Has the Catholic Church flip-flopped on abortion?

The title of this post may sound weird. Everybody knows that the Catholic Church opposes abortion, right? So what is this post about? Actually, there are some voices out there — some of them being priests and theologians who should know better — that claim that the Church’s absolute opposition to abortion is a relatively recent phenomenon. They go as far as to claim that the Church has flip-flopped on the issue, that it used to allow abortion in some circumstances. I’ve even heard a writer of a Development and Peace partner claim that the Council of Trent made it part of Church doctrine that abortion was allowed in some cases.

If all this sounds foreign to you, I would suggest that you read this post in case somebody ever brings up the matter. You’ll know how to respond to their false claims.

What the dissenters claim

Let me give you a sampling of what the dissenters claim. This particular excerpt was written by Frei Betto, a Dominican Friar who calls himself a theologian. He’s a regular writer at one of D&P’s dissenting partners called Agencia Latinoamericana de Informacion (Latin America Information Agency). Betto has literally written hundreds of articles for this partner. The excerpt below is from an article called Derecho al aborto (“Right to abortion”):

Throughout its history, the Catholic Church never held a unanimous and definitive position with respect to abortion. It oscillated between radically condemning it or allowing it with certain degrees of gravity.  Behind these differences in opinion is the debate about the moment at which a fetus can be considered human. Even today, neither science nor theology has an exact answer. The question remains open.

Saint Augustine (s. 4º) claimed that we could only speak of a person 40 days after conception. Saint Thomas Aquinas reaffirmed the non-recognition as human of an embryo that is not yet 40 days old, which is the moment when a rational soul was infused.

This position became the official doctrine of the Church starting with the Council of Trent (s. 16). But it was contested by some theologians who, based on the authority of Tertullian (s. 3º) and Saint Albert Magno (s. 13), defended immediate hominization, meaning that from the moment of conception it is already a human being in development. This thesis was taken up by the encyclical Apostolicae Sedis (1869), in which Pope Pius IX condemned all voluntary interruption of pregnancy. (Source, backup link here. My translation from Spanish)

This article exemplifies the most pernicious, heinous and damaging form of dissent because the author refers to Church documents and Doctors of the Church in a manner that seems credible. Thus he can deceive the casual reader into believing that the Church’s teaching on abortion is arbitrary, doubtful and subject to change. Besides, since he’s a Dominican and a theologian, he must know his stuff, right? But notice how he doesn’t actually quote any documents. How convenient. This type of article is the most damaging to souls. Oh, how many people may have been led astray by this friar! And to think that our Catholic donations are funding this crap through D&P!

Abortion has always been condemned

Now let me give you the real goods.

Anytime you have a question about what the Church teaches, your first pitstop is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This online version is very convenient because of its search engine, but it doesn’t provide the footnotes which contain valuable references to other Church documents. You’ll typically find such footnotes in a print version or on the Vatican’s online version, but it’s not as user-friendly in my opinion.

What does the Catechism say about this subject? Read paragraph 2271:

2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:

You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.

God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes. (Source)

In this instance, the Catechism quotes from two documents, identified above by the green and blue. The text in green comes from the Didache, a very early treatise dating back to the late 1st century or early 2nd century. The blue text comes from the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes. These two documents, written about 1900 years apart, illustrate the continuity of the Church’s condemnation of abortion. 

So has anything changed? Yes, the severity of the punishment attached to abortion has evolved over time. Today, modern science tells us that human life begins at conception. However, in centuries past, the origins of life were not so well understood. Among other things, this led to debates among theologians about when the soul was infused into the embryo, which is called ensoulment or hominization, i.e. the moment that the embryo is considered to be human. For example, both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas held that the soul was not infused into the embryo until 40 days after conception. Thus, up until 1869, the punishment associated with abortion was lesser for an abortion committed in the first 40 days than for an abortion committed after 40 days. That’s the point that dissenters such as Frei Betto like to emphasize as they claim that the Church has flip-flopped. What they fail to realize is that abortion was still unconditionally condemned, even during the first 40 days. Even though there was some debate as to whether the early embryo was human, the Church still knew enough to vigorously condemn abortion since conception. In 1869, citing progress in science, Pope Pius IX eliminated the distinction in punishment related to the 40-day threshold and made the punishment uniform from conception onward.

