USCCB fact sheet about the Church’s teaching on human life

Before her next television interview, perhaps "ardent Catholic" Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) should study this from the USCCB:

Respect for Unborn Human Life: The Church’s Constant Teaching

Fact sheet by the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities. Click here to print as a PDF.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “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” (No. 2271). 

In response to those who say this teaching has changed or is of recent origin, here are the facts:

  • From earliest times, Christians sharply distinguished themselves from surrounding pagan cultures by rejecting abortion and infanticide.  The earliest widely used documents of Christian teaching and practice after the New Testament in the 1st and 2nd centuries, the Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) and Letter of Barnabas, condemned both practices, as did early regional and particular Church councils. 
  • To be sure, knowledge of human embryology was very limited until recent times.  Many Christian thinkers accepted the biological theories of their time, based on the writings of Aristotle (4th century BC) and other philosophers.  Aristotle assumed a process was needed over time to turn the matter from a woman’s womb into a being that could receive a specifically human form or soul.  The active formative power for this process was thought to come entirely from the man – the existence of the human ovum (egg), like so much of basic biology, was unknown. 
  • However, such mistaken biological theories never changed the Church’s common conviction that abortion is gravely wrong at every stage.  At the very least, early abortion was seen as attacking a being with a human destiny, being prepared by God to receive an immortal soul (cf. Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you”).
  • In the 5th century AD this rejection of abortion at every stage was affirmed by the great bishop-theologian St. Augustine.  He knew of theories about the human soul not being present until some weeks into pregnancy.  Because he used the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, he also thought the ancient Israelites had imposed a more severe penalty for accidentally causing a miscarriage if the fetus was “fully formed” (Exodus 21: 22-23), language not found in any known Hebrew version of this passage.  But he also held that human knowledge of biology was very limited, and he wisely warned against misusing such theories to risk committing homicide.  He added that God has the power to make up all human deficiencies or lack of development in the Resurrection, so we cannot assume that the earliest aborted children will be excluded from enjoying eternal life with God.
  • In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas made extensive use of Aristotle’s thought, including his theory that the rational human soul is not present in the first few weeks of pregnancy.  But he also rejected abortion as gravely wrong at every stage, observing that it is a sin “against nature” to reject God’s gift of a new life.
  • During these centuries, theories derived from Aristotle and others influenced the grading of penalties for abortion in Church law.  Some canonical penalties were more severe for a direct abortion after the stage when the human soul was thought to be present.  However, abortion at all stages continued to be seen as a grave moral evil. 
  • From the 13th to 19th centuries, some theologians speculated about rare and difficult cases where they thought an abortion before “formation” or “ensoulment” might be morally justified.  But these theories were discussed and then always rejected, as the Church refined and reaffirmed its understanding of abortion as an intrinsically evil act that can never be morally right.
  • In 1827, with the discovery of the human ovum, the mistaken biology of Aristotle was discredited. Scientists increasingly understood that the union of sperm and egg at conception produces a new living being that is distinct from both mother and father.  Modern genetics demonstrated that this individual is, at the outset, distinctively human, with the inherent and active potential to mature into a human fetus, infant, child and adult.  From 1869 onward the obsolete distinction between the “ensouled” and “unensouled” fetus was permanently removed from canon law on abortion.
  • Secular laws against abortion were being reformed at the same time and in the same way, based on secular medical experts’ realization that “no other doctrine appears to be consonant with reason or physiology but that which admits the embryo to possess vitality from the very moment of conception” (American Medical Association, Report on Criminal Abortion, 1871).
  • Thus modern science has not changed the Church’s constant teaching against abortion, but has underscored how important and reasonable it is, by confirming that the life of each individual of the human species begins with the earliest embryo.
  • Given the scientific fact that a human life begins at conception, the only moral norm needed to understand the Church’s opposition to abortion is the principle that each and every human life has inherent dignity, and thus must be treated with the respect due to a human person.  This is the foundation for the Church’s social doctrine, including its teachings on war, the use of capital punishment, euthanasia, health care, poverty and immigration.  Conversely, to claim that some live human beings do not deserve respect or should not be treated as “persons” (based on changeable factors such as age, condition, location, or lack of mental or physical abilities) is to deny the very idea of inherent human rights.  Such a claim undermines respect for the lives of many vulnerable people before and after birth.

For more information:  Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion (1974), nos. 6-7; John R. Connery, S.J., Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective (1977); Germain Grisez, Abortion: The Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments (1970), Chapter IV; U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, On Embryonic Stem Cell Research (2008); Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (1995), nos. 61-2.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. KK says:

    I suppose we should thank her for inspiring the USCCB to produce this.

