Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Exodus 21, Abortion, and the Beginning of Human Life

Photo of fetus in utero at 20 weeks
Does the Bible assert that abortion is OK? Absolutely not.

The confusion starts with a certain prescription in the Old Testament. Exodus 21 explains the Mosaic Law's prohibition of homicide in light of accidental blows that lead to death. Verses 22-25 consider accidental miscarriages. Here is the literal translation of the Hebrew:
"When men are fighting and one of them strikes a pregnant woman so that her offspring comes out, and there is no mishap, he shall be fined in accordance with what her husband shall impose upon him, and it will be given over to adjudication. But if there is a mishap, then you shall give a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise." ~Exodus 21:22-25
In this translation, "the mishap" might be the child's death. If the child lives, the guilty man is fined; if the child dies, the guilty party is executed. Jewish scholar James Kugel notes, however, that "no ancient interpreter read this passage that way... Normally, in the case of an accident, if no harm resulted, then no fine would be due." [1]

What, then, is "the mishap?" Here is the Septuagint's translation:
"If two men are fighting and a pregnant woman is struck in her belly, and her child comes out not fully formed, he shall pay a fine. As the woman's husband shall impose, he shall pay it with a valuation. But if it is fully formed, he shall give a soul for a soul..."
The Septuagint suggests that the death of the child is certain. If the child is killed before it is fully formed, then the man cannot be charged with murdering a human being. If, however, the child is fully formed, the child would be in every sense a human being.

However, as Dr. Donald DeMarco notes, the Septuagint translation is incorrect and "gives a totally different meaning to this Mosaic Law:"
"The word 'zurah' or 'surah,' which means 'form,' is erroneously used for the word 'ason,' which means 'harm.' Thus, the Septuagint version conveys the meaning of the fetus 'not being further formed' rather than the woman 'not being further harmed.'" [2]
There are various reasons why the Greeks may have wanted the passage to read this way. DeMarco suggests that it is closer to their own philosophy and may have reflected a bias in their reading of the text.

Saint Jerome's Vulgate, which the Council of Trent deemed "authentic" and trustworthy as the Church's official Biblical text, reads thus:
"If men fall out, and one of them strikes a woman who is pregnant, so that the child is still-born, but she herself lives, he must pay whatever sum the woman’s husband demands, and the judges agree to; if her death follows, then life must pay for life." (DR)
Saint Jerome is very clear--the child has died. In fact, the original Hebrew truly demands this reading.

Note that only if the mother dies is the guilty party executed. As Catholic moral theologian Germain Grisez summarizes, "the death of the unborn itself apparently was not regarded as unintentional homicide, for the penalty for that was laid down as 'life for life.' By implication, the unborn was not considered an individual having a life regarded as human." [3]

Is the Bible, then, saying that the child is not too a human being? Doesn't this contradict the scientific fact that a fetus is a human being from the moment it is conceived?

Indeed, the Mosaic law for this situation does demand that only the mother be protected by the "life for life" regulation. At the same time, the child's death is still condemned; the evil that's occurred is still emphasized and, indeed, demands repayment. This is important.

Morally, the Mosaic Law recognizes that the killing of either the child or the mother would be evil. Judicially, however, the Old Law imperfectly grants more weight to the killing of the mother. Keep in mind that the Mosaic Law granted varying amounts of judicial respect to different members of society. For example, women were not granted the rights appropriate to their dignity from the beginning. Hence Christ: "It was to suit your hard hearts that Moses allowed you to put your wives away; it was not so at the beginning of things" (Mt 19:8). Slaves, too: "when a man beats his servant or his handmaid to death, if death follows at once, he must pay the full penalty; but if they survive for a day or more, he shall go unpunished; the loss is his" (Ex 21:20-21). In the same way, unborn children were not granted the fullest respect under the judicial precepts of the Mosaic Law.

Scripture is not making a moral assertion that unborn children are dispensable--indeed, their death demands repayment. The Mosaic Law makes an imperfect judicial assertion that the mother, in this particular situation, has more rights than the unborn child. Further still, the law does not assert that unborn children are not human beings--why, then, would there be any penalty at all? The law simply asserts that unborn human beings do not carry the same rights as adult human beings.

