The Church’s original social justice struggle
Mike AquilinaJul 08, 2021 • 6 Min Read
Abortion may dominate the news cycle, but there is nothing new about it.
Nor is the Church’s response to abortion different than it was in the first century.
Abortion was, in fact, the first social injustice confronted by Christians, plainly, passionately, and without qualification.
In time, believers would similarly oppose slavery, capital punishment, and other institutions of pagan society. But the condemnation of abortion was singular in its consistency and vehemence from the very beginning of the Gospel proclamation.
The apostolic teaching
Modern proponents of abortion sometimes argue that the issue is absent from the New Testament. But that is not the case.
In his Letter to the Galatians (5:19–20), St. Paul likely makes reference to drugs that were prescribed to induce abortion. “Now the works of the flesh are plain,” he says, “fornication, impurity, licentiousness” — and next in his list comes the Greek word “pharmakeia.”
We recognize the word instantly as the root of our English terms “pharmacy” and “pharmaceutical.” In English it is sometimes translated as “potions” or “drugs,” but also as “sorcery” or “magic.” The range of possibilities is real. The ancients drew no bright line between pharmacy and sorcery, and practitioners of one were often practitioners of the other. When Plato used the term “pharmakeia,” he used it to denote abortifacient drugs.
The context of Paul’s usage suggests that he intends the same meaning for the word. He places “pharmakeia” immediately after three words denoting sexual sins.
Related Greek terms (“pharmakeion,” “pharmakeusin,” “pharmakoi”) also turn up in the Book of Revelation (9:21, 21:8, and 22:15), and in every instance they appear in lists of immoral acts, adjacent to terms suggesting sexual sin.
This is not an imaginative reading of the text, propounded by conservative Christian interpreters. It is presented as fact in the standard academic history of contraception and abortion, “Eve’s Herbs,” written by pro-abortion historian John M. Riddle and published by Harvard University Press.
It is, moreover, confirmed by the unanimous interpretation of the early Church Fathers, beginning in the first century.
The next generation
Consider the witness of the “Didache,” whose text, according to modern scholars, was compiled between A.D. 49 and A.D. 100.
The “Didache” presents Christian moral teaching within the sacramental dispensation of the Church. The opening line provides context for all that follows: “There are two Ways, one of Life and one of Death; but there is a great difference between the two Ways.”
At the outset, its moral teaching seems to be a simple recitation of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill.” “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” “Thou shalt not steal.” But then comes a startling interpolation. In the midst of the familiar commandments, the “Didache” charges its readers: “Thou shalt not practice sorcery.” “Thou shalt not procure abortion.”
Thus, this earliest Christian document — which presents itself as “The Teaching of the Lord by the Twelve Apostles to the Gentiles” — places abortion among the primordial concerns of the Church and the most fundamental laws of God.
For those who transgress these norms, the early Church required repentance. “Thou shalt confess thy transgressions,” says the “Didache,” “and thou shalt not come to thy place of prayer with an evil conscience.” Later, the text declares the necessity of a previous confession of sins before eucharistic Communion, “that your sacrifice may be pure.”
The prohibition of abortion appears in identical language in the “Epistle of Barnabas,” which was written later in the same century: “Thou shalt not slay a child by procuring abortion.” The letter goes on to describe those who commit abortion as “murderers of children and destroyers of the workmanship of God.”
In the “Apocalypse of Peter,” an apocryphal document of the early part of the next century, the author claims to have seen a vision of hell that included the souls of many who had performed, sought, and otherwise “caused” abortions.
The great apologists
In the second century arose a movement known as the apologists, because they provided a well-reasoned explanation of the Christian faith. The word comes from the Greek “apologeisthai,” meaning “to speak in defense.”
Christian doctrine regarding abortion was something that required explanation and defense, because it was something that set Christians apart from almost every other culture and subculture on the planet. The pagan Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians, and Persians had no qualms about the practice; and it was condoned and even promoted by Socrates, Aristotle, Seneca, and many others.
Christians (and Jews) stood alone in their rejection of abortion. That required explanation.
In A.D. 177, Athenagoras of Athens addressed a respectful letter to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus. He addressed common misconceptions about his religion, and he spells out the common Christian belief about the sanctity of pre-born life. Christians, he said, “regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care.” Furthermore, he added, “those who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion.”
Another document from that time, the anonymous “Letter to Diognetus,” informs a Roman official that Christians “beget children, but they do not destroy their offspring,” and this very fact makes them different from their non-Christian neighbors.
