When Life Begins: Distinguishing Between Faith and Reason

It may be imprudent to post a blog on the Democratic position on abortion, but after listening to a podcast from Joe Biden’s September 7 appearance on Meet the Press, I can’t help but make a few contributions from the perspective of theological ethics. Tom Brokaw asked Sen. Biden a similar question to the one he had posited two weeks before to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi regarding when human life begins. This has become a more hotly-debated political issue in the wake of Barack Obama’s highly publicized interview with Pastor Rick Warren at the Saddleback Church in California, during which Obama claimed that answering the question of “when human rights began” either from a theological or a scientific perspective was above his pay grade. Pelosi’s opinion on the beginning of life, as a Roman Catholic, was more developed:

As an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue that I have studied for a long time. And what I know is, over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition. St. Augustine said at three months. We don’t know. . . I don’t think anybody can tell you when life begins.

When Brokaw pressed her to respond specifically to the current Roman Catholic position that life begins at conception, Pelosi responded that this position had emerged within the last fifty years or so and again emphasized that “over the history of the church, this is an issue of controversy. But it is also true that God has given us, each of us, a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions.”

Biden’s answer differed from Pelosi’s and it is worth quoting in full:

Look, I know when it [life] begins for me. It’s a personal and private issue. For me, as a Roman Catholic, I’m prepared to accept the teachings of my church. But let me tell you. There are an awful lot of people of great confessional faiths–Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others–who have a different view. They believe in God as strongly as I do. They’re intensely as religious as I am religious. They believe in their faith and they believe in human life, and they have differing views as to when life–I’m prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception. But that is my judgment. For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society. And I know you get the push back, “Well, what about fascism?” Everybody, you know, you going to say fascism’s all right? Fascism isn’t a matter of faith. No decent religious person thinks fascism is a good idea.

First of all, Obama is right in his statement that determining when human rights begins is above his pay grade. Debating human rights is a job for philosophers and theologians. Applying the conclusion of those debates to public policy is a job for politicians.

Regarding Pelosi, she is also right on a number of things. The Roman Catholic Church has not always held the position that life begins at conception, as it does now. Augustine did not know when life began. He took on the topic as a theological matter, specifically regarding resurrection. Would an unformed fetus be resurrected? He did not have a clear answer to the question. Either the unformed fetus would perish like a seed, or God may apply what was lacking in the fetus and raise it up on the last day:

Abortions, even supposing they were alive in the womb, did also die there shall rise again, I make bold neither to affirm nor to deny although I fail to see why, if they are not excluded from the number of the dead, they should not attain to the resurrection of the dead. For either all the dead shall not rise, and there will be to all eternity some souls without bodies, though they once had them—only in their mother’s womb, indeed; r if all human souls shall receive again the bodies which they had wherever they lived, and which they left when they died, then I do not see how I can say that even those who died in their mother’s womb shall have no resurrection (The City of God, Book XXII, 13).

In an earlier work, likely the one that Pelosi was referring to, called “On Exodus,” Augustine argued that early abortions procured before “ensoulment” were not equivalent with homicide: “…the law does not provide that the act [abortion] pertains to homicide, for there cannot yet be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation…” (“On Exodus” 21.22). This passage refers to the idea of “delayed hominization” which Augustine adopted from the Rabbinic and Greek tradition. According to this idea, the soul was infused into the fetus forty days after conception for males and eighty days after conception for females. The basic rationale was that the fetus was formed by a mixing of the menstrual fluid and the semen producing after a period of time a “formed” fetus. Aquinas also held this position of delayed hominization, but to cite him as an authority is a little misleading considering how rare his remarks about abortion and ensoulment are. In the entire Summa Theologica, Aquinas mentions abortion only once, under the heading of “Murder.” In Q. 64, art. 8, ad. 2, Aquinas writes: “He that strikes a woman with child does something unlawful: wherefore if there results the death either of the woman or of the animated fetus, he will not be excused from homicide, especially seeing that death is the natural result of such a blow.”

