When Does The Person Begin?

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The First Instant of Mary's Ensoulment1

An Objection

Why couldn't a grace be given to the body in such a way that while it came into existence before the soul it did not come into existence 'with' the privation of grace that we call original sin?  For if 'grace is not created, but men are created in it, established in a new existence out of nothing, without earning it: Created in Christ Jesus in good works'27, then it does seem possible to say that the body of Mary could have been created by God in such a way as it would have been without the privation of original sin.  Now we accept that creation was made through Christ (Jn 1: 3)?  And could something be made through Christ without receiving the benefit of the 'fulness' of grace of which He is the bearer (Jn 1: 17)?  Therefore, if creation itself participated in the grace of God through being made in Jesus Christ, then there is no particular obstacle to the body of Mary being made in a similar way in Christ.

3. A Discrepancy Between the Implied First Instant of Fertilization in the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the Definition of Conception in Donum Vitae

If the argument can be sustained that the doctrine of Original Sin, and particularly the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, imply a doctrine of the moment of the beginning of the person then it does not follow that these same sources are explicitly able to furnish a complete answer to the aformentioned objection.  This is because the manifest objective of Ineffabilis Deus was not the doctrine of our beginning but the moment of Mary's Immaculate Conception.  Nevertheless, because specifying the moment of our beginning is a necessary presupposition to the specification of the dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception, it has been argued that the Tradition of the Church contains an implicit affirmation of a doctrine of the moment of our beginning.

This implicit affirmation begins to be explicit in the modern documents of the Church; however, as I intend to indicate, when this impicit affirmation becomes explicit there is, it seems to me, an element of contradiction between the two affirmations.  On the one hand, in modern terms, the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception necessarily affirms a first instant to the existence of Mary that is prior to the fusion of the male and female sexual gametes.  This first instant of Mary’s existence, in modern terms, is necessarily the first instant that the sperm animates the egg28.  If this is not the case, then in modern terms there is a time in which the body of Mary exists and is thus “subject”, contrary to the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, to the imperfection of a necessarily “bodily” subject to the state of original sin.  In contrast, then, to the aforementioned implication of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, there is the affirmation of the Congregation For The Doctrine Of The Faith, which says: ‘the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality’29.  Furthermore, lest there be any possibility of misreading a document in translation or in intention, a zygote has already been defined at the foot of the page in the following terms: ‘The zygote is the cell produced when the nuclei of the two gametes have fused’30.


In a word, while there is no question of the foregoing discussion having a negative impact on the treatment of the person at the moment that each one of us comes to exist31, nevertheless it seems clear that either my understanding of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception is erroneous or there is a work to be done concerning the further doctrinal exposition of the meaning of conception: of the meaning of the moment that each one of us comes to exist in the integrity of being one in body and soul32.  Clearly, at least one of the clarifications that are necessary is the appropriate and accurate definition of the first instant of fertilization as a “component” part of the process of conception: a process that clearly reaches a ‘first’ stage of development with the formation of the zygote.  Either there is implied in the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, a ‘personal presence’33 from the first instant of fertilization, or my view of it is erroneous and there is some subsequent point of development which warrants the use of this apt expression for the initial form of the existence of the person.  For my part, for the reasons expressed in this article and for others elsewhere, I am convinced that there is no better “sign” of the beginning of the person than the absolutely first instant of the sperm’s animation of the egg.

27 Ibid.    Back
28 That there is a first instant of fertilization, is for some a controversial claim and requires some elucidation.  Suffice it to say here that the “inertia” of the egg after ovulation is actually transformed by the sperm’s penetration of the ovum.  This transformation of the ovum’s post ovulatory inertia is manifest in the ovum’s resultant closing of its pores.  In so far as a first instant is either definable or “visible”, the sperm’s stimulation of the ovum and the ovum’s response to it is the first instant of fertilization.  Cf. A Child Is Born, photographs by Lennart Nilsson and text by Lars Hamberger, translated by Clare James, (London: Doubleday [Transworld] Publishers Ltd., 1990), p. 51.  I am working on another article in which I hope to consider this aspect of the question more fully, albeit in the context of some kind of interaction between the Communio debate on Altered Nuclear Transfer and the question of the beginning of each one of us.    Back
29 Donum Vitae, I, 1.    Back
30 Ibid.    Back
31 Evangelium Vitae, art. 60, second paragraph.    Back
32 Cf. Gaudium et Spes, 14.    Back
33 Donus Vitae, I, 1.    Back

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