Friday, April 14, 2023

An Episcopal Bishop's Teaching on Abortion, Part 6: Tradition, continued

In the last post, we saw that Christianity has always had a negative view of abortion. We also saw that most theologians in the Western Christian Tradition made a distinction between the life in the womb early in a pregnancy vs later in a pregnancy. That life, however sacred, was not considered fully human until later, after it was “formed.” We also saw that the Church’s on-the-ground pastoral care made that same distinction and also took into account the reason a woman resorted to abortion – poverty, some medical conditions, and rape being mitigating factors. And even in the Eastern Church, which was generally more strict, the mother’s life took precedence over the life in her womb. Abortion, though sinful, was not simply and always equated with murder.

With few exceptions, this was the standard teaching in the Western Church – particularly the Roman Catholic Church until the 19th century. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V did change this ancient teaching, decreeing that there was no distinction between a potential and fully human person in the womb. But soon after Sixtus’ death, Pope Gregory XIV returned the Church’s teaching to what it had been. There were also some who argued that abortion earlier in a pregnancy could be defended as not sinful at all. But those arguments got little traction and the official teaching remained more or less consistent until Pius IX who was pope from 1846 to 1878.[1]

In 1854, Pope Pius IX summed up a particular and deepening aspect of devotion to Mary and formally defined the Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception, asserting that, “from the first moment of her conception, the Blessed Virgin Mary was, by the singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of Mankind, kept free from all stain of original sin.”[2] According to this doctrine, with Mary there was an interruption to the general human inheritance of original sin in preparation of her being worthy of conceiving Jesus. For that to work logically, that interruption had to begin at her conception. “The new dogma dealt the old formula [that the soul was not present until later in a pregnancy] a glancing if not fatal blow.”[3] The fatal blow came in 1869 when Pope Pius IX revised canon law and asserted that the fully human person, soul and all, began at conception removing any distinction as to when the fetus might be ensouled. He ruled that abortions at any point of gestation were punishable by excommunication. With that the contemporary Roman Catholic position was born. While some scientific discoveries about the biological specifics (the discovery of sperm and the ovum) might have played a part in this, it seems unlikely given the timing. In any event it seems clear that a theological logic of the Immaculate Conception played a significant part.

As a bit of an aside, it is important to note that the Immaculate Conception as a dogma is unique to the Roman Catholic Church. It is not a dogma of the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Tradition. Charles Grafton, 2nd Bishop of Fond du Lac who in many ways was very catholic, rejected the teaching.[4] It is also possible to have great devotion to Mary without accepting the idea of the Immaculate Conception, as do the Eastern Orthodox and many Anglicans.

Protestants and Anglicans

I have focused on the Roman Catholic Church partly because of its size and its influence on the topic of abortion. But I am also just unaware of Protestant theologians who have given the topic extended reflection prior to the last half of the 20th century (that doesn’t mean there have not been, I just haven’t come across them). As we saw, in Part 2, until the late 1970’s, many conservative Protestants, including Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals, held that life in the womb was not fully human.

When they gathered for the Lambeth Conference in 1930, the bishops of the Anglican Communion expressed an “abhorrence of the sinful practice of abortion.”[5] But, beginning in the 1960’s, the teaching of the Church of England moved toward a more gradualist position, holding that “all life is God-given but that life emerges only gradually as does our moral responsibility towards that life.”[6] Though less clearly articulated, this seems to be the direction of the various resolutions of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.[7]

Some observations about this survey of the tradition 

1.       Three ways of understanding. In the Christian tradition we see three ways of understanding life in the womb. One is Immediate Animation in which the fully human soul begins at conception. This (this is the view held by Basil of Caesarea and most of the Eastern Church). Augustine of Hippo also seems to have been inclined toward this view though he remained noncommittal. A second understanding is Delayed Animation in which the soul is imparted or infused into the fetus by God at some point after conception. This was the view of Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas Aquinas, and most theologians of the Western Church until 1869. Gregory of Nyssa (along with his sister, Macrina, perhaps) seems to hold a third view, a Gradual Animation, in which the soul and body gradually develop together into a fully human being. Each of these has implications for how one views abortion.

