People on all sides of the abortion debate tend to share an assumption, regardless of their personal views on the issue: Catholicism allows only one attitude toward abortion, that it is among the worst sins, an unconscionable evil. Proponents of women’s rights over their own bodies often criticise anti-abortion legislation as “medieval”, with the Irish Constitution’s Eighth Amendment regularly characterised as such. And yet medieval biographies of multiple Irish Catholic saints, including beloved Brigid of Kildare, reverently record abortions among their miracles, and medieval Irish Catholic penitentialists, priestly authorities who prescribed penances for sins and were often celebrated as saints themselves, treated abortion as a relatively minor offence.
Ireland’s abortionist saints cannot be considered champions of choice, however. The only choice they seem to consider is their own (and implicitly God’s). The most detailed account is told of Ciarán of Saigir, after he rescued a nun named Bruinnech who had been abducted by a local king. “When the man of God returned to the monastery with the girl, she confessed that she was pregnant. Then the man of God, led by the zeal of justice, not wishing the serpent’s seed to quicken, pressed down on her womb with the sign of the cross and forced her womb to be emptied.” Bruinnech’s feelings about her rape, pregnancy, or abortion are not addressed, apart from her “confession”.
When another nun, pregnant after “fornicating secretly”, had Cainnech of Aghaboe bless her belly, “at once the baby (infans) in her womb vanished without a trace”. While this may well have answered her most desperate prayers, the sort of blessing she sought isn’t specified. The recipients of Áed mac Bricc’s and Brigid’s abortion miracles don’t even speak before the saints purge their wombs. Brigid’s devotee, however, afterwards “gave thanks to God” – the only one of these women whose response gets recorded in the texts. And of the four only Bruinnech gets a name.
If a cleric has sex only once and covertly, he is to fast a full year on bread and water and two years without wine and meat; if it's habitual, three years on bread and water
Saints were not the only Catholics performing abortions in medieval Ireland. The sixth-century Penitential of Vinnian, the seventh-century Irish Canons, and the eighth-century Old Irish Penitential include abortion among the many sins to be repented. Comparatively speaking, it’s a lesser one. In the Irish Canons, the penance of a woman who has had an abortion amounts to a quarter or half the time of the penance of a man who has committed fornication. In the Old Irish Penitential, the penance depends on the stage of pregnancy, divided into three, like trimesters: in the first, three and a half years of penance; in the second, seven years; in the third, 14 years. The Old Irish Penitential also stipulates that oral sex merits four or five years’ penance the first time, seven years if it is repeated.
The Penitential of Vinnian (often attributed to Finnian of Clonard) takes an even more permissive attitude to abortion. His female reproductive penances seem aimed at nuns, though he refers simply to “a woman” (mulier). If she has an abortion, she is to fast on bread and water for six months and refrain from wine and meat for two years. “But if she bears a child and her sin is manifest, (she shall do penance) for six years, as is the judgement in the case of a cleric, and in the seventh year she shall be joined to the altar, and then we say her crown can be restored and she may don a white robe and be pronounced a virgin.” Presumably this restored virginity after six years of penance for childbirth applied specifically to nuns, not laywomen.
Significantly, however, Vinnian treats religious men’s sexual and reproductive sins much more severely. If a cleric has sex only once and covertly, he is to fast a full year on bread and water and two years without wine and meat; if it’s habitual, three years on bread and water, three years without wine and meat, and loss of office. A cleric who begets a child and commits infanticide must fast for three years on bread and water, followed by three years without wine and meat for two-thirds of each year and one-third on bread and water as well as “exile from his own country, until a period of seven years is completed.” Only after all that is he eligible to be restored to office. Vinnian concludes that section by declaring, “If, however, he has not killed the child, the sin is less, but the penance is the same.” For abortion, the sin must have been significantly less, as the penance was nowhere near the same.
Today's repeated refrain that 'you can't be Catholic and pro-choice' indicates an ignorance of history and a disregard for the views of the majority of Catholics themselves
Irish citizens will vote next month whether to repeal their Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which effectively outlaws abortion in Ireland. Many proclaim abortion prohibitions to be “pro-life” but the deaths resulting from such policies, including of Savita Halappanavar, who died of septicemia in a Galway hospital after being denied a medically necessary termination, and of the estimated 68,000 women who die each year from unsafe, illegal abortions around the world, attest that the issue is not so simple. Neither is Catholicism. Medieval Catholic Ireland included saints who performed miraculous abortions and penitentialists who presented abortion as a lesser offence than fornication, childbirth, and oral sex.
Today’s repeated refrain that “you can’t be Catholic and pro-choice” indicates an ignorance of history and a disregard for the views of the majority of Catholics themselves, who hold much more progressive values than church leaders generally allow, including in Ireland. A January 2018 Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll found that 65 per cent of Irish voters supported repealing the Eighth Amendment and allowing abortions at least for the first trimester. Some see this acceptance of abortion as further proof that the Irish are losing their Catholic foundation, but those who support legal and safe abortion might better reflect a “medieval” Irish Catholic attitude than those who oppose it.
Maeve Callan, associate professor of religion at Simpson College in Iowa, is the author of The Templars, the Witch, and the Wild Irish: Vengeance and Heresy in Medieval Ireland, published by Cornell University Press and Four Courts Press. She is working on a book on gender, sanctity, and power in medieval Ireland