Has Catholic Theology Always Believed Life Begins at Conception?

The answer to that question is apparently not! Most people don’t know this, but for many centuries, official Catholic doctrine held that abortion was allowable up until “quickening.” That’s when mother senses the fetus kicking in her stomach. Quickening occurs around the third or fourth month of pregnancy, around the end of the first trimester in modern phrasing. So the Church allowed abortion until the first trimester.

At that point, it was assumed to be alive, or human, or something. Thing was, abortion was rare back in those days, just like Hillary Clinton wants it to be. Before the age of antibiotics and disinfectants, abortion was not common, it was quite dangerous, and women often died during the procedure. Nevertheless, it was done. The era of surgery began long before the 20th Century.

I don’t have access to any Church doctrine from those days, so I’m not sure what they based it on.

But if you read Dante, you get some glimpses into what they may have been thinking. Dante, writing in the early 1200’s, was not a Pope or a Church father, but he was an extremely religious Catholic. That is clear in all of his writings. He lived his life this way too, and after he moved away from Florence to the east, he was well-known for cursing and throwing stones at fellow citizens who he thought were sinning for some reason or another.

Hence, Dante’s works are good for glimpsing Church doctrine in the early days, since Dante won’t support any teachings not sanctioned by the Church.

In Dante, there are passages which discuss the development of human life and the soul. They are very interesting for a peek into what the early Church felt about human life and its beginnings. Dante’s version, like much of his thinking, is very Aquinian – via St. Thomas Aquinas, the great early Christian philosopher who wrote in the 1100’s.

Dante’s version of the beginnings of human life (and the development of the human soul) is not exactly in accord with modern science, but nevertheless, it is straight from Aquinas. Early peoples had some knowledge of conception and the development of the fetus in the womb. Women miscarried back then, and when you look at the material, you can see the fetus in the rejected uterine matter. From there, they could postulate various things.

First of all, soon after conception, the beginnings of human life take shape.

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Stage 1: Dante says that in the beginning, the fetus is animate, but it is not even yet an animal. It is more like a plant; it is “vegetative.” This seems strange, but what he means is in terms of consciousness. To say it is like a plant means it is alive, but it can’t think. Plants are alive, but they don’t seem to think. In other words, it has the soul of a plant. I assume that killing a fetus at this stage would be as sinful in Church terms as killing a plant.

Stage 2: Later the fetus changes into a form that is part-animal and part-plant. This seems odd again, but he’s again speaking in terms of consciousness, or soul. Dante describes this fetus as being like a sea anemone, or as having the soul of a sea anemone. A sea anemone is an animal that looks and somewhat acts like a plant. It probably has a brain, but clearly it’s none too bright. It’s nearly transitional between plant and animal metaphysically speaking.

It’s vegetative (alive) and it has elementary sensory abilities, but not much beyond that. Killing a fetus at this stage would be as sinful in Church terms as killing a sea anemone.

Stage 3: After that, the fetus changes into an animal. But it is a non-human animal. Once again he speaks metaphysically. This means that it can’t really reason or think intellectually, or that it has no consciousness. It’s like a dog or a cat, or it has the soul of a cat or a dog. Killing a fetus at this point would be as sinful in Church terms as killing a dog or a cat.

Stage 4: Finally, at some point, the fetus is touched by God through some sort of mechanism and it is given a soul. At that point, it becomes a human being, since non-human animals lack souls.
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It follows from this that the Church believed that in Stages 1-3, the fetus was not yet a human being. It was presumably for this reason that abortion was allowed until quickening.

The Catholic Church is derided as reactionary, but in some ways it is more progressive than at least fundamentalist Protestantism. Recall that the original Protestants rebelled because they thought that the Church had drifted too far away from Biblical teaching. They were a back to basics movement sort of like the Salafists in Islam.

There is a corollary between the Muslim Shia and Catholicism and between the Muslim Sunni and Protestants. The Sunni are also, like Protestants, a back to basics faction, this time of Islam, that traditionally believes that everything we need to know about Islam was codified in the Quran and Hadiths back in 800 or so. Anything else is deviation at best, heresy at worst. The Shia, on the other hand, feel that Islam is open to continuous interpretation by the high priest caste, which are the Ayatollahs or mullahs.

Ayatollah is derided as a reactionary, but he made some interesting judgments. One was that transsexualism is compatible with Islam, but homosexuality is not. Homosexuality was felt to be a choice and hence a sin, while transsexuals were created by God. There is a top Ayatollah who used to be a man and turned into a woman. Some other big Ayatollah has married her and they are now man and wife.

There is also the phenomenon of temporary marriage. In the religious city of Qom in Iran, there are many institutes of Islamic studies. Religious students come there from all over Iran to study. The city is teeming with female prostitutes. In some areas, the prostitutes gather, and young male students hook up with them. Then they go find a friendly neighborhood Ayatollah who gives them a temporary marriage of one or two days. Then they go off to do the deed in the local cemetery or some such place.

In Lebanon, the Ayatollah Fadlallah is said to be rather progressive as these fellows go. He issued a famous ruling that said that female masturbation was allowed by Islam that caused quite a stir in Lebanon.

It’s things like temporary marriage and the transsexual Ayatollah that drive Sunnis up the wall. The Sunnis, like Protestants, have no religious leaders who make official interpretations or reinterpretations of doctrine. There’s nothing to be interpreted. All the interpretation has already been done.

