St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr, Pray for Us!
Here is the account of the glorious martyrdom of St. Agnes, taken from Butler’s Lives of the Saints, in honor of her feast day, January 21. In St. Agnes we see the true Christian abhorrence of impurity.
A great danger facing Catholics young and old is a lack of focus on the virtues that are absolutely necessary for salvation. We must strive for the “higher ground” in our thoughts and deeds, and nowhere more so than in purity. The young suffer from lack of catechesis, or worse, false catechesis. Adults may suffer from a lack of knowledge, or from desensitization due to immersion in the world.
St. Agnes provides a glorious example of setting one’s heart on the love of God alone. Even though we are not all called to the chastity of religious life, we can strive to imitate St. Agnes in her ardent love of God and her uncompromising zeal for purity. Undoubtedly, this would bring an end to abortion is also applied, though less properly, to cases in which the child is become viable, but does not survive the delivery. In this article we shall take the word in its widest meaning, and treat of abortion as occurring at any time between conception and safe delivery. The word miscarriageis taken in the same wide sense. Yet medical writers often use these words in special meanings, restricting abortion to the time when the embryo has not yet assumed specific features, that is, in the human embryo, before the third month of gestation; miscarriage occurs later, but before viability; while the birth of a viable child before the completed term of nine months is styled premature birth. Viability may exist in the seventh month of gestation, but it cannot safely be presumed before the eighth month. If the child survives its premature birth, there is no abortion -- for this word always denotes the loss of fetal life.
It was long debated among the learned at what period of gestation the human embryo begins to be animated by the rational, spiritual soul, which elevates man above all other species of the animal creation and survives the body to live forever. The keenest mind among the ancient philosophers, Aristotle, had conjectured that the future child was endowed at conception with a principle of only vegetative life, which was exchanged after a few days for an animal soul, and was not succeeded by a rational soul till later; his followers said on the fortieth day for a male, and the eightieth for a female, child. The authority of his great name and the want of definite knowledge to the contrary caused this theory to be generally accepted up to recent times. Yet, as early as the fourth century of the Christian era, St. Gregory of Nyssa had advocated the view which modern science has confirmed almost to a certainty, namely, that the same life principle quickens the organism from the first moment of its individual existence until its death (Eschbach, Disp. Phys., Disp., iii). Now it is at the very time of conception, or fecundation, that the embryo begins to live a distinct individual life. For life does not result from an organism when it has been built up, but the vital principle builds up the organism of its own body. In virtue of the one eternal act of the Will of the Creator, Who is of course ever present at every portion of His creation, the soul of every new human being begins to exist when the cell which generation has provided is ready to receive it as its principle of life. In the normal course of nature the living embryo carries on its work of, self-evolution within the maternal womb, deriving its nourishment from the placenta through the vital cord, till, on reaching maturity, it is by the contraction of the uterus issued to lead its separate life. Abortion is a fatal termination of this process. It may result from various causes, which may be classed under two heads, accidental and intentional.
Accidental causes may be of many different kinds. There may be remote predispositions in the mother to contract diseases fatal to her offspring. Heredity, malformation, advanced age, excessive weakness, effects of former sicknesses, etc. may be causes of danger; even the climate may exercise an unfavorable influence. More immediate causes of abortion may be found in cruel treatment of the mother by her husband or in starvation, or any kind of hardship. Her own indiscretion may to blame; as when she undertakes excessive labors or uses intoxicating drinks too freely. Anything in fact that causes a severe shock to the bodily frame or the nervous system of the mother may be fatal to the child in her womb.
Intentional abortions are distinguished by medical writers into two classes. When they are brought about for social reasons, they are called criminal abortions; and they are rightly condemned under any circumstances whatsoever. \"Often, very often,\" said Dr. Hodge, of the University of Pennsylvania, \"must all the eloquence and all the authority of the practitioner be employed; often he must, as it were, grasp the conscience of his weak and erring patient, and let her know, in language not to be misunderstood, that she is responsible to the Creator for the life of the being within her\" (Wharton and Stille\'s Med. Jurispr., Vol. on Abortion, 11). The name of obstetrical abortionis given by physicians to such as is performed to save the life of the mother. Whether this practice is ever morally lawful we shall consider below.
