Tag Archives: Catholic

Religious Belief, Human Rights, and Social Democracy: Catholic Reflections on Abortion in Iceland

In a secular world, religion is an antidote to dogmatism. Like religious societies before them, today’s secular societies take many things for granted. There are beliefs, even life-and-death ones, that hardly anybody challenges seriously or thinks through, if not even about. Such beliefs are secular dogmas.

In the Nordic countries, for example, abortion is as much a long-secured legal right as it is an obvious fact of life and daily practice for hospitals and their personnel. Academic debates on the ethical nature and status of abortion are, nomen omen, academic. Students do not get particularly excited about them, unlike what a philosophy teacher would experience in, say, North America or Great Britain. In these Anglophone parts of the world, instead, the debate can be so heated that it often degenerates in the opposite way: two factions scream aloud (“murder!”, “patriarchy!”) and nobody listens to any reason but their own–or better, they listen to prejudice that is supposed to count as reason. Yet, British champions of liberalism such as John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) or Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse (1864–1929) claimed that unchallenged belief, even if true, is worse than challenged belief, for which one must retrieve and think through solid reasons. Let contrary belief, even false belief, be heard, so that the human mind may not acquiesce into shared habit, prejudice, or de facto dogma.

Roman Catholicism, with its insistence on equating the destruction of embryos to the destruction of human life, serves as a token of contrary belief. Whilst heathen religions demanded life sacrifices and allowed infanticide, Christianity, at least in its declared intentions, stopped them, to the surprise of peoples that had been exposing children since time immemorial—Christ’s death on the cross being ideally the last human sacrifice to the heavens. Contra the conventional wisdom of civilised peoples such as the Egyptians and  the Romans,  the radical Jewish sect initiated by Jesus Christ (or Yeshua ben Yosef) became the unlikely ideological conqueror of the ancient world and ushered an age in which the parent-child relationship, which noted Jewish historian of early Christianity and bioethicist Hans Jonas (1903–1993) regards as the veritable archetype of all moral responsibility, acquires powerful ramifications.

In the Nordic countries, whenever I voice my doubts about the comprehensive and commonsensical ethical legitimacy of abortion, I am quickly dubbed an “Italian Roman Catholic”, as though that label could put an end to the issue. It does not, however. Uttering disqualifying predicates may be popular and even effective (e.g. “fascist”, “populist”, “communist”, “chauvinist”, etc.), but it is cheap rhetoric nevertheless. Generally, I am regarded on almost all issues as a die-hard leftist. Personally, I consider myself a feminist, or at least I have been happily married and co-working with one for many years. Whether I am a leftist, a feminist, an Italian Roman Catholic, an Icelandic one, a Greek Orthodox, Jew or Buddhist, though, my doubts must be countered first through proper critical analysis, not put aside without thoughtful consideration by uttering some sort of supposedly negative or self-explanatory label that, in the mind of the utterer, means that the brain can be switched off in good conscience. If not a classic token of ad hominem attack, the standard reply that I receive in the Nordic countries is a case of fallacy of relevance. Let me articulate my doubts, then, and engage active reason, not automated numbness.

First of all, whatever a fertilised egg may be—a person, a cluster of cells, a magmatic centre of biological energy, a monad—we can all be certain of one thing: all persons have been precisely that at some early stage of their biological development. One does not have to deploy the full force of Aristotelian or scholastic metaphysics to grasp this fact, even if the notions of “potency” and “actuality” may appeal to her. After all, they appeal to engineers and physicists when dealing with energy; or to sport coaches and teachers when gauging the likely achievements (or failures) of a young athlete or pupil. But they do not appeal to me. Infinite regress seems excessive for something as temporally confined as a person, whom we know to have a beginning and an end, however blurry those may be. Besides, my doubts do not start with the reproductive cells taken independently, but with the fertilised egg. Plenty of sperm cells and, fairly regularly, of eggs, are disposed of without ever becoming a person. Far fewer fertilised eggs do not evolve into a foetus, which later becomes, often, a person. In any case, no person has never been a fertilised egg.

