In the pagan Roman empire, abortion and infanticide were commonplace events, requiring little deliberation. A child did not achieve personhood until recognized by the head of the family. Immediately after the baby’s delivery, 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 —pagan Rome’s favorite pastime — he might reject the child without so much as a glance. If the child were an “odious daughter” (the 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.
For the Romans, 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.
Indeed, most pagan cultures considered it a duty to kill “defective” newborns. Plato and Aristotle commended the practice, and the Roman historian Tacitus said it was “sinister and revolting” for Jews to forbid infanticide. 1 The philosopher Seneca said: “What is good must be set apart from what is good for nothing.” 2
Against such customs, the Church consistently taught that life begins at conception and should continue till natural death. In these life-and-death 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 ofBarnabas, the apocryphal Apocalypse of Peter; by Clement of Alexandria,Athenagoras, Justin, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Hippolytus, Origenand Cyprian. And that partial list takes us only to the middle of the third century.
Anti-life practices created a crisis for pagans. Abortion and infanticide led to low fertility rates, high maternal mortality, a shortage of marriageable women and an absence of familial care for the elderly. Over generations, the dwindling native population of Rome grew increasingly dependent on foreign mercenaries to fill the ranks of the army and immigrants to do the servile jobs that no Roman citizen wanted to do.That makes for an unstable infrastructure. Various emperors tried to legislate fertility, but the law isn’t much of an aphrodisiac. And abortion kills a couple’s love every bit as much as it kills their baby. Besides, people had grown accustomed to an unmoored, leisurely life, drifting from pleasure to pleasure, without the encumbrance of children. A growing number of people were dissatisfied with the societal consequences of their sins, but they were unwilling to give up their sinful behavior. What was a culture to do?
Christians offered answers. Around A.D. 155, Saint Justin Martyr wrote to the emperor: “We have been taught that it is wicked to expose even newly born children.… For we would then be murderers.” 3 In the same century, Athenagoras said: “Women who use drugs to bring on an abortion commit murder.” 4
Christians knew instinctively that no society could live and grow if it snuffed out life in the seed or in the bud. No society could be inclusive if it refused to welcome the most vulnerable persons. It was Christians who created the first truly tolerant, welcoming and all-inclusive society— with a remarkable social-welfare system. They did this because they,unlike their rulers, not only tolerated the poor and weak, nor loved them with a merely human affection. They saw the least of the human family as the image of God, as Christ who must be welcomed, as angels requiring hospitality.
A third-century document, the Didascalia Apostolorum, sums it up in a lovely simile: “Widows and orphans are to be revered like the altar.” 5 From such reverence for life came true social security, true stability and prosperity.
The earliest extra biblical document, the Didache, begins with these words: “There are two ways, one of Life and one of Death, and there is a great difference between the two ways.” The early Christians converted their world from one way to the other, and they were judged righteous. How will we be judged today?
1 Tacitus, Histories 5.5.
2 Quoted in Veyne, 9.
3 St. Justin Martyr, First Apology 27.
4 Athenagoras of Athens, A Plea for the Christians 35.
5 Didascalia Apostolorum
[post above taken from The Knights of Columbus presents The Veritas Series
“Proclaiming the Faith in the Third Millennium”, The Early Church by Mike Aquilina, p. 18-21]