Regardless, this is a judicial law that's be fulfilled and purified from all its imperfection and obscurity. We reject this judicial law today just as we reject many Mosaic judicial laws. No matter what judicial assertions governed Israelite life in the Old Testament, they no longer matter in light of the New Law. The fullness of the Church's revelation has shown us the clear truth: life begins at conception and demands equal rights for both mother and unborn child.


[1] James Kugel; How to Read the Bible; page 266
[2] Donald DeMarco; "The Roman Catholic Church and Abortion: An Historical Perspective"
[3] Germain Grisez; Abortion: The Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments; page 123

Friday, October 4, 2013


"O God, by whose gift Saint Francis
was conformed to Christ in poverty and humility,
grant that, by walking in Francis' footsteps,
we may follow your Son,
and, through joyful charity,
come to be united with you.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen."

~Collect for the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi

Thursday, July 18, 2013

How is NFP Different from Contraception?

"For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality."
~Catechism of the Catholic Church; Paragraph 2368

Marriage, by nature, has two ends: the good of the spouses (their unity, their finding God in each other, and the progress of their souls toward salvation through one another) and the transmission of life. This does not mean, however, that married couples are called to have as many children as they are physically capable of. That would be irresponsible and an reckless abuse of the gift of procreation. In that light, then, birth control (not birth prevention) can be legitimate. But what kind of birth control?

The Church affirms that parents have a responsibility to plan their families based on specific physical, financial, or spiritual situations. Referring to this, Pope Paul VI says in Humanae Vitae that "the Church is the first to praise and commend the application of human intelligence to an activity in which a rational creature such as man is so closely associated with his Creator." For just reasons, and not from a selfishness that divorces sex from its natural end of procreation, couples may be justified in using birth control. In order for this to be legitimate, two conditions must be met:
  1. The couple's intention must be good and
  2. The couple must use a means that is not morally repugnant.
1) Again, we noted that the couple's intention must be fueled by a sense of responsible parenting. If a married couple decides that they will never have kids because they don't want to be burdened with children, they are not justified in their use of NFP because they are rejecting the procreative end of marriage. Couples are justified, though, who cannot afford another child or have a serious physical or emotional situation that would make having another child at such and such time a very irresponsible decision.

2) Contraception is a means of birth control that is always morally repugnant.What exactly is contraception? Archbishop Charles Chaput teaches that "contraception is a choice, by any means, to sterilize a given act of intercourse."[1] Or look at Pius XI's words from Casti Connubii: "any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin." So any use of matrimony that takes the sexual act and thwarts its ability to procreate is disordered and morally repugnant--it is unacceptable as a means of birth control.

Natural Family Planning, or choosing to abstain from sex during a wife's days of fertility has nothing to do with frustrating the act of matrimony. It is simply choosing to abstain from it. The sexual acts that are entered into during infertile periods are left entirely intact and nothing is done to "deliberately frustrate" those acts' natural power to generate life. Yes, the act occurs during a time of infertility, but the act itself remains open to its natural end. In fact, nature is what makes it infertile! The difference lies in the fact that contraception acts against the natural law that sex is ordered towards--procreation--while NFP acts with the natural course of a woman's fertility cycle. 

This article does not mention the countless physical and spiritual benefits that exist in marriages using NFP to justly space the birth of children.


[1] Life-Giving Love; Kimberly Hahn

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Does 1st Corinthians 15 Disprove Purgatory?

"Here is a secret I will make known to you; we shall all rise again, but not all of us will undergo the change I speak of. It will happen in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, when the last trumpet sounds; the trumpet will sound, and the dead will rise again, free from corruption,
and we shall find ourselves changed." 
~1 Corinthians 5:51-52
Some Protestant Christians read this quote of Saint Paul's as an explanation of Judgment that is inconsistent with the Catholic Church's doctrine of Purgatory--doesn't he say that our transformation will occur "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye?" How, then, can the Church teach a purgative state of existence that prolongs entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven?
The Protestant interpretation of Saint Paul's words, however, takes the statement out of its proper context. In the fifteenth chapter of his 1st letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul is writing about the Resurrection of the Dead, not about the particular judgment of individual souls. The distinction is important in order to understand what Catholics actually believe regarding the two judgments.

We must remember that Purgatory exists as a function of our particular judgment (when each soul is judged after death) and not as a function of the Last Judgment (the Second Coming). Saint Paul is describing the transformation of our bodies and the consummation of the created world, not the way souls are cleansed in the period of time up until the Second Coming.