Yet another contemporary, Minucius Felix, a North African practicing law in Rome, reported: “There are some women who, by drinking medical preparations, extinguish the source of the future man in their very bowels and thus commit a parricide before they bring forth. … To us [believers] it is not lawful either to see or hear of homicide.”Abortion was the first social injustice confronted by Christians, plainly, passionately, and without qualification. CLICK TO TWEET
These voices are joined by many others, but none so passionately and often as that of Tertullian, another North African jurist, who lived at the end of the second century.
He wrote, in his great “Apology”: “We may not destroy even the fetus in the womb. … To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing.”
In another work, he said poetically that those who cause abortion “pour out the blood of the future.”
It was Tertullian who first stated explicitly what others only implied: that human life begins at conception.
Tertullian knew the reality of abortion. In his work “On the Soul,” he provides shockingly graphic descriptions of several methods of abortion commonly used, while also detailing the instruments involved.
“Among surgeons’ tools there is a certain instrument, which is formed with a nicely adjusted flexible frame for opening the uterus first of all and keeping it open; it is further furnished with an annular blade, by means of which the limbs [of the child] within the womb are dissected with anxious but unfaltering care; its last appendage being a blunted or covered hook, wherewith the entire fetus is extracted by a violent delivery.
“There is also a copper needle or spike, by which the actual death is managed in this furtive robbery of life. They give it, from its infanticide function, the name of … ‘the slayer of the infant.’ ”
To understand and explain such realities was a difficult but necessary task for a Christian like Tertullian, an intelligent believer who was active in public life.
Councils and discipline
Yet it was not only lay Christians who spoke about abortion. Bishops did, too, and with the full weight of their authority.
The Spanish hierarchy met in Elvira in 305 to consider a wide range of disciplinary matters. The bishops summarized their conclusions in a series of canons. Two dealt specifically with abortion, and prescribed that anyone guilty of the sin should be denied access to the sacraments until the end of life.
Nine years later, bishops met at Ancyra, the capital of Galatia, and invoked the “ancient law” as it was stated at Elvira, but “softened” the penalty, imposing only 10 years of exclusion from the sacraments.
The great churchmen of the fourth and fifth centuries — St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose — all condemned abortion in the strongest terms, as had St. Cyprian, St. Hippolytus, and St. Clement before them. They faulted those who performed abortion — or provided the drugs — as well as those who procured abortion.
This was never a local issue. Nor was it a passing fad. It was always, and it was everywhere.
St. Augustine wrote about the practice in several places. He knew nothing of embryology, and much of his scientific speculation (like much of Aristotle’s) proved to be wrong. But in his moral analysis he was unwavering. He made clear in several works that the act of intentional abortion was always gravely sinful. Today, his arguments are all the stronger, when supported by modern science.
With the Edict of Milan in 313, the Emperor Constantine legalized the observance of Christian religion. Gradually, in the century that followed, Christian doctrine influenced Roman law. It was no longer legal, for example, to rape or kill a slave. And abortion and infanticide were now abolished.
The practice never disappeared, of course. Because pregnancy outside wedlock was considered an occasion of shame, desperate women still sought abortion, and unscrupulous practitioners still plied the trade. The issue continued to arise in sermons, disciplinary manuals, and penitential books.
But it was no longer necessary to argue the matter. In a Christian world, the practice was known to be grievously sinful, like the rape or murder of a slave. The fact that such practices were legally condoned by pagan Rome was no argument in their favor.
The Christian principles that protected the unborn would eventually lead to other notions that today we take for granted: universal human dignity, human equality, human rights, women’s rights, children’s rights.
These are all historical novelties, made possible by Christianity. What makes them work is their universality, their catholicity, which the Christian Way demands. But if one class of people can deprive another of the right to life, then all the other principles, and all the rights and protections they brought about, will fall in time.
The opposition to abortion is — like all those other good things — a historical anomaly. The medical historian Riddle speaks of Christianity as breaking a “chain of knowledge” that had made it possible and acceptable to kill children with impunity.
He is right, of course. The prohibition of abortion was distinctive to early Christianity and key to Christian identity. For the first Christians — the Fathers, the martyrs, the apologists — this doctrine on abortion was essential, not peripheral. Thus, it was subject to the Church’s discipline.
What seems news to the media today — and even to some Catholic politicians — is actually an argument settled against brutal paganism a long, long time ago.
Mike Aquilina is the author of many books. Visit fathersofthechurch.com.