Could then a fertilised egg be a person? I do not know for sure. Though I do know that it might. Hence abortion might be prenatal infanticide. As such, on merely prudential grounds, I am strongly inclined to suggest that we should be cautious with regard to how we treat a fertilised egg, for it might be the case that we are dealing with a person, and I myself as well as all of my Nordic interlocutors (I have yet to meet an inveterate sceptic, social Darwinist or sadist outside philosophy books) wish to treat persons respectfully. Annihilating them is, with rare and typically tragically painful exceptions, something that we do not wish to do.

Secondly, when I look back at my personal experiences, and especially at whether growing up in a largely Roman Catholic country did make any difference, I can clearly see two things. One: on the most counterfactual level imaginable, I would be most displeased if my parents or just my mother had decided to abort me; I would have been deprived of my existence and all the experiences, bad as well as good, that have made it worth living. Two: when debating the legalisation of abortion in Italy, one of the most frequently heard arguments from the pro-abortion side was that, as painful and possibly harmful as it could be, it would have saved nonetheless the lives of many women, who would have otherwise sought illegal abortions.

Like several advocates of legalised drugs or prostitution, many who have favoured State-sanctioned and operated abortion suggest a choice in the face of empirical inevitability between two evils—one greater, another lesser—rather than between an evil and a good. Saving life, rather than contributing to destroying it, is a paramount aim to be attained by allowing and regulating abortions, even when it is found profoundly unappealing. Thus, the question arises: were we to find a way to save life to a higher extent, could we try to reduce the frequency of abortion, or establish conditions that could lead to the same result?

Please note that I have stated nothing so far about women’s fundamental rights and liberties. I am not indifferent to them. Quite the reverse, they are so obviously paramount to me that I have not wasted any time debating them or their legitimacy. I do not wish to see them diminished, not least in the medical sphere. Rather, as with all cases of possible limitation of anyone’s liberty and self-direction, such as penal law and traffic regulations, one can only intervene if some serious harm could be the case if no intervention takes place. Given that the ontological nature of the fertilised egg might be that of a person, or be so closely related to being a person as to entail some serious moral consideration, how could one ever intervene with all the authority, impersonality, clumsiness and yet inevitable necessity of State regulation in such an intimate sphere as a woman’s control over herself, her body, her earthly existence?

Certainly, since I have not ascertained with much certainty that fertilised eggs are real persons and, at the same time, I do know that all reasonable human beings would avoid harming persons as far as plausibly possible, whilst granting them as much freedom as possible, I cannot allow the State, in principle as well as in practice, to be heavy-handed. While it can be hypothesised academically that legal abortion is a modern woman’s equivalent of the ancient Roman pater familias’ having ius vitae necisque over all living beings that happened to be sub mano, the State’s ability for murderous power is far more empirically certain and we are reminded of it by each and every war that occurs on our planet.

The solution that I propose is therefore a fairly indirect and, in the lack of certainty, prudential one, which is bound to prove dissatisfactory to many pro-life advocates. It is partly the result of the theoretical considerations spelled out above, as tentative and imperfect as they may be. And it is partly the result of personal and, if one wishes to be a little more ‘scientific’, socio-cultural observations that I have made in different European countries over many years of professional and personal life.

These observations can be summarised fairly quickly: in Iceland, compared to the United Kingdom, there is a similar abortion rate and at least as easy an access to lawful abortion, coupled with a high rate of unplanned pregnancies, especially among young women. Overall, however, more children are born in Iceland of younger mothers, even in comparison with the other Nordic countries. Emblematically, while I never had young students with children when I was teaching in England, that has been a most commonplace experience in my long professional life in Iceland. Why?

