St. Thomas Aquinas and abortion

Question: St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that life does not begin until the second trimester. How should we answer this, especially in regard to abortion? 

Thomas Dincher, Williamsport, Pa.

Answer: The wording of your question is slightly inaccurate. St. Thomas did not deny that life in the womb was, in fact, life. The teaching of Aquinas to which you refer is that an unborn baby receives a soul 40 or 80 days after conception, depending on gender. (Note this is much earlier than the second trimester.) Aquinas held this opinion based on Aristotle, who said a child has a soul when he or she first has a human “form” — that is, when the child looks human. The difference in gender was based on the point at which genitals could be observed on miscarried children, earlier for boys, later for girls. 

While many link this position of Aquinas to the abortion debate, the date of ensoulment is not essential to the Church’s position on the sinfulness of abortion. The Church roots her teaching in Scripture (see Ex 21:22-23; Ps 51:5; Ps 139:13-16; Jb 10:11; Is 44:24; Jer 1:5), Tradition and natural law. 

St. Thomas never wrote directly on abortion. There are only a couple of indirect references in the Summa Theologica (IIa, IIae, q.64, a 8; q.68, a 11). But surely he was well aware of the Scriptures above, as well as the ancient teaching of Tradition forbidding abortion at any stage. Beginning with the Didache, written around A.D. 110, which said, “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion” (2:2), and continuing with Barnabas, Clement, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Basil, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome and many other Fathers, and also authoritative Councils, the Church had consistently condemned abortion. Hence we ought not presume Aquinas ever intended, by engaging in a discussion of ensoulment, to contest the immorality of abortion at any stage. 

Regarding his teaching on ensoulment, most theologian’s regard his positions as rooted in a primitive understanding of embryology. Clearly natural science today demonstrates the existence of a genetically unique individual at conception. 

Sacrament vs. sacramental

Question: I was taught there were seven sacraments that give grace, and also that there were things called sacramentals that do not give grace the way that the sacraments do. Why then in my church bulletin do I read about classes being offered to prepare people for “sacramental marriage”? 

Rosemary Easley, Baltimore, Md.

Answer: Well, in your bulletin “sacramental” is being used as an adjective, not a noun. Hence it is not wrong to speak of sacramental marriage. But, your bulletin could be clearer by saying “Sacrament of Marriage (or Matrimony).” 

That said, your distinction between the nouns, “sacrament” and “sacramental” is sound. Sacramentals include things like blessings, blessed objects, holy water, medals, etc. They bear a resemblance to the sacraments. But sacraments, as “efficacious signs,” absolutely confer the grace they announce, presuming the recipient is properly open to receive them. Sacramentals are signs that prepare us to receive grace, and dispose us to cooperate with it, but are much more dependent on our disposition to be fruitful. More at the Catechism of the Catholic Church” (No. 1667ff). 

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.