I think the Fathers would recognize America’s moral landscape for what it is. Our world is not so different from the world where they lived — the world they converted and healed.
But who belongs to our world? For the last generation, Americans have tried to place certain classes of humans beyond the protection of the law, outside the definition of personhood. It began with the fetus, the preborn child. Court decisions placed arbitrary limits — at the first trimester, or second, or birth. But does anyone take these seriously? What is it about a day of development — or a week — that changes the baby so radically as to make her a different sort of being? Which is the event that confers personhood?
Again, different ethicists propose different answers: self-consciousness, the ability to feel pain, sensitivity to light and sound, and so on. But these, too, fail. After all, we don’t (yet) kill older children who are blind or deaf. The most honest pro-choice thinkers put the matter baldly: what confers personhood is the will of the mother.
The Church Fathers were familiar with this line of thinking. In pagan Rome, a child did not achieve personhood until recognized by the head of the family, the father. When the mother had given birth, a midwife placed the child on the floor and summoned the father. He examined the child with his criteria of selection in mind.
Was the child his? If the man suspected his wife of adultery — ancient Rome’s favorite pastime — he might reject the child without so much as a glance.
If the child were an “odious daughter” (a common Roman phrase for female offspring), he would likely turn on his heel and leave the room.
If the child were “defective” in any way, he would do the same. As the philosopher Seneca said: “What is good must be set apart from what is good-for-nothing.”
Life or death? It all depended upon the will of a man. Human life began when the child was accepted into society. A man did not “have a child.” He “took a child.” The father “raised up” the child by picking it up from the floor.
Those non-persons who were left on the floor — while their mothers watched from a birthing chair — would be drowned immediately, or exposed to scavenging animals at the town dump.
Against these customs, the Church consistently taught that life begins at conception and should continue till natural death. In such matters, Christianity contradicted pagan mores on almost every point. What were virtuous acts to the Romans and Greeks — contraception, abortion, infanticide, suicide, euthanasia — were abominations to the Christians.
The papyrus trail is especially extensive for abortion, which is condemned by the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Apocalypse of Peter; by Justin, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Hippolytus, Origen, and Cyprian. And that partial list takes us only to the middle of the third century.
The earliest extrabiblical document, the Didache, begins with these words: “Two Ways there are, one of Life and one of Death, and there is a great difference between the Two Ways.” The Fathers converted their world from one Way to the other, and they were judged righteous.
Our last generations have perverted our world from one Way to another, and we too will be judged. But we can still do something, as our earliest Christian ancestors did, and we must.
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