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Catholic “beliefs” and the abortion debate

Big Abortion, its cultural allies, and its political water-carriers have muddied these linguistic waters for decades.

(Image: kishivan | us.fotolia.com)

Do Catholics “believe that human life begins at conception” — a formulation that’s become ubiquitous in recent weeks?

Well, yes, in precisely the same sense that Catholics “believe” that the Earth is spherical, not flat; that Venus is the second planet in the solar system; that a water molecule is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom; that blood circulates through the body; that the human heart has four chambers; and so forth and so on.

Catholics, as they say, “believe the science.”

Catholics do not “believe” that human life begins at conception in the same sense in which Catholics “believe” in the Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, or in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or in the remission of sins through the sacrament of Penance, or in the Real Presence of Christ — body, blood, soul, and divinity — in the Eucharist. To “believe” in these truths, is, for Catholics, a matter of the assent of faith.

And that’s why it’s an unforced error for Catholics — including bishops, priests, religious, and laity — to use the language of “belief” in regard to the beginning of human life. The correct answer to the question of when human life begins is not a matter of faith; it is a matter of scientific fact. The product of human conception, an embryo with a unique genetic character, is “a whole living member of the species Homo sapiens in the earliest stage of his or her natural development” (to quote Robert George and Christopher Tollefson). One learns this, or used to, in high school biology. The human being who begins at conception develops through various life-stages — embryo, fetus, child, adolescent, adult — through its own internally directed functioning, which begins immediately at conception. That is not, to repeat, a matter of faith or “belief.” It’s an empirical fact: a human life, and nothing other than a human life, begins at conception.

Big Abortion, its cultural allies, and its political water-carriers have muddied these linguistic waters for decades, arguing that the “Catholic belief” that life begins at conception is a sectarian claim with no scientific foundation. That is objectively, demonstrably false, and to make that argument is to traffic in a lie. Some tell this lie deliberately. Others, including those in high public office, tell it out of ignorance, stupidity, or convenience. Whatever the motivation or cause, the argument is scientifically ignorant: the functional equivalent of claiming that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin really landed in the Arizona desert on the Apollo 11 mission.

And it should be called out as such.

The real question in the abortion debate is, was, and always will be this: What does a just society owe the indisputably human life that indisputably begins at conception? Properly catechized and coherent Catholics answer that question by citing a first principle of justice that anyone can grasp by reason: innocent human life deserves the protection of the law in any just society. Properly catechized and coherent Catholics will then go on to argue that a just society will support women caught in the dilemma of unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. And apostolically alert Catholics will help those women find the help they need, which is readily available at crisis pregnancy centers throughout the country.

What serious and coherent Catholics — presidents, governors, legislators, members of Congress, clergy of all ranks, and engaged citizens — will not do is ignore the science and claim that the matter of when human life begins is a disputed question. Nor will serious and coherent Catholics reinforce that spurious claim by speaking of the Catholic “position” on when life begins as a matter of “belief.”  To do so is to play one of the duplicitous language games that have distorted the American debate on the abortion issue for far too long.

The hysteria displayed by supporters of the abortion license as the Supreme Court prepares to hear Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case that affords an opportunity to correct the grave constitutional errors the Court made in Roe vs. Wade and Casey vs. Planned Parenthood, will intensify in the months ahead: a sign, I suspect, of how weak Big Abortion and its allies know their arguments have always been. No serious or coherent Catholic will buttress those crumbling arguments by speaking of a Catholic “belief” in when life begins. Serious and coherent Catholics know when life begins.

Not because they’re Catholics, but because they know the science.


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About George Weigel 357 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

18 Comments

  1. I will modify an argument from St. Thomas More to illuminate the current “debate.”

    There are some people who believe that the human life doesn’t begin at conception. Others believe that it does. It is a question of dispute. However, if human life doesn’t begin at conception will a Supreme Court decision make it so that it does? And if human life does begin at conception will a Supreme Court decision make it so that it doesn’t?

  2. Mr Weigel rounded all the bases in this article.And didn’t even have to slide into home plate. He came into home plate standing up.After over 60 Million Souls of Gods Creation and “Science” have been extinguished by Selfishness & Fear.We still find many Catholics in name only continue to pull the lever or check the box marked with a {D}.Devil,Demon,or Democrat.They’re all the same person.