In fact, it is important to remember that Purgatory, by its very nature, has a passing character. After the Last Judgment, there will be no need for Purgatory. Saint Augustine reiterates this point in The City of God: "temporary punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by others after death, by others both now and then; but all of them before that last and strictest judgment."

When the Church professes faith in Purgatory, she does so in regard to the way sins are purified for those who are already assured their salvation in light of their particular judgments upon death. Those who are transformed "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye" at the end of time will be spared from the experience of bodily death and, in light of their particular judgments will receive purgation through some earthly means, perhaps through the tribulations anticipated at the time of the Second Coming.

The Protestant interpretation of this passage, then, mistakenly applies what Paul describes of the Last Judgment to that of the particular judgment. Purgatory, the existence of which is unmistakably attested to in Sacred Scripture, only applies to the way souls will be cleansed of sin and reconciled with God in the time leading up to the Last Judgment.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Power of the Word of God

This post focuses on the following passage, from article 25 of Dei Verbum (1985), a Vatican II document:
“… editions of sacred scripture, provided with suitable notes, should be prepared for the use even of non-Christians, and adapted to their circumstances. These should be prudently circulated, either by pastors of souls, or by Christians of any walk of life” [1]

The focus of Dei Verbum is divine revelation in the Church. To give some context, earlier in article 25 the document focuses on steering the laity back to reading and praying Scripture in their prayer life. Prior to Vatican II, the Catholic laity had relied on popular devotions in their prayer life, while largely neglecting Scripture. (Ratzinger notes this in his commentary, cited below). Later in article 25, the council extends this focus on Scripture to non-Christians as well. I found the above passage to be particularly interesting largely because of Cardinal Ratzinger’s commentary after the council in 1967. Here is an excerpt of what Ratzinger says:

“What for a long time has been taking place on the Protestant side will now become the proper work of Catholic Christians and of the Catholic Church – namely, the dissemination of the Bible among non-Christians. A new element thus enters into the understanding of mission, … a trust in the self-operative power of the Word, which of course cannot and should not render the Church’s preaching superfluous, but that it can carry as a piece of the presence of Jesus Christ among the peoples, far beyond the realm of the hierarchical Church.” [2]
This is quite interesting! Ratzinger notes that Vatican II council encourages the simple act of handing out Bibles to non-Christians. There is also an acknowledgement here that Catholics have sort of missed the boat in this form of evangelization in comparison to Protestant Christians. In fact, I’m sure most of us have experienced this enthusiastic Protestant distribution of the Bible in one way or another. The Bibles in hotels, mini Gideon bibles with the New Testament and Psalms, etc. Well, this is now our duty too! Why? Because of a new understanding of the Power of Scripture.

What is this new understanding? Ratzinger says this “new element” that is mentioned in Dei Verbum is the “self-operative power of the Word”. This idea, that the Word, on its own, has the power to bring people to Christ, is beautiful and powerful! In fact, he says that in the distribution of Bibles, Jesus is present among people. Later he likens this personal encounter with Scripture to those who touch the hem of Christ’s garment as he passes through the crowds. There is a trust, then, that giving the pages of Scripture to a non-Christian can plant the seeds for conversion. The holy words in Scripture have the power to lead the reader to salvation. However, Ratzinger is quick to point out that this does not undermine normal methods of evangelization, which is the mission of the Church. The word “prudently” in the Vatican II document also must not be forgotten. Shooting Bibles from T-shirt guns at sporting events might not be the most prudent way to hand out the Bible.

Thus, we too should realize the power of Scripture. We should look for opportunities to hand out Bibles to non-Christians. We should do this not as a replacement of the Church’s mission of evangelization, but in addition to and alongside of that mission! And we must always remember to practice love and humility in all that we do.

Has anybody out there handed out Bibles to non-Christians? Let us know if you have any experiences to share or any advice in this work!

“Ignorance of Scripture is Ignorance of Christ” – Saint Jerome, 5th century

[1] Vatican II: Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Buy on Amazon, or read for free online

[2] Joseph Ratzinger commentary on Dei Verbum, http://www.deiverbum2005.org/Articels/ratzinger.pdf

Photo obtained here.