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Once again, the words of Pope Francis have been taken out of context to paint him as some kind of heretic. Once again, Where Peter Is shows up to clear the air.

On November 28, 2022, America Magazine published the text of an exclusive interview with Pope Francis. The interview was conducted by a team of five representatives from America Media and touched on a wide range of issues from the Russian war on Ukraine to the role of women in the Church. Among the representatives from America was Gloria Purvis, a speaker and podcaster who is a well-known advocate for the right to life and for racial justice.

Purvis’s first question was about abortion and how it is heavily politicized in the Church and is a source of division among Catholics in the United States. Before addressing this specific issue, however, Pope Francis began his response by speaking about the morality of the act of abortion itself, saying:

On abortion, I can tell you these things, which I’ve said before. In any book of embryology it is said that shortly before one month after conception the organs and the DNA are already delineated in the tiny fetus, before the mother even becomes aware. Therefore, there is a living human being. I do not say a person, because this is debated, but a living human being. And I raise two questions: Is it right to get rid of a human being to resolve a problem? Second question: Is it right to hire a “hit man” to resolve a problem? The problem arises when this reality of killing a human being is transformed into a political question, or when a pastor of the church uses political categories.

This first part of the response closely resembles the way he’s discussed abortion before. He regularly tries to frame the issue in terms of its scientific reality – that the act of abortion is taking a living human life – and not a matter of theology or philosophy or religious principles. He has done this throughout his papacy, and he’s been consistent about this.

Unfortunately, many of the usual critics have jumped on the words, “I do not say a person, because this is debated, but a living human being.” They argue that in saying “this is debated” that he is denying the personhood of a human life from the moment of conception.

The easy response is to point out that he is simply acknowledging that there is a debate on whether the unborn child is a “person.” Because there is. Google “personhood debate” and you will get plenty of results.

The basic idea behind the argument that a human embryo or fetus is not a “person” is that although it is alive, possesses the genetic markers of a unique human life, and has begun to develop into a fully-formed human being, it will not achieve “personhood” until a certain stage of development. In the realm of the abortion debate, many abortion-rights advocates only recognize personhood status at birth or – chillingly – shortly thereafter. Age, health, quality of life, intellectual and physical ability, and other factors are used to deem whether a human being is a “person” or not.

Because this line is unavoidably relative or arbitrary, the personhood debate is used to justify other acts of killing, such as euthanasia or the death penalty. At its most extreme, the denial of personhood can be applied to the disabled and racial or ethnic groups. Some, such as Princeton’s Peter Singer, recognize the “personhood” of some animals while denying it in some human beings. Singer has said that “a chimpanzee, dog, or pig, for instance, will have a higher degree of self-awareness and a greater capacity for meaningful relations with others than a severely retarded infant or someone in a state of advanced senility … we must grant these animals a right to life as good as, or better than, such retarded or senile humans.”

Francis’s point is that rather than getting caught up in sifting through all the mental gymnastics involved in that debate, we should start with the fundamental reality: abortion is evil because it is killing a human life.

This is not new. For example, in 2014, he said in a meeting with the Italian Catholic Physicians’ Association:

Many times in my life as a priest, I have heard objections. “Tell me, why, for example, does the Church oppose abortion? Is it a religious problem?” — “No, no. It’s not a religious problem” — “Is it a philosophical problem?” — “No, it’s not a philosophical problem”. It is a scientific problem, because there is a human life there and it is not licit to eliminate a human life to resolve a problem. “But no, the modern school of thought…”. — “Listen, in the old and the modern schools of thought, the word kill means the same thing!”. The same is true for euthanasia. We all know that with so many elderly people in this throw-away culture, euthanasia is being performed in secret. There is also another. And this is saying to God: “No, I will end life, as I see fit”. A sin against God the Creator: think hard about this.

On the return flight from Mexico in 2016, he was asked if abortion could be considered a “lesser evil” than birth defects that could potentially be caused by the Zika virus. The pope responded, “Abortion is not a ‘lesser evil’. It is a crime. It is wiping out one to save another. That is what the mafia does. It is a crime, it is absolutely evil.” He went on to assert once again that opposition to abortion is not just grounded in religious conviction:

Abortion is not a theological issue: it is a human issue, it is a medical issue. One person is killed in order to save another — in the best case scenario — or in order to live comfortably. It is against the Hippocratic Oath that physicians take. It is an evil in and of itself. It is not a “religious” evil, to start with, no, it is a human evil. Evidently, as it is a human evil — like all killing — it is condemned.

