When Does The Person Begin?

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

A development of doctrine?

The 7 December, 1965, saw the publication of the Second Vatican Council's document, Gaudium et Spes.  At the beginning of chapter one the Fathers of the Council ask a question that is particularly pertinent to our time: 'what is man?'196.  The answer to this question is a balanced exposition of the single vision which nevertheless makes full use of both our two 'eyes' : a vision 'centered on man' and 'centered on God': a vision which finds its pre-eminent fullness in 'the divine Person of Christ, true God and true man'197.

Gaudium et Spes includes many reflections on the nature of man and gives some doctrinal indications of particular relevance to this investigation.

On the subject of The Essential Nature Of Man, the Fathers of the Council say: 'Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity'198.  This principle naturally raises the possibility of the origin of this union in the first instant of conception.  They furthermore say of the soul that its existence is not a 'false imagining'199.  Finally, in the opening words of the section of this document on Human Activity: Its Fulfilment In The Paschal Mystery, the Fathers say: 'The Word of God, through whom all things were made, became man and dwelt among men200: a perfect man, he entered world history, taking that history into himself and recapitulating it'201 202.  Is it therefore unreasonable to see within the idea that Christ recapitulates world history, that Christ recapitulates the history of the individual?  Indeed, is Christ's recapitulation of the history of the individual, the ontological basis of His recapitulaton of world history?  This suggests, therefore, that the beginning of the man Christ, while it did not involve a human 'husband' (Lk 1: 34), is nevertheless the beginning of the man Christ in the ontological unity of His being a person, one in body and soul203: a beginning which could be said to recapitulate the beginning of us all.

In 1968 Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae in which he works with the inheritance of Gaudium et Spes in the formulation of 'A total vision of man', a vision that takes account of 'the whole man and the whole complex of his responsibilities that must be considered, not only what is natural and limited to this earth, but also what is supernatural and eternal'204.  He went on to authorize, in 1974, the publication of Let Me Live: the Declaration by the Sacred Congregation of the Faith on Procured Abortion.  It is in footnote 19 of this document that it says two things of particular relevance to this development of ideas on the beginning of each one of us.  Firstly: 'This declaration expressly leaves aside the question of the moment when the spiritual soul is infused'; and secondly: that the question of the moment of the infusion of the soul is a 'philosophical problem ...'.  Therefore the following question arises: even if the 'philosophical problem' of when the soul is united to the body is a question to which this document does not give an answer, does the Church nevertheless give a theological answer to this same problem?205  In other words, how clear is the distinction between these two types of answer to the same question?  Secondly, is there a parallel between the difficulty of arriving at a philosophical answer to the question of whether or not creation had a beginning206, and the philosophical question of whether or not the soul is one with the body from conception?  Furthermore, just as Revelation is an assistance in the question of the beginning of Creation207, is Revelation an assistance in answering this question concerning the beginning of the body-soul union that each human person is?

Pope John Paul II published Familiaris Consortio in 1981.  In article 11 of this Apostolic Exhortation he says: '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'208.  In other words, the union of the body and the soul is that of 'a soul which expresses itself in a body' in such a way that it is 'an incarnate spirit ...'.  Thus the question arises: has Pope John Paul II implicitly compared the relationship of the unity of the body and the soul, to the incarnation, in order to draw out two things?  Firstly: that just as the divinity of Christ is the ontologically prior archetype, as it were, of the man Christ, so the soul is logically prior to the body in determining, as it were, the identity of the body.  Secondly, it would naturally follow from this that the soul and the body were created 'one' in the moment of conception.  However, even if one cannot say with certainty that these points are implicit in the Pope's language209, one can at least advert to them as a theological direction in his thinking.

But in 1987 this same Pope approves the publication of the Congregation For The Doctrine Of The Faith's Instruction On Respect For Human Life In Its Origin and on The Dignity Of Procreation, otherwise known as Donum Vitae, in which the authors say the following two things.  On the one hand they say: 'no experimental datum can be in itself sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul; nevertheless, the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo provide a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason* a personal presence at the moment of this first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?'210.  And on the other hand they say: 'The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature ...'211.  Therefore, precisely because of the juxtaposition of these two sentences in Donum Vitae, one wonders what kind of affirmation it is when in the first of these two sentences it is said that there is 'a personal presence at the moment of this first appearance of a human life ...'

There seems to be two, not necessarily mutually exclusive possibilities to what this juxtaposition of statements actually means.  Firstly, does it mean that the Magisterium is committed to a theological affirmation of the truth that the person is one in body and soul from conception; and so, precisely because of this prior and theological affirmation, other evidence can be seen more clearly to assist in reason's apprehension of this truth as true?  Secondly, does the juxtaposition of these statements indicate that the Magisterium, while still not wishing to commit itself to a philosophical answer to this question, nevertheless wishes to indicate a philosophical tendency in the thinking of this same Magisterium: a tendency to the philosophical view that the person does exist as one in body and soul from conception?  Finally, I exclude the possibility that there is nothing affirmed in this statement concerning the beginning, precisely because of the words: 'the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo provide a valuable indication for discerning* by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of this first appearance of a human life.* ..'

