Did Gratian view abortion as a mortal sin?

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Did Gratian view abortion as a mortal sin?


Gratian was a twelfth-century monk who complied the laws of the Church into a single book (today called the Decretum Gratiani). Since this was the first such attempt, he is considered the father of canon law.

It is important to note that there is a difference between canon law and moral law. Not every violation of the moral law is a violation of canon law. Canon law also is a true legal system with it its own inner logic.

A particular sin may be a grave violation of the moral law, but unless it is defined as a crime in the canon law, there is no ecclesiastical penalty. Canon law, like all legal systems, uses terms in a precise manner, and therefore in order for an action to be considered to be a particular crime, the action must meet the specific meaning of the terms used in canon law.

This is important when we discuss the relevant quote from Gratian on this matter. He wrote in the Decretum:

He is not a murderer who brings about abortion before the soul is in the body (Concordia discordantium canonum, Decretum, Ad. c8, c. XXXII, q. 2).

In this statement Gratian is not referring to the moral law but to the canon law. This statement was based on that era’s understanding of biology in which it was generally thought that the fetus did not become human until later in its development. It was commonly thought that until the fetus was “animated” no soul was present and thus fetal development was divided into “pre-formed” and “fully formed.” Therefore, based on how the legal system of canon law defined murder and how that era understood biological development, Gratian stated that abortion of a “pre-formed” fetus was not the legal/canonical equivalent of murder.

However, abortion had been unanimously rejected as gravely immoral since the beginning of Christianity  This teaching goes all the way back to The Didache, which was written in the first century. The legal debate about what technically constitutes murder also existed long before Gratian complied his Decretum and was deemed irrelevant to the moral discussion by theologians:

A woman who deliberately destroys a fetus is answerable for murder. And any fine distinction as to its being completely formed or unformed is not admissible among us (St. Basil the Great, Epistle 138, c. A.D. 375).

Thus the distinction between an abortion of an “animated” or “fully formed” fetus and an abortion of a “pre-formed” fetus was merely a technical one relating to what ecclesiastical penalties were attached to the action. It was not a discussion of the morality of the action.

Modern biology tells us quite clearly that from the moment of conception a human life is present. Thus the legal and canonical wrangling of the Middle Ages is obsolete to present-day discussion.

By Fr. Charles Grondin



  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    So what happens to the soul that is aborted? According to the catechism, the Church knows of no way to salvation outside of baptism. That means the default destination for all those aborted souls is Hell. Through no fault of their own these innocent souls are condemned to Hell, and denied salvation by an all-powerful being who presumably cannot be hurt. What could possibly be more evil than that?
    And how do we prevent a lot of those abortions? Contraception. Yes, that’s a mortal sin, but one that can be forgiven. If the Catholic god is as evil as the Church indicates then using contraception prevents countless souls from going to Hell, but the Church doesn’t care. Their maniacal obsession with sex drives their dogma.

  2. Karen Reply

    Education and planned families,its a mortal sin abortion.why do people look for excuses.you made your bed sleep in it.dont look for excuses .i can see why is suffering tcanadaoday.lack of knowledge.people dont want any-money possessions.shame.

  3. Peter Aiello Reply

    When it was prohibited to eat meat on Fridays, was that canon law? If it was, why was there a penalty of mortal sin?

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