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A Person from the First Instant of Fertilization?

Part IV: The Personal Meaning Expressed in Human Procreation

The dialogue of faith and reason is dynamic: a dynamism that is informed by both a scrupulous realism and a real engagement with the mysteries of the Christian Faith.  This essay now draws on the mysteries of our salvation and makes explicit that this is an investigation in the perspective of a creature of the Creator.  A particular type of this kind of thinking is pondering.  Mary ponders the words and actions of God (cf. Lk 1: 29; 2: 19 etc).  Pondering, therefore, proceeds from the fact of the actions and words of God and is precisely expressive of that dimension of conversion which turns us towards reality69 in all “its” splendour and fullness.  In other words, theological reflection makes explicit the turn to God which is inherent in the turn to the “given”: the data expressing the design of God leads to recognising God as Creator.  Taking Mary, in a sense, as the archetypal member of the Church who ponders the conception of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, it is necessary to follow her lead and to consider the possibility that the Incarnation of Christ illuminates the question of when each one of us comes to exist70 .  There are traditionally two possible lines of thought on the Incarnation of Christ: St. Thomas Aquinas argues that Christ’s conception is chronologically different from ours, whereas St. Maximus the Confessor argues that Christ’s conception is chronologically the same as ours71 .  Firstly, St. Thomas’ argument has been assimilated to the question of when the body begins and has, in a sense, been answered.  Secondly, for the reason of making more explicit the possibility of human procreation “embodying” the mystery of the Blessed Trinity as “Person “from” Person”, the final part of this essay will address a line of thought in agreement with St. Maximus the Confessor.  St. Maximus was of the view that notwithstanding the divine fecundation that made it possible for the Word to become flesh, Christ’s conception was the same as other human conceptions.  Again in the words of Fr. John Saward, this time according to the mind of St. Maximus the Confessor: ‘Apart from the saving novelty of its virginal manner, the conception of Christ is in all respects like ours’72 .

(IVi) A Patristic Principle and the thought of St. Maximus the Confessor

The Patristic Principle is that notwithstanding the difference of the Virginal conception of Christ, whatever can be demonstrated to be true to human conception is true of the conception of Christ.  St. Maximus holds, similarly, following the conception of Christ by the Holy Spirit, the conception of Christ entailed no radical alteration of the chronological sequence of the process of human conception.

It is therefore asserted that St. Maximus is expressing a type of Patristic thinking on the conception of Christ that can be called a ‘Patristic Principle.’  In the following summary of this Patristic Principle, there is no discussion of variations among the Fathers; rather there is a recognition of a common theme amidst a variety of expressions.  The ‘Patristic Principle’ concerning Christ’s conception has three parts.  The first part is that it is informed by Revelation and assumes the virginal conception of Christ.  The second part is that whatever can be demonstrated to be a fact or stage integral to human development, is a fact or stage of development that can be understood of the conception of Christ.  Finally, assuming the virginal conception of Christ and that whatever is integral to human development is integral to Christ’s development, what follows is this: that what is assumed is redeemed.  The Fathers of the Church understood that Christ recapitulated the whole of human life and, therefore, sanctified each integral stage and fact of it73 .  It is therefore possible to contend that whatever has been discovered concerning the nature of human conception, excluding the “difference” of the virginal conception, can be held to be true of Christ’s conception.  In terms of the issue of an integral salvation of the human person, the point can be put more forcefully: if what is assumed is redeemed, then it is necessary that what is assumed is the first instant of fertilization.  For, as it has been argued in the previous parts of this investigation, the first instant of fertilization is the first instant that man is one in body and soul.