In 1989 Pope John Paul II says: 'The dignity of the person can be protected only if the person is considered as inviolable from the moment of conception until natural death'212.

The Pontifical Council For The Family published a text in 1991 entitled In the service of life, otherwise known as Instrumentum laboris.  It says the following three things. Firstly: 'it is necessary to reaffirm the full anthropological value of the human individual from the moment of fertilization (cf. Donum Vitae, Part I, n. 1)'213.  Secondly: 'The first moments of the beginning of human life are fundamental in determining the development which follows'214.  Finally: 'We should remember that at the moment of the union of the male and female gametes, all the characteristics of the new human being, including gender are defined'215.

The work of this pontificate moves on with the publication of Veritatis Splendor in 1993, to which I have already referred, and A Letter To Families in 1994.

Part one of the Letter To Families is called The Civilization Of Love216.

The first sub-heading is 'Male and Female He created them.'  It is here that the Pope explains the original meaning of what it is for man, male and female to be created in the image of God.  He says: 'Before creating man, the Creator withdraws as it were into himself, in order to seek the pattern and inspiration in the mystery of his Being, which is already here disclosed as the divine We'217.

The fourth sub-heading in this section is 'The Genealogy of the person'218.  The following is principally a series of brief extracts which, I hope, illustrates some of the main features of this genealogy of the person.

'Human fatherhood and motherhood are rooted in biology, yet at the same time transcend it'219.

'Every act of begetting finds its primordial model in the fatherhood of God'220 (cf. Eph 3: 14-15)221.

'When a new person is born of the conjugal union of the two, he brings with him into the world a particular image and likeness of God himself: the genealogy of the person is inscribed in the very biology of generation'222.

'In affirming that the spouses, as parents, cooperate with God the Creator in conceiving and giving birth to a new human being, we are not speaking merely with reference to the laws of biology'223.

We 'wish to emphasize that God himself is present in human fatherhood and motherhood quite differently than he is present in all other instances of begetting on earth'224.

'God alone is the source of that image and likeness which is proper to the human being, as it was received at Creation.  Begetting is the continuation of Creation'225.

'God willed man from the very beginning, and God wills him in every act of conception and every human birth.  God wills man as a being similar to himself, as a person'226.

'Inscribed in the personal constitution of every human being is the will of God, who wills that man should be, in a certain sense, an end unto himself'227.

Finally, the 'dimension of the genealogy of the person which has been revealed by Christ'228 is that man is destined to reach 'fulfilment precisely by sharing in God's life'230: the life of the Blessed Trinity231.

The structure of this thought is therefore quite clearly that it begins with the mystery of our conception in God, a conception expressed in the word of God (cf. Gn 1: 26) which then receives an incarnate (cf Jn 1: 3; and cf. Gn 1: 27) expression in the creation of man, male and female, an identity which is then transmitted to all the children of Adam and Eve, and from within which comes the call232 back to God through the gift of Christ.

This great movement becomes a more and more explicit theological pattern in this pontificate and expresses, as it were, the program of it233: a program which is as it were a living through of Pope John Paul II's apostolic struggle to articulate the Gospel of Life.  In The Redeemer Of Man, otherwise known as Redemptor Hominis, published in 1979, he says: 'man is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission: he is the primary and fundamental way for the Church, the way traced out by Christ himself, the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption'234.  This theme finds a particularly concise expression of its trinitarian orientation in the publication of As The Third Millennium of the new era draws near, otherwise known as Tertio Millennio Adveniente, published on the 10 November, 1994, in which he says: 'Paul's presentation of the mystery of the Incarnation contains the revelation of the mystery of the Trinity and the continuation of the Son's mission in the mission of the Holy Spirit'235.  Finally, the way of the Church through the man in our time finds a particularly eloquent expression in the Gospel Of Life.

On the 25 March, 1995, on the feast of 'the Annunciation of the Lord'236 'Pope John Paul II published The Gospel Of Life, otherwise known as Evangelium Vitae.  This Encyclical Letter could be said to have taken up the analysis of the current situation, as developed in Veritatis Splendor.  On the one hand the evil (cf Gn 3: 1) originating tendency of sin to separate what God has united237 culminates in what the Pope calls the "culture of death"238: a culture orientated to the ultimate end of 'eternal punishment' (Mt. 25: 46) - the definitive separation of man from God; and on the other hand, all of what can be united through the mystery of the blood of Christ (cf Heb 12: 22, 24)239, constitutes the "culture of life"240: a culture orientated to the promise of 'eternal life' (Mt 25: 46) - the definitive union of man and God.

