The Corner


Fingernail Clippings and the Conceptus

Pope Francis meets with with bishops, priests, seminarians, and catechists at the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, Iraq, March 5, 2021. (Vatican Media/Handout via Reuters)

So, today we learned that nobody at the New York Times opinion section cares about Garry Wills’s reputation enough to have politely declined his short attack on the American Catholic bishops who have made their first tentative steps toward suggesting that it might be possible to deny pro-abortion politicians access to Holy Communion. Instead, they published it.

I have my own criticisms of these bishops, more from the other side, but it’s astonishing to see how weak are the arguments Wills brings with him.

He cites the lack of condemnation of abortion explicitly in the Gospels or the New Testatment. This may impress people who are illiterate in Scripture. And I suppose Wills knows that is his intended audience.  Wills knows — or ought to know — that none of the Gospels, or Paul’s letters, were written to contain comprehensive catechesis on every moral question. Early Christian documents that did try to provide instruction on these matters, such as the Didache, prohibited abortion. While it is quite true that the Early Fathers of the Church did not have a modern’s knowledge of fetal development, they too condemned abortion. Even St. Thomas Aquinas — who gets a derisory mention in Wills’s piece — forbade abortion though he had in his own mind a complex and wrong idea of fetal development as involving the passing through from vegetative to animal states. What they all assumed and knew — what laws dealing with the murder of pregnant women in Scripture and in much of the world assumed and knew — was that deliberately causing the death of an unborn child was immoral and criminal. Ancient peoples could figure out the difference between abortion, miscarriage, and onanism — but Wills pretends this is beyond him.

He writes:

The religious opponents of abortion think that the human person actually antedates the Aristotelian scheme, dating it from “conception” (when the semen fertilizes the ovum). [T]he Catholic theologian Bernard Häring points out that at least half of the fertilized eggs fail to achieve “nidation” — adherence to the uterus — making nature and nature’s God guilty of a greater “holocaust” of unborn babies than abortion accounts for, if the fertilized ovum is a “baby.”

Not sure what putting this fact in the mouth of a theologian does to improve it. It’s not just the religious opponents, but most opponents of abortion, who say that a unique human life is created at conception. The evidence is in the unique DNA structure that is present. The unique human DNA that is in the body of Garry Wills presently, in the time shortly before he shuffles off this mortal coil, became present on earth on the day he was conceived. As for the parting shot at nature and nature’s God, it would be strange if Garry Wills cited the very high infant mortality rates that existed until just a few decades before his own birth as a license to go on and strangle children in their cribs.

After some moany prose about cults and the like, Wills writes:

The opponents of abortion who call themselves “pro-life” make any form of human life, even pre-nidation ova, sacred. But my clipped fingernails or trimmed hairs are human life. They are not canine hair. The cult of the fetus goes even farther down the path of nonsense.

None of this is true. All that is sacred is our duty not to deliberately cause the death of any human life.  When one of Wills’s fingernail clippings or trimmed hairs grows up to walk and talk, get its heart broken, or conceives a grandchild for Wills, then we should immediately commence a debate about how to protect those clippings and trimmings in law. Concluding, Wills writes that

the Catholic Church no longer claims that opposition to abortion is scriptural. It is not a religious issue. It is called a matter of natural law, which should be discernible by natural reason. Yet as the Catholic judge John T. Noonan said, the most recognized experts on natural law, in universities, human rights organizations, medical and psychological bodies, do not generally oppose abortion. Nor, according to polls, do a majority of American citizens, even Catholic citizens. Some women of my own extended family have had abortions and still consider themselves Catholics. President Biden seems to be on their side, as is Pope Francis. This, of course, does not affect the American bishops. They hate this pope and this president anyway.

Ah, well. If only Wills were around in Galilee to inform Our Lord about the majority opinions of the scribes, Pharisees, and other experts in society. Wills claims the current Catholic bishops hate the current pope. My guess is, if you gave him enough port, Wills would be volcanic about Francis’s failure to finally anathematize and humiliate the conservative Catholics he despises.

Wills has been trading on his ex-Catholic reputation for a great long time. Writing the above op-ed shows him to be a man who doesn’t respect his readers or himself anymore. Wills was a mistake. William F. Buckley Jr.’s, I mean, not his poor mother’s.


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