2.       What’s the question? How one comes at the philosophical or theological question of when life begins depended partly on what prior question one was trying to address.

For Augustine, the prior question was “How is it that we are sinners from the start and how is original sin passed from generation to generation?” Why, after all, do we baptize infants for the forgiveness of sin? These are questions Augustine wrestled with, not because he made them up, but because they were implications of the traditional teaching of the church as he inherited it. Grappling with those questions led him to favor the notion of immediate animation.  Similar questions lie behind the notion of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

A different question concerned Gregory of Nyssa and Thomas Aquinas. For them, the question was what kind of body is suited for the human soul? A fully human rational soul cannot exist until the organism is sufficiently developed to receive it – only after some weeks or months of development in the womb.

3.       A mostly male perspective. By far, most of the theologians known in the tradition are male. That needs to be acknowledged. While they can be simply dismissed for that, it is impossible to deny that their perspective and experience is thus limited.

There were some women theologians, several of whom are not only considered saints, but according to the Roman Catholic Church, “Doctors of the Church”, i.e., authoritative teachers. Hildegard of Bingen is one of those. Other women saints and doctors like Catherine of Siena and Theresa of Avila do not speak to the issue of abortion or when life begins as far as I know. Neither does Julian of Norwich. Macrina might have, if it is really her words recorded by Gregory of Nyssa in the ‘On the Soul and the Resurrection’.

One can have great respect for these theologians while also admitting that they often have very limited and sometimes negative understandings toward women generally and the reasons why a woman might feel compelled to contemplate abortion particularly. Then, as now, there was a good deal of blaming and shaming of women. There also seems at times, then as now, to have been a general discomfort with female sexuality that colored views on abortion The most common assumption was that they chose abortion because they had had illicit sex and wanted to hide their guilt.

There were exceptions to the tendency to place all the blame on women. John Chrysostom aimed his preaching against abortion at men whose sexual promiscuity impregnated women causing them to seek drastic solutions, “For even if the daring deed be hers, yet the causing of it is yours.”[8] Others, like Thomas Sanchez (1550-1610) expressed concern for the violence some young women would be subject to at the hands of their families or others if they became pregnant outside of marriage.[9]

We don’t know much about what everyday women or men thought about this. Or much else. Clearly some thought abortion was the necessary thing to do even if they thought it was sinful in some sense. And it is the case that there were women who were knowledgeable about natural medicine that included medical recipes of herbs to regulate menstruation. Some of these could also cause abortion in the early stages of a pregnancy. Hildegard of Bingen, who along with being a theologian, mystic, and composer, also wrote medical treatises that included recipes for such medicine. Given the common teaching and understanding that the life in the womb was not fully human or ensouled until later, it is not hard to imagine women (along with their husbands if they were married) resorting to the medical assistance of a local woman knowledgeable in the use of medicinal herbs. It might still be a sin in need of confession and repentance. But it would not be considered murder.

4.       Mostly celibate. Another thing that needs acknowledging and factoring in is the reality that nearly all theologians, men and women, were committed to celibacy. Augustine notoriously had a live-in girlfriend with whom he had a son before he got more serious about his faith. Gregory of Nyssa might have been married at some point before becoming a bishop. But there were no serious theologians or spiritual writers before the Reformation who were married and living with the possibility of being responsible for a pregnancy. I do not think that disqualifies their teaching. But it is not irrelevant nor is it disrespectful to ask how it might have shaped their thinking.

