The Church’s view on abortion and marriage transformed Europe
The first surviving Christian writing outside the New Testament, Didache, already makes a statement against abortion, infanticide and paedophilia.
17 OCTOBER 2022 · 18:40 CET
We have all heard about the “abdominal" issues. The issues that are considered too much for the Church to deal with and that its environment challenges it to give up. It's about abortion, views on sex, pornography, the definition of a marriage.
At the same time, there are a few issues with which people today struggle as much and not all women find the procedure unproblematic.
Campaigns like #prataomdet, #mörkertalet and #MeToo have put the spotlight on thousands of women (and men) who have been subjected to sexual abuse. There is no doubt that we are touching an area where significant parts of the population are suffering - also (or not least?) in secular Sweden.
Something we rarely talk about is that “abdominal" issues are a central part of Christianity's contribution to Western civilization.
Starting with abortion, we can note that the first surviving Christian writing outside the New Testament, Didache, already makes a statement against abortion and infanticide as well as paedophilia.
This teaching quickly led to a much better gender balance in the Christian community than in society at large. Indeed, an overwhelming proportion of all newborns thrown on the rubbish binp at that time were girls.
The American sociologist Rodney Stark, in his book The Rise of Christianity, says that in 2nd century Rome there were 131 men for every 100 women, and that the figures for Italy, Asia Minor and North Africa were as high as 140 to 100.
In addition to infanticide, this was mainly due to abortion - which often led to the death of the mother - and the low age of marriage for women.
The Christian Church, says Stark, went against the tide in all these areas. In addition to its ban on infanticide and abortion, it advocated a higher age of marriage, expected sexual fidelity from both women and men, and gave great freedom of choice to both partners as to whether or not they wanted to marry.
Furthermore, it had a comprehensive social program to care for the widows of the congregations.
All this was based on the conviction of the equal value of all people, but also of monogamous marriage as the place for sexual intercourse.
The British historian Tom Holland, known for his books on antiquity and the influence of the Church on Western culture, has expressed in several contexts his fascination for Christianity's break with the old order.
Time and again, he points out that in the Roman Empire the right of the strong was self-evident. For free male citizens, this meant that they were fully entitled to sexually exploit their subordinates. But then Christianity came in with a whole new set of values.
In an interview with the online magazine Scroll.in, Holland says:
“Paul is a Jew, so that he believes God creates man and woman separately. He brings that premise into the conversation. But he also brings another new premise: Christ came and suffered death out of love for humanity. ... And if we want to have a sexual relationship with another human being, then it must be true to the love that Christ has shown humanity.What Paul is doing is he is saying that there can only be one way, one correct way, to have a sexual relationship, and that is that you must live in a monogamous marriage”.
For the non-Christian Holland, the #MeToo movement and the revelations about Harvey Weinstein's abuse were an eye-opener in this context. In the Roman Empire, it was Weinstein who would have received the obvious support of his surroundings!
He behaved exactly as one would expect a privileged Roman man to behave. The fact that we react to Weinstein's abuse of power today, says Holland, has to do with the Christian imprint of Western culture. That's where we got the values that were driving #MeToo!
Another person who has highlighted the influence of the Christian Church on “abdomina issues” is the Swedish literary historian Johan Lundberg. In an article in Kvartal magazine, he points to the role of the Church in the unravelling of European clan culture:
“For many centuries, from the 3rd century onwards, the Church waged campaigns that diminished the power of the clans. They systematically legislated against cousin marriage, against polygamous marriages, and against rules such as the remarriage of the dead husband's brother to the woman whose husband dies”.
Furthermore, “the prioritisation of the nuclear family by ecclesiastical decree at the expense of the family, in turn, led to more egalitarian and less authoritarian family structures in the Middle Ages than was the case in clan-based societies. These tendencies were then fuelled by the impact of the guild system and the creation of commercial networks that proved more profitable than those based on kinship”.
To illustrate the impact this had on European society, Lundberg uses polygamy as an example:
“Even in a society with a moderate form of polygamy, where the wealthiest fifth of all men marry three or four wives each, while the rest live in monogamous marriages, 40% of all men will remain unmarried. This in turn can be related to the fact that men's testosterone levels drop in committed relationships, and even more so when they become fathers. Lower testosterone levels are also productive from a societal perspective, as they imply greater measures of impulse control, self-discipline and long-term action, and less of risk-taking and violence”.
Observations like these have more than just historical value. In fact, all the problems that Christianity historically helped to solve are still relevant today, outside the Christian cultural sphere.
Sex-selective abortions in countries like India and China, for example, are the single most important cause of the alarming gender imbalance in those countries, with a male surplus of 12% and 15% respectively.
Cousin marriage and polygamy are also widespread problems today, not least in Muslim countries. The former leads to genetic impoverishment and the strengthening of clan power. The latter leads to large groups of men finding themselves deprived of the opportunity to marry.
As the American professor Valerie Hudson has pointed out, it is these groups of involuntary single men who constitute the main recruiting base for our world's many warlords and rebel groups.
This is particularly true for Islamic terrorist organisations such as IS and Boko Haram - or, for that matter, Afghanistan's Taliban. It is no coincidence that they have made a name for themselves kidnapping teenage girls.
Indeed, a key part of their 'business' can be described as marriage brokering in regions with a poor access to women - and an acute need for socio-economically marginalised men.
What all these issues have in common is that they can be effectively countered by a church that lives in line with the classical Christian view of sex, marriage and the sanctity of life.
Historically, it can simply be said that “abdomina issues” have transformed Europe into the continent we often take for granted today.
Surely we should think twice before throwing this heritage overboard?
Olof Edsinger, General Secretary of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance.
Published in: Evangelical Focus - European perspectives - The Church’s view on abortion and marriage transformed Europe