(IVii) Creation and Incarnation Illuminate each other

The Incarnation makes explicit the Trinitarian “co-creation” of creation; indeed, in the mystery of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity becoming visible “flesh”, the mystery of “being”, in a sense, becomes “visible” in Christ.  This is well expressed by juxtaposing two quotations from the works of Hans Urs von Balthasar.  The first of his thoughts was this: ‘the Father’s act of self-giving, with which he pours out his Son through all space and time of creation, is the definitive opening of the very Trinitarian act in which the “persons” of God, “relations”, forms of absolute self-donation and loving flow’74 .  And the second was that this definitive opening of the very Trinitarian act is hidden within the very mystery of the Incarnation; Balthasar says: ‘The angel announced to [Mary] ... not just the incarnation but fundamentally the entire mystery of the Trinity’75 .  Furthermore, as if to reveal the very purpose of creation as a personal communication of the Creator to His creatures, the epiphany of the Blessed Trinity to Mary echoes and makes explicit the presence of the Blessed Trinity in the work of creation76 .  In other words, not only does God makes Himself known as the Blessed Trinity, but the “moment” of this Revelation is the Incarnation, precisely because the Incarnation expresses not only the “mode” of God’s act of creation but also the mode of His “relationship” to creation.  Thus, although God creates, as it were, “ad extra” in so far as creation is distinct from Himself, nevertheless God the Father creates in such a way that what comes to exist, comes to exist in union with Himself in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Furthermore, the “place” of this Revelation is the person of Mary, the Mother of the Lord.  Thus the implication that creation is an essentially inter-personal “act” of God is concretely expressed: is made visible.

In the moment, therefore, of the “transmission” of “life,” there is the most expressive moment of the soul’s coming to exist in the body.  The transmission of life is manifest in the sperm’s transformation of the ovum’s state of inertia into the embryo’s state of autonomous activity.  Thus there is an inescapable parallel in the mystery of the Incarnation.  On the one hand, the “ordinary” conception of a human person entails a “spermal activation” which constitutes, with an “inward” act of God, an original moment of a new person’s animation.  On the other hand, in the case of the conception of Christ, assuming that the maturation of the ovum had reached its natural term of development, there is the “activating-animating” presence of the overshadowing ‘power of the Most High’77 .  Thus there is a natural language of the first instant of fertilization which is both true in its own right and, at the same time, bears the capacity to be the outward expression of the act of God integral to each one of us coming to exist as one in body and soul.  Furthermore, this same language of procreation bears a kind of “image” of the power of the Most High causing the Incarnation of the Son of God and, finally, the whole language of procreation leads inexorably to the mystery of the Father’s eternal generation of the Son “through” the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the context, then, of this language of procreation, there is an “impression” of life “from” life: of divine Life from divine Life as the “model” of human life from human life; and, finally, of human life “informed”, “inspired” and “animated” by an act of the Living God.

If the first instant of the life of the body is the first instant of the life of the person, then conception is the true beginning of the human person; and if conception is the true beginning of the human person, then the transmission of human life, requiring as it does an act of God, communicates the mystery of life from Life!  In other words, just as the Father generates the Son and the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, so each one of us comes into existence through “another”.  In the “instantaneous” passing from the “ingredients” of human life to the presence of the person, human procreation is a manifestation, in time, of the “timeless” transmission of Life in the mystery of the Blessed Trinity78 .  Just as the Blessed Trinity is a “fruitful” communion, so there is a fruitful communion of spousal love and the loving action of God.

(IViii) The Immaculate Conception is a Dogma Expressing the Intimate Connection Between the Action of God at Conception and “our” Union with Christ