5.       Early Abortion and Contraception. One thing that makes it hard to sort out the reason for opposition to abortion, particularly in the earlier stages of a pregnancy, is that the opposition is often linked with opposition to contraception and that the language against contraception mirrors that against abortion. Here are a few examples:

Caesarius of Arles (died, 542) preached,

“Who is he who cannot warn that no woman may take a potion so that she is unable to conceive or condemns in herself the nature which God willed to be fecund? As often as she could have conceived or given birth, of that many homicides she will be held guilty”[10]

            In his penitential guide, Regino of Prüm (died 915) gave this counsel,

“If anyone, to satisfy their own desires, or through hatred did something to a man or woman which would impede their having children, or gave them any drink so that they could not, he could engender or she conceive, this must be held to be homicide”[11]

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) asserts that contraception is analogous to murder.[12]

John Calvin (1509-1564), in his commentary on Genesis 38:9-10, wrote,

“[Interfering with conception during intercourse] “means that one quenches the hope of his family, and kills the son, which could be expected, before he is born.”[13]

Martin Luther (1483-1546), commenting on Genesis 25:1-4 wrote,

“How great, therefore, the wickedness of human nature is! How many girls there are who prevent conception and kill and expel tender fetuses, although procreation is the work of God.”[14]

Most Christians, including Anglicans, do not consider contraception to be sinful. Even fewer would associate contraception with murder or abortion. That these authors did so raises questions about where they drew the line between contraception and abortion. It is plausible that their opposition to abortion in the early stage of pregnancy has more to do with opposition to contraception than to taking a fully human life. This would not be the only reason they would oppose abortion in the earlier stages. But it is something to take into account as we seek to understand them.

6.      Tradition as an ongoing conversation.

Many find the idea that we might be beholden to tradition difficult. We tend to be suspicious of tradition. But being shaped by a tradition of some sort, explicitly or implicitly, is inevitable. Even the being suspicious of tradition is a tradition we have inherited from philosophical and political ideas from three or four centuries ago. As Christians, we are committed to placing ourselves under the authority of scripture and tradition understood through the application of careful reason in community. We are to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1-6), including our own thinking, our own prejudices, in light of those authorities. Because any authority can be abused, they should also be tested, at least in their application.

As we’ve seen, the Tradition is not one thing. There is a diversity of views and interpretations. Nor is it static or unchanging. But that need not worry us. Christian philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, has written, “Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict.”[15] Tradition is an ongoing conversation and even debate in which every generation takes part. To faithfully take part we need to be conversant in the continuities as well as the conflicts, so we know the language of Christianity, not just the language of our contemporary world. Our task is to understand what the conflicts are about and look for the continuities as we seek to embody faithfulness in our time.

[2] Pope Pius IX, “Ineffabilis Deus. The Immaculate Conception” (1854) (

[3] John T. Noonan, “Abortion and the Catholic Church: A Summary History” (1967) Natural Law Forum p. 114

[4] Charles Grafton, “The Three Religions: Protestantism, Romanism, and Catholicism”, Project Canterbury, (

[5] The Lambeth Conference, 1930, Resolution 16 (file:///C:/Users/BishopMattGunter/Downloads/1930.pdf). This was reaffirmed with more nuance at the 1958 Lambeth Conference

[6] Robin Gill, “Church of England (Anglican) Perspectives on Abortion” , pp 63 – 72 in “Abortion: Global Positions and Practices, Religious and Legal Perspectives”, Alireza Bagheri ed., Springer (2021)

[7] “The Episcopal Church’s Stated Position on Childbirth and Abortion” (

[9] John T. Noonan, “Abortion and the Catholic Church: A Summary History” (1967) Natural Law Forum, p. 126

[11] Pierre Riché; Jo Ann McNamara, ed and trans, “Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne” (University of Pennsylvania Press), p. 50.

[12] Thomas Aquinas, “Contra Gentiles”, 3.122.9 (

[13] John Calvin, “Commentary on Genesis” (

[14] Martin Luther, “Luther's works / Vol. 4, Lectures on Genesis, chapters 21-25”, Jaroslav Pelikan, ed., p. 304 (

[15] Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue”, University of Notre Dame Press (2007) p. 221


Part 7: Back to the Bible


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

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