When Does The Person Begin?

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

Part I - Does a Personal Human Life Exist From Conception?

Now this question in a way takes us into the heart of the mystery of human procreation, precisely because 'the spouses, as parents, cooperate with God the Creator in conceiving and giving birth to a new human being'26: 'in the giving of life *'27.

Thus the mystery of human procreation is simultaneously an account of two orders of activity: the consequences of the human conjugal act and the act of God by which God wills each and every one of us28.

The first thing to do is to begin with the order of knowledge that is the most natural to the human mind: the knowledge we derive from the senses29.  For by the natural order of knowledge this leads to the philosophical question of the existence of the soul and to the theological question of the origin of the person.

Pope John Paul II begins his reply to the implicit question of when does the person begin with a long quotation from the Congregation For The Doctrine Of The Faith's Declaration on Procured Abortion, Let Me Live.  I will present its main points in a schematic form.

Firstly: "from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother ...'30.  The physical 'independence' of the life of the child at the very beginning is confirmed by the photographs which show quite clearly that at first the fertilized ovum exists as an entity within the body of the mother31, which then implants32 and grows to term.

Secondly: what begins is the "life of a new human being with his own growth"33.  The aforementioned photographs show that from the beginning the effects of fertilization are the physical changes which, at this stage of development, express and develop the readiness for growth34, which is itself the initial stage of growth.  For of what use would a pile of bricks be to somebody who had no plan of what to build; and of what use would a plan be if there were no bricks with which to build; and, finally, of what use would either of these be if there was no place to build the house?

In addition, the life that is begun, and which is neither that of the mother nor that of the father, is already a human life.  This is therefore quite clearly because the nature of all reproduction is to re-produce the 'type' of life of the parents; and, moreover, the 'type' of life that is reproduced is either male after that of the father or female after that of the mother.  This is expressed in the book of Genesis when the author says, repeating the words by which the sacred author understood God's conception of man (cf Gn 1: 26): 'When Adam had lived a hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his own image, and he named him Seth' (Gn 5: 3).  In other words, the life that is begun does not become a human life: the life that is begun is defined by the human substance through which it began.  Thus human beings contribute what is, and is naturally the beginning of 'the body' of a new human life.

Thirdly: "It would never be made human if it were not human already"35.  This seems to summarise the foregoing arguments in such a way as to confirm them by saying that it is not because a child is conceived by the conjugal act that the child is a human child, but the child is a human child precisely because the bodily substance through which that human child has come to be, is both already and in itself a truly human bodily substance and, moreover, one which is expressly ordered, prior to fertilization, to the conception of a new human being.  In other words the agency of the married couple, is not an agency which constitutes the human substance through which the child comes to be, for this is already an established fact of their respective male and female sexual gametes.  Therefore the agency of the married couple is the activity of the conjugal act which is intrinsically ordered to the union of those same sexual gametes.36

Fourthly: this truth concerning the life 'begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother ...'37 is both ancient and new: 'This has always been clear, and ... modern genetic science offers clear confirmation'38.  A fundamental element of this is confirmed by the Warnock Report On Human Fertilization And Embryology which says, among other things: 'there is no particular part of the developmental process that is more important than another; all are part of a continuous process...'39; and The Catholic Bishop's Joint Committee On Bio-Ethical Issues of Great Britain, responds to this by saying, among other things: 'that our society should resolve to protect the life of the human embryo precisely from the beginning of its continuous development, ie. from conception (fertilization)'40.

Fifthly: modern genetic science has 'demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be: a person, this individual person with his characteristic aspects already well determined'41.  This appears to draw together the beginning and the end of human development and, in so doing, to recognise that the beginning is intrinsically ordered to that end.  In other words, the objective of the process of growth is the development of the bodily integrity of the new human being, which in turn manifests the interiority of the new person in existence.  Or alternatively, the intrinsic objective of human growth is the bodily expression of the person.  This natural development is independent of the question of the 'time' of the soul's animation of the body42, precisely because this is the objective end to which the whole process, from conception onwards, is ordered.  For whatever is the objectively true conclusion concerning the question of ensoulment, is itself a part of the whole plan which, in a way prior to the activity of any one part of it, yet begins at conception and progressively manifests the person.

Furthermore, the parents do not 'make' the process which, begun at conception, concludes with the manifestation of the personhood of their child.  This fact, like any ordered activity that is not the direct result of its own intelligence, is therefore a natural witness to the fact that its own order is the manifestation of the intelligent will of another43.  This leads one very simply to see that the programme that is established in the first instant, 'of what this living being will be'44, is a programme that could be called an incarnation of 'the genealogy of the person'45: indeed 'the genealogy of the person is inscribed in the biology of generation'46.  In other words, the very fact that there is a 'programme,' the objective of which is the manifestation of the person, is itself what takes us back to the original archetype of this mystery, which is God47.