Several factors are at play, all of which are relevant, though I cannot say which ones carry more weight than the others. To begin with, the social stigma attached in Britain to unwanted and teenage pregnancies is almost non-existent in Iceland. Secondly, Icelandic women can continue to study or work without fear of dismissal, for the existing legal provisions protect them; besides, such provisions might actually facilitate the commencement of a young, double- or single-parent family via tax credits, free public childcare, maternity leaves, and affordable education for children up to adult age. Also, many young Icelandic women seem to regard motherhood as a fundamental step in their personal growth, self-realisation and long-term well-being, whether there will be a father available or just the State qua surrogate parent. Finally, Icelandic families, as mixed and crisscrossing as they may be, tend to be willing to help young parents and many generations come together to raise the new baby.

Given this picture of the situation, my suggestion is as follows: let the United Kingdom and any other nation on Earth be more like Iceland, for the welfare State is actually pro-life. While changing local cultures may be complicated, changing taxation, labour law, access to education and healthcare provision is a fairly common practice, at least as the history of the past hundred years or so has shown across the globe. Moreover, the financial resources needed for these changes are undeniably available. It is enough to consider the vast amounts of tax-avoiding money that have been siphoned for years into well-known tax havens or that Central Banks have “injected” into the world’s economies over the past decade in order to keep failed private banks afloat. Whenever any talk of limited funds are heard, one should recall the exemplary and staggering 700-billion USD bailout package passed under George W. Bush’s administration in October 2008.

If only a tiny fraction of that huge monetary mass were created to support family policies along Icelandic lines, then the worries about budgets could be easily overcome (I do not discuss here the details of the funding process, for they would obscure the simple fact of the actual availability of funds, given a positive political will). If Iceland managed to achieve all of this, despite being one of the poorest countries in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, it is bizarre to think that at least all other high- and middle-income countries could not do the same. The Roman Catholic can thus conclude, in a spirit of hope: give us more Icelandic-style, or for that matter, Scandinavian-style social democracy in family policies, love thy children and thy nation’s children, and more births should occur. That, in turn, can translate into fewer abortions though, I must admit, it is no strict guarantee of it. After all, we do live in a secular world, in which career considerations or Down-syndrome diagnoses do routinely lead to terminating pregnancies. Nonetheless, better conditions for life-enablement can certainly be established, granting personal liberty and free conscience more room as to whether make full use of them or not, consistently with constitutional human-rights provisions. The imperfect knowledge of imperfect humankind can only usher imperfect solutions, but different degrees of imperfection matter as well and can well make a difference.



Alþingi, Lög 25/1975.

Duvander, Ann-Zofie et al., “Gender Equality Family Policy and Continued Childbearing in Iceland, Norway and Sweden“, Stockholm Research Reports in Demography, #2, 2016.

CESCR, General Comment No. 14: The Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health (Art. 12), ref. E/C.12/2000/4, 2000.

Hobhouse, Leonard Trelawny, Liberalism, NDA (originally published in 1911).

Hognert, Helena et al., “High birth rates despite easy access to contraception and abortion: a cross-sectional study”, Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, 96(12)/2017: 1414-22.  

John Paul II, Pope, Evangelium Vitae, 1995.

Jonas, Hans, Das Prinzip Verantwortung: Versuch einer Ethik für die Technologische Zivilisation, 1979.

Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty, 1993 (Collier & Son 1909 edition; originally published in 1859).

OECD, “A Progress Report on the Jurisdictions Surveyed by the OECD Global Forum in Implementing the Internationally Agreed Tax Standard“, 2009.

Sedgh, Gilda et al., “Adolescent Pregnancy, Birth and Abortion rates Across Countries: Levels and Recent Trends“, Journal of Adolescent Health, 56(2)/2015: 223-30.

US Senate, H.R. 1424, ref. AYO08C32, 2008 (as made available in The Wall Street Journal).


Some impressions after a quick visit to Iceland

I begin by stating what may seem a truism but is part of my first impressions. Iceland is not a place hanging somewhere between the main known continents, some remote place  near the North Pole, somehow  (to mention a place by name) like the island of Svalbard. It belongs to Europe and is an important part of the European continent historically and culturally and for long a period of its existence, also politically. Which means that when one goes to Iceland one does not leave Europe, but simply discovers a part of it, very peculiar indeed and certainly graced with its own individuality but in the last instance quite European. And as European most of us are in some sense, one does feel necessarily at home in Iceland. On the other hand one does not feel completely at home, however “globalized” this world may be for better or worse, in Kazakhstan or in Mongolia.

