In the Womb of the Modern World

1821443701_B97120900Z.1_20130124222345_000_GURG01VH.1-0A recent opinion column on the New York Times website suggested that Pope Francis should compromise on the “issue” of abortion. The sentiments offered reveal a great deal about what passes for serious thought in the modern world – including serious thought by a professor of philosophy (Gary Gutting) at a major Catholic University (Notre Dame). It illustrates much of what I have written in the last several posts about the “Modern Project.”

Professor Gutting states:

Other exceptions to the condemnation of abortion arise once we realize that an early-stage embryo may be biologically human but still lack the main features — consciousness, self-awareness, an interest in the future — that underlie most moral considerations. An organism may be human by purely biological criteria, but still merely potentially human in the full moral sense. As we saw, Marquis’s argument shows that killing a potential human is in itself bad, but there’s no reason to think that we are obliged to preserve the life of a potential human at the price of enormous suffering by actual humans [emphasis added].

Once his premise on the nature of the human is granted, his argument seems entirely reasonable and fair. But note that we are not “actual humans” unless we have consciousness, self-awareness and an interest in the future. By such criteria, my dog is probably a human being. And, of course, the professor is deeply naive in thinking that the Roman Catholic Church shares his definition of humanity. The Classical Christian world (Orthodox and Catholic) has a far more profound understanding of the human person.

I have stated previously that the modern project defines the human as: autonomous centers of consciousness whose choices and decisions bring about their self-actualization. As such, we are psychological events. It is an understanding that works, perhaps, in a science fiction movie (Star Trek comes to mind). In such a setting, we can take Spock’s consciousness and place it in an orb, and later put it somewhere else. His body is only important because we have to put his consciousness back into it before the end of the show. But this is nowhere close to a serious philosophical account of human existence.

The teaching of Classical Christianity grounds its understanding of human beings (and of all things) in their ontology, their very being and the nature of their being. God, the “only truly existing God,” brought us into being and with that gives us our humanity. Our personhood is an expression of our being and not its cause.

A human life in the womb is possessed with dignity and worth and its humanity, because it is, and not because of its consciousness, self-awareness and interest in the future. The modern “discount” humanity renders the body to be a mere vehicle, a locus of potentiality, able to be discarded when the “actuality” has been exhausted (or not yet realized). It need not be the cause for suffering or inconvenience for others. This same remove from the body underlies some of the popular thought on sexuality – the body as the vehicle of self-actualization but not itself a center of our being.

To know ourselves as we are created is to enter into human life as gift, not as potential, nor future interest. The deepest and most disturbing part of the modern project and its tendency to redefine and discount our humanity, is that it does so in the name of something other than our humanity. Economic need, pain, psychological distress trump our existence. And in the end, the answer is death. It is the modern project’s alliance with death that is most revealing of its true nature and origin.

May God have mercy and deliver our children from the hands of modern philosophers!



About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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40 responses to “In the Womb of the Modern World”

  1. Fr. Peter Avatar

    When my wife decided to go to Notre Dame, her grandmother said that it wasn’t Catholic enough. She, thankfully from my perspective, went anyway, but it appears her grandmother was quite right.

  2. Isaac Avatar

    Walker Percy was right when he wrote a long time ago that the pro-abortion position is not based in science. Nebulous concepts like a “potential human” replace the fact that there is a life and that life is genetically human.

    I agree Fr. Stephen that the modern project is at bottom nihilism. That is why arguments for abortion start with the will to be alleviated of responsibility and then with a shoddy covering of pathetic justifications.

  3. PJ Avatar

    Ah, the “flagship” of Catholic higher education in America!

  4. […] In the Womb of the Modern World – Glory to God For All Things […]

  5. Anna Avatar

    “May God have mercy and deliver our children from the hands of modern philosophers!”

    Grant this, O Lord…

  6. Presv. Magda Avatar
    Presv. Magda

    From another perspective, we are all only potential humans until we are fully united with Christ.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    From Modern philosophers, acedemic theologians, power mad politicians and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us.

    There are scary things in the darkness of our own hearts with deep red eyes seeking to devour our souls but they will slink away if the Light of Christ shines on them.

  8. Steven Clark Avatar

    It is a sort of gnosticism that makes the material of our existence less than important.

  9. albert Avatar

    Fr Stephen, I think this is the basis for Guttings’ statement you quoted at the beginning

    “. . . what happens if we take seriously [Pope Francis’] claim that ‘reason alone is sufficient’ to adjudicate this issue. What actually follows regarding abortion once we accept the ‘inviolable value of each single human life’? This appeal to rational reflection has been a central feature of the tradition of Catholic moral teaching.” (also taken from the NY Times article )

    I understand that you are treating abortion from a theological perspective, but isn’t there a role for conscience in individual lives just as there is a role for rational thinking in religious matters; otherwise how do we explain the concept of economia in the Eastern tradition?