Where Pelosi is mistaken is identifying these early conceptions of “hominization” and “ensoulment” with the contemporary debate about the morality of abortion. Augustine, Aquinas, and indeed every major authority in the early and Medieval Church held that abortion was a sin, although they differed in the severity of the consequences of such a sin depending on the circumstances of the abortion (before ensoulment, for example). Here are a few examples of early authorities on the topic of abortion:

  • The second commandment of the teaching: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not seduce boys. You shall not commit fornication. You shall not steal. You shall not practice magic. You shall not use potions. You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child (Didache 2:1–2 [A.D. 70]).
  • Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born” (Letter of Barnabas 19 [A.D. 74]).
  • In our case, a murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from the other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed (Tertullian Apology 9:8 [A.D. 197]).
  • He that kills another with a sword, or hurls an axe at his own wife and kills her, is guilty of willful murder; not he who throws a stone at a dog, and unintentionally kills a man, or who corrects one with a rod, or scourge, in order to reform him, or who kills a man in his own defense, when he only designed to hurt him. But the man, or woman, is a murderer that gives a philtrum, if the man that takes it dies upon it; so are they who take medicines to procure abortion; and so are they who kill on the highway, and rapparees (Basil the Great, First Canonical Letter, canon 8 [A.D. 374])
  • I cannot bring myself to speak of the many virgins who daily fall and are lost to the bosom of the Church, their mother. . . . Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when, as often happens, they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder (Jerome, Letters 22:13 [A.D. 396]).

In the early and Medieval church, the issue was not whether or not abortion was a sin, but rather, whether it was equivalent to homicide, one of the gravest sins. There were developments in the modern period on this question in light of embryological studies that revealed how conception and fetal development occurred. With the knowledge that conception marked the beginning of a new and distinct life (with its own chromosomal arrangement distinct from the mother and father) and not a gradual process of “hominization” through the mixing of menstrual and seminal fluid, Catholic moralists began to advance a position that abortion at any stage was homicide.

What Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden fail to recognize is that the position that life begins at conception is most definitely not a matter of faith in Catholic morality. Thomas Aquinas wrote extensively on the relationship between faith and reason as two orders of knowledge. Faith is an order of knowledge which has as its object the revealed truths as manifested in Scripture and tradition. Accepting that God is one God in three persons is a matter of faith. Accepting that God became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ is a matter of faith. Accepting that the earth goes around the sun is not a matter of faith. This type of knowledge belongs to the order of natural reason, and has as its object the empirical world which can be grasped with the human mind.

It is fallacious to call the position that life begins at conception a matter of faith. The Catholic Church did not get this position from revelation—that is, from Scripture or Tradition. One does not have to be a Roman Catholic specifically or a Christian in general or any other type of believer to know that life begins at conception. Rather, the Church has appropriated this fact from the scientific community into her moral teaching in order to better articulate how the commandment “thou shalt not kill” should be fulfilled. But the position is based on empirical, not philosophical nor theological arguments. Answering when human life begins belongs to the field of natural science.

Obama told Rick Warren that he could not discern when human rights begin “from a scientific perspective,” he was absolutely right, but neither can anybody else. The question of human rights is a philosophical and theological matter, as distinct from the natural sciences. There are rational, philosophical arguments in favor of human rights, including human rights for the unborn, that do not depend on revelation or any religious belief. The 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights relies on such philosophical foundations for its human rights arguments. There are also theological arguments for human rights that refer to the human soul, the imago Dei, the “sinfulness” of murder, and divinely-granted human dignity that do, in fact, depend on revelation. But the point that I am trying to make is that the Catholic position that life begins at conception is not revealed knowledge, nor does the Church say that this position should be accepted on faith as a personal and private matter, as Joe Biden argues. Rather, the Roman Catholic position on abortion argues that scientific evidence indicates that human life begins at conception, and then uses philosophical and theological arguments to articulate why all life, including life in the womb, should be protected. It is important that dissenting Roman Catholic politicians distinguish what the Church is asking them to accept on reason, and what they are being asked to accept on faith.