It is evident that the determination of what is right or wrong in human conduct belongs to the science of ethics and the teaching of religious authority. Both of these declare the Divine law, \"Thou shalt not kill\". The embryonic child, as seen above, has a human soul; and therefore is a man from the time of its conception; therefore it has an equal right to its life with its mother; therefore neither the mother, nor medical practitioner, nor any human being whatever can lawfully take that life away. The State cannot give such right to the physician; for it has not itself the right to put an innocent person to death. No matter how desirable it might seem to be at times to save the life of the mother, common sense teaches and all nations accept the maxim, that \"evil is never to be done that good may come of it\"; or, which is the same thing, that \"a good end cannot justify a bad means\". Now it is an evil means to destroy the life of an innocent child. The plea cannot be made that the child is an unjust aggressor. It is simply where nature and its own parents have put it. Therefore, Natural Law forbids any attempt at destroying fetal life.
The teachings of the Catholic Church admit of no doubt on the subject. Such moral questions, when they are submitted, are decided by the Tribunal of the Holy Office. Now this authority decreed, 28 May, 1884, and again, 18 August, 1889, that \"it cannot be safely taught in Catholic schools that it is lawful to perform . . . any surgical operation which is directly destructive of the life of the fetus or the mother.\" Abortion was condemned by name, 24 July, 1895, in answer to the question whether when the mother is in immediate danger of death and there is no other means of saving her life, a physician can with a safe conscience cause abortion not by destroying the child in the womb (which was explicitly condemned in the former decree), but by giving it a chance to be born alive, though not being yet viable, it would soon expire. The answer was that he cannot. After these and other similar decisions had been given, some moralists thought they saw reasons to doubt whether an exception might not be allowed in the case of ectopic gestations. Therefore the question was submitted: \"Is it ever allowed to extract from the body of the mother ectopic embryos still immature, before the sixth month after conception is completed?\" The answer given, 20 March, 1902, was: \"No; according to the decree of 4 May, 1898; according to which, as far as possible, earnest and opportune provision is to be made to safeguard the life of the child and of the mother. As to the time, let the questioner remember that no acceleration of birth is licit unless it be done at a time, and in ways in which, according to the usual course of things, the life of the mother and the child be provided for\". Ethics, then, and the Church agree in teaching that no action is lawful which directly destroys fetal life. It is also clear that extracting the living fetus before it is viable, is destroying its life as directly as it would be killing a grown man directly to plunge him into a medium in which he cannot live, and hold him there till he expires.
However, if medical treatment or surgical operation, necessary to save a mother\'s life, is applied to her organism (though the child\'s death would, or at least might, follow as a regretted but unavoidable consequence), it should not be maintained that the fetal life is thereby directly attacked. Moralists agree that we are not always prohibited from doing what is lawful in itself, though evil consequences may follow which we do not desire. The good effects of our acts are then directly intended, and the regretted evil consequences are reluctantly permitted to follow because we cannot avoid them. The evil thus permitted is said to be indirectly intended. It is not imputed to us provided four conditions are verified, namely:
Nunc uterum vitiat quae vult formosa videri,
Raraque, in hoc aevo, est quae velit esse parens.
