The Failure of Catholic Teaching on Abortion

While many hail the recent Supreme Court decision returning abortion law to the states as a landmark victory for unborn children, it must be recognized that this decision did not find abortion to be immoral, or even illegal – it merely determined that there was no federal constitutional right to abortion. And it therefore must be admitted that a decisive victory in the debate over abortion has not yet been won – the case against abortion has not yet been made. An honest assessment of the debate would consider, for example, the following discouraging statistics regarding Catholics and abortion from May 2022:

“Overall, about three-quarters of U.S. Catholics (76%) say abortion should be illegal in some cases but legal in others. Just one-in-ten say abortion should be illegal in all cases, with no exceptions, while a similar share (13%) take the position that abortion should be legal in all cases, without exceptions.” [1]

This is an astonishing set of statistics. The thought that something so violent as the deliberate destruction of an infant within the womb of a mother can be thought to be legal and just by a strong majority of those who count themselves as faithful members of the Church founded by none other than Jesus Himself is almost unbelievable. It is one thing for statistics like these to be discovered among the pagan and the unchurched, but for Catholics themselves to be found so corrupt in their faith is a sign of moral decay that cannot be ignored.

Our Catholic leaders should ask themselves why there is such a failure to accept a fundamental teaching among even Catholics themselves. Are we experiencing a period of such concerted evil everywhere that the teaching of the Church is simply overwhelmed? Or is there something wrong with how the Church has attempted to assert its views on this subject, despite the intent of the Second Vatican Council to make the Gospel accessible to modern man? What exactly has the Church taught on this issue?

It may seem trivially obvious, but the words that are chosen in taking a position on a particular issue are critically important. I experienced this in the course of a long career working in every aspect of the systems engineering process for a major military system. The development of system requirements is a prime example. These requirements are written down and debated and sometimes fiercely fought over at successively greater levels of detail. The government must obtain the right product – and the contractor must meet the requirement while remaining profitable. I recall the comment of a very wise old engineer, who had fought the battles over computer program development requirements with a particular prime contractor for a very long time:

“All we have are words.”

That is, if we failed to construct our requirements with carefully reasoned language that fully reflected our actual intent, the end product we had envisioned would not be achieved.

There is a remarkable paucity of such precise language these days in the statements of the Catholic Church.

The expression of the Catholic position on abortion suffers from just this condition. A comment by Pope Francis from a November 2022 interview exemplifies the weakness of the Church’s message to the world on abortion. When asked whether abortion should be treated as a priority for the bishops in comparison to other social issues, the Pope responded with the following discussion:

“In any book of embryology it is said that shortly before one month after conception the organs and the DNA are already delineated in the tiny fetus, before the mother even becomes aware. Therefore, there is a living human being. I do not say a person, because this is debated, but a living human being. And I raise two questions: Is it right to get rid of a human being to resolve a problem? Second question: Is it right to hire a “hit man” to resolve a problem? The problem arises when this reality of killing a human being is transformed into a political question, or when a pastor of the church uses political categories.” [2]

It is interesting to me that the Pope ignored the question that was actually asked. It is, I suppose, one way of avoiding a question with a faulty premise. But he could have also answered directly, and set this question in its proper context. He could have said that abortion is not just one social issue among many. He could have said that abortion is uniquely evil, because it involves the cooperation of a mother in the death of her own child, and it therefore attacks the heart and soul, the very foundation, of human life and society.

The Pope goes on to make several confusing comments about abortion. He likens abortion to a murder for hire contract, a contract undertaken to solve a “problem.” This is not an apt analogy. Abortion is the murder of an innocent child – a child who, as a gift from God, is most decisively not a problem. The problem exists with the mindset of the mother and the society which deem it necessary to reject that which God has done. And also, again quite unlike a murder for hire contract, abortion requires the direct physical participation of the mother in the killing of the unborn victim. The Pope’s analogy fails to acknowledge the monstrously destructive impact of abortion, as it literally tears apart that most intimate of human relationships, that of a mother and her unborn child. By calling the unborn child a problem, the Pope has submitted to the secular paradigm framing the abortion issue.

