A Culture Exposed
Friday May 12th 2006, 5:44 pm
Filed under: Patristics

Just a few months ago, the Washington Post ran an astonishing opinion column, written by one of its own, Patricia E. Bauer, a former Post bureau chief. Patricia has a grown daughter with Down syndrome, and she writes about the rudeness she has had to endure through the years. People ask her whether she had undergone prenatal testing. The unspoken assumption is that, if she had, her daughter Margaret would never have been born. One Ivy League ethicist said in her presence that mothers whose unborn children test positive for Down syndrome have a “moral obligation” to terminate the pregnancy.

We’ve come a long way, baby. And we’ve ended up back where we started before the rise of Christianity. In the Church’s infancy, the age of the Fathers, abortion and infanticide were commonplace events, requiring little deliberation. Archeology has yielded us a rare glimpse at the inner life of ordinary people in this time. We have a letter from a pagan businessman in which he wrote home to his pregnant wife, amid the usual endearments: “If you are delivered of a child [before I come home], if it is a boy, keep it, if a girl discard it.”

Indeed, most pagan cultures considered it a duty to place “defective” newborns on the dunghills at the edge of town, where birds of prey could pick them apart. Most families interpreted the word “defective” broadly, to include female children as well as those with disabilities or disfigurement. Plato and Aristotle commended the practice, and the Roman historian Tacitus said it was “sinister and revolting” for Jews to forbid infanticide.

Yet these 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.

We face a similar crisis today. Christianity’s critics say they want to promote a tolerant, welcoming, inclusive society. What they usually mean is a society that gives free rein to every vice, every cruel lust, and every sin. But a growing number of people are dissatisfied with the societal consequences of those sins. What’s a culture to do?

We Christians have answers. Around 155 A.D., St. 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.” In the same century, Athenagoras said: “Women who use drugs to bring on an abortion commit murder.” These testimonies appear late in the game, a half-century after the earliest recorded Christian condemnation of abortion.

We, too, are living rather late in the game, but not too late to speak up and speak plainly. No society can grow if it snuffs out life in the seed or in the bud. No society can be inclusive if it refuses 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 merely loved them with a 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.

I’ve quoted the Didascalia Apostolorum here before, but that’s OK. We need to memorize this line as if it were the first catechism lesson: “Widows and orphans are to be revered like the altar.”

From such reverence for life came true social security, true stability and prosperity. From such reverence came many beloved and loving children like Margaret.


2 Comments so far
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Mike:
I’m currently reading Cesar Vidal’s El legado del cristanismo en la cultura occidental. He devotes an entire section in the first part called Christinity conquers the empire. the 2 principal subsection is on the women and defense of life. Cesar cites an astounding letter by a Hilario to his wife. She’s pregnant and states rather casually fater telling her how much he misses her and loves her that if the kid’s a girl to get rid of it.
Cesar also points out that Aristotle (whom I have lots of respect for) stated that any woman ove rthe age of 40 who was pregant hadto undergo an abortion in order to keep the polis a ‘managable size’
Finally, Cesar indirectly talks about the mines but doesn’t go into much detail- just how mortal was it to work in the mines?

Cesar arrives at pretty much the same conclusions as you. He even states that the birth rate was negative and the pagans’ behaviour exposed a deep nilism that simply couldn’t sustain itself. I suspect that had the Romans adopted a culture of life as the Christians, we’d still be speaking in an evolved Latin, the Empire would still be around and the Germanic, Arabic and Slavic tribes would’ve been contained for a few centuries more

xavier

Comment by xavier 05.12.06 @ 7:09 pm

[...] “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 Church Fathers have written extensively and the Church has witnessed throughout her history to the sanctity of all life. In another place on The Way of the Fathers it says: “In the Church’s infancy, the age of the Fathers, abortion and infanticide were commonplace events, requiring little deliberation. Archeology has yielded us a rare glimpse at the inner life of ordinary people in this time. We have a letter from a pagan businessman in which he wrote home to his pregnant wife, amid the usual endearments: “If you are delivered of a child [before I come home], if it is a boy, keep it, if a girl discard it.” Indeed, most pagan cultures considered it a duty to place “defective” newborns on the dunghills at the edge of town, where birds of prey could pick them apart. Most families interpreted the word “defective” broadly, to include female children as well as those with disabilities or disfigurement. Plato and Aristotle commended the practice, and the Roman historian Tacitus said it was “sinister and revolting” for Jews to forbid infanticide. Yet these 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. We face a similar crisis today. Christianity’s critics say they want to promote a tolerant, welcoming, inclusive society. What they usually mean is a society that gives free rein to every vice, every cruel lust, and every sin. But a growing number of people are dissatisfied with the societal consequences of those sins. What’s a culture to do?.” [...]

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