In general, the Incarnation raises the possibility that not only does God create but that the original act of creation was “simultaneously” an act of creating creation in union with Himself in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit79 .  If, therefore, the Incarnation is an “archetypal” act of creation, it will be implicit in all acts of creation80 ; and if all acts of creation are intrinsically Incarnational, then God’s act of creation is also and inseparably an act of creating what exists to be in union with Himself.  Furthermore, if this “archetypal” act of creation is “typical” of the creative acts of God, then it is possible that God “designed” the beginning of each one of us to be “reflected” in the mystery of the “Incarnation”.  It is interesting to note that Pope John Paul II uses this kind of language of the relationship between the soul and the body: ‘As an incarnate spirit, that is a soul which expresses itself in a body and a body informed by an immortal spirit man is called to love in his unified totality’81 .  However, it is possible that this kind of language of the Incarnation is in fact expressive of the very first instant of fertilization.  In other words, no sooner is there the body of a person, then there is the soul of a person.  In the case of the creation of the human person, therefore, it was intended that we would be created in union with Jesus Christ82 , through the power of the Holy Spirit; and it was also intended that being created in union with Jesus Christ is reflected, is analogously “enfleshed”, in the mystery that it is in the first instant of fertilization that the body both comes to exist and is at the same time expressive of the person.  For just as the flesh of each spouse is “implicated” in the person who comes to exist, so the person who comes to exist is at once a person-in-relationship to their parents and to God83 .  The Immaculate Conception of Mary is, therefore, a perfect fulfilment of the incarnational intention of God.  Mary, who is “full of grace”, comes to exist in union with God.  In the case of Mary, then, the creation of the soul in union with the body is both a “reflection” of being created in union with the Son of God and a natural “corollary” of it.

More specifically, if Mary’s conception is to be truly Immaculate, then it must be from a point where there is no “deficiency” of grace due to original sin.  For immediate animation would allow no interval of time between the sanctification of Mary’s soul and the “creation” of her body.  In other words, at the first “instant” of the existence of “her” flesh, Mary is both one in body and soul and free from original sin.  The very first instant that the “flesh” of Mary can come to exist is the first instant of fertilization.  The first instant of fertilization is when the sperm activates the ovum and, through the response of the “ovum”, there comes into existence the embryo.  The activation-response of the “ovum” expresses the new being of the embryo: activity, as the adage goes, follows being.  Therefore the first instant of the creation of Mary’s soul, before which there can be no “bodily” moment preceding it, is the first instant of fertilization.  Furthermore, if Mary is truly one of us except with respect to sin, either original or personal, then it follows that we are also conceived from the first instant of fertilization.

