What is the worst crime a society can commit? Some people (I among them) would say the Holocaust, the cold methodical murder of six million people just for being Jews.
But some Catholics and evangelicals say they know of an even greater crime — the deliberate killing of untold millions of unborn babies by abortion. They have determined that a fetus is a person and abortion is therefore murder. This is a crime of such magnitude that some Catholic bishops are trying to deny the reception of Holy Communion by the president of the United States for not working to prevent it.
No one told Dante that this was the worst crime, or he would have put abortionists, not Judas, in the deepest frozen depths of his Inferno. But in fact he does not put abortionists anywhere in the eight fiery tiers above the deepest one of his Hell.
This is not a singular omission. No one told “Matthew” or “Mark” or “Luke” or “John” or Paul, or any other New Testament author, that he should condemn this sin of all sins. Nor did any author of the Old Testament raise this alarm, with the result that we do not have Moses or Jesus on record as opposing abortion. Nor did any of the major definitive creeds.
Even major figures of religious history do not tell us that the fetus is a person. St. Augustine says he searched Scripture trying but failing to find out when in the procreative process personal life begins. But St. Thomas Aquinas knew. Aristotle told him — that it came at or near childbirth, after an earlier stage of having a nutritive soul (like plant life), which developed into an animal soul, at last receiving a rational soul. Thomas kept Aristotle’s biology, just adding that God himself infuses the soul into the body at some unspecified time during the last stage of this process. In other words, the fetus in its long pre-rational life is not a human being.
In 1930, Pope Pius XI, in his encyclical Casti Connubii, forbade all ways to prevent procreation, lumping them together with the condemnation of Onan, who prevents his widowed sister-in-law from childbirth by coitus interruptus. But the Vatican was embarrassed by scholars who noted that what was attacked there was a violation of the duty of Levirate marriage, to continue his brother’s line. The Vatican has never again tried to connect abortion with Scripture. The best comment on the pope’s disastrous “church teaching” came via Alexander Woollcott, who said of Dorothy Parker: “Of her birds, I remember only an untidy canary whom she named Onan for reasons which will not escape those who know their Scriptures.”
The religious opponents of abortion think that the human person actually antedates the Aristotelian scheme, dating it from “conception” (when the semen fertilizes the ovum). But the Catholic theologian Bernard Häring points out that at least half of the fertilized eggs fail to achieve “nidation” — adherence to the uterus — making nature and nature’s God guilty of a greater “holocaust” of unborn babies than abortion accounts for, if the fertilized ovum is a “baby.”
The opponents of abortion who call themselves “pro-life” make any form of human life, even pre-nidation ova, sacred. But my clipped fingernails or trimmed hairs are human life. They are not canine hair. The cult of the fetus goes even farther down the path of nonsense. This cult, which began as far back as the 1950s, led to debate over whether, in a pregnancy crisis, the life of the fetus should be preferred to that of the mother.
In her brilliant book “Policing the Womb,” Michele Goodwin records how state legislatures are now inventing a new crime, “feticide.” Does a pregnant woman’s smoking or drinking endanger the fetus in her? Haul her into court and convict her of attempted feticide. Bring doctors in to testify against her.
This new cult of the fetus was not observed in the long history of the bishops’ own church. When my wife and I were in England in the 1960s, her doctor there said she was at severe risk of a miscarriage and consigned her to immobility in bed. I did not know what my Catholic Church prescribed about treatment of a miscarried baby, if that should occur. I went to John Henry Newman’s Oratory fathers, where I had been attending Mass, and asked what I should do in that event. They looked puzzled and said the hospital should handle that.
I found, in later questions, that the church did not prescribe or recommend baptizing a miscarriage as if it were a full human being, nor giving it last rites, nor burying it in consecrated ground. My Catholic grandmother, Rose Collins, had three or four miscarriages, but told me she did not worry about how the discharges were disposed of — she had four living children to care for.
The Catholic Church no longer claims that opposition to abortion is scriptural. It is not a religious issue. It is called a matter of natural law, which should be discernible by natural reason. Yet as the Catholic judge John T. Noonan said, the most recognized experts on natural law, in universities, human rights organizations, medical and psychological bodies, do not generally oppose abortion. Nor, according to polls, do a majority of American citizens, even Catholic citizens. Some women of my own extended family have had abortions and still consider themselves Catholics. President Biden seems to be on their side, as is Pope Francis. This, of course, does not affect the American bishops. They hate this pope and this president anyway.
Garry Wills is an emeritus professor of history at Northwestern and the author of more than 50 books, including “Why I Am a Catholic.”
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