Having said this one should immediately register the peculiarities of this Island in the North Atlantic.  Some are in a true sense exclusive: which country has in a relatively limited space volcanoes, glaciers, geysers, “fumarole” with wells of boiling water at your feet, gigantic waterfalls, huge mountains with eternal snow, lakes with floating icebergs which you can touch, while  at same time, extensive farms with domestic animals and products of the earth? Hot and cold, fire and ice in extreme vicinity. And of course beautiful modern cities, well and orderly built, with gardens full of flowers private and public. (It was summer when I travelled there and one would wish summers everywhere were like this). Cities by the way, of which the largest are still within a livable human measure: Reykyavik and Akureyri and some other one perhaps. The rest are but villages. One does not certainly miss our Babels everywhere. You breathe more freely. The Island has 130.000 square kilometres and is inhabited by less than 300.500 people. A blessing in itself. But happens to have, so I was told, the highest birth rate in Western Europe. It is then Europe but lacks many of the negative notes of the European continent. May I add that every village and even many places outside human settlements have a church very visible and well kept. Lutheran of course and, from what I read, scarcely visited by worshippers. But, according to my own observation, for what it is worth, presiding over a churchyard with crosses and other signs of Christian burial. Seemingly, at least, people wish to be buried with some kind of service and in some kind of special place. In some of these churches I found with some surprise visible rests of the old Catholic faith, images for instance, a Saint Peter, a Saint Jerome and even a Blessed Virgin. Apparently Puritanism and Calvinism with its destruction and despoiling of everything with a Catholic flavour did not find a place in the religious history of Iceland. I will perhaps return to such religious history later on.

In the meantime, the visitor is duly impressed by what he is shown of the past of Iceland. Even this past is peculiar and different from what one sees and is expected to see in other places. No great monuments or works of art at every turn of a corner. But instead the quite unique rests well kept and ready for the tourist visit, of the ancient living quarters of the Islanders, built with turf on foundations and a solid basis of stone in the midst of a field of lava, cosy enough, the domestic beasts being lodged in the same way and in the same building. Churches were also built this way and one or two are kept and still used. Therefore we have, glaciers, the deposit of ancient and recent volcanic explosions  (some must have been terrible) and the intense green of fields and trees. Unfortunately most of then recently planted. One is told that the land in former times was covered with trees, birches among others, but the needs of  heat, construction and farming space was the end of many of them, if not the great majority. Now wood, corrugated iron and normal building material have taken the place of turf.

The visitor (more or less ignorant as the present writer) should learn very much from the present Iceland about the Viking past, present sill in a certain way. One recalls the pirating and desolation brought by these sailing people along the coasts of continental Europe not the mention the islands to the West. And not only the coasts: Tours in France (then Neustria) and its monastery created by Alcuin of York for Charles the Great was raided (so it is said) by the Vikings. And the same fate fell on the monasteries with their riches cultural and otherwise in North Eastern England. One of the famous Bibles copied and illustrated there ended up in what is now Sweden in Stockholm. If not the text, the magnificent cover attracted the greed of the invaders from the North. The list could be continued without end.