69 Bishop, now Cardinal Angelo Scola on “The Nuptial Mystery At The Heart Of The Church” at Oxford Catholic Chaplaincy, (21 March 1998), p.7.    Back
70 Cf. “Instruction Dignitatis Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions”: First Part, 7.    Back
71 Cf. two of the citations given in Redeemer in the Womb, on p. 10: Ambigua 2, 42; 1337B-1340B; and on p. 11: Opuscula Theologica et Polemica 4; PG 91, 60C.    Back
72 Redeemer in the Womb, p. 12.    Back
73 Cf. the following two citations: St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies (2, 22, 4): ‘He passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, sanctifying infants ...’. Taken from The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol 1, passages selected and translated by William Jurgens, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1970), p. 87; and St. Gregory Nazianz, Letter of Gregory to Cledonius the Priest, Against Apollinaris (101): ‘That which was not assumed has not been healed; but that which is united to God, the same is saved.’ Taken from The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol 2, passages selected and translated by William Jurgens, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1979), p. 41.  Cf. also from Vol 1: St. Athanasius, Letter to Epictetus of Corinth, (6 and 7), St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, (4, 9 and 12, 1), Marius Victorinus, Against Arius, (3, 3).  Cf also from Vol 2: St. Ambrose of Milan, Letter of Ambrose to Sabinus, a Bishop, (48, [al. 32], 5) and The Mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation, (5, 35 and 6, 54), St. Basil the Great, Letter of Basil to the People of Sozopolis in Pisidia, (261, 2), St. Gregory of Nyssa, Refutation of the Views of Apollinaris, (55: Jaeger, pp. 225-226).  Cf. also from Vol 3 (also published in 1979): St. Augustine of Hippo, Christian Combat, (22, 24), St. Cyril of Alexandria, Against the Blasphemies of Nestorius, (1, 1) and Against Those Who Do not Wish to Confess that the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God, (4), St. John Damascene, The Source of Knowledge, (3, 3, 12), St. Fulgence of Ruspe, Letter of Fulgence and Fourteen other African Bishops Exiled in Sardinia, to various of their Brethren, (17, 5 and 17, 11), St. Gregory I, Letter of Pope Gregory I to Bishop Quirius and other Catholic Bishops of Georgia (Asiatic Iberia), (11, 52 [al. 67]) and Moral Teachings Drawn from Job, (18, 52, 85), St. Leo I, Sermons, (68, 1), Leporius, Document of Amendment, (3), St. Vincent of Lerins, The Notebooks, (13, 19).    Back
74 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Neue Klarstellungen, pp. 67-70, p. 146 of The von Balthasar Reader, edited by Medard Kehl and Werner Loser, translated by Robert J. Daly and Fred Lawrence, ( Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1982 ).    Back
75 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mary For Today, translated by Robert Nowell, ( Slough: St. Paul Publications, reprinted 1989 ), p. 35.    Back
76 Cf. particularly the three divine names in the first two chapters of Genesis and the different activities of each “person”.  Firstly, there is Elohiim, who creates the heavens and the earth (Gn 1: 1 etc).  Elohiim is a complex noun in that it is a masculine plural and yet it takes a singular form of the verb bara, to create; and in its own way Elohiim is a parallel to the name Aadaam, in that God named “them”, Aadaam (Gn 5: 2), making Aadaam share the same kind of literary complexity as Elohiim.  Secondly, there is Ruach Elohiim, who moves upon the waters, almost “animating” creation (Gn 1: 2), although the latter is obscured by some translations, notably The New American Bible, at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/__P3.HTM.  Now Ruach is a feminine noun.  This “femininity” of Ruach both governs the gender of the participle, merahefet, while it retains its link to Elohiim in the complex name Ruach Elohiim (cf. also the whole personification of “Wisdom” as “she” [Wis 7: 22 ff.].  Thus, if one retains the Hebrew gender, there is an archetypal gender in the Hebrew “persons” of God, which is both “indicated” in the complementary terms of “heaven” (masculine) and “earth” (feminine) and, crucially, in the words “image” (masculine) and “likeness” (feminine).  In other words, in the Hebrew, the creation of man, male and female is, as it were, subtly “prefigured”.  In other words man, male and female, is the consequence of a process of thought which proceeds from the first lines of Genesis.  Finally, there is YHWH Elohiim (2: 4 etc), who expresses the “giving of form” to creation, particularly in the second account of the creation of the man and the woman.  Furthermore, YHWH Elohiim, the more anthropomorphically expressed “figure” of God, is again masculine and, at the same time, “closer” to man, male and female, in the action and dialogue of chapters two and three of Genesis (cf. too, Ps 33: 6).  In that this question is too complex to pursue further, however, suffice it to say here that this discussion does not presuppose a simple identification of “gender” and divine person.  Nevertheless, gender is a relevant aspect of the biblical language (cf. Pope John Paul II, Gen. Aud. Nov. 7, 1979, particularly art. 3).    Back
77 The Rev. Dr. Richard Conrad OP summarises a problem too intricate to discuss here: ‘Where did Jesus’ DNA come from?  Was the polar body not expelled, but the X chromosome in it reduced to a Y chromosome, and the polar body reintegrated?’ (p. 7 of 9, “Comments on July 2006 version of Life from Life October 18th”). Life “from” Life was a previous title of this article.    Back
78 Cf. “Instruction Dignitatis Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions”: First Part, 9.    Back
79 Cf. footnote 75 for some of the background Scriptural “evidence” to this point.    Back
80 Owing to the fall, this question becomes more complicated and it may be necessary to distinguish between an ontological and a “graced” relationship to God (cf. p. 8 of 9 , “Comments on July 2006 version of Life from Life October 18th”).    Back
81 Familiaris Consortio, art 11.    Back
82 Cf. Gaudium et Spes, art. 22: ‘For, by his incarnation, he, the son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man.’  In other words I take this phrase, ‘has in a certain way united himself with each man’, as expressing an ontological truth and not just a union of will or a moral union.    Back
83 Cf. Antonio Sicari, “Mary, Peter and John: Figures of the Church”, Communio, Vol 19, no. 2, (Summer 1992), p. 192.    Back

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