Speaker Nancy Pelosi is back in the news again, for much of the usual. We find that our bishops may make a stand regarding her public support of abortion at the cost of the Church’s mission.
This isn’t the first time her and the Church have butted heads. Most infamously, Pelosi invoked none other than Augustine on Meet the Press back in 2008 to support her dissident views on abortion and the moment life begins. Stating,
This is an issue that I have studied for a long time. And what I know is over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition. … St. Augustine said at three months. We don’t know. The point is, is that it shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose.
This is using a 1500 year-old ecclesiastical sound byte, and like all sound bytes, it is important to go back to the source.
Did Augustine actually say that life doesn’t begin until three months? Well, sort of. Augustine states, “But, with regard to undeveloped fetuses, who would not more readily think that they perish, like seeds that did not germinate?” and this has given some a license to make the Doctor of the Church into a pro-choice hero. In other places, commenting on Exodus, St. Augustine was discussing the legality of whether one can be charged for homicide in cases of abortion, to which he believed that the answer was “no”; this was because he held, as many did in the Classical and Medieval stages, that a body lacked sensation and hominization in the early stages of development.
Groups such as Catholic for a Free Choice often use this little statement from the twenty-eighth chapter of Augustine’s Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love to justify their dissident position and further conclude that if we are not sure when life begins we should err to the higher value of a woman privacy. It is important, always, to remember that Augustine is often the most misunderstood and misinterpreted philosopher, especially when skimmed over by those who read him for proof-texting instead of reading him in his entirety.
In the same chapter of the Enchiridion we read Augustine’s statement that aborted children shall be resurrected in the an unblemished form (28:85) and not merely tossed out like unformed seeds. Further on (28:86) we find this statement, for which I use J.F. Shaw’s translation with emphasis added by myself:
To deny that the young who are cut out limb by limb from the womb, lest if they were left there dead the mother should die too, have never been alive, seems too audacious. Now, from the time that a man begins to live, from that time it is possible for him to die. And if he die, wheresoever death may overtake him, I cannot discover on what principle he can be denied an interest in the resurrection of the dead.
Are aborted children denied the resurrection? If so, then the crime of abortion is truly more disturbing when committed by one who believes in the resurrection, for now they are denying life and salvation. However, it does not appear to be the teaching of the Church that such happens. Likewise, the Didache, a Catechism/Liturgical manual from the early second century, states in two different places the severity of the sin of abortion and does clearly equivocate it with murder. Further, St. John Chrysostom speaks in his sermons on the horrors of abortion, also calling it murder, especially when committed by adulterers.
As deceptive as politicians can be, I’ve always held Speaker Pelosi in high regard, despite my disagreements, but she committed the frustrating misdeed of speaking about that which she has little knowledge of. Using Augustine to defend her position as a pro-choice Catholic. While this subject is certainly one that needs a lot of patience and care, and an abundance of charity, it is best we do so in the truth of our tradition, not bending the saints to fit our will.