Archbishop Wuerl on Science, Aquinas and the Catholic Faith

September 09, 2008

Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl sent the following letter to the priests of Washington in light of public comments about the teachings of the Catholic faith that were made by Senator Joseph Biden during a September 7, 2008 Meet the Press interview. While noting the respect due to public officials on policy issues, Archbishop Wuerl also highlights the difference between science, the theories of St. Thomas Aquinas and faith.

Dear Brother Priests,

In late August, I wrote to you following a discussion in the national media regarding what our Catholic faith says about when life begins and about abortion. Many of you took the opportunity to present and affirm the teaching of the Catholic Church on this important issue with your parishioners, and I thank you. These are teachable moments, and present an opportunity to highlight the consistency and clarity of our Catholic faith.

Unfortunately, again this week on Meet the Press, the Catholic teaching on human life was not clearly presented by a public official. In an interview, Senator Joseph Biden said he is “prepared to accept the teachings of my church” on when life begins, but would not “impose that judgment on everyone else.”

When asked about his stated belief that life begins at conception and his public record on abortion, he said, “I voted against telling everyone else in the country that they have to accept my religiously-based view that it’s at the moment of conception. There is a debate in our Church…that’s existed…Thomas Aquinas said…it didn’t occur until quickening, 40 days after conception. How am I going out and tell you, if you or anyone else that you must insist upon my view that is based on a matter of faith.”

The role of elected officials to address the public policy issues before them must be respected, but the interpretation of the Catholic faith is the responsibility of the bishops. To avoid confusion among people of goodwill about the Church’s teaching on human life, it is important to state once again the Catholic Church’s constant teaching on human life, as well as clarify the difference between science, the theories of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the faith.

When life begins is not a matter of faith, but a matter of science. The scientific research available to us today confirms that the joining of the human egg and sperm begins a new human life. There is overwhelming empirical evidence that once conceived, that life will continue through its many natural stages, from embryo to fetus to infant to child and on until death. Religious belief does not change this scientific fact.

However, faith and the natural moral law guide us in how we treat this human life. The Catholic Church has been unwavering in its teaching, as we are told in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception…Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.” (paragraphs 2270-2271)

As you are aware, Saint Thomas Aquinas, who lived 800 years ago, shared this belief. Even while speculating on when the soul enters the physical body in light of biological theories of his time that have long since been disproved, Aquinas rejected abortion at every stage, calling it a sin “against nature” to reject God’s gift of life.

Our Catholic faith proclaims what is already written in our human hearts and recognized in our conscience – to kill innocent human life is wrong. The commandment “you shall not kill” is, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “a privileged expression of the natural law” (2070). Modern science has demonstrated beyond any doubt that this innocent human life begins at conception. Defense of innocent human life is not an imposition of personal religious conviction but an act of justice.

In gratitude for your own teaching ministry and with every good wish, I am

Faithfully in Christ,
Donald W. Wuerl
Archbishop of Washington

Susan Gibbs
Director of Communications
[email protected]