  2. This is a very good statement; someone at the bishops’ conference deserves credit for this being written with good factual content, scholarship, and in clear, direct language; and, as a bonus, “connecting the dots” between the specific issue of assaults on the unborn with other life issues and issues of social justice and human dignity: they are connected, but some issues are more grave than others. Kudos!

  3. Jerry Boyd says:

    Now why would she want to know the facts and what the Cathechism of the Catholic Church teaches? The facts would not be conducive to her garnering votes from her constituents and would not advance her political career. Besides, Pope Pelosi is an elite intellectual and the most powerful female politician in the nation (hopefully that will change with the November election). How dare one suggest that she could be wrong. Besides, if she were wrong on abortion certainly her home Bishop (in this case Archbishop) would firmly and swiftly take her to task….wouldn’t he????

  4. TNCath says:

    This is an welcome, uncharacteristically direct, statement from the U.S. Bishops. The Church’s position on euthanasia, of course, can certainly be included with abortion. Interestingly, the line “This is the foundation for the Church’s social doctrine, including its teachings on war, the use of capital punishment, euthanasia, health care, poverty and immigration” lumps non-negotiable and intrinsically evil acts with acts that may or may not be, i.e. war, capital punishment, healthcare, poverty, and immigration. Why do they do that? Sorry, but immigration issues and abortion aren’t on the same moral plane.

  5. TNC:

    You have a point–the solution actually would be to shift “euthanasia” out of that sequence (all of which are, as described, issue of “social doctrine”); and then to reference euthanasia along with other life issues, in a separate clause. I didn’t read it as saying these are all on the same plane, particularly given the whole document hammers away on the grave evil of abortion; but rather to make the valid point that there is a relationship and continuity at work in all these questions, involving essential human dignity, just as it did say. Give them their due–this was probably put together quickly, and it involved a fair amount of research, and could have been turned into a mealy-mouth muddle, and instead we got something this good; flawless might be a bit much to hope for.

  6. Chironomo says:


    I don’t think this statement “lumps together” these issues in an inextricable way. They are merely saying that the belief that “each and every human life has inherent dignity” is the foundation for other doctrines as well… not that these doctrines derived from this principle are necessarily morally equivalent. They would have to state elsewhere, for instance, that denying an illegal immigrant medical care is the moral equivalent of abortion. I don’t think that is the position being stated…

  7. Memphis Aggie says:

    Nice political/scientific argument in there as well with the statement that if you reject the humanity of the child within the womb you also reject the concept of inherent human rights. Abortion is the rejection of human rights, no the propagation of new one, I like it. It always helps to have nonreligious arguemts ready for those who do not believe.

  8. Jason says:

    Proving once again that God can bring good even from a horrible case of Foot-in-the-Mouth diease.

  9. TJM says:

    I’m pleased, but I assume Pelosi will ignore this. Tom

  10. mpm says:

    I agreed that this is a good, clear statement of the Church’s teaching.

    Perhaps, one slight “improvement” would be to reserve what in the final
    paragraph is said very strongly, i.e., “…the only moral norm needed to
    understand the Church’s opposition to abortion is the principle that each
    and every human life has inherent dignity…”, etc., to its own “bullet point”
    and end up with a final bullet point containing the reference to the Church’s
    social teachings.

    My reasoning is simple: those who would conflate first principles with the
    kinds of necessarily extended and nuanced conclusions of the social teachings
    of the Church, a conflation that is inappropriate, would find it harder to
    use this excellent summary to continue to confuse people.

  11. TNCath says:

    Father Fox and Chironomo,

    I understand what both of you are saying; however, I do think the line in question strays a bit from the core message. And yes, I thought it was an excellent presentation.

  12. Papabile says:

    You have to understand why these all get grouped together. As usual, there’s pretty much a bureaucratic reason.

    Let’s say a relevant office like pro-life drafts a statement for release….

    1. It will get circulated through a) Domestic Social Development, and b) through Ecumenical, c) Evangelization and Catechesis, d) Doctrine, e) International Justice and Peace, f) Laity, Marriage, Family Life & Youth, g) Government Relations, and h) Office of General Counsel.

    2. At each office, changes will be made, usually dumbing down or reigning in the text.

    3. The text that finally gets released, and usually issued to those concerned (like Congress) is usually late and of little use….

    At least that’s my experience after having worked there, and now working in Congress for the better part of 10 years.

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