Will old Italian politics influence US (and CT) abortion law?

The recent April 13 Mirror article about a new Connecticut super PAC called Parents Against Stupid Stuff, funded largely by a Catholic philanthropist, describes an example of culture war advocacy in politics. Another example is the Connecticut Family Institute.

Conservative Catholics are right on the hallmark issue of abortion. If you believe the Church teaches that abortion is the taking of a life, it’s hard to argue that homicide is something one has the “right to choose.” Pro-choice messaging has led liberals and politicians into a trap.

The real problem is not abortion per se, but the more fundamental question of when life begins. Does it start at conception or later?

As for life beginning at conception, Catholic teaching throughout history has been less consistent than it appears today.

Some of the greatest theologians of the church (eg Saints Jerome, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas) believed that life did not begin at conception but at a later time variously called animation, acceleration, hominization or ensoulment. But for a period of three years from 1588 to 1591 under the encyclical Effraenatam Issued by a pope concerned about prostitution in Rome and quickly repealed by his successor, Church law did not consider the taking of an inanimate fetus to warrant the harshest of penalties. This changed in 1869 during the reign of Pope Pius IX.

What happened in 1869 and why?

On October 12, 1869, Pius IX published Apostolicae Sedis Moderationi – a statement of criminal procedure which, among other things, imposed the most severe penalty for all abortions. This action was seen as eliminating the distinction between animate and non-animate fetuses, removing ambiguity over the sanction of abortion, and effectively decreeing that life begins at conception. This doctrine lives on today.

Not much is known (at least from this author) about the details of Pius IX’s reasoning. A learned at the University of Notre Dame suggested that the pope was reacting to developments in theology. A irish newspaper The article suggested that he harmonized the doctrine with his earlier proclamation of the Immaculate Conception (i.e. Mary was free from original sin from the moment of conception). According to a research project at Arizona State University (The Embryo Project), the pope believed that because of the possibility of life beginning at conception, it was morally safer to choose the earlier date. Perhaps more qualified researchers than this author can shed more light on this question. Whatever the reason, the rule stemmed from a papal preference for a conservative view of early life.

Why in all time but for three years in the entire history of the church was this the time to make such a decision?

The papacy of Pius IX took place in tumultuous times. Europe was experiencing a rise in nationalism and democracy and the Italian unification campaign known as Risorgiamento. For nearly a thousand years, the popes ruled over much of central and northern Italy (the Papal States).

Italian nationalists had crumbled for years, but by mid-century Pius IX was still reigning as a secular king. It had its own army and the government was run by the clergy. But his subjects were wayward and the pressure exerted on him by nationalists such as Victor Emmanuelle, Mazzini and Garibaldi was becoming intense. In 1848, the pope was forced to flee under fire from Rome to Gaeta (near Naples) and only returned with the protection of the French army. In 1867 Garibaldi nearly took Rome but was wounded at the Battle of Mentana. In 1870, the forces of the Risorgiamento entered Rome and deprived Pius IX of his temporal kingdom and he confined himself to the Vatican where he considered himself a prisoner.

Pius IX started out as a liberal but ended up as a conservative. He considered his temporal rule to be ordained by God. He became increasingly vocal in denouncing the forces of modernism and secularism. He summoned the First Vatican Council for this purpose. He defended the infamous 1858 abduction of Edgardo Mortara – a Jewish child who had been secretly baptized. The Church was reorganized to emphasize papal supremacy (a process called ultramontanism). He proclaimed papal infallibility. On March 26, 1869, he excommunicated some of his land grabbing opponents, including King Victor Emmanuelle. He condemned freedom of religion, the separation of church and state, progress, liberalism and modern civilization. He had grown bitter against the revolutionary forces around him.

Given this context, it seems reasonable to ask whether the papal decision on abortion in 1869 (as in 1588) was influenced more by Italian politics and culture than by faith and morals or divine revelation.

This historical oddity may shed light on why abortion is controversial, even among some Catholics.

What about the large percentage of American Catholics who ignore their church’s teaching or the relative legality of abortion in most Catholic countries in Europe (Italy, Ireland, Spain, Austria, France)? Is the church’s teaching of the past 153 years entitled to much more moral or penal authority than its teaching for most of its previous 2,000 year history? Is the church’s credibility affected by its sex abuse scandals? Will the majority of the Supreme Court (all Catholics) be guided by religion? Will 21st Will Century America be unwittingly guided by an Italian pope from his grave?

Frank Hanley Santoro of Deep River is a retired lawyer and the product of 19 years of study in Catholic institutions.