This work, in an almost eschatologically simple way, provides the perspective within which particular questions concerning man and his origin are in reality asked: the one perspective of faith and reason.  For the faith says: 'The blood of Christ, while it reveals the grandeur of the Father's love, shows how precious man is in God's eyes and how priceless the value of his life'241; and faith assists the perception of reason242 in seeing that: "Without the Creator the creature would disappear ... But when God is forgotten the creature itself grows unintelligible"243.  If it is in this one vision of the two eyes of faith and reason that the Gospel Of Life is written, then it is in this spirit that it has to be read.

Perhaps I will introduce the following theme upon which I will concentrate by the question and its answer in article thirty four of Evangelium Vitae:

'Why is life a good?'

Because man 'is a manifestation of God in the world,
a sign of his presence,
a trace of his glory
(cf. Gen 1: 26-27; Ps 8: 6)'244.

While this is a work to which one will necessarily return, the particular part of it that 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'245., 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 innoccent 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 Magisterium246'247.

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'248.

196 Gaudium et Spes, art 12, page 913 of VCII.    Back
197 Pope John Paul II, September 2, 1988, quoted on page 22 of TPOL.    Back
198 Gaudium et Spes, art 14, page 914, of VCII.    Back
199 Gaudium et Spes, art 14, page 915, of VCII.  Cf also Pope John Paul II, Jan 4, 1986, quoted on page 50 of TPOL.    Back
200 The conciliar footnote says: cf. Jn. 1: 3 and 14.    Back
201 The conciliar footnote says: cf Eph. 1: 10.    Back
202 Gaudium et Spes, art 38, page 937 of VCII.    Back
203 ST, Pt III, Qu 6, art 5, page 484.    Back
204 HV, art 7, page 10.    Back
205 Cf page 9 of this book for a fuller account of the distinction between these questions.    Back
206 Cf A, page 138.    Back
207 Ibid.    Back
208 FC, art 11, page 19.    Back
209 My three reasons for this reservation are: firstly, I am reading a translation of his original writing; secondly, the implication to which I refer is not stated explicitly in his text; thirdly, it is possible that this can be true for the reson that God anticipates the reality of the whole person: a fact that is prior to how that 'totality is actually realized.    Back
210 Donum Vitae, 1. 1, page 13.    Back
211 Ibid.    Back
212 Pope John Paul II, June 9, 1989, as quoted on page 42 of TPOL.    Back
213 The Pontifical Council For The Family, In the service of life, 1991, (Instrumentum laboris), (Vatican: Vatican Press, 1992), page 7.  Abbrev IL.    Back
214 Ibid.    Back
215 Ibid.    Back
216 LTF, page 6.    Back
217 LTF, art 6, page 6.    Back
218 LTF, page 9.    Back
219 LTF, art 9, page 9.    Back
220 Ibid.    Back
221 The Pope quotes this text earlier at art 7, page 7.    Back
222 LTF, art 9, pages 9-10.    Back
223 LTF, art 9, page 10.    Back
224 Ibid.    Back
225 Ibid.    Back
226 Ibid.    Back
227 Ibid.    Back
228 Ibid.    Back
229 Ibid.    Back
230 LTF, art 9, page 11.    Back
231 Cf LTF, art 9, page 10.    Back
232 LTF, art 9, page 10.    Back
233 Cf Jesus Colina, The Key To John Paul II's Thinking, published in a Special Supplement of the magazine Inside The Vatican, (Rome: Inside The Vatican, 1995), pages 28-29.    Back
234 Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, 1979, (London: CTS [Do 506],), art 14, page 43.  Abbrev RH.    Back
235 Pope John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 1994, (London: CTS [Do 627], 1994), art 1, pages 3-4.  Abbrev TMA.    Back
236 Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 1995, (London: CTS [Do 633]), art 105, page 189.  Abbrev EV.    Back
237 Cf AQ, page 149.    Back
238 EV, art 28, page 50 and art 95, page 168.    Back
239 Cf EV, and the biblical title to the section from art 25-28 on page 44.    Back
240 EV, art 28, page 50 and art 95, page 168.    Back
241 EV, art 25, page 45.    Back
242 Cf Dei Verbum, art 6, page 752 of VCII.    Back
243 Gaudium et Spes, art 36, quoted in art 22 of EV on page 39.    Back
244 EV, art 34, page 60.    Back
245 EV, page 103.    Back
246 He cites here a reference to Lumen Gentium, 25.    Back
247 EV, art 62, page 112.    Back
248 HV, art 4, pages 7-8.    Back

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