Thus philosophy follows on physical science and leads to theology.  For the significance of the existence of a genetic code which constitutes an incarnational programme of the development of the person is a properly philosophical and theological question which transcends the biological evidence just as 'Human fatherhood and motherhood are rooted in biology, yet at the same time transcend it'48.  It is therefore in perfect agreement with these facts that the question of the moment of the soul's incarnation in the body should arise at all, precisely because this is a fundamental determinant of the identity of the person that transcends the capacity of biological matter to generate of itself.  For while what is essentially material can be intrinsically ordered to the reception of an essentially immaterial soul, it is clear that what is essentially material cannot of itself create what is essentially immaterial.  Thus the fact of the existence of the soul itself calls us to acknowledge the existence of a Creator: a Creator at work at the beginning of each of us, just as the activity of our reason is an 'effect' which calls us to acknowledge the existence of something within us which is capable of being the 'cause of this effect.'

The final point which the Pope includes in his quotation from the Declaration on Procured Abortion, Let Me Live, is the following observation on developmental time: 'Right from fertilization the adventure of a human life begins, and each of its capacities requires time - a rather lengthy time - to find its place and to be in a position to act'49.  Thus the programmed development of the person, which is at the same time the programmed development of the manifestation of the person, is fundamentally conceived to be expressed in time.  It is therefore manifestly unreasonable to expect a thing to manifest an activity of which it is inherently capable, but at a time prior to what is consonant with the program of its development.

A first conclusion to which one can come is that the question of the time of ensoulment is asked within the context of facts which necessarily indicate it to be a real question.

But the concluding part of this first paragraph of article sixty goes beyond this.  The Pope first admits that 'the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data ...'50.  Thus he implicitly suggests that because there is a hierarchy of knowledge, one cannot expect what is essentially material to apprehend, unaided by reason, what is essentially spiritual.  Thus empirical data, of itself, is a first form of the apprehension of the material dimensions of the universe which, as it were, correspond to the data of the senses unaided by reason: a fish has a shape, a texture and a taste, a smell, a colour, a size, a sound according to what it does, a time in which it does things and innumerable other observations which derive from the fact of its existence.  Nevertheless these observations are the foundations of good science, an expression of the intelligent use of the senses, and that level of truthfulness which is fundamental: the act of judgement by which the mind knows the 'correspondence between the thing seen and its perception of it'51.

Thus the Pope goes on to say, and now also drawing on Donum Vitae, that the results 'of scientific research on the human embryo provide "a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason* a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life ...'52.  Therefore the discernment of an indication of a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life is the result of an interaction between 'the results themselves of scientific research on the human embryo' and the use of reason.

The particular use of reason to which the Pope here refers is that use of reason which, presupposing the intelligent and truthful observation of the embryo, is that use of reason which is ordered to knowing what to do.  It is this use of reason which is traditionally understood to be that use of reason fundamental to the exercise of the law we have in us by nature.  I therefore recall what I summarised by way of a beginning to the exposition of this part of Evangelium Vitae.  St. Thomas Aquinas 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'53.  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'54.  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'55.

The Pope is therefore recording, as it were, the process by which he comes to the judgement of reason that the good which we are called to do, by reason of the natural law within us, is the good which follows on from the recognition of the right to life which inheres in the life of the living human being which began its existence at fertilization.  Thus the first and prior process of determining how to act in relation to the beginning of a human life is to recognize that the fact of the life of the embryo is the first and foundational good which as it were and of itself calls for our good action towards it.  One might almost say good calls to good56.  This is also the basic meaning of love, as philosophically defined: 'To love, as Aristotle says, is to want someone's good ...'57.  Therefore one can see that the law we have in us by nature positively directs us to the good action which, if done, is an expression of our love of the one to whom we do it.

In addition, this response of love could be said to be the fundamental response to what is good: a response which consists in accepting a thing for what it actually is.  This response expresses and conforms us to the love of God for us.  In his Letter To Families, Pope John Paul II puts it in the following way: the parents 'must want the new human creature in the same way as the Creator wants him: for himself'58.

A fundamental feature of the activity by which we can come to these conclusions is this: if one is to apprehend what in itself transcends the matter through which it is manifest, one must use what of itself transcends the matter through which it is manifest, namely reason.

A feature of this activity of reason is that it has an order to which I have begun to refer, an order that while it begins with the data of the senses, then begins to perceive the whole from which the facts derive: as if the facts themselves are not so much discreet as interlocking and indicative of each other.  A sign of this whole, already evident at the beginning of human life, is the sign59 of the sexuality60 of the person.  For a person is fundamentally a man or a woman.  It is as if, therefore, a fact is also and by definition a sign to a meaning: a meaning it is the proportionate work of reason to disclose61.  A fact could therefore be said to imply a meaning which is inherently its own: as if one can speak of an existential marriage, inherent in the natural order, of a fact and its meaning (cf. Gn 2: 19-23).

