LIBERA ME, Domine, Iesu Christe, ab omnibus iniquitatis meis et universis malis,
fac me tuis semper inhærere mandatis et a te numquam separari permittas. Amen.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

One aspect of my thinking . . .

Alright : I said something yesterday, perhaps a bit en passant, which may have caused some confusion . . . namely, that I don’t ever feel inclined to criticise or condemn women who have abortions; although I quite obviously do have a problem with abortion per se.

So perhaps an explanation is called for . . .

A Mortal Sin has three distinct – but unmistakable – characteristics : it is serious in character, and it requires full recognition that what one is doing is sinful, and full consent to doing it.

Now, clearly abortion is serious in character, inasmuch as it involves the destruction of a living being; so that characteristic is clearly satisfied. It is the other two requirements which I, for one, would never be prepared to say were satisfied by the decision of any woman to have an abortion : recognition, and consent.

Fr Davis SJ, the writer of one of the traditional standard texts on Moral Theology points out that ‘If one was disturbed by vehement passion or distraction’ then one’s ‘advertence’ (to use the technical term for recognition) was insufficient for the sin to be mortal . . . and he then goes on to point out that there are a wide range of things which can disturb the person's judgement sufficiently to preserve them from mortal sin.

Now : precisely because I accept that a great many women ultimately decide to have an abortion as the (often unsolicited) result of considerable emotional pressure, mental stress and distress, and even (effectively) mental disturbance, I accept that it is at least probable that their recognition of what they are doing is likely to be sufficiently disturbed for the sin to be mortal : not least because if they recognize it as a sin, they don’t want to be committing it . . . so it’s certainly not for me to decide that it’s a sin.

Equally, it is quite common for them not to want to have an abortion, but to feel themselves pressured into it; so that the consent must be at least impaired . . . so that, again, the sinfulness of it is uncertain.

As a result of this - which is hardly advanced Moral Theology - although I am quite certain of the sinfulness of abortion as an act, that doesn’t mean that a particular woman is actually committing a sin in doing it : and if she is, I am certainly not competent to determine that fact.

Likewise, although I find the idea of abortion as a deliberate choice motivated by (eg) convenience even more grievously undesirable, I have to accept that a woman who thinks that this is an acceptable line of reasoning is very probably not committing a mortal sin, if only because she clearly does not recognize that what she is doing falls into that category . . .

As a result of all of this, whilst I feel myself entirely entitled to say with certainty that abortion is a mortal sin, I feel myself equally incapable of saying with even comparative certainty that any given woman has actually committed it . . . simply because as I realize that the vast majority of women are not themselves absolutely clear about all the relevant aspects of their decision, I am certainly not capable of being clear about whether what they have done satisfies the three essential characteristics of being mortally sinful.

I therefore simply try and approach each and every woman I ever meet who has had an abortion - and there have been quite a number - with care, sympathy, and understanding; and leave deciding the exact nature of what they have done to Almighty God . . . I just try and show them the compassion that I believe that - all things being equal - God would wish they had felt able to show to their babies.


  1. How very Thomistic of you! This is clarification indeed! The liberal in me wants to agree whole heartedly that a women who finds herself in the position of feeling forced (by society, partner, emotional and psychological stress) to terminate a pregnancy should never be condemned - it is just not a compassionate approach. And the need to never judge what constitutes that decision is so important too! It leaves only one option, which you name, practical support, care, listening and understanding. We have found common ground - God bless Aquinas!

    Being awkward I have one niggle - that is the suspicion that an argument that is founded upon the notion that any woman considering an abortion cannot possibly know what she is doing is patronising. But, if you extend that argument to say any person who commits a grave and sinful act is unlikely to know the full consequences or gravity of their actions, I might be tempted to go along. I would base this on good old Aquinas' idea that people are always searching after some 'good', but far too often they are mislead by 'false goods' capable of internally 'justifying' sinful actions - a 'if I just do X, everything will be alright' thought process. That is something I recognise in myself, and therefore am assuming (perhaps bravely) that it happens to other people too! (don't leave me hanging people!) :o

  2. Spot on, Dominic Mary. We can wholeheartedly condemn the sin without failing in charity toward the sinner.

    It is a huge comfort that Holy Mother Church takes such pains to allow her errant children a way back into the fold - yes, what you did was dreadfully wrong, but you didn't really understand what you were doing - pretty much echoing Jesus from the cross: Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.