Pope Francis Appears to Contradict Catholic Doctrine on Personhood of the Preborn
Recently, Pope Francis gave an interview to the far-left Jesuit magazine, America, in which the new editor and several journalists posed questions to the pontiff.
Pope Francis has been clear that he considers abortion to be a crime akin to hiring a hitman to kill an innocent human being. But the Pope has been notoriously absent from the heated legal and political battles on abortion – even when the debates were happening in his native Argentina or closer to Rome such as in Ireland and Poland.
The reason given by Francis is that the Church should not get involved in politics but should instead care for the souls of the people as pastors. The problem is that the Pope has chosen to get involved in politics, talking extensively about immigration, environmental and labor policy; meeting with far left legislators and making deals with Communist China while refusing to meet with conservatives. He has also injected himself forcefully into the political debates surrounding vaccines, the war in Ukraine and racial “justice”. To many observers, when the Pope says he does not like to get involved in politics, he is really saying that he does not like to get involved in or work alongside conservatives in politics.
In the America interview, the Pope made two grave errors. The first, was a strange sentence about embryology proving that organs and DNA are present shortly before the first month of gestation. The second, and more worrisome, is the comment that there is a debate as to whether the preborn child can be considered a person.
This was his statement, which was made in Spanish, but which American Pro-Lifer has verified as being correctly translated into English:
On abortion, I can tell you these things, which I’ve said before. In any book of embryology it is said that shortly before one month after conception the organs and the DNA are already delineated in the tiny fetus, before the mother even becomes aware. Therefore, there is a living human being. I do not say a person, because this is debated, but a living human being.Pope Francis to America Magazine
A Person From Conception
The first vague and confusing part of Pope Francis’ answer seems to draw a distinction in the development of the child at around one month. Whether Pope Francis’ comments were intentional or not, the Catholic Church has been very clear on the inalienable right to life of every human being from the moment of conception.
In an instructional letter from then Cardinal Ratzinger to married couples but also to pharmacists, doctors, ethicists, theologians, politicians and industrialists, the cardinal explained the importance of declaring personhood from the very first moment of existence.
The human being must be respected – as a person – from the very first instant of his existence.
The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that 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.Donum Vitae, Chapter I, Respect for Human Embryos
The Catholic Church teaching on Preborn Personhood
Pope John Paul II, who was pope during many of the years that the precedent of Roe v. Wade was in effect, made extensively clear that there was no debate within the Catholic church regarding the personhood of the preborn child.
In Evangelium Vitae, the definitive Catholic teaching on abortion and attacks on the right to life, the late pope set out an irrefutable biblical foundation for the personhood of the preborn child:
The value of the person from the moment of conception is celebrated in the meeting between the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth, and between the two children whom they are carrying in the womb.Paragraph 45, Evangelium Vitae, 1995
Pope John Paul II addresses the issue of preborn personhood in a masterful and precise manner within the same encyclical.
Some people try to justify abortion by claiming that the result of conception, at least up to a certain number of days, cannot yet be considered a personal human life. But in fact, “from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor 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. This has always been clear, and … modern genetic science offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be: a person, this individual person with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization the adventure of a human life begins, and each of its capacities requires time-a rather lengthy time-to find its place and to be in a position to act”. 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 prohibition 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 as body and spirit: “The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that 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”.Paragraph 60, Evangelium Vitae, 1995
The Catechism of the Catholic Church on Personhood
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a collection of teachings that summarize the core beliefs of the Catholic Church as based on scripture and tradition. The Catechism includes several pertinent sections on personhood, which Pope Francis, and every Catholic and interested person should reference for accurate and reliable information.
The Catechism makes clear that attacks on the right to life are of a different nature than any other social or political issue. Denying the right to life undermines the very legitimacy of a governing authority, therefore it is the duty of the Church to get politically involved in issues such as abortion, while it may choose to avoid getting involved in the political process around other policies such as Pope’s Francis’ favored issues dealing with the climate, immigration etc …
Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy. If it does not respect them, authority can rely only on force or violence to obtain obedience from its subjects. It is the Church’s role to remind men of good will of these rights and to distinguish them from unwarranted or false claims.Chapter 1930 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church
The Catechism also speaks directly to the question of the personhood of the preborn child in two chapters: 2270 and 2274.
Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.2270, Catechism of the Catholic Church
Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.2274, Catechism of the Catholic Church
The Early Church
The early Christians lived in a world enveloped in the darkness of paganism. As such, from the earliest days, Christians applied the teachings of Jesus to the pagan world around them. The Didache (70 – 100 A.D.) is the earliest extant patristic document that lays out the Christian worldview in practical every day matters. Not surprisingly, it does not deal with the environment of immigration policy, but it does speak directly to abortion and infanticide.
Chapter 2. The Second Commandment: Grave Sin Forbidden. And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.
Athenagoras (170 A.D.) was one of the early Church fathers who helped to establish the foundational teachings of the early church. In his writing
Christians consider as murderesses women who have recourse to abortifacient medicines, because children, even if they are still in their mother’s womb, “are already under the protection of Divine Providence.”Evangelium Vitae quoting Athenagoras
Tertullian (200 A.D.) is best known for being the first Latin writer to use the term “trinity” when referring to the fundamental Christian doctrine, but he also weighed in precisely on the question of preborn ensoulment and abortion.
“It is anticipated murder to prevent someone from being born; it makes little difference whether one kills a soul already born or puts it to death at birth. He who will one day be a man is a man already.”Apologeticum, IX, 8: CSEL 69, 24
Ensoulment vs. Personhood
Much has been made by pro-abortion commentators of the scientific inability to determine the moment of ensoulment. Some, like the judges who voted in favor of abortion in Roe v. Wade, have taken the lack of empirical proof of ensoulment as an opportunity to justify the killing of the preborn child.
We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer … In short, the unborn have never been recognized in the law as persons in the whole sense.Justice Blackmun, Roe v Wade, 1973
But the Catholic Church has always taught, despite Pope Francis’ seemingly mistaken impression, that regardless of the question of ensoulment, the mere probability that a human being is involved in an abortion creates a moral obligation to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of abortion.
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Pope Francis is right… and so are the magisterial documents you cite. Human embryos ought to be treated as persons with all the rights that belong to them, but whether or not they actually are persons is still a debated question. St. John Paul II comes closest to confirming the identity of embryos as persons b/c he most likely concluded, as I have, that they are, but “how could they not be?” is not an example of definitive teaching.