There is no Pro-Choice Augustine

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.

Michael J. Lichens


Michael J. Lichens is the Editor of Catholic Exchange. When he's not revising and editing, he is often found studying and writing about GK Chesterton, Religion and Literature, or random points of local history. He holds an A.M. from the University of Chicago Divinity School and a BA from The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. You can find him blogging at Catholic Coffee Drinkers or find him on Twitter @mjordanlichens or facebook.

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  • waynergf

    Why not use what science has established – as of now, *not* back in St. Augustine’s day:

    Life Begins at Fertilization – The following references illustrate the fact that a new human embryo, the starting point for a human life, comes into existence with the formation of the one-celled zygote:

    go here –>

  • Michael J. Lichens

    Thanks for your your comment. Just a quick note, I was not commenting on science for today, but merely trying to show what Augustine knew and his beliefs in context.

    I appreciate your helpful link and don’t dispute it at all.

  • waynergf

    But…leaving your article where you did could confuse / mislead others into thinking that we still aren’t sure when life begins – which is not the case.

    And, the Nancy Pelosi’s of the world need to be called out and exposed in no uncertain terms…your article could have done that much more directly and forcefully.

  • Michael J. Lichens

    I appreciate the feedback. God bless.

  • Dan Kennedy

    Well said. It seems every so often we have to go through this ritual whether with St. Augustine or St. Thomas or someone else when they try to use Catholic saints to bash Catholic doctrine. Thanks for posting!

  • Michael J. Lichens

    It is an odd ritual and I’m always perplexed at the folks who quote the saints out of context to bash Catholicism. However, this is something we do out of love for the Church and the Fathers.

    Thanks so much for your comment and kind words!

  • Thomas Greene

    Have you written an article addressing this where you attack Pelosi forcefully and leave behind no ambiguity?

  • waynergf

    […very confusing…it says “7 comments” but only six are showing…]

  • catholicexchange

    There was one that was deleted due to it being spam. It can take some time for our system to correct.

  • chaco

    As long as freedom of speech is honored & protected, Truth backed by reason will survive. The biggest threat to the freedom of being heard is biased control of news & education. Instant communication is making that control more difficult, which forces the controllers into name calling & yelling. Margaret Thatcher took delight in controllers resorting to this because it meant that they had run out of reasons to support their cause. It may seem like Truth seekers are often outnumbered but all they need to remember is God/ Truth + 1 = a majority. Regarding abortion, I like the”Potential” line of reasoning; No matter what you call a zygote/ fetus, it has a precious potential. Any depriving of one’s use of that potential is not treating others as you yourself were treated. Perhaps an easier example for someone to grasp would be to explain how locking someone in a closet with only food & water is depriving them of their inalienable God given right to exercise their potential to experience life more fully.

  • Jeff

    Please explain why you would ever, let alone “always” hold Pelosi in high regard?