  3. Freshman biology has been scrubbed by Planned Unparenthood and their allies. We Catholics responded in their language rather than in the scientific language that delineates truth. We need to stick to the scientific facts and use that language consistently. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Do I believe that an unborn baby is human life? Yes I do. I pray in front of a local abortion facility one morning a week. But here is the issue. If somehow I found that my four year old great granddaughter was in that building, and was about to be killed, I would not just pray. I would enter the building and do whatever I had to do to rescue her. So, do I believe that an unborn baby is a human life in the same way that my great granddaughter is? I would answer yes, but my actions, or lack of actions, would seem to say no. And, this disturbs me.
    I have mentioned previously that three of the four bishops in my state are members of the democrat party – the party of death. Do they believe that an unborn baby is a human life? They can’t even agree to enforce canon 915 to refuse communion to those politicians who advocate, promote and vote to expand the killing of unborn babies.
    I commend those few who enter abortion facilities to stop abortions and accept arrest. They demonstrate that they truly believe that an unborn baby is a human life.
    I would very much be interested in others views on this.

  5. Weigel’s “The correct answer to the question of when human life begins is not a matter of faith; it is a matter of scientific fact” is consistent with abortion rightly understood as not entirely a religious issue. Rather it’s a Justice issue.

    • But to say not a matter of faith implies and exclusion of religion altogether, which contradicts the notion that faith converges with a scientific understanding. The perspectives should not be bifurcated. The scientific view can easily be rejected by a materialist functional argument, which is commonly accepted, even by many religious, believing that the very weak and diseased are better off without even ordinary means of support until they’re no longer an inconvenience. Obviously converts can not be made over zygotes unless intrinsic sacred ontological worth can be effectively argued. Ironically, I was willing to accept a kind of quasi-sacred status even during my years as an atheistic pro-lifer. Pondering this contradiction in me was one of the threads of my eventual conversion.

      • Not [entirely] a matter of faith means that it is exactly a matter of faith. Although not entirely. In other words it is also preeminently, insofar as the judicial system, a matter of justice. Also, as regards the right to life, it is a first principle of Natural Law based on the cardinal moral principle justice. All true justice whether within the legal system or within religion is rooted in that first principle of Natural Law. I believe my wording threw you off.

      • Although, perhaps Edward you’re referring to George Weigel’s wording, “is not a matter of faith; it is a matter of scientific fact”. I believe what Weigel is saying is that a fact does not require faith. That doesn’t exclude it being a religious matter.

  6. in re: The human being who begins at conception develops through various life-stages — embryo, fetus, child, adolescent, adult — through its own internally directed functioning, which begins immediately at conception.

    It can be convenient to describe different “stages” of development because it can allow one to focus on different developmental milestones but I find it helpful to remind people that differentiation and development is NOT a sequence of distinct “stages” but rather a seamless continuum in which the organism is not meaningfully different one cell division or apoptosis prior or hence. There is no discrete stage boundary at which a pro-murder for convenience advocate can say there is no human life before this boundary. Such people should be forced to say what they really believe, that some human beings are a nuisance and this justifies killing them.

    • Precisely. People should be forced to say what they mean. As a former pro-life atheist who became a pro-life Catholic after my conversion, I am able to use this to my advantage in my talks in various venues. In the Q and A, even Catholic audiences love to play the you can’t “impose” your religion argument, to which I ask of the questioner what religion was I “imposing” during my years as a pro-life atheist, and then I refuse to let them off the hook. I always demand an answer, not to embarrass them but to expose the antecedents of the unexamined cliché. I do the same with other unexamined clichés.
      Your example illustrates the old functionality argument. I have a lot of fun exposing the stupidity of that assumption.

  7. Life begins at conception – this is a scientific fact, not a statement of religious belief. So it always was, so it is now and so it ever shall be.

    IMO the reason that things are really heating up now is the simple fact that the right-to-death crowd (rightly) senses that their sand castles are crumbling faster and faster, and once something like that starts it cannot be stopped. But you gotta give ’em credit(?) for trying.

    Biden, Pelosi, Lieu and the many other ‘catholic’ politicians who support abortion so ardently need our prayers, for by their actions they have excommunicated themselves, and every time they receive Holy Communion they make it even worse for themselves. The fact that (thus far) we have no Bishops willing to make this painfully obvious fact ‘official’ is unfortunate, but that does not lessen the crimes these people have committed and continue to do so.

