“The Bishops Are Wrong About Biden,” Catholic historian Garry Wills intoned this week in the New York Times, “and Abortion.” Believe it or not, the article itself is actually more wrong than the title, and that’s saying a lot. Let’s take a look.
Wills complains: “Some Catholic bishops are trying to deny the reception of Holy Communion by the president of the United States for not working to prevent it.” Of course, any decision to deny Biden or other pro-abortion politicians Communion would be rooted not in their merely inaction when it comes to outlawing the evil of abortion, but rather in their active and vigorous efforts to expand access to it .
Then Wills goes on a tangent about how abortion is not evil or sinful, starting off with an argument that at least has originality going for it (if nothing else). He writes, “No one told Dante that this was the worst crime, or he would have put abortionists, not Judas, in the deepest frozen depths of his Inferno. But in fact he does not put abortionists anywhere in the eight fiery tiers above the deepest one of his Hell.”
The absence of abortionists in the Divine Comedy makes sense, given that the preferred way for most of human history of killing an unwanted child was to abandon him in the wilderness after he was born. (Dante does place sorcerers in the eighth circle of hell, and some of them may have provided contraceptive or abortifacient potions to people.) More importantly, Catholic moral theology isn’t based on Renaissance allegory.
Wills then takes his “argument from silence” act from Dante to Scripture, where it doesn’t fare much better. He says the Bible never condemns abortion. Well, the Bible doesn’t condemn sexually abusing one’s own children, either, but some crimes are so unspeakable that they need no explicit condemnation until society has become deformed enough to allow them on a wide scale. This includes the abuse and killing of innocent children, before or after birth. Besides, isn’t Wills Catholic? Hasn’t he heard of the 2,000-year-old Magisterium? How about Matthew 18:18?
But perhaps the unborn are not persons! Wills writes: “St. Augustine says he searched Scripture trying but failing to find out when in the procreative process personal life begins. But St. Thomas Aquinas knew. Aristotle told him—that it came at or near childbirth.”
Wrong. In his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Aquinas places ensoulment between forty-six and ninety days after conception, or within what we now call the first trimester of pregnancy (Aquinas on the Beginning and End of Human Life, 77-78). Aquinas believed this because he followed Aristotle’s belief that the human body becomes a rational form, and thus distinctly human, only later in its development. If Aquinas could have studiedthe modern embryology, he would have concluded that from conception, a rational body does exist, because it has its own genetic code and propensity to develop toward a rational end. He can’t be blamed for not knowing, because human eggs, sperm, and DNA wouldn’t be discovered and explored until centuries after his death. (And he taught against abortion anyway!) What’s Wills’s excuse?
In any case, all of this is irrelevant because the Church’s condemnation of abortion does not rest on the question of when the soul is infused in the body. Instead, the Church condemns abortion because it is the taking of an innocent human life. In 1974, the CDF declared:
From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother, it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. To this perpetual evidence—perfectly independent of the discussions on the moment of animation [i.e., ensoulment]—modern genetic science brings valuable confirmation. It has demonstrated that, 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.
Wills makes other irrelevant arguments against the personhood of unborn children by pointing out how miscarried children aren’t baptized, and half of all embryos fail to implant. But if having a high likelihood of mortality disqualifies someone from being a person, then most infants throughout human history were not persons, given how high infant mortality was before the invention of things like antibiotics and reliably clean water supplies. (Maybe men going into battle aren’t persons, either? Or Christians going to church in Egypt?) Moreover, the Church does not baptize miscarried babies for the same reason it doesn’t baptize babies who have died from SIDS: sacraments are only for the living. (However, a growing number of Catholic parishes and ministries have begun to offer burial services for miscarried children, and parents can have funeral Masses said for them.)
Finally, Wills’s lamest argument is the observation that “most recognized experts on natural law, in universities, human rights organizations, medical and psychological bodies, do not generally oppose abortion.” Well, most government officials and doctors in Germany didn’t object to the Holocaust, either, but that didn’t make it right.
Also, in the nineteenth century, professional societies did oppose abortion, with the American Medical Association calling abortionists “modern-day Herods.” Does that mean that abortion was evil then but is good now, just because a few experts changed their minds?
Wills ends his essay with this howler: “Some women of my own extended family have had abortions and still consider themselves Catholics. President Biden seems to be on their side, as is Pope Francis.”
On their side against whom? The babies?
In fact, Pope Francis is “on women’s side” when it comes to abortion, but not against their children, and not as an accomplice to it like President Biden. The pope permanently allowed any priest to lift the excommunication that is automatically incurred in procuring an abortion, thus showing God’s abundant mercy. He has also demonstrated God’s justice toward the oppressed by not mincing words when it comes to the evil of abortion. “Is it licit to eliminate a human life to solve a problem?” he once asked, rhetorically. “Is it licit to hire a hitman to solve a problem?”
So no, when it comes to the Church’s perennial teaching on abortion, it is not the bishops who are wrong. It is dissenters like Garry Wills.