The Pope’s comment about abortion as a political question has me flummoxed. What comes to my mind is that politics is the means by which we govern ourselves. Of course we should want to implement fundamental Christian values into the core of our governance – which necessarily involves politics, and political parties.

These comments are generally indicative of weak and ineffective teaching about the evils of abortion. However, with his comment about personhood the Pope has exposed a serious problem with the Church’s teaching on abortion.

The Pope stated that the science of embryology indicates that a living human being exists within a month after conception, but at the same time he mentioned that he could not confirm that an unborn child is a person. This statement unfortunately leaves in doubt the humanity of the unborn child in the first month of existence, but even worse, fails to make any argument for the personhood of the unborn child. Compare this to the position put forth by the U. S. Catholic bishops on abortion:

“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.” [3]

The bishops here apply their arguments to the status of the child from the moment of conception, and do not leave out the first month of life as does the Pope. And they state that the unborn child must be treated as a person. However, the bishops’ statement falls short as well. Despite their argument that the unborn child should be treated as a person, they do not actually state that the unborn child is a person. This is a significant distinction and the question naturally arises: Why not? Why can we Catholics not bring ourselves to use language that states specifically that the unborn human being is fully a person?

The history of the church’s position on abortion reflects a debate over the centuries concerning when exactly the soul enters the body of a new human being:

“In the course of history, the Fathers of the Church, her Pastors and her Doctors have taught the same doctrine – the various opinions on the infusion of the spiritual soul did not introduce any doubt about the illicitness of abortion. It is true that in the Middle Ages, when the opinion was generally held that the spiritual soul was not present until after the first few weeks, a distinction was made in the evaluation of the sin and the gravity of penal sanctions. Excellent authors allowed for this first period more lenient case solutions which they rejected for following periods. But it was never denied at that time that procured abortion, even during the first days, was objectively grave fault.” [4]

And according to an unnamed theologian cited by John-Henry Westen of Lifesite News, the Church has never declared the unborn child to be a person:

“I checked with the best theologian I know and learned that the Church has never defined the unborn child as a “person” but has always said the unborn has personal dignity. The medieval theologians did not know about the development and genetics of the child in the womb, so they debated things like when the soul enters the body. Given modern genetic understanding, it seems clear now, but there has been no dogmatic declaration.” [5]

“It seems clear now, but there has been no dogmatic declaration.” That, apparently, is the best we can do. The Church has addressed this issue of the personhood of the unborn multiple times – but in every instance does not quite actually state unequivocally that the unborn child is a person from the moment of conception. Examples of such statements include the USCCB position on abortion mentioned earlier in this article, as well as the recent USCCB Amicus Brief filed for the Dobbs decision [6], and paragraphs 2274 [7] and 2319 [8] of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Church’s argument in general is that human life in itself, whether or not personhood has been established at conception, deserves the rights of personhood. Donum Vitae reflects this position:

“Thus the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say, from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life”. [9] [emphasis added]

Other magisterial documents on this subject provide more insight into the rationale for the Church’s position to date. Here is a key passage from Evangelium Vitae of 1993:

“Even if the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data, the results themseves of scientific research on the human embryo provide a valuable indication for the use of reason of a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?” [10]

Why is “empirical data” implied here to be the standard by which truth must be assessed? Why does the Church attempt to make this argument based purely on scientific evidence?

A fairly recent statement reflecting the ordinary magisterium of the Church on abortion is the Instruction by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitatis Personae of September, 2008, which updated Donum Vitae (1987), and referenced both Veritatis Splendor (1993) and Evangelium Vitae (1995). Interestingly, Dignitatis Personae claims right at the outset that “ . . . the Catholic Church draws upon the light both of reason and of faith and seeks to set forth an integral vision of man and his vocation . . .” [11] Yet despite that assertion, Dignitatis Personae refers back to and endorses Donum Vitae’s statement which did not quite declare the unborn embryo to be a person:

“If Donum Vitae, in order to avoid a statement of an explicitly philosophical nature, did not define the embryo as a person, it nonetheless did indicate that there is an intrinsic connection between the ontological dimension and the specific value of every human life.” Although the presence of the spiritual soul cannot be observed experimentally, the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo give “a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life . . .” [12]