    And when moral choices are made, what guidelines do we use if there seem to be no good outcome; e.g., a soldier who is told to shoot enemy soldiers, a woman who is contemplating suicide because of the trauma of rape, a person who believes sincerely that because of her own addictions, or impoverished circumstances, she cannot provide spiritual and healthy personal guidance for a large family, yet finds herself pregnant again because her husband, or (having been abandoned by husband) her lover, does not believe in birth control.

    These are standard objections to an absolute theological understanding of the gift of life. Jesus mostly dealt with individual persons, many in a crisis situation. He seemed both absolute and loving–not condoning sin in general, but not condemning individuals (except ones he considered hypocrites, persons who applied the letter of the law without considering the spirit).

    I am confused about all of this. Pro-life people seem so absolute, yet do not picket or march “against” a society or religious group which does not seem concerned about what eventually happens when human embryos become children. Priests make pronouncements about women’s bodies, but may not take into consideration how different it is to live in that body than in a male one. I wish I could say that I am not criticizing you or other church members. It’s just that I am concerned that pre-birth personhood seems to take precedence over the lives of child persons and sincerely conflicted adult persons.

    I pray about this, but feel a need to think about as well.

  10. Paulette Avatar

    I was listening to a radio call-in show on the way to work and a gentleman caller said that when scientists find a microbe or some such thing on another planet, they call it “life”, but comparatively a child growing in the womb is a lifeless mass of tissue. The discussion was centered on the woman in Texas who is dead and being kept alive by machines because she is pregnant. I’m not quite sure how to phrase my question, but there’s one in here somewhere… Regarding “Spock’s brain”… On the one hand, a woman does indeed act as a vessel in which a child grows. But if technology were not involved in the life of this TX woman, she would have died “naturally” as would her child. Her child is being kept alive in her body through the use of technology. I’m not speaking against technology per se, but I guess rather when it is or is not appropriate to use it. Feminists will say, in regards to abortion: “Hands off my body!” But it’s not their bodies we’re talking about. She is not growing herself inside herself. It’s the child inside her body, a separate human soul that is being nourished by her body. How is that not a miracle? How is that not life?

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is a lot to respond to…

    As for the concern and care of women and children – you’re getting your view of the world from the information provided by the media (who generally are extremely pro-abortion). No organization in America of any sort comes close to the level of work with women and children in hard circumstances than the Catholic Church. There is a vast network of crisis pregnancy centers across America that is funded and staffed entirely by Christians that provide support for women in crisis pregnancies (or just difficult circumstances) and support after the child is born. The tragedy is that the most extreme cases are being used to justify the 90 some-odd percent of abortions that are purely birth-control related. We’re talking about one-third of all pregnancies in America! But even in the extreme cases, the taking of a human life remains the taking of a human life – not a potential life.

    There is not a way to separate reality into “reason only” and “theological.” It’s all theological whether those engaging in the process agree that it is so or not. Life is a gift of God and will not be rightly thought about without reference to God.

    One of the confusions in your thought comes from mixing very different things. Philosophically your’e mixing a deontological approach (something is either right or wrong regardless) with a utilitarian approach (something is right or wrong depend on its usefulness). This is a common practice but leads to a great deal of internal confusion. It’s a result of the Modern Project itself –

    It’s just that I am concerned that pre-birth personhood seems to take precedence over the lives of child persons and sincerely conflicted adult persons.

    Again, I don’t think this is accurate. But the “pre-birth persons” we’re discussing are being considered for slaughter. That does, in fact, give them precedence over those who are simply considering some level of suffering. How much suffering, exactly, justifies me killing someone?

    The lack of support from women belongs to the pro-abortionists. They concentrate on their “final solution,” and neglect almost entirely the more difficult problem of helping people bear legitimate suffering. As a priest, I have spent a fair amount of my ministry caring for women who are the victims of other people’s “help.” I am not not confused about any of this. Pro-life people don’t picket or protest these other situations – they roll up their sleeves volunteer and do something. At present protest is only one minor thing that can be done about abortion. Again, the media will only focus on that. The media, largely without knowledge, serves a very dark master.

  12. Kathy Avatar

    My favorite pro-lifers are the nuns I’ve met at Hiroshima Day protests in Oak Ridge. One of my crazy dreams is that one day so many people who protest abortion will also protest unjust wars and that we never again see prolifers cheering like crazy for nuclear weapons or for bombing other people over lies.

