The Roman Catholic Church, and the Beginning of Life (Past)...

I went to 12 years of Roman Catholic schooling. So I like to think I know about Catholic doctrine pretty well. I know the RC Church now says that life begins at conception. The encyclical that spells this out is called Humana Vitae IIRC (we studied Vatican II in my senior yr. in hs).

But was this always when the RC church said human life begins? The reason why I ask, is because knowledge of biology has changed throughout the ages. I remember one religion teacher in hs telling us ancient people (christians included) thought life came from the man’s “seed”–literally a little baby fully self- contained in his semen (presumably microscopic–I guess :confused:).

I naturally don’t have a link for this. However, the classic example of this view in the Bible is found in the story of Onan, son of Judah. Please read the following passage from Genesis 38: 9-10…

Get it? He angered God because he (apparently) committed murder–by spilling his “seed” (i.e., little baby).

Anyways, I want to know the history of when the RC church thought life began in the past. And I can already hear some of you asking “When?? When??”. So I will give you three time periods: (1) The time of Jesus (when they would presumably still be using the Onan standard. (2) The time of the first Nicene Council (325AD). This is auspicious I think, because it is the time of the adoption of the Nicene Creed, etc.–in many ways the beginning of modern christianity, you could say (or I say at least:)). And, lastly 1692. I chose that year rather randomly because it was the year of the Salem Witch Trials. But according my dictionary at least, it was just before the 18th century Age of Enlightenment. But if I am wrong, then before the Age of Enlightenment, in any event. And also, I assume this was before sperm was discovered. (And again, if I am wrong [as we all are sometimes:)], then let the last time period in my examples be just before sperm is discovered, via microscope presumably.)

Thank you in advance to all who reply:)

Thomas Aquinas said that life began at the quickening i.e. when the embryo began to move inside the woman. I think this happens at about 6 weeks. I found this page which may be of interest to you, especially the section headed Roman Catholic Church. Link.

The RCC believes (or at least teaches) that life begins at conception, yet, life is a passed on thing, it has been passed on for eons. If one didn’t have ancestors there would be no individual life. Even if one believes in the Adam and Eve story it would still mean human life originated with them!

An individual person would begin at conception, but the life was already in the sperm and ova so every time a man ejulated there would be a loss of many human lives! Just as an apple blossom, animal fetus, or fertile egg, contained life it wouldn’t become a known entity until it took the shape of what is was going to be.

Actually classic quickening generally occurs early in the 2nd trimester. That’s when women can reliably first sense movement.

Here’s a response to the Thomas Aquinas legend on EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network) boards:

I think the verse you quoted means God was upset that Onan disobeyed a direct order to consumate his relationship with his brother’s widow, not that a bunch of microscopic babies spilled on the ground. If I remember rightly. it was law that men took on their brother’s wives if the brother died. This is to protect the women and their children, as they would be essentially homeless otherwise. Onan was being an irresponsible jerk in the context of his time, not necessarily a hairy-palmed pervert.

I have never heard of reliable abortions in early history. If that were possible, there would be no need for abortion clinics. For various social reasosns throughout history, women have wanted to get rid of their embryo/fetus, and most methods turn out to be pretty risky for the mother too. OTOH, if it’s the guy pushing for the abortion, the risk to the mother is less of a concern to him.

The general issue in earlier times was “is killing an unborn child murder?” usually in relation to personal injury of the mother.

There is a bible verse whose translation is always under dispute, that says that if two men struggle and happen to injure a pregnant woman nearby so that her baby is born dead, then a fine must be paid. Fine implies property crime or minor injury; murder would be a death penalty. Therefore, killing an unborn child is not murder. This is the reason why the Jewsih religion does not believe abortion is murder.

The legend I have heard from St. Thomas Aquinas is as mentioned - when does the soul inhabit the body? The story I heard was “30 days for males, 60 for females”. Since the soul is what makes us human in the church’s eyes, then logically abortion before then should be OK or at least, not murder. But, there was no regular abortion practice I’ve heard of.

IIRC the encyclical came out in the mid-1800’s so obviously it was a matter of debate needing to be settled at that point. Not sure why else it needed to be made official. I don’t imagine abortion being a reliable procedure in the days before they even know what caused infections. It was only about the very late 1800’s that doctors scoffed at being told to wash their hands before delivery to not kill mother and child.

Yes: the concept is known as Levirate marriage. Contrary to popular misunderstanding, Onan’s offense was not the “spilling of the seed” per se, but the weaseling out of his obligation to give his dead brother an heir.