In this instance what reason assists with is the apprehension of a 'personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life ...'  Therefore the meaning of the scientific data to which one comes, through the use of reason and together with the use of reason, is that there is a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of human life.

Now what is the relationship between a soul and a personal presence?

The personal presence is, I would say, the "totality" of body and soul62: a totality signified, as it were, by the existence of the child, from the beginning, as male or female: a sign, however, that has its own proper time of manifestation.

If therefore what reason concludes is that this "totality" of what exists, exists at the first instant of conception, while nevertheless requiring its own natural time in which each stage of its development occurs, then it can be said that reason apprehends the soul as it exists in the body, just as man does not perceive God directly, but concludes to the existence of God from the effect of a cause which is indicative of God's existence63.  In other words, it is the fact that scientific research on the human embryo indicates that everything begins from fertilization, and that no particular part of the developmental process from that beginning is more important than another64, that it can be said that scientific research on the human embryo provides a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of human life.  Thus the existence of a beginning, from which all development uninterruptedly proceeds, and to which all activity of development refers as to its natural and originating first act of activity, together with all other relevant data, are what constitutes the "totality" of what exists at conception: a "totality" which naturally implies, as it were, the bodily expression of the soul from the first appearance of human life.  Furthermore, this "totality" is signified from the beginning by the simple sign of the bodily integrity of the embryo which exists as the first and simplist form of the human bodily person.

Now given that what exists at the beginning is the simplest expression of the reality of the newly existing person, one in body and soul, what is the human soul that therein and integrally exists?

The human soul is by definition that which animates65 the natural life of the body66: a concept that by definition includes the realization that the soul must therefore be capable of expressing itself through 'the programme of what this living being will be: a person ...'67.

Following St. Thomas Aquinas on the help to human understanding of an image, which seems to stand in relation to understanding as the prior fact of a thing to the sense perceptions which form that image68, one turns to the particularly relevant and apt biblical image in which one finds an embodied meaning of what is under discussion.  I shall take this image from the explanation that the angel gave to Mary concerning the possibility of the conception of Christ without a husband: Mary is 'overshadowed' by the power of the Most High (Lk 1: 35).

On the one hand there is said to exist an immaterial soul and on the other hand there is said to exist a material body; and that together these make the person.  Now if a rock is in bright sunlight it casts a shadow.  The shadow cannot exist without either the rock or the light behind the rock; but the shadow is not the rock nor the light, yet the rock and the light are together the one cause of the shadow.  For the shadow cannot exist without the first cause of the light, nor the second and subsidiary cause of the rock; and, what is more, nor can the shadow pre-exist the rock which is its natural and subsidiary cause.  Therefore just as the brightness of the sun continues to cause the shadow of the rock, so the shadow and the rock will exist inseparably.  Furthermore, just as a shadow is either caused by a bright light, as when a bright light is turned on at night, or a shadow is caused by introducing an object into a previously existing bright light, so it can be said that either the soul is created after the existence of the body or at the moment at which the body comes to exist.  But because a new human being's body does itself come to exist at the moment of fertilization, and because the bright light of God pre-exists everything that exists as created, then the soul comes to exist at precisely the same moment in which the body comes to exist in the bright light of God (cf Acts 17: 28).  For just as soon as a rock comes to be in a bright light, so there comes into existence its shadow.  Thus this reflection on the biblical image contributes an essential insight into the right relationship of the soul to the body at conception.

Finally: in article sixty of Evangelium Vitae, the last part of the quote from Donum Vitae asks: 'how could a human individual not be a human person?'69.  This seems to bring together the facts of the beginning which constitute a natural testimony to the existence of a human individual, and the fact of the person who constitutes the end to which this natural programme is directed, and to ask how is it possible for the one to exist without naturally intending the other?  In other words, can one say that the beginning of a road is a radically different thing to the end of a road?  Not if it is the beginning and the end of the same road.

In conlusion of this examination of the second part of the statement with which article sixty of Evangelium Vitae began, one has to say that the fundamental purpose of Pope John Paul II answer was to give the rational evidence which contributes to the making of a moral decision.  In other words, it was not the express purpose of this passage to resolve the philosophical question of the moment of ensoulment.  Nevertheless one has to say that the structure of his answer implied a solution to that philosophical problem.  For it contained an affirmation of the existence of a 'personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life'70.

It is this affirmation of the personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life, which constitutes the first rational premise on which to base a moral judgement concerning the treatment of that human life.

