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A Person from the First Instant of Fertilization?

Part III: Man, one in Body and Soul

In Parts I and II I have used the term soul, which it is now necessary to discuss.  My point of departure is the “fact” that as I have come into existence, I cannot but receive my existence in the context of knowing that there must be a cause of it: a cause of my existence which thereby manifests a “power to give” existence.  I know that my existence is not simply explicable in terms of the ovum and the sperm at the first instant of fertilisation, because I also know that an ovum and a sperm are not, in themselves, entities that transcend the order of biological “entities”.  On the one hand, if they are not united, a human sperm and a human ovum do not develop.  On the contrary, if they do not unite, then sperm and ovum break down and “die”.  On the other hand, a species does not transcend its antecedents.  Therefore, even if a sperm and ovum do unite, for the entity to transcend its antecedents, there has to be a cause of that transcendence.  For the transcendence which occurs, from “sperm and ovum” to human personhood, is a change which goes beyond the manifest activity of the sperm or the “bodily substance” of the ovum.  Moreover, it can further be said that ‘personhood’ exceeds the entities ‘sperm and ovum’ to the same degree that person transcends animal44 .  It has to be said, however, that an ovum and a sperm are intrinsically ordered to that integration of human being which makes the human person a “manifest” reality45 : an “incarnate” kind of being46 : a flesh! (cf. Gr. σαρξ, Jn1:14).  In other words, in that an animal does not reason and love like a human person, nor is a human sperm of itself a person, the very existence of human reason and love transcend the “biological” order of both animal and human sperm.  It follows, therefore, that the wonder of my being (cf. Ps 139: 14) has a cause which transcends the outward “elements” of its constitution.  In the history of philosophy, articulating the “precise” relationship of the soul to the body was full of difficulties47 ; however, building on Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas recognized that the existence of the rational soul exceeded the normal characteristics of matter to the extent that it had to have a cause, namely God, which “introduced” it “into” matter48 .  Scripture expresses this same truth in ways characteristic of particular authors (cf. Ps. 139; 2 Mac 7: 22-23 etc) who are yet inspired by the Author of life, namely God.  In other words, in principle, natural philosophy and Revelation concur on this point.

Psalm 139 is, then, not “just” a “piece” of Scripture, but a profoundly rational perception of the mystery49 inherent in the fact of human being.  In other words, the Psalmist has discovered that human thinking is intrinsically responsive to what is received.  Inherent to that “discovery” is the realization that what I have received is the “good of personal life”.  The good of personal life cannot, therefore, be other than an intelligent communication to me of the One who made me50 , precisely because the mystery of my being entails a personal relationship to me.  In other words, expressed in the very mystery of my being a “personal being”, in the fact that I am an entity that requires a “supernatural” cause, is a personal relationship to that which is the cause of my being.  Thus there is an analogy between the parental cause of my being which constitutes me as a son of my parents and the supernatural cause of my being which constitutes me as a person-creature of a Person-Creator.

The “cause” of my being, then, can be understood in two senses.  On the one hand, there is a cause of my being which exceeds the power intrinsic to the sexual gametes; and the cause of my being in that sense is God.  On the other hand, what the action of God causes to exist in the created order, which also exceeds the power intrinsic to the sexual gametes, is a rational soul in union with the body.  In other words, in the case of human creatures, the goal of God’s creative act is the human person, one in soul and gendered body.

(IIIi) The Shift from Man to Person in the Context of Creation

In short, in the subsequent sub-sections there is a discussion of the positive and negative relationship, as it were, between Aristotle’s view on form and matter and Aquinas’ doctrine that man is one in body and soul.  In this section it is necessary to note, however briefly, three things.  Firstly, the transition from the philosophical to the Christian conception of the person is not identical to the transition from Aristotle to Aquinas.  Secondly, there is a transition from the philosophical conception of man to the Christian conception of the person51 which involves an enlargement of the horizon in which the development from Aristotle to Aquinas takes place.  The enlargement of the horizon in which the transition from Aristotle to Aquinas is occurring, is an enlargement in a direction which had been closed to human reason: the perception of the person in the light of the mystery of the Blessed Trinity52 .  The transition of human thought, principally from man to person53 and from substance to “substance-in-relation”54 , is a transition which human thought is still undergoing.

