By now you probably have heard about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s remarks this Sunday on the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings about when life begins. I won’t even begin to address the idiocy of a member of Congress making Catholic doctrinal declarations. I will say, however, that she had a valid point. As the Washington Post reports:

On the news show on Sunday, Pelosi (D-Calif.), a Catholic who supports abortion rights, said that the question of when life begins has been a subject of controversy in the church and that over the centuries, “the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition.”

On this at least, she is technically correct, and demonstrably so. Even though the RC Church likes to tell everyone that its position — that life begins at conception — has never changed in all of Christian history, this is simply historical revisionism. In fact, the current RC doctrine is only as old as Apostolicae sedis, a bull issued by Pope Pius IX in 1869. Prior to that, positions had varied considerably, from Church doctor to Church doctor, and over time.

To set the stage: Prior to Christianity, one of the most common views was that ensoulment occurred only at the point where the fetus physically resembled a human being (of course, this an indefinite boundary and can be subjective; moreover Aristotle, one proponent of this view, complicated it by saying that males were ensouled at 40 days and females at 80). Some of the Church Fathers, such as Tertullian (late 2nd century) asserted that ensoulment occurred at conception, and some others agreed with him. St Augustine, however, veered back toward the classical Greek view, and it became common after him to consider ensoulment as occurring at “quickening” — the moment when fetal movement is first noticed. The “ensoulment at quickening” was confirmed by many, including Pope Innocent III and St Thomas Aquinas.

Although this idea vacillated a bit, it was not until the 19th century that RC doctrine was officially changed to what it is now.

The Catholic Church frequently claims its doctrines are eternal, or ancient, when they are not; for instance, celibacy for priests and matrimony as a sacrament are both late-medieval notions and unknown for over half its existence. So it’s not unusual for the Church to attempt revising history — it’s reflexive for them. As it turns out, historically the most common Roman Catholic doctrine is not the modern “conception ensoulment,” but the “quickening ensoulment.”

For more information on the history of ensoulment doctrine in Christianity, I suggest this page on the Religious Tolerance Web site.

Tags: , , , , ,

Comments are closed.