Three centuries later we meet with the first record of laws enacted by the State to check this crime. Exile was decreed against mothers guilty of it; while those who administered the potion to procure it were if nobles, sent to certain islands, if plebeians, condemned to work in the metal mines. Still the Romans in their legislation appear to have aimed at punishing the wrong done by abortion to the father or the mother, rather than the wrong done to the unborn child. The early Christians are the first on record as having pronounced abortion to be the murder of human beings, for their public apologists, Athenagoras, Tertullian, and Minutius Felix (Eschbach, \"Disp. Phys.\", Disp. iii), to refute the slander that a child was slain, and its flesh eaten, by the guests at the Agapae, appealed to their laws as forbidding all manner of murder, even that of children in the womb. The Fathers of the Church unanimously maintained the same doctrine. In the fourth century the Council of Eliberis decreed that Holy Communion should be refused all the rest of her life, even on her deathbed, to an adulteress who had procured the abortion of her child. The Sixth Ecumenical Council determined for the whole Church that anyone who procured abortion should bear all the punishments inflicted on murderers. In all these teachings and enactments no distinction is made between the earlier and the later stages of gestation. For, though the opinion of Aristotle, or similar speculations, regarding the time when the rational soul is infused into the embryo, were practically accepted for many centuries still it was always held by the Church that he who destroyed what was to be a man was guilty of destroying a human life. The great prevalence of criminal abortion ceased wherever Christianity became established. It was a crime of comparatively rare occurrence in the Middle Ages. Like its companion crime, divorce, it did not again become a danger to society till of late years. Except at times and in places influenced by Catholic principles, what medical writers call \"obstetric\" abortion, as distinct from \"criminal\" (though both are indefensible on moral grounds), has always been a common practice. It was usually performed by means of craniotomy, or the crushing of the child\'s head to save the mother\'s life. Hippocrates, Celsus, Avicenna, and the Arabian school generally invented a number of vulnerating instruments to enter and crush the child\'s cranium. In more recent times, with the advance of the obsteric science, more conservative measures have gradually prevailed. By use of the forceps, by skill acquired in version, by procuring premature labor, and especially by asepticism in the Caesarean section and other equivalent operations, medical science has found much improved means of saving both the child and its mother. Of late years such progress has been made in this matter, that craniotomy on the living child has passed out of reputable practice. But abortion proper, before the fetus is viable, is still often employed, especially in ectopic gestation; and there are many men and women who may be called professional abortionists.
In former times civil laws against all kinds of abortion were very severe among Christian nations. Among the Visigoths, the penalty was death, or privation of sight, for the mother who allowed it and for the father who consented to it, and death for the abortionist. In Spain, the woman guilty of it was buried alive. An edict of the French King Henry II in 1555, renewed by Louis XIV in 1708, inflicted capital punishment for adultery and abortion combined. Later French law (i.e., early twentieth century) punished the abortionist with imprisonment, and physicians, surgeons, and pharmacists, who prescribe or furnish the means, with the penalty of forced labor. For England, Blackstone stated the law as follows:
The Catholic Church has not relaxed her strict prohibition of all abortion; but, as we have seen above, she has made it more definite. As to the penalties she inflicts upon the guilty parties, her present legislation was fixed by the Bull of Pius IX \"Apostolicae Sedis\". It decrees excommunication -- that is, deprivation of the Sacraments and of the Prayers of the Church in the case of any of her members, and other privations besides in the case of clergymen -- against all who seek to procure abortion, if their action produces the effect. Penalties must always be strictly interpreted. Therefore, while anyone who voluntarily aids in procuring abortion, in any way whatever, does morally wrong, only those incur the excommunication who themselves actually and efficaciously procure the abortion. And the abortion here meant is that which is strictly so called, namely, that performed before the child is viable. For no one but the lawgiver has the right to extend the law beyond the terms in which it is expressed. On the other hand, no one can restrict its meaning by private authority, so as to make it less than the received terms of Church language really signify. Now Gregory XIV had enacted the penalty of excommunication for abortion of a \"quickened\" child but the present law makes no such distinction, and therefore it must be differently understood.
That distinction, however, applies to another effect which may result from the procuring of abortion; namely, he who does so for a child after quickening incurs an irregularity, or hindrance to his receiving or exercising Orders in the Church. But he would not incur such irregularity if the embryo were not yet quickened. The terms \"quickened\" and \"animation\" in present usage are applied to the child after the mother can perceive its motion, which usually happens about the one hundred and sixteenth day after conception. But in the old canon law, which established the irregularity here referred to the \"animation\" of the embryo was supposed to occur on the fortieth day for a male child, and on the eightieth day for a female child. In such matters of canon law, just as in civil law, many technicalities and intricacies occur, which it often takes the professional student to understand fully. In regard to the decisions of the Roman tribunal quoted above it is proper to remark that while they claim the respect and loyal adhesion of Catholics, they are not irreformable, since they are not definitive judgments, nor do they proceed directly from the Supreme Pontiff, who alone has the prerogative of infallibility. If ever reasons should arise, which is most improbable, to change these pronouncements those reasons would receive due consideration.');" onmouseout="tooltip.hide();">abortion and all the associated sins against life, marriage and chastity.
