Modern Look at Abortion Not Same as St. Augustine's
Bishop Robert Vasa
Diocese of Baker, Oregon
BEND — It is not possible this week to write about things related to the Catholic Church without making special note of the comments of a high-ranking U.S. official regarding abortion. This official, drawing from the rich tradition of the teachings of Saint Augustine, implied that he would have permitted abortion up to three months after conception. As has been well reported by others, Saint Augustine was working from the defective science of his day and he was trying to reconcile what he understood from science with the philosophical views of his day. It should be noted that Saint Augustine died in 430 AD.
In order to give a fair treatment of Augustine’s view I turn to an entry by John C. Bauerschmidt, Abortion, in Augustine Through The Ages: An Encyclopedia. He writes:
“Abortion: Augustine, in common with most other ecclesiastical writers of his period, vigorously condemned the practice of induced abortion. Procreation was one of the goods of marriage; abortion figured as a means, along with drugs which cause sterility, of frustrating this good. It lay along a continuum which included infanticide as an instance of ‘lustful cruelty’ or ‘cruel lust.’ Augustine called the use of means to avoid the birth of a child an ‘evil work:’ a reference to either abortion or contraception or both.”
According to a spokesperson, the public official’s “views on when life begins were informed by the views of Saint Augustine, who said: ‘the law does not provide that the act (abortion) pertains to homicide, for there cannot yet be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation.’” (Saint Augustine, On Exodus 21.22) Clearly Augustine believed, according to the science of his day, that the “body” of a pre-born child “lacked sensation” and from this he concluded that the child likewise lacked a human soul. Since the creature in the womb of its mother seemed to lack both sensation and soul, at least until the 40th day after conception, he had questions about the full humanity of the child. If Augustine had access to ultrasound images or if he had seen the film, “Silent Scream,” he would have had no doubt about whether the child “lacked sensation.”
Precisely because of the lack of scientific precision, Augustine distinguished between a vivified and unvivified fetus, (a fetus before or after ensoulment). Since he could not conceive of an ensouled person without sensation, he concluded that the abortion of a “pre-vivifed” fetus, while a grave evil, could not be considered, in the strict moral sense, a murder.
I certainly commend the public official for going to Saint Augustine, a great theologian and philosopher, for views on morality but Augustine’s views need to be read and adopted in context. It is highly disingenuous, deceptive and intellectually dishonest to take this ecclesial sound bite from 1,500 years ago and treat it as if it is the last definitive word on the subject. This is particularly true since Augustine himself “vigorously condemned the practice of induced abortion” despite the unavailability of accurate scientific information. Furthermore, according to Bauerschmidt, Augustine also called the use of means to avoid the birth of a child “evil work.” It would appear that the public official conveniently missed that part and thus does not allow Saint Augustine to form any part of her understanding of the evil of either abortion or contraception while boasting that this is precisely what she has done.
The spokesperson also attempted to further blur the concerns about the public official’s stand on abortion by indicating that the public official “has a long, proud record of working with the Catholic Church on many issues, including alleviating poverty and promoting social justice and peace.” I, too, could commend the pubic official for “working with the Catholic Church” on these issues but if the views on these issues are formed by the teachings of the Catholic Church, which are quite current, why does the public official seemingly work so hard to reject the teachings of the Catholic Church, as they are currently stated, regarding abortion and contraception?
If I were to think a bit more critically I would be inclined to conclude that the public official accepts the views of the Church which agree with her view and rejects those views which do not. In other words, she is not formed by either Augustine or the Catholic Church on any of these social or moral issues, but simply happens to agree on some points. This then would have nothing to do with any true conviction about the goodness, beauty or truth of the teachings of the Catholic Church but rather pure political expediency.
The spokesperson’s statement also implies that, as has often been posited by politicians of one stripe or another, because they hold and support properly Catholic views on the social issues of race, poverty, justice and peace that they should not be held accountable for their rejection of the Catholic teachings on the more direct life issues such as abortion, assisted suicide and embryonic stem cell research. This is an inappropriate and unjust application of the U.S. Bishops statements concerning a “consistent ethic of life.” This consistent ethic is sometimes interpreted to mean that life issues as divergent as capital punishment and abortion, or assisted suicide and the loss of life in the war in Iraq, are equivalent. Nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly in each of these instances, regrettably, a human life is at stake but the difference is that only in the case of abortion or assisted suicide do we deal with the direct and intentional taking of the life of a completely innocent person.
A person may work very admirably to alleviate poverty but this does not justify ignoring the greatest poverty which is the one which fails to recognize the value of life. A person may work very admirably to promote social justice but this does not justify turning a blind eye to the greatest injustice openly operative in our society which is the unjust deprivation of the pre-born of their most basic constitutional right, the right to life.