  13. Dino Avatar

    The (self-centred/subjective) critical view of all (“objective”) being is typical of the “Modern Project’s” relativist underlying philosophy. It obviously results in an individual who would rather ‘crucify’ another, than be ‘crucified’ himself…
    Unfortunately there are extremely few situations where this ‘dilemma’ (be crucified or crucify) is not active. “Not aborting” is obviously one situation where “I” do not crucify another (my unborn child), because I would rather be ‘crucified’ myself (the difficulty of an unwanted pregnancy – no matter what that is). All excuses to the contrary -no matter how logical they seem- are certainly not ‘Christian’ (crucificial) – we must admit that much… Consider that a Christian is not even allowed to steal when he is dying of hunger – he would rather die a painful death in order to keep the commandment! We might not have the fervour to do this in practice – but we must at least recognise the truth in this.

  14. Dean Avatar

    I’m sure that someone more knowledgeable about adoptions will post something here as it relates to abortions. I personally know many believers who’ve adopted children from overseas, most recently little girls from China. I have heard that over half the hospitals in the world are Catholic. And as bad as our inner cities are can you imagine what they would be like without the storefront churches and rescue missions? In Fresno both evangelical and Catholic missions provide tens of thousands of meals each year and offer shelter for battered women and their children and the homeless. It is Christians who also volunteer more in the U.S. than any other group (I’ve read this in news magazines and again heard it recently on a podcast by Frederica Mathewes Green). Habitat for Humanity was also begun by a Christian, Millard Fuller. So yes, Christians do, as you say Father, protest abortions. But they roll up their sleeves and do so much more!

  15. LI Avatar

    I find it deeply insulting that such beating about the bushes about the humanity of the foetus in the media is done “for the sake of the women”.
    What “enormous suffering” is he talking about? Any one of the pro-abortion party (who are mostly men and very unlikely to ever experience a pregnancy or women who never had one) ever talked to a woman who had an abortion?! I know plenty of them and none of them speaks about it, even to themselves, I cannot begin to understand what does it mean to bear that burden, I’m petrified only by the shade of that pain. How is shattering women to pieces relieving them of suffering?

    The abortion debate is just another version of our fight with God for the freedom to defy Him by destroying ourselves, but the irony is, we already have that freedom and making good use of it, otherwise such debates would not exist.

    To show how naked is this king in fact, a story I read not so long ago: “A family man, father of four goes to his father confessor to ask for counsel. His wife was pregnant again and they were not very rich, so they were considering stopping this pregnancy. The father confessor in his wisdom knew better than to try to convince him otherwise, and said, my son, I understand you are worried about the money and that the times are difficult, but think of it, abortion is a dangerous thing, what if you lose your wife? Isn’t it better to just kill one of the four children you already have and let her give birth to the one in the womb? Like that you have no risk of losing your wife and you end up with four children, as you desire. Needless to say, the man went away with a clearer perspective and abortion was never mentioned again.”

  16. Kate Avatar


    I can only add how thankful I am that my husband’s birth mother saw adoption as the best (possibly only) solution to her predicament, and, that I am awed by the lives of my own children. I truly can’t imagine my life without them or the great depths I search out to make my own life better, both for their sakes, my own, my husband’s and everyone. Many things would remain a mystery to me about myself without my children.

  17. meshell Avatar

    I’m afraid for the unborn, and do not wish any child destroyed. I want abortion to end. I’m equally afraid for Christian couples (very much including myself) who live in comfort and choose against bringing children into the world out of selfishness and faithlessness, and then go around chanting that they are Pro-Life. May the Lord have mercy on me, I speak good, but do evil. Many of us buy homes, cars, eat like kings, and consume all the entertainment we can desire, and then say we cannot afford more than a couple of kids in our lives. I don’t know that this attitude towards bringing new life into the world compliments our zeal against life-ending acts of abortions very well. I know this is my own personal sin. I only bring this up because I know the zeal I used to have against Abortion lacked humility. I think humility is as important as our zeal concerning abortion.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    Some of the lack of humility comes from the fact that many who are pro life hold it because it is their “choice” and not asan obedience. Choosing begets pride. Obedience alone begets humility.

  19. Geri Avatar

    I shared this on the FB post-I hope I wasn’t too off base:
    There is irony in the “Modern Project” that Fr. Freeman talks about in this recent series…as one commenter says, the modern world philosophy is “neo-Gnostic.” Only this time around it is only our minds (not our spirits) that count. In the original version, that meant people could do anything they wanted with their bodies. Today’s version posits that our “self-actualization” is our purpose in life. Anything that gets in our way of creating ourselves is the enemy–even our bodies. The Classical Christian view is that the body, soul and mind are integrated–your body must be saved (transfigured and, ultimately, resurrected) as well. We are one “whole.” The philosopher here says that a “pre-born” child can’t think and plan–so their bodies are expendable. LHM.

