It’s often a shock to faithful Catholics when people who reject the moral teaching of the Church try to use canonized saints to support their arguments against that teaching. It is more than a little ironic when someone refuses to obey the Church in moral matters insists that holy men and women, who lived their entire lives under vows of obedience to that same Church, would support their ideas.
Consider, for example, the audacity of those who claim that Saint Antoninus of Florence was “pro-choice”. A quick online search brings up pieces titled “St. Antoninus: The Patron Saint of Pro-Choice Catholics” and “When the Vatican Was Pro-Choice”, with others claiming “St Antoninus … was pro-choice for early abortions where necessary to save the woman’s life.”
Who was Saint Antoninus? Antony was born into a noble family of Florence in 1389. According to tradition, he was somewhat small for his age, which is why he was given the nickname Antoninus. He was one of those people who seem to be born devout; everyone noticed his gentle nature and love of prayer.
When he was only fifteen years old, he decided God was calling him to enter the Dominican order and become a priest. Unfortunately, when he approached Blessed Giovanni Dominici at the Dominican community near his home and asked to be admitted to the order, the priest said no. Antoninus didn’t seem healthy enough for the rigorous way of life of the Dominicans, and the friar probably thought this teenager from the nobility would forget about the idea of entering religious life within a week.
He told Antoninus to go study a particular Church treatise, and he probably patted Antoninus on the head as he sent him on his way, never thinking to see him again. A year later, Antoninus returned to the Dominican house. He had memorized the entire document.
Blessed Giovanni accepted him immediately. Thus began the vocation of a great saint. Antoninus became a priest, served as prior at several Dominican houses and improved their practice of religious life, and even served as an advisor to the pope on matters of canon law. He became widely respected as a scholar and wrote many works, particularly guides for confessors and writings in moral theology. Eventually the pope named him archbishop of Florence. Antoninus strenuously tried to refuse this honor, citing his age and bad health, but the pope would have none of it.
During a time when bishops often lived in splendor, Antoninus intentionally lived an ascetic life. He was so generous with the poor that he gave away the furniture at his residence in times of need. Known for his wisdom and intelligence, he was consulted by worldly nobles for advice. He personally cared for the sick during a plague and helped the poor rebuild their homes after an earthquake. Antoninus died on May 2, 1459, at the age of seventy. Even the secular leader of Florence at the time, Cosimo de’ Medici, said that the late archbishop’s prayers had saved the city many times.
All of the above show why Antoninus was canonized in 1523, a mere sixty-four years after his death, a rather quick canonization for the time period. But why would anyone in the twenty-first century consider Antoninus a supporter of abortion?
Conveniently for those who propose this claim, Antoninus’ many writings are not generally available in English. However, it is not hard to piece together the flimsy argument offered by those who support legalized abortion.
As an expert in canon law and a scholar, Antoninus was called upon to offer opinions on many moral quandaries. For example, what should a doctor do if he believes that a pregnant woman’s life is in danger? What if the doctor’s choice, according to the best medical knowledge and practice available at the time, is to either allow the pregnancy to continue, which would likely result in death to both mother and child, or perform an abortion to save the life of the mother alone?
The same argument that Antoninus accepted in his time also applies today. If there is no way to save the life of the unborn child, saving the life of the mother by aborting the child is morally acceptable. The death of the child is not intended but is a sad consequence of caring for the mother. The good news for us is that there are virtually no situations today when it is necessary to sacrifice the life of the child to save the mother.
However, Antoninus, like his predecessor Saint Thomas Aquinas, probably accepted the limited medical knowledge of his time, which did not recognize the humanity of the unborn during the earliest stages of pregnancy. Fifteenth-century medical knowledge of unborn children was probably based on the physical appearance of miscarried babies that doctors had seen. Modern knowledge, such as DNA testing, however, clearly demonstrates that an unborn child is a human being from the moment of conception.
Proponents of abortion apparently want to take Antoninus’ comments about what we would call first trimester pregnancies out of context to imply that he supported abortion. This is simply wrong. Both Saint Antoninus and Thomas Aquinas recognized the same truth expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law. (CCC, no. 2271).
There is a tremendous difference between performing a medical procedure to save the life of a woman—even though it may endanger the life of her unborn child—and performing a medical procedure for the sole purpose of ending the life of that child. The overwhelming majority of abortions performed today are performed for the latter reason.
One of the few writings of Saint Antoninus that is currently available in English is titled Vain Fears That Keep You from Frequent Communion with Our Lord: Instructions Useful for all, Even for Confessors. In this book, Saint Antoninus deals with a problem that today’s confessors would envy: how should you respond to Catholics who are so concerned with showing reverence for the Eucharist that they fail to receive Communion when they have committed merely venial sins? As this book shows, Saint Antoninus, like any good priest, knew that mortal sins were serious and that those who commit such sins—such as abortion—show a disregard for our Lord by receiving him in Communion unworthily.
Throughout his life, Saint Antoninus showed his deep love for Christ and His Church, as well as obedience to Church teachings. As we faithful Catholics continue our battle to bring an end to abortion—for the sake of each woman, each child, and each family that is deprived of the presence of that child—we can pray for Saint Antoninus’ intercession, particularly on his feast day, May 2. For he, like all the saints in Heaven, is pro-life and pro-eternal life.
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