January is a big month for the pro-life movement, especially in the United States, because of the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Abortion is the supreme human rights issue of our day, but it’s also important to remember in living the Culture of Life, a great many people next to us in the pews are grieving the loss of an unborn child in one way or another. For those of us who have lost a child in miscarriage or stillbirth it is the painful reminder of the child or children we will not know on this side of the veil. Within the Church, miscarriage is an issue that is seldom addressed. It’s time we start talking about it and ministering to the grieving. In order for this conversation to get started, we who have experienced the devastation of miscarriage must be willing to open up about our experiences and share them with our parish communities.
Life Begins at Conception
As Catholics we are called to bring a Culture of Life to the world. We are seen as the front line in the battle against abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and any other practices that do violence to the dignity of each and every single human being. The Church teaches that life begins at conception:
“Thus the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality. 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, I, 1
This is the moral argument the Church presents to the world time and again. The dignity of the person begins at conception because a unique human being, body and soul, is present from the moment a zygote forms. All genetic information is within those multiplying cells. The same information that will create a completely unique person who cannot be replicated. It is precisely for this reason that we work so hard against the abortion culture that destroys human beings daily at astonishing rates. While the biological and theological understanding of the beginning of human life is clear to the Church, this is not where her understanding ends. In fact, this is just the beginning.
Parenthood Begins at Conception
Motherhood and fatherhood also begin at conception. It is no longer just husband and wife, there is now a child, who is a visible sign of their sacramental union. The connection between mother and child is especially strong and incorporates body and soul. This union is also a great teacher to the father:
“Motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life, as it develops in the woman’s womb. The mother is filled with wonder at this mystery of life, and “understands” with unique intuition what is happening inside her. In the light of the “beginning”, the mother accepts and loves as a person the child she is carrying in her womb. This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings – not only towards her own child, but every human being – which profoundly marks the woman’s personality. It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men of paying attention to another person, and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more. The man – even with all his sharing in parenthood – always remains “outside” the process of pregnancy and the baby’s birth; in many ways he has to learn his own “fatherhood” from the mother.”
Mulieris Dignitatem, 18
While our culture approaches children from a materialist perspective, it is clear that there are profound spiritual and theological dimensions to parenthood. It is something that is created at the moment of conception. Parents are not bound to their children at birth, they are bound to them at the moment the child comes into existence at conception. It may not be consciously understood by the parents, but it exists nonetheless.
What all of this means is that the loss of an unborn child is one of profound grief and suffering. A unique child dies and is mourned by their parents. The connection between mother and child is severed and intense suffering occurs. This can be difficult for people within the Mystical Body to understand, but in light of Church teaching, it is a forgone conclusion. What has happened, however, is a lack of a sound pastoral approach when pregnancy loss occurs.
Ministering to the Grieving
The reality of the situation is that many within the clergy and laity do not know how to respond when a miscarriage or stillbirth occurs within their parish community. It is not adequately explained that a funeral, should a body be present, is necessary. There should be no confusion about this fact given that the Church teaches clearly that life begins at conception. While the lack of Baptism of the unborn does present a gray area theologically, there is always hope in the mercy of God, especially for parents who would have absolutely baptized their children. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s theological position on Limbo, for instance, is one of hope and mercy.
“It is clear that the traditional teaching on this topic has concentrated on the theory of limbo, understood as a state which includes the souls of infants who die subject to original sin and without baptism, and who, therefore, neither merit the beatific vision, nor yet are subjected to any punishment, because they are not guilty of any personal sin. This theory, elaborated by theologians beginning in the Middle Ages, never entered into the dogmatic definitions of the Magisterium, even if that same Magisterium did at times mention the theory in its ordinary teaching up until the Second Vatican Council. It remains therefore a possible theological hypothesis. However, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), the theory of limbo is not mentioned. Rather, the Catechism teaches that infants who die without baptism are entrusted by the Church to the mercy of God, as is shown in the specific funeral rite for such children. The principle that God desires the salvation of all people gives rise to the hope that there is a path to salvation for infants who die without baptism (cf. CCC, 1261), and therefore also to the theological desire to find a coherent and logical connection between the diverse affirmations of the Catholic faith: the universal salvific will of God; the unicity of the mediation of Christ; the necessity of baptism for salvation; the universal action of grace in relation to the sacraments; the link between original sin and the deprivation of the beatific vision; the creation of man “in Christ”.”
The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized, International Theological Commission, 2007
There is a funeral rite in place for the loss of a child in pregnancy, so there should be no debate about funerals in these cases. In fact, this should be explained to the lay faithful, so they know how to respond should a miscarriage or stillbirth happen. A great many families have no idea what to do when their child dies, especially in the first trimester. They need to know that they should try to collect the remains whether at home or from the hospital depending on the type of miscarriage. This is the beginning of the ministering process. Grief always begins healing through the Mass.
What About First Trimester Miscarriages?
All of my miscarriages were first trimester and I was unable to collect the bodies for burial. This weighed heavily on me. I decided to approach our parish priest about having a Mass done for families who have lost a child, whether born or unborn. He and I set up the Mass for November when the Church remembers the dead. It was a profoundly healing experience and it opened our eyes to all of the families who live with the loss of a child in our own parish. This type of Mass is a way to minister to those who are grieving within the parish, especially those who do so silently.
As with other types of grief, clergy and the parish community should be ready to respond in these cases, which are far more common than realized. Many families suffer in silence because they do not know where to turn and they live in a culture that tells them they did not really lose a child. We must reach out to these people. We are the Mystical Body and we celebrate every life, no matter how small or the gestational age. If we want to bring a Culture of Life to the world, then we need to be ministering to the people in our pews who are grieving the loss of a child. This can be as simple as bringing meals to a family, pastoral counseling, or support groups. We need to truly celebrate every baby who is conceived and grieve the lost. If you have experienced a miscarriage or stillbirth, then you need to be willing to share that loss with your priest and parish community. Priests cannot serve if they are not aware of a situation. Every life from conception to death is sacred. It is time for the Mystical Body to reach out to those who have lost a child in pregnancy. We must begin to minister in earnest to those grieving in the pews next to us; in healing one another, we can truly become a Culture of Life.