Lesson 6a: Gospel of Life: Abortion

Chapter III of Evangelium Vitae nn.52-77 concerns the specifics of 'Thou Shalt Not Kill'. Two of these specifics coordinate well with the Catechism: abortion (CCC ##2270-2275) and euthanasia (2276-9), but the Catechism is highly concise. Both of these subjects have been the object of authentic Declarations by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and those doctrinal Declarations are theologically more extensive than the Catechism and more extensive than the encyclical EV. Thus, as we consider first the topic of abortion, it will be a great advantage to read and study the CDF Declaration on Abortion (11/18/74) nn.1-27. It is my experience that even pro-life Catholics who are well-informed seem not to know about nor be familiar with this Declaration on Abortion of 1974. This is a sad omission because that Declaration is neither liberal nor conservative but rather the doctrine of our faith.

EV, 53 repeats and summarizes that human life is sacred and inviolable (CDF, Donum Vitae, Intro., 5 and CCC #2258). EV, 54 in specifying the negative content of the commandment: 'thou shalt not kill' states an extreme limit which can never be exceeded. After citing Holy Scripture which makes no explicit mention of direct abortion, it does quote the Didache at length because it is the first explicit Christian mention: "You shall not commit murder. . . . You shall not kill an unborn child or murder a newborn infant" Didache 2:2 and again in chapter 5: "The way of death is this . . . they kill their children and by abortion cause God's creatures to perish" (5:3).

Since the focus of Chapter III of EV will be the direct killing of the innocent, some things are not formally included here: legitimate self-defense (EV, 55) and the death penalty (EV, 56). However, the latter, EV's treatment of the death penalty, required that the Catechism in its definitive Latin edition (1997) be amended and corrected, cf. CCC #2267 in Origins 27:15 (9/25/97) p.261 for a corrected translation.

Having put aside examples of killing non-innocents (EV, 55, 56), the Pope then teaches a formal moral truth located in Sacred Scripture, clarified by Sacred Tradition and constantly proposed by the Magisterium of the Church:

"Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I Confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral." (EV, 57; emphasis in the original). Further, "This doctrine, based on the unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (Rm.2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium." (EV, 57)

In the tapes (recorded in June 1997), I made the remark that this statement of doctrine is taught as infallibly true. Now, subsequent to John Paul II's, motu proprioAd Tuendam Fidem (5/18/98; cf. Origins 28:8, 7/16/98, pp.113;115-116) that is a correct remark -- it is infallibly true: that it is always gravely immoral to directly take the life of a moral innocent. This is a negative moral absolute that does not admit of exception: "there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is master of the world or the 'poorest of the poor' on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal" (VS, 96) in EV, 57.

The moral gravity of direct abortion is apparent in all its truth "if we recognize that we are dealing with murder and, in particular, when we consider the specific elements involved" (EV, 58) -- no one more innocent can be imagined; and in no moral sense is the unborn an aggressor, much less an unjust aggressor (cf. John Paul's, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 1994, pp.205-206). It is unusual for pontifical documents to use the word 'murder' but EV does that (cf. Latin: hic agi de homicidio in AAS 87, 1995, p.467).

EV 60 addresses the question of the beginning of human life. While "the Magisterium has not expressly committed itself, the Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence, must be guaranteed that unconditional respect which is morally due to the human being in his or her totality and unity as body and spirit: 'The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception . . . '(DV, I, 1)" (EV, 60).

Clearly, as the 1974 Declaration on Abortion taught: "from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being" (Declaration, 11/18/74, n.12). Thus, it is a life distinct in itself and distinguishable from others -- an individual person with characteristic aspects already determined. Very great clarity is required on this point: for philosophical clarity read G. Grisez, Living A Christian Lifevol. 2 (1993) pp.488-498; for biological clarity read M. Johnson in Theological Studies 56:4 (Dec. 1995) pp.743-763; in summary confer: B. Ashley, A. Moraczweski, chpt. 3 in Fetal Tissue Issue (Pope John Center, 1994) pp.33-59.

EV 61 and 62 recapitulate in detail the teaching of Scripture and Tradition, the papal Magisterium and the universal law of the Church to support the summation of Pope Paul VI that the teaching of the Church against direct abortion is "unchanged and unchangeable" (EV, 62). With the same formality and solemnity cited in EV, 57, the Pope invokes the authority of the Petrine office, as the Head of the College of Bishops together with the College of Bishops -- I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder. EV, 62. This too is infallible teaching.

It is unusual for a such a solemn formulation to delve into canonical discipline, but EV, 62 does that -- citing canon 1398 of the Code of Canon Law the abortion canon with its penalty of latae sententiae excommunication and also those close cooperators, without whose help this crime could not be accomplished (cn.1329,#2) who incur the same penalty. (Curiously but consistently, the Catechism #2272 does the same which, I think, is unusual for a Catechism but this, again, only underlines the importance of this crime against life, which, of late, civil and criminal codes no longer punish but authorize -- a sinister element of the Culture of Death the encyclical noted at the beginning, EV, 4).

Throughout this 3rd chapter, I have always used the term 'direct abortion' as distinct from 'indirect.' "Direct" in Moral Theology means directly intended as in directly procured abortion. Morally "indirect" abortions are legitimate applications of the principle of Double Effect and can be performed in a Catholic hospital. Thus, the removal of a cancerous uterus from a woman two months pregnant is an 'indirect' abortion, as are some of the classic cases of ectopic pregnancies. A moral guideline for this can be found in the NCCB's Ethical and Religious Directives (1994):

"Operations, treatments, and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted when they cannot be safely postponed until the unborn child is viable, even if they will result in the death of the unborn child." (Directive #47)

The same can be found in the Vatican Charter for Health Care Workers (1995) n.142. Further and fuller explanations of when and how this double-effect reasoning applies and does not can be found in standard medical ethics textbooks; e.g., T.J. O'Donnell, Medicine and Christian Morality (3rd, ed. 1996) pp.176-195. (The same reasoning will apply to morally 'direct' or 'indirect' sterilizations, basically what is truly therapeutic and/or non-therapeutic.)


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