4 comments so far

  1. budstark on

    I have never seen the pro-life position as well reasoned as yours, especially as it bears on theology and science. Because I vote issues rather than party, I must vote pro-life in the coming election. But because I disagree with so many GOP positions on other matters (most), if I thought nothing would happen regardless of who won, I would vote for Obama. Would you give me your opinion on this? Thanks for a brilliant article.

  2. everydaythomist on

    First of all, thank you, although I was not writing a pro-life argument per se, but rather trying to make a fine distinction in the current discourse.

    Secondly, I commend the fact that you vote on issues rather than party. I sympathize with the dilemma that you and so many others face in our two-party system, where neither party seems to satisfy the demands of justice. I would say that if you are in a state that is not going to be a swing-state, that is, either solidly Democrat of Republican, vote for a third party and petition to have more third-party options on the ballot. I myself, voting in Massachusetts which will undoubtedly go to Obama, have decided to vote for the Constitution Party in the November election, and I campaigned for and voted Ron Paul in the primary to indicate my discontent with the Republican party and the positions they support.

    If you are in a state that could go either way, like Virginia or Montana, you have a more complicated reasoning process to go through. First of all, a vote for a pro-life candidate is not necessarily a vote for pro-life legislation. One of the big concerns for people of a pro-life mindset is the appointment of justices to Supreme Court who will overturn things like the legislation supporting partial-birth abortion. I am no fan of Bush, by any means, but I do have to say that he followed through on his Supreme Court promises and I have been satisfied with the way the court has come down on the issue of abortion. What legislation is McCain going to support, what is he going to veto, and who is he going to appoint to the Supreme Court if given a chance? Obviously, you can’t tell the future, but you can look at his record and make educated guesses. I will leave that for you to do but as I will try to illustrate here, I do not think that consequences are the most important elements to factor into a pro-life vote.

    I do think that for someone who holds a pro-life position, especially one that holds that human life begins at conception, will have a hard time convincing me that an Obama-Biden vote is a moral one. Think about it. Joe Biden is saying that he thinks that thing in the womb is a human life, and yet he thinks you have a choice in whether or not you get to terminate it. As I argued in this post, holding that a fetus is a life is not a matter of faith, but one of science. Arguing that a fetus has human rights is a philosophical position can be debated, but does anybody who supports human rights really think that if a human being is alive, you should have the choice as to whether or not you take it? Could you see Joe Biden getting up and saying that he thinks a newborn is a human life but you should have the choice as to whether or not you as a parent get to terminate it?

    The abortion debate is a fundamentally different one than other political debates (and now I am really showing my cards–we will see how many of my colleagues continue to read my blog). Democrats and Republicans may have different approaches to fighting poverty, but neither party can say that they think you have a choice about how bad poverty is. It is obviously bad and both parties want to fight it, although in different ways. When you vote for a party because you think they will do more to end poverty than the other party, you are voting based on expected consequences. You expect that party to get something done. But the abortion debate is not just about consequences. It is also about principles. One party thinks that abortion is taking a human life, and even admits that it is not a good for society in their call to make it “rare.” The other party thinks that abortion is, in its essence, the termination of a human life and because it is the first duty of this government to protect life, the laws fulfilling this task must extend into a woman’s womb.

    I like to draw an analogy between abortion and other political debates in which a principle is at stake. Would you ever consider voting for a party that said “slavery is obviously not an ideal social phenomenon, but we think that whether or not slavery is moral is a person’s choice. Our party wants to make slavery safe, legal and rare.” Nobody would ever support such a party now, but they might have in the 1840’s. I would say in such a situation, it was a moral duty to vote for the opposing party based on the principle that was at stake, and not the consequences.

    I do want abortions to be rare—actually, non-existent—and I think everybody who supports a pro-life position would agree. But more importantly, I am concerned about how our politicians think philosophically on some fundamental issues. I cannot in good conscience vote for someone who says that something that is obviously a human life is a matter of debate. I cannot vote for someone who thinks that human dignity or human rights is a matter for the public to decide. I do not trust the public (and I have very good historical reasons for saying so) to decide who gets protection from the law and who does not. All human life deserves legal protection, regardless of race, wealth, gender, sexual orientation, location, religion, handicap, etc. and until the Democratic platforms adopts that principle, I will not ever give them my vote, no matter how many great consequences may come about from their administration.

