Into the Modern

Protestantism, which in its various forms became separate from the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, tended to take a more strict view against abortion than the Catholics, opposite to the modern situation. This is perhaps because of the Protestant return to early church standards and its rejection of much of the previous thousand years of church tradition, particularly in philosophical theology. Early followers of Martin Luther and John Calvin (leaders of the Reformation) held views that resembled those of Gregory of Nyssa more than those of Thomas Aquinas. In time, however, theological and philosophical considerations reen-tered Protestant discussion, along with both an encounter with new scientific discoveries in biology and embryology and a general tendency in Protestantism to accommodate contemporary culture whenever reasonably possible. As a result, by the twentieth century, Protestantism was largely tolerant of abortion even while discouraging its members from obtaining one for less than urgent reasons.

During this same period, Catholic teaching moved in the opposite direction. Scientific discoveries (and in some cases, misinterpretation of data, such as the view that the earliest embryo is fully shaped like a tiny human being) led Catholic theologians to challenge their own previous view of delayed hominization and to propose in its place a new theory of immediate hominization. This idea gained popularity after 1700, until, in 1869, Catholic canon law removed the distinction between the ensouled and the unensouled fetus, thereby implying but not asserting that immediate hominization is the correct view. The key point, however, is that the abortion of an unformed fetus is to be regarded as the moral equivalent of the abortion of a formed fetus, and therefore abortion is murder at any stage. With this development, Catholic moral teaching became absolute, whereas Catholic theology remained somewhat open to various perspectives on the metaphysical status of the embryo. As a result, Catholic morals and theology developed somewhat independently, based in part on the claim that moral certainty does not require doctrinal clarity.

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