26 JP II, Letter To Families, (NACF Publications), art 9. Abbrev. JPII, LTF.    Back
27 EV, art 43.    Back
28 Cf JPII, LTF, art 9.    Back
29 Cf F. C. Copleston, Aquinas, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1955), page 44. Abbrev. FCC, Aqu.    Back
30 EV, art 60.    Back
31 Cf A Child Is Born, photographs by Lennart Nilsson and text by Lars Hamberger, translated by Clare James, (London: Doubleday, 1990), page 62. Abbrev. LNLH, ACB.  Cf also the extracts from this book published in The Sunday Times Magazine, September 16, 1990, The Winner: The photographs it took Lennart Nilsson five years to get>/i>, particularly page 48. Abbrev. Sunday Times Mag.    Back
32 Cf LNLH, ACB, page 64f; and cf Sunday Times Mag., pages 48-49.    Back
33 EV, art 60.    Back
34 Cf LNLH, ACB, pages 62-63; and cf. Sunday Times Mag., pages 46-48.    Back
35 EV, art 60.    Back
36 This is not in any way to disparage the Creator's purpose in ordering marriage to the procreation and education of children (cf. LTF, art 16, pages 24-27); it is, rather, to distinguish the Creator's purpose in making the conjugal act the ' method ' of human conception, from the fact that the sexual gametes are per se human sexual gametes and not 'made' so by the conjugal act.  cf also The Pontifical Council For The Family, The Truth And Meaning Of Human Sexuality, Guidelines For Education within The Family, 8 December 1995, art 7. Abbrev TMHS.    Back
37 EV, art 60.    Back
38 Ibid.    Back
39 THE CATHOLIC BISHOP'S JOINT COMMITTEE ON BIO-ETHICAL ISSUES, RESPONSE TO THE WARNOCK REPORT ON HUMAN FERTILIZATION AND EMBRYOLOGY, by the Most Rev T J Winning, Archbishop of Glasgow et al, published by Catholic Media Office, London and Catholic Press and Media Office, Glasgow, which on page 13 quotes this excerpt from The Warnock Report, para 11. 19. Abbrev RWR.    Back
40 RWR, page 13.    Back
41 Ibid.    Back
42 Let Me Live, Declaration by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Procured Abortion, art 13.    Back
43 Cf ST, Pt I, Qu 2, Art 3 (The fifth way ...).    Back
44 EV, art 60.    Back
45 JPII, LTF, art 9.    Back
46 Ibid.    Back
47 Cf, JPII, LTF art 6.    Back
48 JPII, LTF, art 9.    Back
49 EV, art 60.    Back
50 Ibid.    Back
51 FCC, Aqu., page 176 where he quotes from St. Thomas Aquinas, a part of which quote I have used (S. T., Ia, 16, 2).    Back
52 EV, art 60, quoting in addition from Donum Vitae, I, 1.    Back
53 ST, Pt I-II, Qu 94, Art 1.    Back
54 ST, Pt I-II, Qu 94, Art 2.    Back
55 Ibid.    Back
56 This phrase is indebted to the motto of St. Francis de Sales and Venerable John Henry Newman: 'Cor ad Cor Loquitur.,' which was the heading thesis on a paper given by Dr. Michael Beers, of Mount Saint Mary's Seminary, Maryland, at the Maryvale Institute's Summer School: Love, Sexuality and Bioethics, given by the Maryvale Institute And The Pontifical John Paul II Institute, Washington, on the 9-13 June 1997, at Kingstanding, Birmingham, England.    Back
57 ST, Pt II, Qu 26, Art 4.    Back
58 JPII, LTF, art 9.    Back
59 Cf Pope John Paul II, Original Unity of Man and Woman, Catechesis on the Book of Genesis, (Boston: St Paul Books & Media, 1981), page 106f: the Nuptial Meaning of the Body (General audience of January 9, 1980). Abbrev. JPII, OUMW.    Back
60 Cf ITSOL, chapter I, page 7.    Back
61 Cf FCC, Aqu., page 26, where he refers to and quotes St. Thomas Aquinas (S. T., Ia, 88, 3).    Back
62 Cf ST, Pt I, Qu 29, Art 1-2 and Pt I, Qu 75, Art 1; and cf also CCC, articles 362-367.    Back
63 Cf ST, Pt I, Qu 2, Art 2.    Back
64 RWR, page 13.    Back
65 Cf ST, Pt I, Qu 75, Art 1.    Back
66 Cf. J. L. McKenzie, SJ, Dictionary of the Bible, (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1965), page 838: soul.    Back
67 EV, art 60.    Back
68 Cf FCC, Aqu., page 44.    Back
69 EV, art 60.    Back
70 Ibid.    Back

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