With a view to the aforementioned general background, it is now necessary to comment on a particular aspect of the theological enrichment of philosophy.  Aristotle, somewhat typically among the ancients, held that the world had an eternal existence.  In terms of his view, then, that to know something is to know the fourfold cause of its being55 , it follows that the “world”, lacking an efficient cause, was not completely capable of being known and, if not completely capable of being known, then the world “possesses” a certain unintelligibility to reason56 .  By contrast, the biblical account of the relationship between knowing the cause of a thing and knowing that thing57 , gives us the positive "coin" to the realisation that not knowing the cause of a thing entails a certain incompleteness in our knowledge of that thing.  Drawing on creation as a comprehensive act of God, then, gives us a “complete” insight into the cause of the body-soul unity-of-man: a unity which is intrinsically ordered from the beginning to the Revelation of the intra-trinitarian mystery of God.  The “theo-logic” of the integral design of human being owes an undoubted debt to the work of Pope John Paul II, who constantly referred the creation of the person to the mystery of God58 .  Suffice it to say here that Scripture gives an account of Adam’s bodily form being shaped from the ground by the same “person” who then breathes into “it” the ‘breath of life’ (cf. Gn 2: 7).  On the one hand, then, “life” is “given” to Adam by the “living God”.  On the other hand, according to Revelation, God conceives man as a whole: as a whole which is not an addition of parts by way of changing an eternal matter by the infusion of a soul.  On the contrary, the doctrine of creation reveals that God embodies a “vision” of Himself in the entire mystery of creation and, pre-eminently, in the mystery of man: man, one in body and soul; and man, male and female, made in the image of the Blessed Trinity.

(IIIii) A Qualified Following of St.Thomas Aquinas and an Answer to an Objection

In the sequence which St. Thomas takes for normal human development, which is from vegetative to sensitive to rational soul, each previous soul must be replaced.  Therefore, ‘at the end of the process of human generation, God creates an intelligent soul with nutritive and sensitive powers, replacing the previous souls’59 .  Thus we have a summary account of the principal “ingredients” of the human person, including the principle that ‘the whole of bodily nature is God’s instrument’60 .  Secondly, the action of God which ‘creates an intelligent soul with nutritive and sensitive powers, replacing the previous souls’ could be a substantial change.  In other words, there may not be a difference between the act of God envisaged by St. Thomas at the beginning of personal life and the act of God envisaged in this essay; rather, the difference is one of when God acts.  It is therefore possible that for Aristotle, and subsequently for St. Thomas, the requirement of a body capable of expressing a rational soul, was equivalent to recognizing that the body had to be precisely the body of a human being.  In other words, while the rational soul informs the matter and brings to exist the entity of a human person, the entity that is to be ensouled has to be integrally capable of “receiving” the ontological completion of a rational soul.  As Fr. John Saward explains it: St. Thomas had ‘grasped the truth that matter must be suitably and sufficiently organized in order to be animated by a rational soul .... [such that when it was] completely formed, it was evidently informed by a rational soul’61 .  In other words, given the limited knowledge of embryology at their respective times, they still recognized the principle of the requirement of a specifically human body for a specifically human soul.  The embryological evidence now makes clear, in other words, that the first instant of fertilisation is the first instant from which proceeds a dynamically orientated development: a programmed manifestation of the existence of the person.

What embryological evidence makes clear that ensoulment can be from the first instant of fertilisation?  What embryological evidence, in other words, overcomes the objection that ensoulment cannot occur at the first instant of fertilization, because the “matter” is not sufficiently organised to be informed by a rational soul?  In answer to this objection the following can be said.  In general, modern insights make clear that the first instant of fertilisation manifests the existence of magnificently ordered microscopic structures and their dynamic, developmentally ordered interactions; indeed, there appears to be a profound harmony between the “microcosm” of the embryo’s bio-chemical structures and electro-chemical reactions and the “macrocosmic” electro-magnetic forces, structures and interactions in the universe as a whole.  The closer we come to the originating moment of human personhood, the clearer shines the marvellously intricate and intimate work of the Creator: a work which is both coherent in terms of the universe as a whole and the particular reality of human person.  In other words, order reigns.

