Thursday, June 06, 2013

The Early Church, contraception and abortion

Some Christians think the church has not always disapproved of contraception and abortion (especially if they listen to that well known theologian, Nancy Pelosi). They may think the HHS battle just belongs to the Catholics.  They would be wrong. For the first centuries of the church, we share many of the “founding” documents written after the New Testament gospels and letters.  The earliest, the Didache, which is sort of a catechism for new believers, is very clear on this issue. Abortion and even infanticide and offering children to the pagan gods were not uncommon among the cultures of the early converts, so something needed to be said. Due to the length of this article, I’m only using the high lights, and I suggest you look at the original if interested in this topic.

The earliest reference to contraception and abortion is in the Didache, a document from the second half of the first century or early second century. Didache reads: “You shall not practice birth control, you shall not murder a child by abortion, nor kill what is begotten” (2).

Many translations read “practice sorcery” because the Greek word sometimes has that meaning (see Wisdom 12:4, Galatians 5:20, Revelation 18:23). However, it also means practice medicine or use poison, and the term may refer to contraceptive measures, as is the case in a number of the following texts.

Another early text is the Epistle of Barnabas: “You shall not slay the child by procuring abortion, nor shall you destroy it after it is born” (19). This also shows that the earliest Christians forbade abortion.

In the second century, St. Clement of Alexandria wrote in the Paedagogus (2.10.96): “Women who resort to some sort of deadly abortion drug kill not only the embryo, but along with it, all human kindness.” This passage supports our translation of the Didache by mentioning the use of drugs to induce abortion.

In 177, Athenagoras of Athens wrote in the Supplication for the Christians: “And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder?”

.. .Tertullian’s Apology in 197, while he was still in union with the Church, says, “In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth.”

In the third century, Minucius Felix (226) wrote in Octavius: “There are some women who, by drinking medical preparations, extinguish the source of the future man in their very bowels, and thus commit a parricide before they bring forth” (30).

Around 228, St. Hippolytus wrote about unmarried women, including some reputed to be Christians, who became pregnant from illicit relationships. In his Refutation of All Heresies, he says, “Whence women, reputed believers, began to resort to drugs for producing sterility and to gird themselves round, so to expel what was being conceived on account of their not wishing to have a child either by a slave or by any paltry fellow, for the sake of their family and excessive wealth. Behold, into how great impiety that lawless one has proceeded by inculcating adultery and murder at the same time! And withal, after such audacious acts, they, lost to all shame, attempt to call themselves a Catholic Church” (9.7).

. . . . A document known as the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles reads “You shall not slay thy child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten; for ‘everything that is shaped and has received a soul from God, if it be slain, shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed’” (7.1).

This states the belief that the fetus has a soul and its life must be protected from conception forward.

. . .  St. Augustine wrote On Marriage and Concupiscence (419). . .  “I am supposing, then, although you are not lying [with your wife] for the sake of procreating offspring, you are not for the sake of lust obstructing their procreation by an evil prayer or an evil deed. Those who do this, although they are called husband and wife, are not; nor do they retain any reality of marriage, but with a respectable name cover a shame” (1.15.17).

St. Basil the Great wrote in his First Canonical Letter, Canon 2: “The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder. With us there is no nice enquiry as to its being formed or unformed. In this case it is not only the being about to be born who is vindicated, but the woman in her attack upon herself; because in most cases women who make such attempts die. The destruction of the embryo is an additional crime, a second murder, at all events, if we regard it as done with intent” (374). . .

St. Jerome, Letter 22 to Eustochium (396), said: “Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when (as often happens) they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world, laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ, but also of suicide and child murder. Yet it is these who say: ‘Unto the pure all things are pure; my conscience is sufficient guide for me.’ A pure heart is what God looks for” (13).

Not only did many of the great theologians address abortion and contraception, but so did some councils.. . 

Likewise, the Catholic author of this article says, Luther and Calvin also condemned the practice.

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