But one tends to ignore the qualities and virtues of this people. Iceland helps you have a very different picture. Vikings not only destroyed: they also built and even created. It is said that the first parliamentary assembly in Europe (Iceland, I insist is part of Europe) is said to have taken place in a place called Thingvellir in southern Iceland (the Althingi so called). And this still in the first millennium: 930 is the date usually given. It is of course not for me to say anything decisive about their discovery of what is now Northern America (Canada and the United States), but there seems to be even some archaeological testimony of their presence in what is now Canada (the excavations at the Anse of Meadows). However difficult and ambiguous the interpretation of such remains may be. Anyway, it was they who apparently put their foot in what is now Greenland. For whatever reason much less developed presently than Iceland is. And nobody can but admire their courage and audacity in defying the seas with ships and sails and oars which we would normally use today only for adventures. Like the raft used by Thor Heyerdahl for crossing the Pacific and then the Indian Ocean. By the way, he was a delightful gentleman whom I met and whose presence and conversation I enjoyed when he was living in the Canarias at the end of his days: he paid me more than a visit when I was in charge of the Library and Archives of the Roman Church in the Vatican. It was like meeting a living Viking.  He was keenly interested in the Catholic presence in the extreme Northern countries including Greenland  and in what our documents could tell him about the firsts Bishops there  and about King Olaf the Great, now venerated as a Saint (feast day in our official Calendar the 29th. July). I have now run again on St. Olaf a propos the Christianisation of Iceland.

Let me say a word also about this subject which may seem a bit like “talking shop” as the American saying goes. On the other hand under some other aspect it belongs to the cultural history of Iceland.

The Vikings found a home in what is now the great island in the Northern Atlantic and thanks to what can be called their “parliamentary” tradition, they one day voted, after careful reflexion and personal consideration of their speaker (it is said he spent a night “under a hide” in his tent thinking on the subject) the introduction of Christianity in Iceland. So the story goes. It was the Catholic tradition of Christianity.

However, well before the Viking , the Irish monks from the islands east of Scotland (the St. Columbanus community) and from the Faroe, part of whose vocation was to leave for remote places, unassisted and almost barehanded  to preach the Christ. To travel anyway was an end in itself: to leave behind even the security and partial comfort of the monastery to go anywhere. Thus St. Bonifatius (formerly Winfridus an English monk)  went to central Europe which he evangelized and when  he had enough disciples founded the monastery at Fulda hence a centre for culture. Some of these monks certainly went North and their means of transport, rafts or canoes or whatever were much less secure and prepared for the ocean than the Viking ships. There is no rest or trace (at least to my knowledge) of their presence in Iceland but what I believe is a firm tradition of their presence there and of their efforts for evangelization. But when other missionaries came after (British or Norwegian or whatever) and the formal common decision to become Christian and Catholic was taken,  there was, I am sure, something to build upon and not just a religious void or mere paganism whatever its values and culture.

It is very impressive and I made the experience myself for many hours, going through and admiring the testimonies of Medieval Catholicism at the National Museum, carefully chosen and remarkably well shown. An example in itself of how objects should be kept, illustrated and helped to be understood in any Museum anywhere. Unfortunately, without a catalogue. But pictures can be obtained and I got for myself some very helpful to get an idea of how deeply Catholicism had been lived and translated (if a may use this word) into the local culture. This can  be seen for instance in the beautiful liturgical vestments, some perfectly conserved, really works of art of the Icelandic way of using whatever  instruments they had  for exquisite needlework. A medieval wood Crucifix from the early Middle Ages should not pass unobserved as well as the model reconstruction of a rather large church perhaps a cathedral. There were in fact two Catholic dioceses in Iceland: one in the North in Holar, the other one in the South in Skalholt and a lot of monasteries for monks and nuns. One can still see the excavated foundations of what is held to be an Augustinian monastery in some place in Eastern Iceland.  The Catholic Church was under the supervision, at least after some time, of the Archbishop in Nidaros (today Trondhjem in Norway) with what is left of its monumental Gothic cathedral and afterwards of the Archbishop in Lund (Sweden).