    Mr. Weigel, I thank you for this piece – in your own dry way you have once again stated the obvious, and with things heating up as they are we have one more weapon in our arsenal.

  8. “Holiness?”

    “Yes my child.”

    “What should we do about that elephant over there?”

    “WHAT elephant?”

    (With thanks to the late great Jimmy Durante.)

  9. The Roe v. Wade Court suggested there was no consensus on “the difficult question of when life begins.” In “Balancing Abortion Rights and Fetal Rights” (University of Chicago, June 2019 Dissertation), Dr. Steven Jacobs reported his research finding that 96% of 5,577 participating biologists affirmed a human life begins at fertilization.

  10. From “The Gospel of Life” (1995), a precision that might grow in relevance:

    “Even if the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data, the results themselves of scientific research on the human embryo provide ‘a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?’

    “Furthermore, what is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear probation of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo. Precisely for this reason, over and above all scientific debates and those philosophical affirmations to which the Magisterium has not expressly committed itself, the Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence, must be guaranteed that unconditional respect which is morally due to the human being in his or her totality and unity of body and spirit: ‘THE HUMAN BEING IS TO BE RESPECTED AND TREATED AS A PERSON FROM THE MOMENT OF CONCEPTION [italics]; and therefore from the same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life’” (“The Gospel of Life,” n. 60, 1995, citing Donum Vitae, 1987).

    (We note that the 1995 restriction on capital punishment (ibid. n. 56) can be read, at least in part, as a segue to the above: “IF such great care must be taken to respect every life, even that of criminals and unjust aggressors, [THEN] the commandment “You shall not kill” has absolute value [as compared with Pope Francis’ “(in)admissible”] when it refers to the INNOCENT PERSON [italics]. And all the more so in the case of weak and defenceless human beings […]” (ibid. n. 57).

  11. Er,yes…well…but if erm grave necessity, you see we are all now really saying:
    ‘pro-life…unless vax’.That is the new and true Catholic belief on abortion
    Some good can come from it afterall

  12. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a woman convicted of a capital crime could claim a delay in her execution if she were pregnant; a woman who did so was said to “plead the belly”. In Ireland, on 16 March 1831 Baron Pennefather in Limerick stated that pregnancy was not alone sufficient for a delay but there had to be quickening. (To be able to feel the movement of the fetus)

    The plea (Pleading the belly) was available at least as early as 1387 and was eventually rendered obsolete by the Sentence of Death (Expectant Mothers) Act 1931, which stated that an expecting mother would automatically have her death sentence commuted to life imprisonment with hard labour.

    The Catholic Church points us to ultrasound and to the irrelevance of quickening while nowadays many of us will have seen the fertilization of the female egg by sperm on TV and subsequently, the cells dividing at a quickening pace to form the basis of a new life (conception). It seems in bygone times a quickening was confirmed by the midwives been able to feel movement in the womb but now we can now actually see a quickening (Movement) taking place at conception.

    From my perspective there is no need to take this any further our Catechism teaches the beginning of life as hominization (ensoulment) upon conception.

    I have made this comment on many sites, directed at both sexes, which goes to the heart of the matter, as it is ‘innately’ known within all honest hearts.
    “I wonder if anyone who reads this has the honesty and courage to serve the Truth by acknowledging that at some time in their life, they have felt the natural inclination of a tinge of sadness or/and been aware that they have participated in the possible loss of a new life through an act of using a method of contraception”
    No one ever responds I wonder why.

    The accumulative total of abortions since 1973 in the USA is 62,502,904. While the vast majority of the mothers of those aborted babies will still be alive and a fair percentage will be Catholic/Christian. For those who do not have any ‘rite of absolution and reconciliation in their lives, for them ‘this wound never heals, only festers. Festering wounds are toxic’

    We can no longer help the aborted babies but many of the damaged Christian mothers some of whom now find themselves entangled in sinful worldly situations and others can be helped. And could contribute so much to the church because when mercy is received in sincerity.

    “Those who are forgiven much love much”

    Please consider continuing this theme via the link

    https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2021/09/08/cardinal-gregory-biden-not-demonstrating-catholic-teaching-on-when-life-begins/#comment-278051

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

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