Ask Augustine: When does life begin? Print

Last week U.S. House of Representatives minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, D-California, a Roman Catholic said, "I do my religion on Sundays in church" and went on to say that those in the church who oppose President Obama's mandate on contraception are not speaking ex cathedra for the Catholic Church. A few years ago Pelosi (regarding the issue of when life begins) said "over the centuries, the Doctors (those theologians who established the doctrines) of the church have not been able to make that definition." She added that St. Augustine said, "at three months" and that "it's only been about 50 years that the church has understood life to begin at conception" Is she correct?

Regardless of one's political opinion about Nancy Pelosi, her few words (and I would note that neither does she speak ex cathedra, that is to speak with full authority of the office) about the Church and Christianity could not have contained more falsehoods. One can only wonder what she does the other six days of the week or when she is not in church.

To say "I DO my religion" shows an entire lack of knowledge about the foundation of Christianity and the Catholic Church. Christ did it ALL because we could not do it. 

Every religion of the world teaches that man must earn favor with God by doing something. In contrast, Christianity proclaims that God's favor, His blessings and heaven itself, can be had only as free gifts.

When people think they can contribute their own efforts to the work of God, they do not understand their true condition or the work of Christ. They do not realize that sin has incapacitated them so that they cannot do anything meritorious in God's sight. Neither do they know the true sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice. By adding their supposed goodness to the work of our Lord; one is saying that Christ's work was insufficient.

When Pelosi said the church has only held the view that "life begins at conception" for about 50 years, she made a factual error concerning the church. And when she added that my namesake, St. Augustine, said that life begins at "three months" she made an historical error involving the greatest theologian of Christianity's first 1,000 years.

It is true that secular laws and penalties concerning abortion have evolved through the ages; BUT without question, Christian tradition and the Church from the earliest days have always held a firm anti-abortion attitude. Such has been the church's unwavering 2,000 year old doctrine regarding the sanctity of life.

One of the earliest documents of the early church, "The Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles)" illustrates that the church's teaching on abortion has always been quite clear.  (Some have dated this document as early as 50 AD, but most suggest that it was composed around 70 AD.) Nevertheless, in this very early summary of basic instruction about the Christian life we read, "You shall not abort a child" (2.2).

Regarding Pelosi's reference to Augustine, initially I thought she meant St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century theologian who subscribed to a "delayed hominization" or "ensoulment" theory, meaning that the fetus did not receive a soul until a certain point (about the time that a mother feels a baby move) in its development.  Aquinas speculated that an embryo gets a soul at the point of "quickening", the time when a woman can feel the baby move, which would be about three months, but this would have no bearing on when life begins and hence abortion. There is no way to read into any of their writings that Aquinas or Augustine would have accepted abortion.

Pelosi's office, in a feeble attempt to clarify her views on when Saint Augustine said life begins, referred to his writing, "the law does not provide that the act (abortion) pertains to homicide, for there cannot yet be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation." (Saint Augustine, On Exodus 21:22). But the verse in Exodus about which Augustine was writing clearly supports protecting the unborn -- for it says, "If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely (a live birth, yatza in Hebrew, thus not a miscarriage which would require the verb to be accompanied by some form of muth, meaning to die), yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman's husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine." Therefore, it is doubtful that Augustine was circumventing Moses.

For those who wonder what today's leading scientists say on this matter of when life begins:  Dr. Hymie Gordon (Mayo Clinic) states, "By all criteria of modern molecular biology, life is present from the moment of conception;" Dr. Micheline Matthews-Roth (Harvard University Medical School) says "It is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception;" Dr. Alfred Bongioanni (University of Pennsylvania) writes, "I have learned from my earliest medical education that human life begins at the time of conception;" and Dr. Jerome LeJeune, (The Father of Modern Genetics," University of Descartes, Paris) concludes, "To accept the fact that after fertilization has taken place a new human has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or opinion . . . it is plain experimental evidence."

In the final analysis, what really matters is not what Pelosi, Augustine, the church, or the world's leading scientists say about when life begins, but what God's word, the Bible teaches about it.  The principle of the sanctity of life is clearly established in Genesis 9:6 and in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20).  The biblical teaching of the creation of man in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) is the foundation of the dignity and sacredness of human life.  And Psalm 51:5; 139:13, 14; Jeremiah 1:5; and Luke 1:44 (among many other passages) provide evidence that the image of God is present in the unborn human being.

As Christians we must reflect on our responsibility in a society where human life is regarded cheaply by Pelosi and others.  What kind of society will we become when human life is regarded as disposable for then all of us will be vulnerable?

Human life begins at conception. On this matter, at least, the church and science, Roman Catholics and conservative Protestants, are in agreement. And beloved reader be assured that God knew you even before you were formed in the womb.

Dr. Tambrino is a retired college president. He holds two earned doctorates and diplomas from a number of academic institutions including Harvard and Oxford. A retired US Army officer he was awarded the rank of honorary three star general in 1997 by the US Air Force.     II 45-105