Maria Gravida The Pregnant Virgin (circa 1410), Hungarian National Gallery. pinimg.com
Looking ahead to 1/22, here are a few spontaneous theological thoughts I wrote several years ago on the unspeakable crime of abortion. While abortion is an irreducibly complex issue, faith provides a fundamental vision that should illumine a Christian approach to the debate.
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From the moment of conception, the life of every human being is to be respected in an absolute way because man is the only creature on earth that God has “wished for himself” and the spiritual soul of each man is immediately created by God; his whole being bears the image of the Creator. Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. — Vatican Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation
I have always found this theological argument to a compelling way of thinking about the Church’s approach to abortion. It is, you might say, a contemplative approach that requires openness to seeing the grandeur of human life at its very beginning. Aquinas defines contemplation as a “simple gaze on truth,” an intuitive grasp that precedes cold analysis.
Seeing in this instance means to become aware of the truth that, in the “event” of conception, God creates ex nihilo, “out of nothing,” a singularly unique, immortal and spiritual soul. In this act of creation, God imprints the “stamp” of His image in our clay and transforms a new instance of life into a new person. The Divine Persons beget human persons, a face made to behold a Face.
Every newly conceived human is an absolutely new creative event, something utterly novel, singular and incommensurable. Literally a new creation. This immediate divine action, that takes place unseen in the body of the mother, is a recapitulation of the beginning of creation when God called all things into existence out of nothingness. In a mother’s womb, God re-utters the words He spoke at the genesis of human life. No, better, at conception the mother’s womb becomes present to God’s timeless Trinitarian resolve, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26).
Every human being is a microcosm, a “little cosmos,” for whom God created the entire cosmos. This is the sense behind the ancient Jewish proverb found in the Talmud:
Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.
One could also say that the womb of a mother, as with the Virgin Mary, is a temple in which God draws so near to creation that He leaves behind the imprint of His image in our clay. Jesus Christ, the Incarnation of God in the womb of Mary, is simply the in extremis, “in the extreme” of God’s repeated act of creating each of us in His image and likeness.* Think of the intimate proximity between the divine Archetype and His image. We are the “apple of His eye” (Psalm 17:8). God becoming human (John 1:14) spotlights, seals, crowns, elevates and consummates the infinite dignity of every human life, as the eternal Image of the Father (Col. 1:15) joins to Himself forever His created image. Magnificent! This is why whatever we do to His image, He considers done to Him (cf Gen. 9:6; Prov. 19:17; Matt. 25:40).
Pope Benedict put this poetically: “Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” In the woman’s womb, regardless of the circumstances of conception (as God can even bring good out of evil), God wills into existence a new and wholly unique person whom He has thought of – dreamt of – from all eternity. God creates each new person as an unrepeatable “word” spoken to creation, tasked with a specific mission, and calls each to union with Himself in an existence that will never cease. As the Vatican document above says it, once conceived each man and woman “remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator.”
This is the “white hot core” of what is assaulted in an abortion, which is carried out beneath the rapt gaze of the Father.
How unique is His love for each human life! “O Good One, who so cares for every one of us, as if you cared for him only” (St. Augustine).
Pregnancy is not just a biological datum, a genetic mass, but a fathomless mystery that contains the singularly focused attention of the infinite God who loves every person into a new existence. A person who alone, in all of creation, is capax Dei, “capable of [union with] God.” But only in a sacramental universe, seen as shot through with the action and presence of God, is such a perspective comprehensible. Yes this is the universe Catholics are called to discover, to uncover, to reveal to the rest of humanity so that all can see the glory of God teeming with splendor at the very beginning of the story of every human person. Be in awe of every human being, qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit” from all eternity as the masterpiece of the Father, created for the Son to be His mystic Body to the eternal glory of the Triune majesty unto the ages of ages. Amen.
St. John Paul II:
I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and to his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.
*Θ caveat: though I wish to emphasize the radical continuity of God-becoming-man with our being created in the divine image, the Incarnation is a wholly unique event, as Jesus alone is God-in-the-flesh, His union of natures in one divine Person being different not only in degree but in kind from that all of other human beings. We are not pantheists.