More particulary, from the expulsion of the first polar body of excess genetic material from the ovum, the ovum has completed its “programme” of “bodily” readiness.  As argued earlier, this programme of bodily readiness was completed under the influence of the maternal hormones.  Secondly, the inertia that follows the completion of the formation and expulsion of the first polar body is the “inertia” of a “term” of development.  In other words, the inertia of the ovum is precisely the “end” of a natural development: a development from the inception of an ovum to its expulsion and readiness for the entry of a sperm.  Thirdly, the sperm has undergone its own preparation for this “encounter” with the shedding of the covering of its “head” or acrosome.  In other words, as regards the reality of the sperm as sperm and the ovum as ovum, each is what it is intended to be and both are completely ready for a new “beginning”: the beginning through which “they” become a single embryo on the first instant of “their” reciprocal activity.  The first instant of “their” reciprocal activity is the activity of the new entity.  On the one hand, the “sperm” begets a new, active entity, of which it is itself a “part”.  Simultaneously, therefore, the changes that the “sperm” now undergoes, are changes which are integral to the development of the embryo.  On the other hand, the activity of the new entity, begotten by the sperm, is not an activity that can be understood apart from the constructive integration of the “sperm head” into the bodily substance of the developing embryo.  In terms of the reality of this fruitful “encounter” between sperm and ovum, always presupposing the Creator’s gift of a soul, ontologically “one” with the body, there proceeds the developmentally ordered manifestation of the person conceived.  In other words, even if many things are “in potential”, including the zygote stage of development and the manifestation of rationality62 , that “moment” of beginning could be no more organized than it is.  Everything which characterizes the developmental needs of that human person is present and progressively operative.  Furthermore, the first instant of fertilization is an “outward” change in the “electrical” state of the outer membrane of what is now the embryo.  The existence of the embryo is made manifest in the closure of the wall around what was the “sperm” head.  Therefore, it is the fact of the reciprocal reaction of the bio-chemical structures of what had been an ovum and a sperm, that fulfils the foundational requirements for the bodily-life of the person and, if for the bodily-life of the person, then for the bodily-life of the person to be an expression of the soul-life of the person.  In other words, the whole tendency of a philosophical-theological personalism is towards the conclusion that the soul of the human being is not just a “rational soul”, but the soul of a person, and the body of a human being is not just a human body but the body of a person.  In sum, then, there is the most extraordinary of human facts: the dynamic nature of created matter, its physical structures and intrinsic activities, are taken up into the somatic structures and activities which, together with the soul of the person, constitute the mystery of the beginning of the “life” of a human person63 .  The first instant of human fertilisation could not be “more” organised than it is.

(IIIiii) The soul as “life” and “form”

While there are various meanings to the term “soul”64 , there are two definitions which are of particular relevance here: ‘life’ and ‘form’.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: ‘In Sacred Scripture the term “soul” often refers to human life or the entire human person’65 ; and also: ‘The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body66 : i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.’

In the first place there is a certain convergence in meaning between the two terms: ‘life’ and ‘form’.  This is particularly evident in view of the explanation that the relationship between the “form” and the body is such that ‘it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body’.  In terms of the discussion, then, of what constitutes the pre-requisite organization of the “body”, relative to the possibility of ensoulment, it can be said that the soul of the person requires a “body” capable of being the bodily expression of the person.  In terms of the argument of this essay, a “body” capable of being the bodily expression of the person, comes to exist from the first instant of fertilization.  Clearly I am drawing upon a definition of body as the ‘frame of a living being’67 .  From the point of view, then, of a strict definition of a body as the frame of a living being, the human body as such does not exist until the first instant of fertilization.  Going back to the notion of a “form”, which informs matter, the English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: ‘because of its spiritual soul ... the body made of matter becomes a living, human body’68 .  It has to be said, however, that the aforementioned relationship between form and matter is ambiguous.  To say that ‘because of its spiritual soul ... the body made of matter becomes a living, human body’, could presuppose a point at which there is a body made of matter that is not alive, which then becomes, because of the soul, a living, human body.  The problem in terms of modern insights, then, is that there is no such “actual” entity as a body made of matter becoming, because of a soul, a living human body – except in a philosophical sense.  On the one hand, in a philosophical sense it is true that matter, informed by a soul, becomes a living body.  This is because of the more general, hylomorphic principle, that ‘matter’ becomes what it is according to the kind of form it receives.  On this understanding of ‘matter’, matter is all that constitutes the somatic life and structure which, the instant God creates the soul of a person, becomes the body of that same person.  Philosophically, therefore, there is a context in which it is true to speak of matter and form as co-constituents of an actual human being’s substance. &nsbp;In the context of a philosophy of created being, the form does determine the nature of the matter such that it can be said that the ‘matter’ of a human body is determined to be what it is by the presence of a human form or soul.

On the other hand, at the moment of fertilization there is not a body made of matter but a transmission of human life.  However, as we have seen, “life” is “transmitted” by a sperm to an ovum; indeed, the life “transmitted” by the sperm is, “historically”, the life transmitted by Adam to each person of the human race.  This “life of Adam” is a transmissible, historical reality, which unites the human race in a certain way, just as the “flesh” of Eve is transmitted down the generations and, through the ovum of each woman, links the human race to Eve, the mother of the living (cf. Gn 3: 20).  This transmission of “human flesh” is not to be confused with the coming to be of each individual person.  The latter requires, in itself, a particular act of God.  The transmission of life, therefore, is such that the new entity, the embryo, arises out of the “reciprocal” interaction of what had been a sperm and an ovum.  Thus there has to be a relationship between the “life” transmitted by the sperm, which has become the reciprocal interaction of what had been a sperm and an ovum and the “life” of the soul of a person, created by God, which determines the being of the fertilized ovum to be a human being: a human person.  Furthermore, the argument of this essay is that the “biological life” of the sperm-ovum interaction, which constitutes a natural dimension of the transmission of life, is changed by an act of God to become the “outward” sign of the ‘soul-life’ that God gives at the first instant of creating a human person.  In other words, owing to the creative act of God, the first instant of fertilization is taken up into a substantial change, the outward sign of which is the first sign of the embryo: the “wall” which simultaneously encloses the fertilising sperm and expresses the first instant of the body’s existence.