I strongly recommend Peter De Rosa’s trilogy on the Catholic Church, the first, “Vicars of Christ” has the last third of the book with the development and changing stances of the RCC on sex, conception, contraception and connected issues over the centuries.

The last book, “Sex and death”, focuses mostly on the sexual theology, its development, changes and how absurd it is in today’s real world.

Peter de Rosa was not only educated as RC priest, he also studied and researched extensively the whole history of the RCC church.

The bible doesn’t mention it, but if Onan’s brother does not get an heir, then does the brother’s property come to Onan?

Yeah, the counter-explanation of the offense was: the prudes with sexual issues used the story of Onan to justify that masturbation was a horrible sin (see, he was killed for spilling his seed). Thus interruptus was used to justify rules against something completely different. In reality, he was disobeying the law that he must give his brother an heir and thus dishonouring his brother.

The Didache (late 1st century or early 2nd) condemn both abortion and infanticide.
The Visitation is also a good example of “intra utero” life.

The various “quickening” dates that always com out in this discussions have two characteristics:

  1. Personal opinion and not official teaching
  2. Do not discuss the beginning of life but ensoulment.

The Visitation, Onan’s story, etc. are all writings(or teachings) of some human being, so one can take from it what they wish and what they choose to believe. The millions of people who are not Christian, Jewish or Muslim all take different meanings away from the stories and many are contradictory…to each his own!

What is the difference between life and soul? When one dies we say life is no longer in the body, all functions are stopped,heart, brain etc. . Genesis states the punishment for sin was death…explaining to people of that time why people die. No mention of soul until later on when possibly someone was knocked unconscious and came to, they thought there was some other part of a person that lived separtely from the body. If the soul leaves the body…where does the life go?

Regardless of your personal views, (or your views of other people’s personal views), this thread was posted in General Questions seeking a factual answer to a specific denomination’s history.

If you feel the need to debate the issue, open a separate thread in Great Debates.

(This goes for everyone else, too, of course.)
[ /Modding ]

See this:
In some translations it says “give birth”, in others “miscarry”.
If the correct translation is “miscarry” then causing the death of the fetus is not the same as murder. I read a big long argument once over the exact Hebrew wording, which means something ambiguous like “come forth”.

It’s disputed.

Commentators for the opposite view often cite the Igrot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat II: 69B. And one innocent person’s life may not be taken to save another’s life, Oholos 7:6.

When the fetus endangers the health of the mother, Jewish law treats the fetus as a rodef – a person pursuing another in order to kill. The din rodef, the law of the pursuer, allows a bystander to kill the pursuer to save the life of the pursued. (Tractate Sanhedrin, Babylonian Talmud, page 73a). And according to Maimonides, if the rodef may be stopped by means short of murder but is killed anyway, this is murder.

Your statement is incomplete, and misleading. Under some circumstances, Jewish law does not believe that abortion is murder. Under most interpretations of Jewish law, abortion is not permissible without a threat of some kind to the life or health of the mother.

If you have a cite to the contrary, please offer it.

It’s worth emphasizing that, while Thomas Aquinas did not teach that “ensoulment” occurs at conception, he NEVER suggested anywhere in his writings that abortion was permissible.

Now, where DID he get his ideas about the moment of ensoulment? From Scripture, or divine revelation? No, he got them from Aristotle, who was still the best secular source of scientific knowledge available to him.

Did anyone actually perform abortions before the 20th century, other than the equivalent of home coat-hanger butchery? Most medicine at the time was pretty much guess work, and most operations were likely to result in massive infections, if what I read about the times was correct.

No I don’t have a cite other than what I read about that verse a while ago. Thanks for a more precise view. I assume then that the acceptability of the procedure is as much in debate in Jewish religion as in Christian religions? IIRC, despite all the hype and debate, the Catholic Church does have the same view on abortion being OK when the mother’s life is truly threatened.

Abortion was exremely common in the ancient Roman empire, and Roman pagans regarded Christians as oddballs in PART because they frowned on the practice.

Not really an answer to your post but a small question in it: Leeuwenhoek was the first man to see sperm cells. That was in 1677. At the time he and others in science assumed that if they could make microscopes more powerful they would indeed see a minute little baby in the head of the spermatozoa. They also assumed the women’s only part in the process was to carry the baby. His discovery also had strong religious implications because it implied that god was tossing away millions of souls everytime a man ejaculated. Later he assumed ova simply nourished the sperm. By the 1800s there were two factions in science. One who believed the microscopic baby was in the ova and the other believing it was in the sperm.

I’ve heard this claim before, but I’m a bit skeptical of it. Surely, people must have noticed that children tend to resemble their mothers as well as their fathers?