When Does The Person Begin?

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"Each One of Us is an Icon of the Beginning"

Part III: what does the Church say 'today' about the moment of our beginning?

An Introduction

The central purpose of this part of the book is to review what the Church says 'today' concerning the beginning of human life.  What is the precise beginning of each of us?  The conclusion of this discussion is that conception, by definition, is the integral beginning of the person, one in body and soul.  What follows is an attempt to present an orderly account of how I began to come to this conclusion.

My point of departure is yet another look at the work of Pope John Paul II.  This is because Veritatis Splendor expresses the modern context, positively and negatively, in which it is necessary to set a question concerning the beginning of a child of Adam and Eve.  Thus I will begin with a brief overview of this Encyclical Letter and then proceed by way of an examination of its particular relevance to the beginning of life.

An overview of Pope John Paul II Veritatis Splendor

In Veritatis Splendor, the Pope has integrated164 the diverse goods that modern man tends to disintegrate165.

I will therefore indicate what the Pope perceives to be "divorced" or even denied; and then, while he advances an integral vision of these diverse elements, I will only indicate a few aspects of what he affirms and reconciles.

It almost seems as if every part of the body of things that can be opposed, has been opposed: some 'individuals or groups want the right to determine what is good or evil'166.  Therefore, in that it is the truth which reveals the moral value of an act167, then 'truth itself would be considered a creation of freedom'168; and modern culture even questions the existence of freedom169.  There is a tendency to deny 'the very idea of human nature'170: it is almost reduced to some kind of a-moral material171 - but without, it seems, even the evidence that raw material has that man did not make it and that it has a nature that is "given."  The concept of conscience becomes so completely subjective that it is argued that 'one's moral judgment is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience'172.  There is a kind of "divorce" in the heart of man: his fundamental option for or against God is not expressed in the moral value of his acts because, some argue, the one is not ordered to the other173.  There is a false autonomy of earthly realities, such that man wants to use created things without reference to the Creator174.  Finally, this separation of things goes on into everything pertaining to faith and morality175: a denial of the binding moral content of Divine Revelation176 in part, it seems, because the idea of a God given judgement of what is right and wrong, applicable in all circumstances, to all individuals and at all times, is denied as even possible177: a clear indication that what is impossible for man is now argued, perhaps implicitly, to be impossible even for God.  Finally, a denial that the authority of the 'Church and her Magisterium'178 was intended to be effective for effecting the moral life of the people of God.

The converse of this is, therefore, a vision of the order, diversity, proportion, nature, and dynamic unity of all these interacting elements, which leaves out nothing acceptable to reason and includes everything acceptable to Christ and His Church.

With respect to the natural law: on the one hand we find a condensation of the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas and reference to several other authors; and on the other hand we find the tendency in St. Thomas179 towards a vision of the anthropological unity of man to be more fully expressed.  Therefore the Pope180 says, quoting as he does in part from Gaudium et Spes: the true meaning of the natural law is that 'it refers to man's proper and primordial nature, the "nature of the human person"181, which is the person himself in the unity of soul and body, in the unity of his spiritual and biological inclinations and of all the other specific characteristics necessary for the pursuit of his end'182.

It would seem, then, that the natural law is now understood to be a kind of manifestation of the person.  The light of the natural law, to which St. Thomas referred183, would now seem to be seen as an expression of the totallity of the fact that man is a person.  This would imply that all that man is, in whole and in part, has its constitutive relationship to the natural law which is now understood to be a manifestation of man in his totality, much as the light of the lamp is the "end" to which the body of the lamp and its parts are all ordered.

Furthermore, the relationship between the bodily and the rational aspects of the human being, cannot be understood except as a manifestation of their prior and ontological unity expressed in the fact that the person is a "unified totality"184: "a soul which expresses itself in a body and a body informed by an immortal spirit"185.

Finally, how is conscience related to truth.  In the section of Veritatis Splendor devoted to exactly this question, the Pope says: 'The relationship between man's freedom and God's law is most deeply lived out in the "heart" of the person, in his moral conscience'186.

