Contemporary Teaching

In his 1930 encyclical on marriage, Casti connubii, Pius XI affirmed the equal sacredness of mother and fetus, but condemned the destruction of the "innocent child" in the womb, who can in no way be considered an "unjust assailant." (The sticking point here, of continuing interest to moralists, is whether it is necessary to have an unjust intention to qualify as an unjust aggressor, or whether unintentionally posing an unjust danger to another is sufficient. Soldiers in war, for instance, may have noble personal intentions, yet validly be viewed by their opponents as unjust attackers.) The Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et spes, no. 51) referred to abortion and infanticide as "unspeakable crimes." The complex agenda of and challenges to current church teaching are well focused by the 1974 Vatican "Declaration on Abortion."

This document is a response to changed Western abortion laws, as well as to population measures in developing nations. Even as it resists these pressures, it adapts its message on abortion to cultural and legal contexts characterized by the emancipation of women and the need to control births. The document responds to the Western political value of free choice by asserting that "freedom of opinion" does not extend further than the rights of others, especially the right to life. It observes that while ensoulment has been debated historically, abortion has always been condemned. Most important, the document insists that human reason can and should recognize respect for human life as the most fundamental of all goods, and the condition of their realization. It sees modern science as confirming that human life begins with fertilization, though allowing that science can never definitively settle what is properly a philosophical question. Still, "it is objectively a grave sin to dare to risk murder" if there is doubt as to whether the fetus is fully a human person.

The "Declaration on Abortion" recognizes that pregnancy can pose serious burdens for the health and welfare of women, families, and children themselves. It advocates that individuals and nations exercise "responsible parenthood" by natural means of avoiding conception. It also exhorts "all those who are able to do so to lighten the burdens still crushing so many men and women, families and children, who are placed in situations to which in human terms there is no solution" (no. 23). It excludes abortion as an answer but also concludes that what is necessary "above all" is to "combat its causes" through "political action" (no. 26). The "Declaration" anticipates later efforts, notably by the U.S. episcopacy, to advocate moral consistency on killing, in that it contrasts growing protests against war and the death penalty with the social vindication of abortion. From the standpoint of both the Vatican and the U.S. bishops, the unborn should be included within a greater respect for life in general, and be protected by more stringent social limits on killing of all kinds.

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