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Not only are we an integrated whole we are integrated with the rest of creation

  21. meshell Avatar

    ” Choosing begets pride. Obedience alone begets humility.” Thank you Father, I will take this to heart. Recently, in my personal life, I have began to learn that I’m not as humble as I thought i was.

  22. Albert Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for responding to me comment. My only disappointment is your saying that I get my questions and confusions from the media. I suppose you believe that I read and listen to only the hated “liberal media,” which in itself is a biased & stereotypical term. Aren’t we all (who share ideas this way) part of the media?

    No, I try to get my ideas from all responsible, non gossipy sources–including my Orthodox priest, who has the highest place (in the world of human media). I understand your own position, and do not challenge it, although it is easy for me to fall into a kind of debate mentality. I’m still living in an everyday world where, in light of all the evidence of human failings and corruption reported in the media, it is not easy to take on an absolute theological mentality. Faith gets jumbled up with discernment. Asking for prayers here.

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    Albert, my point about the media and thus information outlets – and it includes conservative media – is that the story of the vast work of Christians is largely unreported. Your point viz Christians not doing enough in those areas echoed what I hear from those outlets and not the reality that I see all the time. What conclusion should I have drawn? Forgive.

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    For me pretty much all media speaks from within the modern project.

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    My comments were needlessly combative. Albert. Sometimes I revert to type and become just a grumpy old man. The fault is mine. May God give us grace!

  26. Albert Avatar


  27. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton


    I have some understanding of your questioning. I am not at all “pro-choice” but, as a psychologist in a secular setting, I do encounter some of the very difficult dilemmas in which people find themselves. And sometimes, they can create dilemmas for me in how to respond.

    I would certainly never advise anyone to get an abortion. But I confess there have been times when I have felt a bit of relief when someone got one. I am not proud of that feeling but it is there nonetheless. When the mentally ill patient has finally reached some stability and now has to stop all of her medications because she is pregnant…and so forth.

    It has also disturbed me that many in the “pro-life” movement have been inconsistent in how they value human life. Many years ago, when I was active with pro-life groups, I was sent out to promote a political candidate whose platform included promotion of war-making and racism simply because he was “pro-life”. I did not know his other views at the time but simply did what I was told was the “pro-life” thing to do.

    I think we miss the true issue if we focus too much on a political solution (“political solution” is an oxymoron anyway). ‘Change the law no matter what’ doesn’t change any hearts nor does it address the underlying disease in our society. Our cultural sin is that abortion ever enters anyone’s mind as an option.

    Having made it an option, to “unmake” it one is a task that only God accomplish – with our repentance.

  28. fatherstephen Avatar

    As the decades roll by in which abortion remains in place, the collective conscience of our nation is being darkened. Yes, we sometimes accept the unacceptable and get back to the “peace” of our lives. The noise of the pro-life movement and the deep division in the political life of our nation that began in the 1980’s with the rise of the pro-life movement, is very wearying. We wish for more balance, etc. But that noise is one of the few things that keeps the collective conscience from becoming completely dark.

    I grew up in the Jim Crow days of the American South. What was tolerated on a daily, personal basis was intolerable. But the collective conscience of a nation had become quite dark indeed.

    It is interesting to me when people invoke “conscience” when thinking about right and wrong.(Forgive my aside here, I know you did not mention conscience.) But the inviolability of conscience only has to do with protecting the integrity of someone’s personhood, and has nothing to do with what is right or wrong. Conscience itself is not a guide to right or wrong, only as a matter of inner integrity.

    I give thanks for those who make noise about abortion, even though they are sometimes not balanced in their approach to all moral questions. Their noise is right. We should never accept the unacceptable, no matter how much we long for a secular peace.

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The nihilist philosophies of the 19th century are real evidence of the darkening or our soul. We are born into that darkness.

    The pro-life momembet suffers from the same darkness so it is no wonder it is inconsistent

  30. Albert Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I see no fault in your comments here, or anyone’s

    – – except perhaps my own. “Upon further review,” as another media figure can be heard to say on Sundays (embarrassed to reveal my own misuse of this day) I see that years of self-assertion coupled with a too-easy blending with the cultural mileau have led me to a place from which I want to question all rule-makers. It is my temptation. Well, one of them.

    I am grateful that the church and it’s official representatives take a firm, clear stand on issues that cloud our lives. I was particularly grateful for your brief comments on conscience. If you find the time to write more on that topic, I shall read carefully.

