Although they were misleading, Senator Pelosi’s comments on Meet the Press were not entirely incorrect. Responding to Tom Brokaw, who asked: “Help me out here, Madame Speaker. When does life begin?” Pelosi replied, “the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition… I don’t think anyone can tell you when life begins—human life. As I say, the Catholic Church for centuries has been discussing this.” When Brokaw countered saying, “The Catholic Church at the moment feels very strongly that it begins at the point of conception.” Pelosi replied: “over the history of the Church, this is an issue of controversy.” Strictly speaking, she is right; the precise moment of the beginning of human life was disputed by theologians for centuries. John Connery’s classic work on the development of the Roman Catholic teaching on abortion makes this clear (see John Connery, S.J., Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective, Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1977). The controversy concerned the question of the moment of ensoulment. A centuries old position, relying on Aristotelian embryology, was that the human soul was infused by God forty to eighty days after conception, depending on the sex of the fetus. Some theologians held that before this time the fetus was not human. Based upon the best empirical evidence available at the time, this was not unreasonable to hold.
Does this mean the Catholic Church was ever doubtful as to the morality of abortion in the first couple months? Emphatically no. Both official Catholic teaching and moral theological reflection held and taught from the beginning of Christianity the grave immorality of abortion. One of the earliest non-biblical theological sources was the enormously influential moral treatise the Didache (c. 100 AD), which teaches: “do not abort a fetus or kill a child that is born”. Among the earliest ecclesiastical condemnations were the fourth century councils of Elvira (c. 305) and Ancyra (314), both of which passed harsh penalties on women who procured abortions after conceiving in fornication or adultery. On the firmness of this early Christian witness, John Connery writes: “Abortion was wrong to the early Christians. . . They were not interested in comparing one abortion with another for penal purposes. Abortion was wrong whether the fetus was formed [i.e., was ‘ensouled’] or not. One finds in the early Church, then, simple, clear condemnations of abortion without any attempt to distinguish or classify” (Connery, p. 34).
Why was there no doubt about the immorality of abortion when there was longstanding doubt about the moment of ensoulment? Because the theological doubt about when God infuses the soul was based on a speculative question which was not settled in divine revelation, nor could it be resolved by empirical or logical reasoning. So theologians could always be wrong. Since human life might be present, the Church taught we are morally obliged to treat it as if it is present. If in truth ensoulment occurred at conception, and I ignorantly abort a little life at 20 days, I do something monstrous. Moreover, everyone believed that conception was the beginning of human development; that a new life was unfolding; that a creature willed and loved by God and destined for eternal beatitude was coming to be. Whether or not God informs it today with a soul or tomorrow does not change his eternal will for that life. If I kill it a day before ensoulment, I still kill someone God has chosen for life. Morally speaking, this is tantamount to killing human life. And so the Church unambiguously taught—and teaches—that abortion at any stage is always gravely wrong; Vatican II calls it an “unspeakable crime” (GS, 51).
The present teaching of the Catholic Church is different in one respect. Modern embryology has settled for us the question of when human life begins. The leading textbooks in embryology tell us it begins at conception. The influential and widely used text by Moore and Persaud, for example, states that “human development begins at fertilization when a male gamete or sperm (spermatozoon) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to form a single cell – a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual”.(1 ) There is no longer any controversy over the beginning of human life. But on the precise moment of ensoulment, what skeptics now refer to as the onset of personhood, the Catholic Church still does not definitively teach. This however does not compromise the firmness with which it condemns abortion. The Vatican instruction Donum Vitae (1987) articulates the distinction well:
“Certainly no experimental datum can be in itself sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul; nevertheless, the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo provide a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of this first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person? The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion. This teaching has not been changed and is unchangeable.”
Pelosi’s statements were made in support of Obama’s evasive reply to Rick Warren that answering when human life begins is above his pay grade. Passing herself off as a theologically informed Catholic, Pelosi meant to cast doubt on the firmness and continuity of the Church’s condemnation of abortion. In this she failed. But readers should know Pelosi’s comments are based upon commonly held positions of large numbers of Catholic moral theologians at dozens of Catholic universities and colleges in the U.S. I have no doubt that she was fed those lines by liberal theological advisors. And no doubt they are telling her right now that she spoke correctly and should hold firm in what she said. For those who have not seen the Pelosi interview, you really should go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwUSt7dfj5I and have a look. You will see just how far pro-choice politicians are willing to go to protect their sacred rite of child sacrifice.