    Lastly, I would check back to my blog soon as I am posting an article about political participation. I think that we put way too much emphasis on voting in this country, and fail to recognize that political participation extends beyond the one day every few years that we pull a lever. If you think that not enough is being done by the government about poverty, go out and start working in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Talk to the homeless and offer them companionship. Start a non-governmental organization. Join a non-governmental organization. If you think that No Child Left Behind has had dire consequences in our schools, volunteer your time as a tutor. Go to schoolboard meetings and raise your voice. Write letters to your newspaper. The issue of the war is more complicated because it belongs exclusively to our government to act on behalf of national defense and if you think this war is unjust (which I do), you can protest and cast votes but you can do little else. Which is why I supported Ron Paul and which is why I am pulling my lever this year for a pro-life party that is not Republican.

  3. Hierothee on


    This is an excellent post and well-reasoned. I would only quibble on one minor point. Obama said that it is above his paygrade to decide when human rights begin. You say that he is correct in this statement. It is, you say, up to philosophers and theologians to debate the issue of human rights, and it is up to politicians to apply the conclusions of those debates to policy issues.

    First of all, I would say that it is not up to anybody to “decide” when human rights begin. Rather, we must “discern,” as Church and society, the nature and presence of human personhood.

    And this, I would say, is not a job for philosophers and theologians alone, if by “philosophers” and “theologians” is meant, as the context of your statement seems to imply, credentialed experts.

    Philosophers and theologians are not, in fact, properly thought of as credentialed experts, along the lines of licensed physicians or nuclear technicians, etc. Indeed, the foundational derivation of the Church’s Trinitarian doctrine, the ultimate basis for the Western understanding of personhood (divine, angelic, and human), is the insights of unlettered but divinely inspired apostles, monks, and martyrs.

    The Church’s great tradition of monastic theology is probably the most profound resevoir of reflection on human peronhood in human history — and many of the men and women who contributed to this tradition were not formally lettered “experts.”

    We must all, who are conscious, rational, and responsible human beings, apply the light of reason to the question of personhood, so fundamental to our current social conflicts. We all have the responsibility to discern the presence of human personhood — a discernment, in fact, which almost makes our decisions for us on the question of the origin of human rights. — I must say, as a caveat, that I am, like Tracey Rowland, a bit suspicious of “rights” language.

    For instance, once we know that a fetus is a person, we know that it has “human rights.” Once we know that a man living on the street and suffering dementia is a person, we must conclude that it is evil to propose the idea, as has been recently put forth, that he has a duty to die. Our consciences would compel us to these conclusions, though we might yet rebel from our consciences.

    Certainly, it is helpful to strive to ensure that our decisions are informed by the theologians and philosophers. But we cannot necessarily leave it up to formal experts to decide the issue of human personhood for us.

    Certainly, as Catholics, we have to take the authority of the Church as binding on our consciences. But that is not the same as saying that we take the authority of theologians and philosophers as binding authority.

    The Magisterium is comprised entirely of credentialed theologians and philosophers. But their authority as teachers derives from episcopal ordination and as a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is not a function of their having obtained advanced academic degrees.

    In addition, theologians and philosophers, especially in our own day and age, are prone to commit grievous errors on the fundamental question of the nature and presence of human personhood. Even their consensus opinion, if it could be established, would probably get the issue wrong. “Non-philosophers” and “non-theologians” cannot necessarily accept their conclusions.

    So, I would conclude, Obama’s response was an evasion.

    But, again, a minor quibble. And, really, only one of emphasis, one which I suspect derives from the fact that you are, more than I, of a traditionally Thomist cast of mind. The idea of “credentialed experts” is derived from the Scholastic Age. Or, perhaps I’ve read too much into your comment. 🙂

  4. […] both in support of and in opposition to abortion. I have written about abortion in these terms before. But I want to do something different. I want to examine what a Christian response to abortion […]

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