Catholic Church Clear on When Human Life Begins
Most Rev. Glen John Provost, D.D.
Bishop of Lake Charles, Louisiana
A serious responsibility of a bishop is to insure the purity of teaching in areas of faith and morals (cf. I Timothy 4:16). These teachings must be in conformity with the universal and historic teachings found in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition and defined by the teaching office of the Catholic Church. The beauty of Catholicism rests in part on its ability to be clear.
Recently there has been high-profile press given to arguments concerning when human life begins. I am concerned about clarity and any misrepresentation of consistent Catholic teaching. My remarks are made in response to numerous questions posed to me by good Catholics in our own Diocese of Lake Charles who are confused by glib citations of patristic authorities, such as St. Augustine, that life begins at some other time than conception.
In response, I would say:
1. St. Augustine, one of our most revered Fathers, lived and wrote almost 1,500 years ago; he did not see the world around him with a scientific perspective as we know it today; as with early writers of this and later periods, his concern was the nature of the immortal soul and the human being; he approached this question primarily from the perspective of theology and philosophy.
2. To answer a question such as when does life begin, science gives us a quite adequate answer; according to one prominent embryology text, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, by Keith L. Moore and T.V.N. Persuad (7th Edition; Publ. Saunders, p. 16), ‘‘Human development begins at fertilization when a male gamete or sperm (spermatozoon) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to produce a single cell, a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual’’; if he were alive today, St. Augustine would agree, because St. Augustine believed that there was no ‘‘disjunction’’ in what was known by faith and reason (cf. Catholic Encyclopedia, 1981 ed., vol. 5, p. 808, ‘‘St. Augustine’’ on ‘‘Faith and Reason’’); life begins at conception; no doubt St. Augustine would have marveled at a uterine ultrasound and what it reveals about a human in the womb;
3. The teaching that life in the womb is sacred has been consistently taught by the Church from the beginning and is reflected in the opposition of the Church for twenty centuries to abortion; please consult the oldest catechism instruction of the Church, outside the Sacred Scriptures, called the Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles from the First Century A.D.; it reads as follows: ‘‘Do not kill a fetus by abortion, or commit infanticide’’ (Didache, 2:2); also, noted patristic scholars are in agreement that St. Augustine probably knew the Didache and may have used it as a source in writing his own First Catechetical Instruction.
4. To say in some way that the Fathers and Doctors of the Church in centuries past taught otherwise than the Church’s consistent teaching on the sacredness of life in the womb or that they were not sure when life began is misleading and erroneous; for this reason, the official Catechism of the Catholic Church states: ‘‘Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.... Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable’’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2270-2271).