by David Closson
June 30, 2021
On “Worldview Wednesday,” we feature an article that addresses a pressing cultural, political, or theological issue. The goal of this blog series is to help Christians think about these issues from a biblical worldview. Read our previous posts on the Center for Biblical Worldview page.
Editor’s Note: Instances of “Church” with a capital “C” refer to the Roman Catholic Church. Instances of “church” with a lowercase “c” refer to Christians at large.
In recent weeks, the topic of abortion and the church has returned to the news. This perennial issue has reemerged due to the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops’ decision to draft a document on the Eucharist. The controversy over this document is caused by the possibility that one section may reiterate the Catholic teaching that those who manifestly oppose Church doctrine on grave matters, such as abortion, should refrain from receiving the sacrament of Communion. Since the announcement of this upcoming document, news media personalities, politicians, and commentators have weighed in, debating the political and pastoral implications of denying Communion to lawmakers whose actions demonstrate their opposition to Catholic doctrine.
Many are questioning whether churches should enact church discipline against politicians implicated in the sin of abortion. I agree with Andrew Walker, who argues they should. Church leaders have an obligation to call to account those under their spiritual authority, especially those who are highhandedly flouting church teachings in the public square.
Questions related to church discipline and eucharistic coherence are serious, and it will be interesting to see what the bishops decide later this year. But it is worth noting that abortion is once again in the news and at the center of America’s cultural wars. Moreover, in reporting and conversations about the bishops’ forthcoming guidance, the Christian view on life is again being debated. Because of this, it is important to underscore the church’s consistent teaching on abortion, which is rooted in Scripture.
Some commentators have claimed that the Bible’s pro-life ethic is not clear, and neither is organized Christianity’s. In his widely circulated New York Times op-ed, historian Garry Wills, a Catholic widely known for his opposition to Catholic doctrine, claims the Catholic Church abandoned efforts “to connect abortion with Scripture” decades ago. According to Wills, “The Catholic Church no longer claims that opposition to abortion is scriptural.” Elsewhere in the piece, he argues that Pope Francis is “on the side” of women who “have had abortions and still consider themselves Catholics.” In reality, though, the Catholic Church has not abandoned efforts to connect abortion with Scripture. In fact, it has done the complete opposite.
The Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church are clear about Christianity’s historical position on abortion. For example, the Catechism explains in Part 3, Section 2, Chapter 2, Article 5, line 2271:
Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.
The following line of the Catechism adds:
Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life.
Citing first and second-century church documents and church fathers such as Tertullian, the Catechism shows the consistent teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on abortion.
Moreover, contrary to Wills’ suggestion that Pope Francis is softening his position on abortion, the current pontiff said in an Apostolic Letter in 2016:
I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life. In the same way, however, I can and must state that there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father.
Additionally, in 2007, the Episcopal Council of Latin American Bishops—of which Pope Francis, then Cardinal Bergoglio, was a part—produced a document which explained that “eucharistic coherence” necessitated barring public officials who support abortion from taking Communion. In the key paragraph, the bishops wrote:
We must adhere to “eucharistic coherence,” that is, be conscious that they cannot receive holy communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and family are encouraged. This responsibility weighs particularly over legislators, heads of governments, and health professionals.
The Bible itself is unambiguous in its teaching on the sanctity of life. Contrary to Wills’ claim, opposition to abortion is deeply rooted in Scripture and is why Christians have opposed abortion for 2,000 years. For example, in one of the most well-known pro-life passages in the Bible, King David describes himself in utero:
For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made…My frame was not hidden from you, when I was made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. (Psalm 139:13-16, ESV)
Worth noting is how David refers to his unborn life as fully personal. The entity in his mother’s womb was not an impersonal fetus with no moral value; it was David, whom God was forming and knitting together. Moreover, the personhood of the unborn child is highlighted with David’s repeated use of the personal pronouns “I” and “my.”
Another Scripture passage that affirms the personhood of the unborn is Luke 1, the narrative of Elizabeth and Mary meeting while pregnant with John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, respectively. A few details of this passage reveal a remarkable affirmation of the sanctity of unborn life. For example, upon hearing Mary’s voice, John the Baptist “leaped for joy” in Elizabeth’s womb. John’s response is an emotion that can only be ascribed to a person. Second, Elizabeth refers to Mary as the “mother of my Lord” at a time when most women do not even know they are pregnant (Mary may have been pregnant for less than a month when she visited Elizabeth). Significantly, Jesus, in His embryonic state, is recognized as Elizabeth’s “Lord.” Third, Elizabeth refers to her unborn baby with the same Greek word used for children after they are born. Finally, both Elizabeth and the unborn John are said to be “filled with the Holy Spirit,” meaning their reactions are appropriate and a fitting response to being in the presence of Jesus as a full person. These details point to the reality that Jesus’ incarnation began at His conception rather than His birth.
In short, the Bible is clear on abortion. From cover to cover, the Bible affirms the personhood of the unborn, which is why Christians have opposed abortion for 2,000 years. This is also why arguments denying the Bible’s teaching on the subject are simply not persuasive. Thus, any attempts to bully or intimidate Catholic bishops who believe they should enforce Catholic teaching with disciplinary action should be condemned. As Andrew Walker has argued, “To purport to be a Catholic while denying the sum and substance of so much Catholic moral teaching undermines the credibility that one’s faith bears any resemblance to its doctrine.” As Christians, we must adhere to Scripture and be unwavering in our convictions, applying the teachings of God’s words to every area of life, from the womb to natural death.