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On Pope John Paul II Proportionate Use of Reason at Beginning of Life

Francis Etheredge

In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II has rediscovered the proportionate use of reason in determining the right action.

In other words, by the use of reason we can be morally certain that life begins at conception and that therefore abortion is wrong.

Thus there is a use of reason which would constitute a philosophical proof of the existence of the soul from conception; and there is a use of reason which is ordered to the end of an action.  And so in this Encyclical the Pope has demonstrated that reason can prove the existence of the soul from conception, to the extent that this is necessary in order to determine how to act towards it.


What, therefore, is the Pope's main argument?  It is that we are not now in a position to accept that the following argument is equiprobable to the possibility that a human being is a person from conception; and the equiprobable argument which he rejects is 'that the result of conception, at least up to a certain number of days, cannot yet be considered a personal human life'1.  And that we are not now able to accept the possibility of a delayed animation of the soul precisely because we can be morally certain that the presence of the person from conception is the most probable of probable opinions.  In other words it seems that the view of Pope John Paul II is that even if we cannot be philosophically certain of the existence of the soul from conception2, that a sufficiently reasonable certainty exists to constitute a moral certainty that the soul is there from conception and that to believe and to behave otherwise is to be willing to kill a human being.

The particular part of Evangelium Vitae which concerns me here is that part of it which opens, as it were, with the biblical words and his response to them: '"Your eyes beheld my unformed substance" (Ps 139: 16): the unspeakable crime of abortion'3., and closes with the following conclusion which also constitutes, it seems to me, the programme of the section inbetween: 'I declare that direct abortion ... is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.  This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church's Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium4'5.

This conclusion begins with an order of sources to this doctrine, the first of which is the natural law.  I therefore propose to recall, briefly, what St. Thomas Aquinas says on the natural law in the Summa Theologiae and to conclude that the Pope has devoted articles 58-62 to what can be known by the application of it.  For, recalling the words of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae: Christ constituted 'Peter and the other apostles' the 'authentic guardians and interpreters of the whole moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the gospel but also of the natural law, the reason being that the natural law declares the will of God, and its faithful observance is necessary for men's eternal salvation'6.

In the Summa Theologiae St. Thomas Aquinas orders his presentation on The law we have in us by nature in the following way.  He first refers to what distinguishes man's awareness of the law in its relation to reason: 'The law we have in us by nature is the sort of product of reason propositions are'7.  Then he says that these products of reason are to 'reason planning action what the first premises of the sciences are to reason pursuing truth: the self-evident starting points'8.  Thirdly he goes on to say that the first principle of the natural law 'is that good is to be done and pursued and evil avoided'9.

Therefore, it seems to me, articles 58-60 of Evangelium Vitae are a discernment of the natural law on the following things: the contemporary 'crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil'10; the truth about the act of procured abortion: that it is a 'deliberate and direct killing'11; the truth about the victim of this act: 'an innocent human being'12; the truth about who's responsible for this 'death of the child in the womb'13; the truth that can be known by reason concerning 'a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life'14; and the truth of the natural law with which it concludes: that the 'inviolable right of every innocent human being to life15'16 is a truth which is and has just been rationally demonstrated to be independent of any outstanding philosophical uncertainty concerning the moment at which the soul is created one with the body17.

I now wish to consider more closely the language in which these conclusions of the natural law are expressed.

But first a clarification: it should be said at the outset that these different expressions do not qualify the wrong of procured abortion.  In other words, to quote again from Donum Vitae: 'The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion.  This teaching has not been changed and is unchangeable*'18.  In other words, whatever is uncertain about the moment of ensoulment, the nature of the act of procured abortion is not uncertain: it is categorically wrong.

What is of particular relevance to this discussion are the different ways that the Pope has addressed the victim of a procured abortion.  He first of all says that the one who is deliberately and directly killed by a procured abortion is 'a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending to birth'19.  This quite clearly takes up the observation of an Instrumentum laboris, In the service of life, which says: 'at the moment of the union of the male and female gametes, all the characteristics of the new human being, including gender are defined'20.  Thus the witness of science contributes to the degree to which the identity of each human being is both established and recognizably established as masculine or feminine.  In other words, even from a biologically scientific point of view, the human being at conception is already a particular man or woman.

Secondly, the Pope affirms: 'The one eliminated is a human being at the very beginning of life'21.

Thirdly, because 'No one more absolutely innocent could be imagined'22., the Pope goes on to say that procured abortion is 'the deliberate killing of an innocent human being'23.

Following on these expressions the Pope says, in the first sentence of the following article, article fifty nine, that the objective end of the decision to procure an abortion is 'the death of the child in the womb'24.  This could be said to be a further objectification of the identity of the one who is killed: the one who is killed is, quite simply, a child: a child with a mother and a father.

Finally, in the opening sentence of article sixty the Pope cites the following justification of procured abortion: 'Some people try to justify abortion by claiming that the result of conception, at least up to a certain number of days, cannot yet be considered a personal human life'25.  What then follows can be understood to be a separation of the two elements of this statement by way of an answer to each one of them in turn.  I will put these two elements in the form of two questions in the order that, it seems to me, article sixty of Evangelium Vitae answers them: the first concerns the beginning of the person; and the second concerns the irrelevance of any uncertainty concerning the beginning of the person.

1 EV, art 60.    Back
2 EV, art 60.    Back
3 EV, the title to articles 58 - 63.    Back
4 He cites here a reference to Lumen Gentium, 25.    Back
5 EV, art 62.    Back
6 Paul VI, HV, art 4.    Back
7 ST, Pt I-II, Qu 94, Art 1 (translated and edited by Timothy McDermott).    Back
8 ST, Pt I-II, Qu 94, Art 2.    Back
9 Ibid.    Back
10 EV, art 58.    Back
11 Ibid.    Back
12 Ibid.    Back
13 EV, art 59.    Back
14 EV, art 60.    Back
15 This is the last part of his quote from Donum Vitae, I, 1, page 14.    Back
16 EV, art 60.    Back
17 Ibid.    Back
* This sign signifies that the emphasis has been added.    Back
18 Donum Vitae, 1. 1.    Back
19 EV, art 58.    Back
20 In the service of life, by The Pontifical Council For The Family, (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1992), I. Abbrev. ITSOL.    Back
21 EV, art 58.    Back
22 Ibid.    Back
23 EV, art 58.    Back
24 EV, art 59.    Back
25 EV, art 60.    Back

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