Today, we hold that ensoulment or hominization occurs at conception, and the science of embryology gives us no reason to believe otherwise. The punishment attached to abortion is the highest possible: automatic self-excommunication.

Another important point to keep in mind is that despite what the dissenters say, the 40-day threshold of hominization was never considered to be part of the doctrine of the Church. It was never elevated to the level of definitive and infallible teaching. The opinions of the Doctors of the Church were merely that — opinions. Remember that no Saint or Doctor of the Church, not even Augustine or Aquinas, were right about everything. Other Saints disagreed with them and argued for hominization from the moment of conception. Even today, I don’t think that hominization at conception is part of the doctrine of the Church. I don’t think it has ever been formally defined.

These points are well summarized in a 1974 statement called “Declaration on Procured Abortion” from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

In the course of history, the Fathers of the Church, her Pastors and her Doctors have taught the same doctrine [that human life must be protected from the beginning] – the various opinions on the infusion of the spiritual soul did not introduce any doubt about the illicitness of abortion. It is true that in the Middle Ages, when the opinion was generally held that the spiritual soul was not present until after the first few weeks, a distinction was made in the evaluation of the sin and the gravity of penal sanctions. Excellent authors allowed for this first period more lenient case solutions which they rejected for following periods. But it was never denied at that time that procured abortion, even during the first days, was objectively grave fault. This condemnation was in fact unanimous. (Source)

Additional points to ponder

Here are a few more points to keep in mind that reinforce the fact that the Church has always condemned abortion, and always will.

First, contraception has always been condemned. That basically closes the loophole for the first 40 days.  Why would the Church condemn contraception but supposedly allow the actual killing of the fetus? It doesn’t make any sense. Guys like Frei Betto should know better.

Second, while the notion that ensoulment occurs at the moment of conception may not have been officially defined as doctrine, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception certainly points to it. What does the Immaculate Conception say? It says that Mary was free from original sin from the moment of her conception. That implies that ensoulment occurs at conception.


Don’t let the dissenters fool you. The changes to the punishment for abortion that coincided with increased knowledge about embryology never affected the sinful nature of the act. The Church always has and always will condemn abortion from the moment of conception.

2 thoughts on “Has the Catholic Church flip-flopped on abortion?

  1. What you say is crystal clear and very informative in that article on abortion and Catholic Church teaching. What is endemic in modernism is the tendency to argue against an infallible Magisterium as the custodian of divinely revealed truth that has been handed on to the Catholic Church, once and for all time, to the Apostles (not neglecting that our understanding of such truths can develop with Church history). They cite instances where the Church has supposedly changed its teaching on a number of issues, such as usury, slavery, primacy of conscience, evolution, religious freedom, the Jewish people, papal infallibility and the Magisterium itself, etc. Instead of truth coming from infallible Divine Revelation, modernists hold that it comes from the community of believers reflecting upon their theological experiences, and as experiences change with time so do doctrines (I have read Pascendi). Would it be possible (perhaps over time) to publish arguments (such as you did there on abortion) on a few of these salient notions, showing how the modernist “scholars” argue sophistry? (or perhaps publish one article debunking the modernist notion with an number of well argued examples within it? – it would be a keeper). It would give us great intellectual ammunition against a terrible source of darkness in the Church. I know that of course an infallible Magisterium is necessary, or else we could never be sure of what Jesus taught, because our understanding of that would depend on individual interpretation (as in Protestantism), leading us right down the black hole of relativism. We would then be no better off now than before Christ came.

  2. It is charitable on your part to indicate a possible flaw in the friar’s understanding..rather than the conscious soul-destroying malfeasant culpability for destroying the lives, faith, and souls of so many. In either case, this man, his superiors, associates, …and their victims… need our prayers.

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