This is the first in a series of articles about “pro-life heroes”. Their outstanding example will show us how heroic obedience to the Gospel can result in a single a man or woman having a major impact on the society and culture around them. Their efforts are foundation stones to the culture of life we are trying to build!
Our first Pro-Life Hero is St Basil the Great[i]. He is first because of how early in the history of the Christian Church he lived, and especially because his actions and advocacy arguably created a template for others to follow.
Who was St Basil?
Basil of Caesarea was born in 330 and died on January 1 or 2 in the year 379. His feast day is January 2, although it is thought he died on the first day of the year. Since Mary Mother of God is the Solemnity celebrated on January 1, the General Roman Calendar has recognised the celebration on January 2 along with his great friend St Gregory of St Nazianzen.
Known today as Saint Basil the Great (a.k.a. St Basil of Caesarea), he is also known as one of the ‘Cappadocian Fathers’ along with St Gregory of Nazianzen, and his own brother St Gregory of Nyssa.
He was born into an astonishing family full of Saints.
His grandmother was St Macrina the Elder; his father – St Basil the Elder; his mother – St Emmelia / Emily; one brother was the St Gregory of Nyssa mentioned earlier; a sister was St Macrina the Younger; another brother was St Peter of Sebaste (also named as a Bishop).
Why is St Basil called ‘Great’?
Very few Saints are recognised by the title ‘the Great’ (e.g. St Albert the Great – Pope, St Gertrude the Great, St Gregory the Great – Pope, St Anthony the Great).
It is a title that is (usually) awarded after extensive historical review confirms the great influence on the course of Christendom the Saint had. Occasionally the profound impact a Saint has during and shortly after their lifetime results in the title being awarded by popular acclaim, and subsequently accepted and recognised by the Vatican.
St Basil of Caesarea is recognised as a truly great Saint because, for example:
- He initiated communal monasticism in Asia Minor at Pontus – his ‘rule’ continues to be a major influence in the Eastern Catholic Churches and the Eastern Orthodox Church; he is often referred to as the ‘father’ of Oriental Monasticism, and as the forerunner to St Benedict.
- He was one of the leading defenders of truth in the fight against the Arian heresy, and a great defender of the eastern churches against heresies (usually ranked second only to St Athanasius) – in other words a great Theologian.
- He was a tireless in pastoral care – preached twice a day to huge crowds; built a hospital that was called a wonder of the world; fought against the prostitution business and against abortion, and other forms of infanticide such as exposure and abandonment, or even outright killing.
- He was a Bishop/Archbishop of Mazaca in Caesarea, Cappadocia, Asia Minor (in what is now modern-day Turkey). This was one of the most influential of the early Christian Churches (Bishop’s Sees), overseeing a number of other ‘lesser’ Churches throughout the area.
- Basil was best known as an orator. Though not recognized greatly in his own lifetime, his writings rightly place him among the great teachers of the Church. Seventy-two years after his death, the Council of Chalcedon described him as “the great Basil, minister of grace who has expounded the truth to the whole earth.”
St Basil is venerated by both the Eastern and Western Christian Churches. In the Roman Rite, he is recognised also as a Doctor of the Church for his huge contribution to fighting heresies (including the Arian heresy), and for his teaching and insights around the nature of the Eucharist.
St Basil’s Pro-Life Heroics
St Basil was deeply and passionately concerned to provide proper care for the poor, including during sickness. He is considered the first to open a non-ambulatory hospital. His concern for the poor was profound and at the heart of all his pastoral activity. The following quote gives an insight into his Christian character and heart:
The bread you store belongs to the hungry. The clothes you accumulate belong to the naked. The shoes that you have in your closet are for the barefoot. The money you bury deep into the ground to keep it safe, belongs to the poor. You were unfair to as many people as you could have helped and you did not. ([ii])
For St Basil, each and every human being was of equal dignity and value, regardless of sex, age, status (slave or free), societal position, state of health. His active involvement in fighting against anything that was not in keeping with this brought him into conflict with people of power within the societies he preached to and worked within.
The Cappadocian region officially recognised Christianity around 40 years before St Basil was appointed Bishop, but it was not well evangelized at that stage. Pagan practices still persisted, and St Basil was horrified to learn:
- Child killing was still widely practiced.
- A guild of abortionists (‘sagae’) did a booming trade.
- The bodies of aborted or otherwise killed children were harvested and sold to cosmetologists in Egypt (e.g. as a source of collagen for use in the manufacture of ‘beauty’ creams).
- Unwanted babies / children were ‘exposed’ or abandoned outside city walls – a practice that was an age old ‘tradition’ in the Roman world.
- These practices were perfectly legal.
- He preached a series of homilies on the sanctity of human life.
- He mobilised Christians to help care for families and women facing crisis pregnancies.
- He used his family status and his own extensive powers of persuasion to change laws.
- He began an education programme on the issues at stake.
- He took ecclesiastical actions against the sagae, declaring them an anathema.
- He staged public protests against the Egyptian traders purchasing for the cosmetic ‘industry’.
- He lobbied against the control over life or death that a Roman paterfamilias (male head of the family) had. It was a cultural norm that a Roman did not ‘have’ a child; he ‘took’ a child. Immediately after birthing, if the family decided not the ‘raise’ the child (literally lift the child up) the child was simply abandoned – newborn abandoned children were taken to a special place outside the cities walls to be ‘exposed’ and die. Within Roman civilisation of the time, human children had no rights unless they were ‘raised’.
- He initiated the dismantling of old Caesarean infanticide shrines.
What was the result of this extensive programme of action by St Basil?
- Even though he faced opposition from powerful Roman citizens, the Emperor Valentinian decreed, in response to St Basil’s crusade, in the year 374 AD:
“All parents must support their children conceived; those who brutalize or abandon them should be subject to the full penalty prescribed by law” [iii]
This was the first known legal condemnation in human history of abortion, infanticide, exposure and abandonment.
- The sagae were driven underground and eventually put out of business.
- The tradition of paterfamilias determination of the raise or die status of children was all but overturned.
- The exposure walls were destroyed.
St Basil the Great died only a few years later in 379 AD (at age 49 or 50). His heroic work however, altered the course of human history.
It could be said that he laid the foundations of a culture of life.
[i] Much of the information I have relied on for this article comes from the second chapter of the book Third Time Around – A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present, by George Grant – Wolgemuth & Hyatt Publishers, 1991. I highly recommend this very readable book, which is available cheaply in down-loadable PDF format here: http://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/210e_47e.htm
[ii] From Patrologia Graeca 31, pp. 261 – 277 – as cited by Wikipedia article on St Basil the Great – found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basil_of_Caesarea
[iii] Code of Justinian 8.52.2 as cited on p. 21 of Third Time Around