The Romans sought to defile St. Agnes. Tertullian reproached their evil designs in these words “By condemning the Christian maid to the lewd youth rather than to the lion, you have acknowledged that a stain against purity is more dreaded by us than any torments or death. Yet your crafty cruelty avails you not; it rather serves to gain men over to our holy religion.” St. Agnes’ confidence in the Lord Jesus is an example for youth today, to strengthen them in attacks on their chastity, especially the horrendous classroom sex-education programs run by the American bishops (see Mothers’ Watch for more information).
St. Agnes suffered not long after the beginning of the persecution of Diocletian, whose bloody edicts appeared in March in the year of our Lord 303. We learn from St. Ambrose and St. Augustine that she was only thirteen years of age at the time of her glorious death. Her riches and beauty excited the young noblemen of the first families in Rome, to vie with one another in their addresses, who should gain her in marriage. Agnes answered them all, that she had consecrated her virginity to a heavenly spouse, who could not be beheld by mortal eyes. Her suitors finding her resolution impregnable to all their arts and importunities, accused her to the governor as a Christian; not doubting but threats and torments would overcome her tender mind, on which allurements could make no impression. The judge at first employed the mildest expressions and most inviting promises; to which Agnes paid no regard, repeating always that she could have no other spouse than Jesus Christ. He then made use of threats, but found her soul endowed with a masculine courage, and even desirous of racks and death. At last, terrible fires were made, and iron hooks, racks, and other instruments of torture displayed before her, with threats of immediate execution. The young virgin surveyed them all with an undaunted eye; and with a cheerful countenance beheld the fierce and cruel executioners surrounding her, and ready to dispatch her at the word of command.
The governor seeing his measures ineffectual, said he would send her to a house of prostitution where what she prized so highly should be exposed to the insults of the debauchees. Agnes answered that Jesus Christ was too jealous of the purity of his spouses to suffer it to be violated in such a manner; for He was their defender and protector. “You may,” said she, “stain your sword with my blood, but will never be able to profane my body, consecrated to Christ.” The governor was so incensed at this that he ordered her to be immediately led to the public brothel, with liberty to all persons to abuse her person at pleasure. Many young profligates ran thither, full of the wicked desire of gratifying their lust; but were seized with such awe at the sight of the saint that they dared not approach her; one only excepted, who, attempting to be rude to her was that very instant, by a flash, as it were, of lightening from Heaven, struck blind, and fell trembling to the ground. His companions terrified, took him up, and carried him to Agnes, who was at a distance, singing hymns of praise to Christ, her protector. The virgin by prayer restored him to his sight and health.
The chief prosecutor of the saint, who at first sought to gratify his lust and avarice, now labored to satiate his revenge by incensing the judge against her. The governor wanted not others to spur him on; for he was highly exasperated to see himself baffled and set at defiance by one of her tender age and sex. Therefore, resolved upon her death, he condemned her to be beheaded. Agnes, transported with joy on hearing this sentence, and still more at the sight of the executioner, “went to the place of execution more cheerfully,” says St. Ambrose, “than others go to their wedding.” The executioner had secret instructions to use all means to induce her to a compliance: but Agnes always answered she could never offer so great an injury to her heavenly spouse; and having made a short prayer, bowed down her neck to adore God, and received the stroke of death. The spectators wept to see so beautiful and tender a virgin loaded with fetters, and to behold her fearless under the very sword of the executioner, who with a trembling hand cut off her head at one stroke.
O Almighty and everlasting God, who choosest the weak things of the world to confound the strong: mercifully grant that we who keep the solemn feast of blessed Agnes, Thy Virgin and Martyr, may experience the benefit of her pleading with Thee.
Collect from the Mass of St. Agnes, Jan. 21