As I said since the beginning, Iceland is Europe and followed in this particular field the fate of the Catholic Church in Europe: some form of corruption and infidelity to its true vocation and then the imposition (not certainly the choice) according to the axiom “cuius regio eius religio” (meaning religion follows the place where you live) of Northern Lutheranism. The true sense of such an axiom was really then: the political head of the country decides which religion (in this case which form of Christianity) you are allowed to profess. Iceland after the middle of the fourteenth century became part of Denmark. The King of Denmark Christian III was a stout Lutheran after the Reformation and all his countries had to follow suit. There was some resistance and even some fighting but not even remotely what happened in continental Europe with the wars of religion. The last Catholic Bishop Jon Aranson (not a model of Bishops: he had a mistress and four children but he believed in his Church), fought, was caught, considered a traitor, then had his head cut off without trial. It must be admitted it was one of the first Lutheran Bishops (the hierarchy was kept there at least for some time) who translated the Bible into Icelandic and had it printed. I am told the first book ever printed in that language was the Icelandic translation of the New Testament by a Lutheran of the first time by the name of Oddur Gottskalksson in 1540. Printed of course in Denmark to avoid Catholic negative reaction. For what regards the complete Bible, the publication with designs done by the Bishop himself, is a splendid volume a facsimile of which I happened to see and admire. I could not help noting that what are now called the Apocrypha (the Catholic Deuterocanonical, never published since in Protestant Bibles) were all there in their proper place. The Bishop name, which ought to be retained, was Gudbrandon Thorlakson and his Bible bears the date 1584. It bore, as it should, the approval of the King of Denmark both in Icelandic and indeed in Latin. The irony of the fact is that the printing press then used had been brought to Iceland and installed by the last Catholic Bishop just mentioned in his Episcopal city Holar. The Catholic hierarchy was reinstalled in 1929 and the Catholic Church is active and present. And apparently in good relation with our Lutheran brethren. In fact the present Lutheran Bishop of Holar had the ashes of his beheaded Catholic predecessor somehow found in the churchyard nearby and buried again in the Cathedral in front of the main altar.

Literacy seems to have been fairly common and early in Iceland. I was privileged to visit in a so called House of Culture, which indeed does earn its name, in Reykjavik an outstanding exhibition of Icelandic manuscripts, more than one, as it often happens, coming from libraries abroad. Two things are to be mentioned. First, the writing (and indeed apparently from the beginning) used  an adapted  Latin alphabet  in some form of what paleographers call the Carolingian minuscule, while at least there were (at least exhibited) no manuscripts in that language, which must have existed sometime, liturgical or otherwise. And secondly many of those manuscripts were illustrated. My attention was caught by a remarkable representation of what looked very exactly like a ceremony of adult Baptism, with the neophytes stark naked standing on a kind of tub before  the Bishop who with his mitre on and his crosier in his left hand, administers them the sacramental unction which is part of the Baptism of adults still today. And I could see other notable miniatures. There was also in the same exhibition the reconstruction remarkably true to fact of the whole process of the creation of medieval manuscripts since the very beginning with the preparation of the parchment, through the writing and illumination with the colours used right up to the ways of binding the finished book.  Most of the texts exhibited, I could read in the catalogue (there was a complete catalogue there signed by two editors: Gisli Sigurdsson – Vesteinn Olasson, Reykjavik 2004) came from the early periods, carefully transmitted first by word of mouth and then in writing: the “sagas” so called. Later on collected and saved from destruction by a scholar in the seventeenth century by the name of Arni Magnusson. An Institute in the same city bears his name. Those texts, I daresay, are less known and appreciated in our world than they should be. I can only think of the Ossian poems written (really rather created) in the eighteenth century in England by James McPherson and put into pictures by William Blake. And for what regards the version of the ancient German mythology inspiring Richard Wagner in his Tetralogy, one may wonder how far such texts and those at their origin really reflect the authentic  figures and  vicissitudes of the ancient “sagas”

Be that as it may, my conclusion is that there is much to be learned in a place like Iceland present and past. And I should add here a toponomastic note or note regarding the name of the place.  The name used for that country does not at all reflect its reality and I am afraid it does not help to attract visitors: it is certainly not a place of “ice” or where ice is predominant. But neither has Greenland anything “green” about it. It is in fact much more of an “iceland” than the beautiful island in the North Atlantic I was happy to visit where indeed there is much more to be seen, learned and admired that those notes written “currenti calamo” (“with a running pen” or I should now say “with a running PC”) may even suggest. It manages to give I hope at least some pale idea.