44 ‘Animal’ is therefore understood here not as a general category of which ‘human animal’ is some kind of “instance”; rather, animal is understood here as a type of being which is integrally different to the human person.  Nevertheless, animal being is “ordered” to human being in that both inhabit the same universe: the animals are from the earth and, in the second account of creation, Adam is from the earth.  I contend, however, that the author of Genesis understands the nature of a being according to the mode of its origin and, therefore, animal and person are also radically different.  In the language of Genesis, the animal is “called” from the earth, whereas the creation of the person is a particularly personal act of God, whether God creates man by word or from the ground.  In the language of Genesis, the human person is in the image of God: man, male and female He made them.  In other words, it was integral to the creation of man to “require” a personal act of God to bring each one of us to exist, whereas the life of the animal was established on the basis of a different principle.    Back
45 Cf. ST, III, 5, art 3.    Back
46 Cf. Familiaris Consortio, art. 11.  This quotation finds an “echo” in the intimate “structure” of the first instant of fertilization.    Back
47 Cf. for example, F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy: Vol I: Greece and Rome, (Burns Oates and Washbourne Ltd., revised 1947), p. 331.    Back
48 Cf. F. Copleston, Aquinas, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd, 1955), p. 163.    Back
49 Cf. David L. Schindler, “Veritatis Splendor and the Foundation of Bioethics,” pp. 197-99.    Back
50 I do not intend to “prove” anything here, such as the fact that there cannot be an infinite regression of “received” being, so much as to establish some point at which I have recognized an insufficiency in the apparent “origin” of the human person to account for the whole person, one in body and soul.    Back
51 Cf. Cardinal J. Ratzinger’s (now Pope Benedict XVI), article “Concerning the notion of person in theology”, Communio, Vol. 17 (Fall 1990), pp. 439-454.    Back
52 Cf. Gaudium et Spes, 24 and 22.    Back
53 A direction in the history of thought that was taken up, as it were, in the work of Karol Wojtyla-Pope John Paul II (e.g. from Love and Responsibility, through Person and Act and on into the series of Catecheses called The Theology of the Body).    Back
54 W. Norris Clarke, “Person, Being, and St. Thomas”, Communio, Vol. 19, (Winter 1992), p. 609.    Back
55 Cf. Copleston, A History of Philosophy: Vol I: Greece and Rome, pp. 306-7 and 288.    Back
56 Cf. Copleston, A History of Philosophy: Vol I: Greece and Rome.  The logic of this position is as follows.  To know something is to know the cause of it; and cause is here understood as fourfold (p. 288); however, if the existence of matter (or the world) is uncaused (cf. p. 315), then it follows that there is a deficiency in the fullness of knowledge that is possible, in that if matter is “uncaused” (in the sense of without an ‘efficient Cause’ [cf. p. 295]), then matter is to a degree unknown and unintelligible (cf. p. 309).  Furthermore, Aristotle understood God to be “One” (p. 316), although the situation is more complex in that there are references to a ‘plurality of unmoved movers’ (ibid).  By contrast, because Christian Revelation goes beyond what can be known to reason, it allows for the exploration of the parallel, hitherto ‘closed to human reason’, between the mystery of God the Blessed Trinity and the ‘union of the sons of God in truth and love’ (Gaudium et Spes, 24).  Further discussion of this is beyond the scope of this essay.    Back
57 Cf. Genesis, 1-2, in which the kind of being God creates is given a particular kind of cause.    Back
58 Cf. for example, Letter to Families, art 6, Familiaris Consortio, art 11, not to mention the series of reflections subsequently known as his Theology of the Body etc.    Back
59 I, 118, art 2.    Back
60 I, 118, art 2.    Back
61 Redeemer in the Womb, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), pp. 14-15.    Back
62 Cf. Evangelium Vitae, art. 60.    Back
63 Cf. Gaudium et Spes, art. 14.    Back
64 Not to mention a literature on the question, either concerning the philosophical or the Scriptural uses of the term; however, as indicated above, I am confining myself to two aspects of the use of the term in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.    Back
65 CCC, art 363, footnote 230 to this article says: Cf. Mt 16: 25-26; Jn 15: 13; Acts 2: 41.    Back
66 This quotation is taken from the CCC, art 365, with footnote 234: Cf. Council of Vienne (1312): DS 902.    Back
67 Blackie’s Compact Etymological Dictionary, R. J. Cunliffe, revised by R. F. Patterson, (Blackie and Son Ltd., n.d.), p. 31.    Back
68 CCC, art 365.    Back

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