Here we see the limits inherent in the Church’s reasoning on abortion. Neither theological nor philosophical arguments are considered to be useful, apparently, and the Church attempts to convince using only reason based on science. The Church should use the full arsenal of reasoned arguments at her disposal: it is a mistake to assume that the secular world is amenable only to explanations employing “scientific” evidence. The perceived limitations of the secular mindset should not be allowed to shape the battleground over how morality is to be defined. Andrew Greenwell points out why arguments with such limitations are inadequate:

“Only persons are made in the image of God, have a capacity for God, and have supernatural destinies. Remove God from the picture, therefore, and invariably the concept of person becomes unintelligible. The dignity of man, the concept of personhood, cannot be built upon agnostic, much less atheistic, foundations. True, it is a philosophical concept, but it is intimately theological at its foundation.” [13]

Dr. Jeff Mirus has made the argument for personhood with the necessary clarity, avoiding the “as a person” characterization:

“The Church has always held that the human person is a union of a body and a rational soul, and that each soul is created individually by God. But over the centuries there have been theological debates over exactly when the soul is created and infused into the human body. Revelation does not answer this question, but the Church has always answered philosophically in this way: The soul is created in the same instant in which it is infused into the body, and that happens as soon as the matter is suitable. In other words, biology plays a key role in answering this question. This is why, in the medieval period, most theologians held that the soul is created and infused at the time of “quickening”, which is essentially when we become aware of the movement of the baby in the womb. However, we now know that the “matter”—the body—is distinctively human from the moment of conception, when the sperm and egg unite to form the zygote. There is no time after successful fertilization that the embryo is or can be anything other than human. Consequently, Catholics can now confidently state that the soul is created by God and joined to the body at the precise moment of conception.” [14] [emphasis added]

Dr. Mirus does not back away from using the argument that the soul is joined to the body when the matter is suitable in conjunction with the biological evidence to draw the conclusion that the soul, and thus personhood, arrive at the moment of conception.

The insistence that the unborn child is fully a person from conception is vitally important to the abortion debate. Unfortunately, the approach that the Church uses leaves an opening for the abortionists to attack. Since personhood has not been established to commence at the moment of conception (nor at any time during gestation for that matter), then abortionists can claim that the unborn are not persons. If the unborn child is not a person, then it is not a person that is being destroyed in the act of abortion. Human dignity and human rights are not a concern if that human is not a person. Only a person has rights. The Church should not be afraid to do battle and counter this falsehood with the hardcore abortion advocates, those progressive movers and shakers who are leading and shaping our society and culture today.

The significance of the unborn child’s personhood in making the case against abortion is clearly borne out in the U. S. Supreme Court’s deliberations on the matter. In the original decision legalizing abortion throughout the United States, the Court’s inability to recognize the personhood of the unborn child was a key aspect of the argument supporting abortion. The 1973 Roe Court’s actual words summarizing their conclusions about the personhood of the unborn speak volumes:

“We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theologians are unable to arrive at a consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.” [15]

The Court further said that if personhood had been established for the unborn child, then that would have guaranteed that child’s right to life under the 14th Amendment. [16] The Casey decision on abortion [17] following on twenty years later did nothing to change the Court’s view of the unfortunate absence of the personhood of the unborn, and now, fifty years later, neither has the Dobbs decision:

“Our opinion is not based on any view about if and when prenatal life is entitled to any of the rights enjoyed after birth.” [18]

The Court in Dobbs determined that abortion is not a right guaranteed by the Constitution, and therefore should be a matter to be be decided by the individual States. And those States may still determine that an unborn child does not enjoy the rights of personhood, and is therefore still subject to abortion. Reliable legal protection for the unborn child, regardless of the circumstances of his birth – such as rape or incest or the health of the mother – circumstances for which that innocent unborn child has absolutely no responsibility – still does not exist in the United States.

The lamentable fact that the Catholic Church, the most steadfast of anti-abortion institutions, has not yet seen fit to unambiguously declare the unborn child a person does not help in the fight against abortion. If even the Catholics won’t declare that the unborn are persons, then why should anyone else believe that the unborn are persons – from the moment of conception?