Thus the moral conscience is understood as the "heart" of the totality that is called the person.  Secondly: what takes place in the heart is both hidden from the eyes of everyone outside187, and is a dialogue of man with himself and of man with God188.  This is a dialogue in which God's law reveals to the conscience of man the truth about the moral value of an act; and it is on the basis of this truth, which the conscience of man recognises but does not originate189, the person makes a responsible, practical and particular judgement that this is to be done and that is to be avoided190.

Therefore the relationship between the conscience of man and the truth is that if the conscience is the heart of the person then the truth is its life blood.

What are the implications of how these issues are treated in Veritatis Splendor for a theological understanding of the nature of human conception?

The history of the term 'person' does itself seem to be a particular case of the following: "In fact, it is only in the mystery of the Word incarnate that light is shed on the mystery of man"191.  For the development of the term person passed through, indeed by way of the Church's understanding of Christ192.  Therefore this question concerning 'the beginning of man' cannot be separated from Christ, through whom we come to know the full truth concerning the faith-fact of the 'imago Dei present in man ...'193.  Thus a fundamental presupposition of the Christian vision of man is what simply follows from the truth of the revealed mystery that man makes present the imago Dei: the image of God.

The central implication for the theological discussion of the conception of the human being is that the human being is understood within the vision of man being a person, one in body and soul.  Therefore, if the human being is a person, one in body and soul, then it is possible that the human being is a person from conception.

Secondly, it seems that this implication derives more from Revelation than from reason in so far as, from the philosophical point of view, the following is still considered to be an open question by the Church: whether the body is animated by the soul from conception or from some subsequent point of development194.  But this is not to say that a philosophical answer cannot be found, or that theology cannot anticipate, if not assist its answer.  It is simply to say that this is the situation at the moment.  The Church also says, concerning this same point: 'it suffices that this presence of the soul be probable (and one can never prove the contrary) in order that the taking of life involve accepting the risk of killing a man, not only waiting for, but already in possession of his soul'195.

In conclusion, Veritatis Splendor contributes a theological implication of direct relevance to the following discussion, namely that the embryo is the first developmental stage of being a person; and, finally, it offers a vision of man in his "totality" and, as such, provides a context within which to understand particular aspects of the whole.

164 This is the work of the very virtue that man, and modern man particularly, tends to reject: chastity (cf. John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla), Love & Responsibility, translated by H.T. Willetts, [London: Fount, An Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 1982], pages 140-147).  Abbrev. LR.    Back
165 Cf, VS, art 18, page 31.    Back
166 VS, art 35, page 57.    Back
167 Cf, VS, art 61, page 93.    Back
168 VS, art 35, page 57.    Back
169 VS, art 33, page 54.    Back
170 VS, art 32, page 53    Back
171 VS, art 46, page 73.    Back
172 Ibid.    Back
173 VS, art 65, pages 98-100.    Back
174 Gaudium et Spes, 36, and VS, art 39, page 62.    Back
175 Ibid.    Back
176 VS, art 37, page 59.    Back
177 Cf, VS, art 55, page 86.    Back
178 VS, art 37, page 60.    Back
179 St. Thomas refers to St. Thomas Aquinas.    Back
180 This now refers, as before, to Pope John Paul II.    Back
181 Gaudium et Spes, 51.    Back
182 VS, art 50, page 78.    Back
183 Cf, footnote 19 of VS, art 12, page 20.    Back
184 VS, art 50, page 79.    Back
185 As found in VS, art 50, page 79, and quoted from Familiaris Consortio, art 11.    Back
186 VS, art 54, page 85.    Back
187 VS, art 57, page 89.    Back
188 VS, art 58, page 89.    Back
189 VS, art 60, page 92.    Back
190 VS, art 61, page 93.    Back
191 Gaudium et Spes, art 22, cited in VS, art 2, page 5.    Back
192 Henri de Lubac, On Christian Philosophy, Communio, Vol. XIX, No 3, (Fall 1992), page 481.  Abbrev. OCP.  Cf also Pope John Paul II, June 9, 1989, quoted on page 42 of The Philosophy Of Life, compiled by Fr. Rosario Thomas, (Cochiti Lake: Pro Fratribus Press, 1989).  Abbrev TPOL.    Back
193 VS, art 111, page 166.    Back
194 LML: footnote 19, page 16.    Back
195 Ibid.    Back

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