In her vision, the soul is infused into the fetus’ body only after it has taken the proper form symbolized by people carrying baskets of cheese around the mother.[2]

The passage from Job 10 continues with a more familiar image that is also found in Psalm 139:

You clothed me with skin and flesh,

and knit me together with bones and sinews.

You have granted me life and steadfast love,

and your care has preserved my spirit.

(Job 10:11-12)


For you yourself created my inmost parts;

you knit me together in my mother's womb.

I will thank you because I am marvelously made;

your works are wonderful, and I know it well.

My body was not hidden from you,

while I was being made in secret

 and woven in the depths of the earth.

(Psalm 139:12-14, Book of Common Prayer)

Like the cheese image, the poetic picture of life being “knit” or “woven” in the womb suggests a gradual process of becoming. A skilled knitter sees in a ball of yarn the potential for a beautiful sweater. The yarn might be beautiful and costly. It might thus have great value in itself and to the knitter. But the ball of yarn is not a sweater. It only gradually becomes a sweater as it is fashioned day by day. As the waistband takes shape one can see what it is becoming, but a waistband is not an actual sweater. A knitted sleeve by itself is not a sweater. A sweater is more and other than the ball of yarn from which it began and the stages in between.

Though it is not the only way these inspired poetic images can be interpreted, they lend themselves to the Church’s traditional understanding that becoming human in the womb is a gradual process. This is not exactly what Hildegard, Thomas Aquinas, and others taught. They believed the soul was created directly by God and infused into the body once the fetus had developed sufficiently to be a proper home and instrument of a soul. But that creates a problematic separation of the body and soul.

I think Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding is better. Gregory believed (as did most Christian teachers until the modern era) that all living things, including plants and animals, have souls to a degree.[3] Humans contain all those degrees of soul and our soul develops with our body in the womb. According to Gregory, everything we need to become fully human, body and soul, is there at conception (like a ball of yarn). From there, the body and soul gradually become fully human. Here is how Gregory put it:

“. . . it would not be possible to style the unformed embryo a human being, but only a potential one, assuming that it is completed so as to come forth to human birth, while as long as it is in this unformed state, it is something other than a human being. . .”[4]

“[A]s the soul finds its perfection in that which is intellectual and rational, everything that is not so may indeed share the name of soul, but is not really soul, but a certain vital energy associated with the appellation of soul.”[5]

“[W]e suppose the human germ to possess the potentiality of its nature, sown with it at the first start of its existence, and that it is unfolded and manifested by a natural sequence as it proceeds to its perfect state, not employing anything external to itself as a stepping-stone to perfection, but itself advancing its own self in due course to the perfect state . . .”[6]

According to Gregory, the potentiality of our nature is there at conception. Its actual perfection or completeness involve the capacity for rationality: reason and relationship. imagination and empathy, self-reflection and self-utterance, memory, etc. Not everything nor every organism is fit for a a fully human soul. It is doubtful even God could enfuse a rock with a human soul. Or a tree. Or any animal whose brain is incapable of rationality. It is not until later in a pregnancy that the fetus is sufficiently formed with the necessary biological complexity, and with it the soul, that there is an actual human person. Though Hildegard, Aquinas, and others beleived the soul was imparted at some later point in the prgancny, they agreed with Greogory that until it was sufficiently forned, the life in the womb could not bear a fully  human soul.

Although Gregory of Nyssa and the scriptures indicate a gradual becoming in the womb from potential to actual human being, there is no doubt that God is actively and intimately involved in the life from the beginning. And even before (Jeremiah 1:5). Even if we accept that it is not possible “to style the unformed embryo a human being”, we are still talking about something sacred, worthy of care, and not to be denigrated, or interfered with lightly.

Also sacred and worthy of care is the woman in whose womb new life is developing. Her life and well-being are also worthy of respect, consideration, and care. The life that is being knit in her womb is being knit partly from the material and resources of her own life and body. More on that in the next post.

We have looked at the scriptures and tradition. But neither is written from the perspective of modern science. Next, we will look at the biology of pregnancy and the development of life from conception to birth. What might we learn from our contemporary scientific understanding in conversation with scripture and tradition?

[1] Ott, Sandra. “Aristotle Among the Basques: The ‘Cheese Analogy’ of Conception.” Man 14, no. 4 (1979): 699–711.

[2] Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias, Mother Columba Hart, Translator, (Paulist Press, 1990) p. 107-129

[3] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, VIII.4 ( See also, Oelze Anselm, Animal Rationality, BRILL (2018), pp. 28-35, Chapter 5, ‘Animal Souls and Sensory Cognition’ (

[4] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Holy Spirit, Against the Macedonians (

[6] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, XXIX.3 (


Part 8: Biology of Pregnancy and the Development of Life


Part 1: The Episcopal Church’s Stated Position on Childbirth and Abortion

Part 2: Context

Part 3: Old Testament

Part 4: New Testament

Part 5: Tradition

Part 6: Tradition, continued