On the return flight from the 2018 World Meeting of Families in Ireland, Pope Francis responded to another reporter’s question on abortion, saying:

On abortion, you know what the Church thinks. The issue of abortion is not a religious issue: we are not opposed to abortion for religious reasons. No. It is a human issue and has to be addressed as such. To consider abortion starting from religion is to step over [that realm of] thought. The abortion question has to be studied from an anthropological standpoint. There is always the anthropological question of how ethical it is to eliminate a living being in order to resolve a problem. This is the real issue. I would only emphasize this: I never allow the issue of abortion to be discussed starting with religion. No. It is an anthropological problem, a human problem. This is my thinking.

There are many other examples, but these three quotes demonstrate the context in which he consistently frames the morality of abortion – that it is evil, that it is killing another human to solve a problem, and that the problem of abortion transcends any religious or lofty philosophical questions. His point is that at the most basic level, abortion must be rejected because it is a violation of a very fundamental principle: to respect human life.

Personhood and Catholic Teaching

From the beginning of the Church, the Magisterium has always been clear in its condemnation of abortion at any stage as a moral evil. That said, prior to our modern understanding of fetal development, the Church has not always been firm on this question of personhood.

Thomas Aquinas, for example held a theory of “delayed animation,” which to him meant that ensoulment occurred at quickening – when the fetus began to move. This was believed to be at 40 days gestation for males and 80 days of gestation for females. This theory was based on Aristotle and erroneous medieval notions of embryology. Aquinas’s position on delayed animation was even cited in the majority decision in the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which established abortion as a constitutional right in the US (ROE v. WADE, 410 U.S. 113 (1973): IV.3).

Aquinas’s idea was reflected in the imposition of different canonical and civil penalties for early- and late-term abortions. But even still, the Catholic Church has never sanctioned abortion. That has never stopped supporters of legal abortion from using it in their arguments, however.

This was reenforced by a 1974 document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Declaration on procured abortion. The declaration acknowledged that there was a personhood debate, but, like Pope Francis, stressed that these were not grounds upon which to justify abortion. The congregation stressed that modern science has made it clear when life begins, and that uncertainty about personhood does not justify ending a life (emphasis added):

From the first instant, there is established the program of what this living being will be: a man, this individual man with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization is begun the adventure of a human life, and each of its capacities requires time – a rather lengthy time – to find its place and to be in a position to act. The least that can be said is that present science, in its most evolved state, does not give any substantial support to those who defend abortion. Moreover, it is not up to biological sciences to make a definitive judgment on questions which are properly philosophical and moral such as the moment when a human person is constituted or the legitimacy of abortion. From a moral point of view this is certain: even if a doubt existed concerning whether the fruit of conception is already a human person, it is objectively a grave sin to dare to risk murder. “The one who will be a man is already one” (13).

During the papacy of Saint John Paul II, the Magisterium began to insist that we consider personhood as if it begins at the moment of conception, however. In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul taught this forcefully: “The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life” (60). A few years earlier, the CDF produced a document, Donum Vitae (“Instruction on respect for human life”), which made a similar point: “The human being must be respected – as a person – from the very first instant of his existence” (5.I.1).

Note however, that both the encyclical and the instruction call for the child in the womb “to be respected” as a person from the moment of conception, without definitively teaching that the embryo is a person. Donum Vitae mentions the personhood debate later in the section, stating, “This Congregation is aware of the current debates concerning the beginning of human life, concerning the individuality of the human being and concerning the identity of the human person.” Donum Vitae then quotes from the 1974 CDF document and adds the conclusion, “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.”

In 2008, this point was again reiterated by the CDF, then led by Cardinal William Levada under Pope Benedict XVI. In the document Dignitas Personae, the Congregation stated, “If Donum vitae, in order to avoid a statement of an explicitly philosophical nature, did not define the embryo as a person, it nonetheless did indicate that there is an intrinsic connection between the ontological dimension and the specific value of every human life” (5).

What does all of this mean? Well, for one thing, it is clear that the Magisterium has acknowledged on multiple occasions that there is a debate about personhood. It is also clear that the Church has not always considered the life of a human person to begin at conception, nor has the Church definitively taught this. That said, the Church has always regarded abortion to be evil from the moment of conception. More recently, the Church has pushed back against the idea that “delayed personhood” is relevant to its position on the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception. It has taught instead that life, from the moment of conception should be treated and respected as a human person. And in this, Pope Francis has always been in line with Catholic Tradition.


Image: Adobe Stock. By nobeastsofierce.


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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

Pope Francis and the personhood debate
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