Tuesday, January 03, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Sacred Embryology by Francesco Cangiamila

Francesco Cangiamila


Translated into French by Abbé Joseph Dinouart, 1766. Second French Edition.
Originally published in Sicilian in 1745 and in Latin in 1758.

In this day and age, the most salient issue for pro-lifers is abortion. No other issue concerning the unborn comes in at a close second. In the 18th century, things were different. Pro-lifers-- those preoccupied with the fate of the unborn-- had a completely different issue. Their main concern was making sure that every child received baptism, including those babies whose mothers died in labour, and who risked being unbirthed.

Hence: Sacred Embryology; subtitled: Or a Treaty on the Duties of Priests, Physicians, Surgeons Midwives Towards Children in the Womb of their Mothers. It was originally written in Italian by Francesco Cangiamila of Palermo, Sicily, where he worked as the Archdiocesan inquisitor.


The gist of the book was that if a woman should die in labour, a c-section should be performed on her to extract the baby so that he could at least be baptized. If the surgeon or the midwife was unavailable to perform the operation, then it was up to the priest to conduct it.

Father Cangiamila goes to extraordinary lengths to defend his position and to explain, in detail, when babies must be extracted for baptism and how to do the procedure.

A brief synopsis of each Book:

Book One deals with embryology and the care that priests and doctors should have for the unborn, even the unborn in the earliest days of pregnancy. By the eighteenth century, the educated were well aware that Aristotle’s model of embryology-- which distinguished between animated and unanimated fetuses-- was rather obsolete. But it still held sway among the people.

Book Two gets to the heart of the topic: the performance of caesarean sections on dead mothers to extract babies from the womb so they at least receive baptism.

Book Three covers the topic of when to perform a c-section, and answers theological objections to baptizing unborn babies (because sometimes the babies were baptized conditionally while still inside the womb to save time.)

Book Four covers the subject of how God loves the unborn, and the duties of parents, sovereigns, pastors and especially midwives and bishops in regards to the unborn.

Book Five is a collection of royal legislation, medical and episcopal ordonnances affecting the unborn. Then there is Dinouart’s additions: research on c-sections, and sundry other official documents, including a blessing of pregnant women created by St. Charles Borromeo.

The Rituale Romanum of 1614 instructed pastors to extract the babies of mothers who died in labour in order to administer emergency baptism. However, there was no guidance on how to do it. You would think that it would be a simple matter to pull a baby out of a womb, but it was often more complicated than that. First of all, there were many reasons for obstructed labour: narrow pelvises, tumours in the birth canal, uterine rupture, etc.If the mother died suddenly from an accident, the mother would not be dilated, and it was impossible to pull the baby out. The c-section had to be performed no matter how young the unborn child. If it wasn’t, the baby would be buried with the mother, and die unbaptized, consigned to limbo. This was considered a tragedy.

The wider society did not share the Church’s concern for the unborn. And Cangiamila’s prescriptions were considered somewhat controversial. He does not elaborate on all these reasons, having done some research on the issue of post-mortem caesareans, I can offer some clues as to why.

  • The Aristotelian model was still predominant.  Many people considered that a fetus below a certain age was inanimate and thus couldn’t be baptized.

  • There was also the matter that the relatives sometimes objected to the operation. The father, overwhelmed at the loss of his wife, burdened with caring for young children, would not necessarily want another mouth to feed; he would not want the child to be saved.

  • If the child were illegitimate, the family would not want the disgrace of raising a child born of an illicit sexual union.

  • There was also the cultural taboo of mutilating a corpse, which was considered as a kind of sacrilege. This belief was also combined with the widespread belief that babies soon died after their mothers to produce a negative reaction. The feeling was: this woman has suffered enough, why can’t you leave her in peace?

  • Finally, priests were reluctant to conduct the operation. It offended the delicate sense of modesty that many had in the 18th century, and there was a fear that dealing with a woman in such an intimate matter might render them canonically irregular.

The biggest obstacle against the practice of post-mortem cesareans was that the c-section had a very poor reputation. It inspired horror and dread. This was the age of surgery without anesthetic or infection control. Women did not relish the prospect of being cut up and dying of an infection. The vast majority of women who underwent it died, and it didn’t have a good track record of saving babies, either (although it was adequate to extract a live baby to administer baptism.) To minimize these problems, Cangiamila goes through a lot of trouble to emphasize the c-section on dead women, and gives tips on how to make sure that a woman is truly deceased and not just unconscious. (The issue of how to tell if someone is dead was a matter of some dispute during the 18th century.)  Although he says, citing Aquinas, that a woman is morally required to undergo a c-section before death if it was the only way to guarantee that her baby would be baptized and go to heaven.

There is a lot of medical detail in this book about the scenarios in which it would be appropriate to be use the c-section, on how to perform it, and its track record and survival rates. Although it was recognized that few women survived c-sections, he brought up examples of women who did, in order to bolster support for this operation.

He also gives many details on how to revive unconscious children. Babies who are extracted from the womb in these conditions are often unconscious, but he tells his readers not to rely on appearances and not presume that they are dead. His first suggestion is mouth to mouth resuscitation using a tube to blow air into the lungs. He also recommends a method practice by Sicilian midwives which is to take live chicken and have them peck their beaks into the baby’s rectum. And if that doesn’t work, one can take a tube, insert it in the baby’s butt and blow tobacco smoke into the intestines. These were supposedly effective methods of revival. If nothing these methods provide a little levity in a subject that could be a little heavy to wade through.

The section on the theological debate surrounding baptism of the unborn was also quite interesting. The main argument against it was the belief that in order to receive the Holy Spirit, one had to be born again. The word born suggests that birth was a prerequisite to going to heaven. Cangiamila shows that the Greek word used for “born” could also mean “formed”, so that it wasn’t a matter of birth but generation, as the unborn were generated, they would be re-generated.

The last section consisted of appendices. There were a couple that really attracted my attention. One was the royal decree of King Charles of Sicily, effectively implementing the book’s goals. It prohibited the burial of any woman suspected of being pregnant before a c-section was performed on her. The other addition that caught my attention were the reports that clergy were to write to their bishops, explaining how many babies were saved through c-sections etc. There were only a few reports, but it was very edifying to read how the legislation had saved all those babies.

In short, this book is a pro-life goldmine. It’s wonderful to see a literary work so unconsciously pro-life, so devoted to the welfare of the unborn. To Fr. Cangiamila, there is absolutely no distinction to be made between the born and the unborn. All are human beings, all are deserving of consideration.

Works Cited: