(This is Neil) In light of recent controversy, I thought that it might be useful to reproduce part of a note by the Redemptorist theologian Brian V. Johnstone, originally published in the Irish Theological Quarterly 70 (2005) 60. After the excerpt, I ask two hopefully relevant questions.
Here is Fr Johnstone:
… In 1591 Pope Gregory XIV had restricted the canonical, legal penalty for abortion to abortion of the animated foetus. In 1869 Pius IX issued a list of legal penalties. In this list, the distinction between the unanimated foetus and the animated foetus was abandoned. This meant that the legal, canonical penalty (excommunication) was no longer applied only to the abortion of the animated foetus (“late abortion”), but also to the abortion of the unanimated foetus (“early abortion”). This legislation was incorporated into the Code of 1917 and is maintained in Canon 1398 of the present Code. This was a matter of church legal discipline, not moral teaching as such.
Moral theologians who accepted the view that the human soul was not infused into the foetus at conception but only at some later point, would have held that aborting the unanimated foetus did not constitute the sin of homicide, tantamount to murder. But this did not mean that they regarded it as only a “venial” sin. There were debates among theologians as to whether abortion of an unanimated foetus might be justified to save the life of the mother. But such proposals were never accepted by Church teaching. So called “indirect” abortion, that is the foreseen, but unintended killing of the embryo as a result of a therapeutic intervention was accepted as morally justifiable in some cases. But I have not found any work by a Catholic moral theologian or any Church document in the period indicated (before 1869) which could be interpreted as holding that the direct abortion of the unanimated foetus was only a venial sin.
1. Is there any scientific evidence that would lead us to return to the pre-1869 distinction between the unanimated fetus and the animated fetus? (I think not.)
2. Nevertheless, it is possible to see the distinction as presently compelling to some. Richard Stith has written that envisioning “gestation as construction, assembling, fabrication, making … has not only intuitive appeal today but a grand pedigree.” In such a view (which neither Stith nor I hold), we see the early stages of pregnancy as the working of “inert seminal material into a human shape.”
In light of this, it might be useful to know more about pre-1869 moral theologians and early abortion. If they did not consider aborting the unanimated fetus to be homicide, what sin did they consider it to be?