  31. Brian Avatar


    Hearts must be changed, yes. And the law by itself cannot change hearts. But let us not forget that the law is pedagogical. This is true even of secular law, although secular law can be pedagogical for good or for evil. This is demonstrated undeniably by the fact that changing the laws pertaining to race had a positive pedagogical impact over several generations. It did, in fact, change hearts as well as behavior for many. The same is true of abortion (or marriage or other) laws albeit in a tragic, destructive way.

  32. Brian McDonald Avatar
    Brian McDonald

    I remember years ago an Iowa farmer with a high school education and no training in philosophy told me that he was troubled about “only potentially human” as a rationale for killing the unborn. “As I look back on myself, I think I’M only potentially human!” It is a shame when an overemphasis on the intellect at the expense of the nous serves to beguile smart people out of Bill’s capacity for a direct and profound recognition that all of us who have started existence are both simultaneously human and only potentially human. If “potential” is an excuse for killing us, maybe we all should go!

  33. Brian Avatar

    I’ve always been fascinated by sleep. It is such an integral, yet overlooked, part of our humanity. It occurs to me that by Dr. Gutting’s definition of humanity – “consciousness, self-awareness, an interest in the future” – all of us, including him, cease to be human when we are asleep.

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “…to sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub.”

  35. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    …not to mention the “studies” that purport to prove that couples (pick your coupling) are happier without children.

    Decantation, here we come

  36. Fr. Peter Avatar

    The last couple of comments made me think of two things.

    1. Sleep. If you reduce human cognition to discursive reasoning, I guess it can be argued that we are less (non?) human during sleep. But I also can’t help thinking of the saints whose prayers did not cease even during the little sleep they got.

    2. Children. I can’t help but suspect that the ‘couples are happier without children’ situation is also a result of the modern project. I can by no means say that I’ve escaped it, but I can see some of where I have been and, thankfully, no longer am. Before my wife and I had children, I was afraid. Some of it was not having been around babies much. Most of it was, even though I did not quite admit it to myself at the time, not wanting to be taken out of my comfortable daily rhythm, where I could choose when to rest, I could watch TV in the evening at leisure, etc. Having listened to the prayers of the marriage service and having studied theology, I knew that a willfully childless marriage misses the mark, so I, somewhat grudgingly, said that I may be able to deal with up to two kids.

    I guess this is my experience of the blessings of obedience, as Fr. Stephen mentioned above, because I have learned humility, patience, selflessness, and love from my children (compared to when I started, which may not be saying much on an absolute scale, but it certainly seems to be in comparison). In the mean time, as part of our attempts to be less influenced by the modern project, we no longer have cable and the TV is almost never on. And, by God’s grace, we’re expecting our fourth child this summer. This happiness is certainly different from what would have been had we had no children, but I’m thankful to God for leading us down this path.

  37. Robert Bearer Avatar
    Robert Bearer

    A most wonderful testimony, Fr. Peter. Thank you for it. May God continue to bless your faithfulness–as He surely will.

    Christ is in our midst.

  38. […] Note that personalism, and its overdue focus on the subjectivity of persons and their intentionality, is not the same thing as a dualism that defines human beings by their consciousness.  On this, Father Freeman adds a bit more: […]

  39. Eric Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Thank you for this

    “A human life in the womb is possessed with dignity and worth and its humanity, because it is, and not because of its consciousness, self-awareness and interest in the future. ”

    Because it is.

    If I may share a personal story, still sharp to our family. Some two months ago, I sat with friends here a long way from our home in England to watch via live stream the funeral of our fifth grandchild. Had the Modern World had its way she would not have been born as at an early scan she was diagnosed as having a condition which mean she would be most unlikely to live long from the safe harbour of her mothers womb. My daughter suferred th trauma of the medical professionals encouraging her to ‘do the reasonable thing’, and threw everything at her to stop her from giving her daughter the nine onths of care and love she and her husband extended to Abigail Grace.

    At her funeral my daughter stood with her husband (who had not been allowed at the initial scan due to COVID restrictions) and gave calm and quiet, yet strong testimony to the grace of her daughters short life. Existence. Yes. Even watching from thousands of miles away, that testimony was the closest I have ever com eot seeing Jesus speaking those words in the Garden – I Am He, when they came to seek ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. The truest Resonance – that of Life in a dark age – Existence itself. though she never knew it, in som many ways and for so many people, the world turned on its axis, and a quiet no to the mantra of death was voiced through her. He hath exalted the humble and meek.

    Continued blessings on your being in the world, Fr Stephen

  40. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you for this beautiful witness, Eric!

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