We should not think that the derelict reasoning of the U. S. Supreme Court regarding the personhood of the unborn is an antiquated relic of the outdated thought of 50 years ago. Abortion proponents still today employ that very same thought process. An article written by an academic in response to the first occasion on which Pope Francis (2018) made the argument about hitmen and abortion [19] takes exactly that position, assigning eligibility for the rights of personhood to those who have “moral status,” which is defined as:

“. . . a philosophical term which means they are morally significant, and harms and benefits to them must be considered when making decisions.” [20]

The author made the point that an execution by a hitman involved a human victim who possessed unquestioned moral status, while an abortion did not involve a victim with that same level of status:

“It’s not clear whether foetuses have moral status, or at what stage of their development they might acquire it. Some insist that foetuses attain moral status at conception. Others insist that moral status is acquired once the foetus becomes “viable”, which means it could survive outside the womb. Others still contend that moral status isn’t acquired until birth.” [21]

The Church’s failure to firmly and clearly declare the unborn child a person from the moment of conception allows brutally arbitrary reasoning such as this to go unchallenged. The Church must hasten to resolve this unfortunate gap in its moral teaching to the world on abortion. Even in this era of growing evil, what the Church says to the world matters. While we await a decisive magisterial declaration, the murderous deviltry of abortion remains the worst scourge perpetrated upon the most innocent among us. There should be no doubt at all that the world’s foremost Christian religious authority adamantly and emphatically declares that the unborn child has a soul and is a person from the moment of conception.


  1. Smith, Gregory A. “Like Americans overall, Catholics vary in their abortion views, with regular Mass attenders most opposed.” Pew Research Center. May 23, 2022.
  1. “Exclusive: Pope Francis discusses Ukraine, U.S. bishops and more.” America Magazine. November 28, 2022.
  1. “Respect for Unborn Human Life: The Church’s Constant Teaching.” USCCB: Fact sheet by the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities. Accessed 7 April 2023.
  1. “Declaration on Procured Abortion.” The Vatican:Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. November 18, 1974.
  1. Westen, John Henry. “Pope Francis just said he won’t comment on unborn children as ‘persons.’” Lifesite News. November 28, 2022.
  1. Brief for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Other Religious Organizations, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, 597 U.S. _ (2022)

7. United States Catholic Conference, Inc. Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Catechism of the Catholic Church, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994, paragraph 2274.

8. United States Catholic Conference, Inc. Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Catechism of the Catholic Church, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994, paragraph 2319.

  1. “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Deignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day.” The Vatican: Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. No. 1. February 22, 1987.
  1. “Evangelium Vitae,To the Bishops Priests and Deacons, Men and Women Religious, Lay Faithful and all People of Good Will on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life.” The Vatican: The Holy See. No. 60. March 25, 1995.
  1. “Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions.” The Vatican: Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. No. 3. December 8, 2008.

12. “Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions.” The Vatican: Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. No. 5. December 8, 2008.

  1. Greenwell, Andrew. “Catholic Social Teaching: The Human Person is Made in the Image of God.” Catholic Online: News: Home and Family: Living Faith. December 1, 2011.
  1. Mirus, Jeff. “Original Sin: What is it really and why does it matter?”
    Catholic Culture: Commentary. May 16, 2017.
  1. Roe v Wade, 410 US 113, 159, (1973)
  1. Roe v Wade, 410 US 113, 156-157, (1973)
  1. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 913-914, (1992).
  1. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022), 597 U. S. __, Opinion of the Court, 38, (2022).
  1. Mares, Courtney. “Pope Francis: Abortion is like hiring a hitman.” Catholic News Agency. October 10, 2018.
  1. Shahvisi, Arianne. “Abortion is Nothing Like Hiring a Hitman, Whatever Pope Francis Says.” The Conversation: Politics and Society. October 11, 2018.
  1. Shahvisi, Arianne. “Abortion is Nothing Like Hiring a Hitman, Whatever Pope Francis Says.” The Conversation: Politics and Society. October 11, 2018.