Sometimes mullahs issue rulings of clarification, mostly to say that this or that is a sin, or to condemn this or that. Some of these come out of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. They carry a lot of weight, but most Sunnis don’t pay much attention to such rulings. A lot of fatwas get issued, but those are just condemnations. And most of the folks issuing fatwas, like Osama bin Laden, have no right to do so. Mr. bin Laden is no scholar of Islam, hence he’s not allowed to issue fatwas, and if he does, they carry no weight.

The Catholic Church is similar to the Shia in that they also have church leaders who reinterpret doctrine for the faithful. In this case, it is the Papacy. The Catholic Church reserves the right to reinterpret religious doctrine as times change. Hence they changed course and endorsed Galileo after initially opposing him.

And recently the Pope declared that evolution is compatible with Catholicism, whereas tens of millions of Protestants are still Creationists. Catholic Creationists probably don’t even exist. Why are there so many Protestant Creationists? There’s nothing in Protestant doctrine telling them it’s nonsense, and there’s not much, if any, official Protestant doctrine anyway.

So neither the Shia or Catholics are necessarily as reactionary as they are often made out to be.

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6 thoughts on “Has Catholic Theology Always Believed Life Begins at Conception?”

  1. Some oversimplifications here.

    One, Sunnism preceded Shiism, so the Catholic/Protestant parallel falls short.

    You might also research different intepretations of
    Biblical applications between Luther and Calvin-and Zwingli, frontline Protestant Reformers. ( In their view Anabaptists were outside Protestantism, and some hard line Baptists today do not concede they are Protestant.)

    On the issue of abortion, I discussed with a rather famous anti-abortion hardliner in the past the issues you cover and the most he conceded was at one time the Church might not have considered it “murder” (extrapolating from your history) but it was always regarded as at least “serious sin.”

    Do you have any examples of early practise delineating how it was indeed officially “allowed?”

    Yes there are Catholic creationists who reject the latest Papal revision. Could be there are, however, very few “young Earth” Catholic creationists.

    1. I don’t know, all I know is that the Church “allowed it up until quickening,” and after that it was disallowed by Church doctrine.

      It’s clear though, that if you read Dante and Aquinas (really, classical Catholic Church doctrine circa 1100-1200) on the development of the human soul, it is quite clear that the fetus is not endowed by God with a soul until sometime after it becomes an “animal.” That is, it develops the ability to think and reason, like a dog or a cat, and sometime after that, God gives endows with a soul, making it uniquely human. Before that, I assume that Churchwise, the sin would be along the lines of killing a dog or a cat.

      And before that, the fetus is a half-plant, half-animal. That is, it is “vegetative” = alive, and it also has elementary sensory organs. It can’t exactly think, but it can sort of sense things in a primitive way. Killing a fetus at that stage would be a Church sin along the lines of killing a sea anemone.

      Even before that, it is “vegetative,” or plant like, that is, it’s alive, but it can’t think and it can’t even sense things either. Killing the fetus at this stage would be a Church sin along the lines of killing a plant.

      I take this from Dante, it’s true, but I’m certain that his analysis here is purely Aquinian. And Aquinas is simply one of the great Catholic thinkers of the time.

      It doesn’t make sense at all to say that the Church has always believed that humans had fully formed souls at conception. Not so!

  2. I take all your points and history; in fact when I was really into debating the right-to-life issue, I gathered and utililized most of them with the
    hardliners. I’ve debated even ultra-Trad Catholics who proclaim the mother should willingly sacrifice her life to give birth in the rare case when her life is actually at stake. Usually male but I’ve met a few women in that niche, and Protestant who claim they would do so in a hypotehtical scenario.

    Not that I did much research on it, but the question I have been unable to determine is examples of how and what the Church actually enforced during the Aquinas and earlier periods when an early abortion was outed if there exists such historical data.

    The hardliner who I mentioned proffered the plausible argument that the stages even as
    (erroneously it turns out) outlined by Aquinas
    depict a God-ordained process which ends in human life, ergo the interruption of which he claimed was at least treated as “serious sin” when discovered.

  3. You must be very poorly informed to say “and recently the Pope declared that evolution is compatible with Catholism”. The Catholic Church has never opposed evolutionary theory, as far back as 1950, the then Pope embraced evolution as the most likely explaination for the emergence of Mankind. Last year the Vatican celebrated the bicenterary of Darwin’s birth with conferences on evolution, creationists and intelligent design advocates were unwelcome. Regarding the rehabilation of Galileo, that was just a historical artifact that needed to be tidied up, similar to the outlawing of oral sex in several U.S states. In fact the Vatican has an observatory and has been contributing to astromony for a very long time, it’s not as if Catholism held a heliocentric view until recently, as some in the media seemed to insinuate a few years ago.

  4. Re: abortion, If the Fundamentalists want to point to the Bible, it reads, to me, as if life begins with the first breath. God “formed” Adam and then “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” Before the flood, God tells Noah that he will “destroy…all flesh in which there is the breath of life.” There are lots of passages where e.g. the Israelites are commanded to kill “all that breathe.” There are other passages Fundies refer to regarding being “formed” in the womb, but “formed” does not yet equal living. Per sola scriptura, at least as far as I can tell, abortion isn’t murder.

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