Peter Wolfgang was one of the featured speakers at this abortion protest in March outside the state Capitol. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

The recent article in the Mirror on April 13 about a new Connecticut super PAC called Parents Against Stupid Stuff funded largely by a Catholic philanthropist describes an example of culture war advocacy in politics. Another example is the Family Institute of Connecticut.

Conservative Catholics have a point on the signature issue of abortion. If you believe as the church teaches that abortion is the taking of a life, it is hard to argue that homicide is something one has a “right to choose.” Pro-choice messaging has led liberals and politicians into a trap.

The real issue is not abortion per se but the more fundamental question of when life begins. Does it begin at conception or some later time?

As to life beginning at conception, Catholic teaching throughout history has been less consistent than currently appears.

Some of the church’s greatest theologians (e.g.: Saints Jerome, Augustine, Thomas Acquinas) believed that life began not at conception but at a later time variously referred to as animation, quickening, hominization, or ensoulment. But for a three year period from 1588 to 1591 under the encyclical Effraenatam issued by a Pope concerned about prostitution in Rome and quickly repealed by his successor, the law of the church did not consider the taking of an unanimated fetus to warrant the most severe of sanctions. This changed in 1869 under the reign of Pope Pius IX.

What happened in 1869 and why?

On October 12, 1869, Pius IX issued Apostolicae Sedis Moderationi – a declaration of penal procedure which among other things imposed the most severe penalty for all abortions. This action has been regarded as eliminating the distinction between animated and unanimated fetuses, removing ambiguity about the sanction for abortion, and effectively decreeing that life begins at conception. This doctrine endures today.

Not a lot is known (at least to this writer) about the details of Pius IX’s reasoning. A scholar at Notre Dame University has suggested that the Pope was responding to evolving theology. An Irish newspaper article suggested that he was harmonizing the doctrine with his earlier proclamation of Immaculate Conception (i.e.: that Mary was free of original sin from the moment of conception). According to a research project at Arizona State University (The Embryo Project), the Pope thought that because of the possibility that life began at conception, it was morally safer to pick the earlier date. Perhaps scholars more qualified than this author can shed more light on this issue. Whatever the reason, the rule arose out of a papal preference for a conservative view of the beginning of life.

Why of all times but for three years in over the entire church history was this the moment to make such a decision?

The Papacy of Pius IX occurred during tumultuous times. Europe was experiencing a rise in nationalism and democracy and the drive for Italian unification known as the Risorgiamento. For almost a thousand years, the popes ruled over much of central and northern Italy (the Papal States).

Italian nationalists had been chipping away for years but by mid-century, Pius IX still reigned as a secular king. He had his own army and the government was run by the clergy. But his subjects were restive and the pressure on him by nationalists such as Victor Emmanuelle, Mazzini, and Garibaldi was becoming intense. In 1848 the Pope was forced to flee under fire from Rome to Gaeta (near Naples) and returned only with the protection of the French Army. In 1867, Garibaldi came close to taking Rome but was wounded at the Battle of Mentana. In 1870, the forces of the Risorgiamento entered Rome and deprived Pius IX of his temporal kingdom and he confined himself to the Vatican where he considered himself a prisoner.

Pius IX began as a liberal but ended as a conservative. He considered his temporal rule to be ordained by God. He became increasingly strident in denouncing the forces of modernism and secularism. He called the Vatican I Council for this purpose. He defended the infamous 1858 kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara – a Jewish child who had been secretly baptized. The Church was reorganized to emphasize papal supremacy (a process called ultramontanism). He proclaimed papal infallibility. On March 26, 1869, he excommunicated some of his territory grabbing adversaries including King Victor Emmanuelle. He condemned freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and progress, liberalism, and modern civilization. He had become bitter at the revolutionary forces surrounding him.

Given this background, it seems reasonable to question whether the papal decision about abortion in 1869 (as in 1588) was influenced more by Italian politics and culture than by faith and morals or divine revelation.

This historical oddity may shed some light on why abortion is controversial even among some Catholics.

What about the large percentage of American Catholics who ignore the teaching of their church or the relative legality of abortion in most of the Catholic countries of Europe (Italy, Ireland, Spain, Austria, France)? Is the teaching of the church for the past 153 years entitled to that much more moral or penal authority than its teaching for most of its 2,000- year-old previous history? Is the credibility of the church affected by its sex abuse scandals? Will the Supreme Court majority (all Catholics) be guided by religion? Will 21st Century America be unwittingly guided by an Italian Pope from his grave?

Frank Hanley Santoro of Deep River is a retired attorney and a product of 19 years of education at Catholic institutions.