When Does The Person Begin?

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

Part I: What led to this investigation of the beginning of human life?

The debt of the precept, be open to life, to Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI.

Initially all I could see was that Pope Paul VI was both drawing on a knowledge of the body as it existed and reflecting on the facts which are there to be observed.  What was not very clear to me was the relation between the two.  What started to make the connection between the facts of life and the Church's theological reflection on them was that the facts of life were themselves the language of the body: a language which, while meaningful, was not written by us - but in us and, as it were, to us!  In other words, it not only appeared that the Church was answering these fundamental questions but that she also encouraged us to look with her for a deeper understanding of those answers.

Pope Paul VI made me realise one particularly fundamental thing: that I was without a coherent view of the world4 and that the Church possessed a voice which appealed to my reason, began to provide me with an intelligent understanding of things and raised the question of faith: that God could help me do what I could not5.

What were the principles to which Humanae Vitae began to introduce me: principles which seemed so full of promise and so full of questions?

The first one was a synthesis of several elements: the Magisterium of the Church is the guardian and interpreter '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.  On the one hand this presented a vision of how different things were coherently ordered to one another and on the other hand it raised the questions: what is natural the law; and what is, for that matter, the law of the gospel?

Secondly, this document was overwhelmingly positive in the formulation of its central teaching: it is 'absolutely required that in any use whatever of marriage there must be no impairment of its natural capacity to procreate human life'7.  In other words,  the Pope declared it to be good for us to be open to the possibility of life.  Why?  Why should it be good for us to live out an uncertainty at the heart of marriage?  Why is it good for us to be open to life?

The first part of an answer to these questions was to realise that the uncertainty at the heart of marriage was itself something which of itself turned us towards the Creator.  It both turned the husband and the wife towards each other and it turned them together towards their Creator.  Life was also one of the things with which Christ identified Himself (cf. Jn 14: 6).  Thus there was this inescapable theological significance that in some way being open to life meant being open to Christ.

A third principle contained within Humanae Vitae, and which is again an expression of the unity and the openness within things, of the relationship of openness between things: is 'the inseparable connection ... between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act'8.  Thus God had clearly written a word with us which, in due course, one came to see as pre-eminently expressed in the openness of the Blessed Virgin Mary to the conception of Christ: 'Mary's motherhood shows that the sign-character of the human body is ultimately about participation in the life of the three divine persons (FC, 11, 189), who, as sheer openness to the life of one another, are infinitely fruitful'10.

Finally, Pope Paul VI says that 'human life is sacred' and then recalls the following words of Pope John XXIII: 'since from its first beginnings it calls for the creative action of God'11.  But the big question is: what is that 'creative action of God'?  Is the creative action of God, from the first beginnings of human life, the creation of a soul that is at the same time the life of that body12?  Or does the phrase: 'from its first beginnings,' allow of the possibility that the body does not receive its soul immediately, but at an as yet undetermined and subsequent moment?  For the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in footnote nineteen of its Declaration on Procured Abortion, six years after Humanae Vitae and with the approval of the same Pope: 'This declaration expressly leaves aside the question of the moment when the spiritual soul is infused.  ( ... )  For some it dates from the first instant, for others it could not at least precede nidation'13.  The term nidation refers to the implantation14 process by which the fertilized egg nestles15 into the wall of the womb.

This same footnote of the Declaration on Procured Abortion goes on to say of this question: 'It is a philosophical problem from which our moral affirmation remains independent: (i) supposing a belated animation, there is still nothing less than a human life, preparing for and calling for a soul in which the nature received from parents is completed; (ii) on the other hand, 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.'

Thus I could say that this footnote was the beginning of the thinking that led to these thoughts: if the two orders of true knowledge16 that cannot contradict each other17 are in a way expressed in the complementary difference between theology and philosophy, and if theology is 'higher'18 than philosophy, then can the one that is higher come to a conclusion that can then become the objective of the one that is lower?  In other words, if it is theologically certain that the human person, one in body and soul, begins from the first moment of fertilization, then this conclusion can become the legitimate objective of a philosophical investigation - precisely because truth will not contradict truth19 and, therefore, a known theological truth cannot per se prejudice the outcome of such a philosophical investigation.  Furthermore, it could be said, the theological truth is by definition an assistance to seeking a philosophical proof of the same truth.  Therefore there emerges the following question: does the Church teach that there is a theological certainty that the human person, one in body and soul, begins from the first moment of fertilization?  To which I have to answer that so difficult has it been for me to find such a statement in the documents of the Magisterium, put in precisely this way, that these questions have become the fundamental objective of this book.

In conclusion, what began as a simple perception of the precept, be open to life, has begun to swell into a theology of the body with particular reference to the transmission and beginning of life, and, finally, what I came to call a spirituality of being open to life.

4 Brian Sibley, Shadowlands, The True Story Of C.S. Lewis And Joy Davidman, (London: Hodder And Stoughton, the edition of 1994), where on page 84 Bill Gresham articulates precisely this lack.  Abbrev. SH.    Back
5 Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, (London: CTS [Do 411], revised translation, 1970), articles 19, 20 and 25.  Abbrev. HV.    Back
6 HV, art 4, pages 7-8.  This is a real question.    Back
7 HV, art 11, page 13.    Back
8 HV, art 12, pages 13-14.    Back
9 Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, (London: CTS [S 357], 1981), articles 11 and 18.  Abbrev FC.    Back
10 Francis Etheredge, A Reflection on the Language of the Body, (an abridged version), Communio (Summer 1997), Vol XXIV, No 2, page 407.  Abbrev. RLB.    Back
11 Cf. footnote 13 of HV, art 13: Cf. John XXIII, Encyl. Mater et Magistra, AAS 53 (1961), p. 447 (C.T.S. translation, n. 194).    Back
12 Cf. Catechism Of The Catholic Church, (Rome: Urbi et Orbi Communications, 1994), articles 362-366, pages 92-93.  Abbrev. CCC.    Back
13 LET ME LIVE, Declaration by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Procured Abortion, (London: CTS [Do 545], 1974), footnote 19, page 16.  Abbrev. LML.    Back
14 Cf. Concise Science Dictionary, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, second edition, 1991), page 341: implantation (nidation).    Back
15 Cf. Collins English Dictionary, (London: Collins, reprinted 1979), page 993: 'nide ... from the Latin nidus nest.'    Back
16 Cf. page 45 of The Christian Faith, edited by J Neuner SJ and J Dupuis (New York: Alba House, revised edition 1982), art 3015 of Dei Filius, Vatican I, on The twofold order of religious knowledge.  The title of this book will henceforth be abbreviated as TCF and any documents to which I refer in it will be given a title, as will the number of the article in the original document to which I refer, and I will also give the page number of its occurrence in TCF.    Back
17 Cf. Vatican I, Dei Filius, art 3017 on Faith and reason cannot contradict each other, page 46 of TCF.    Back
18 Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae, literally translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, (New York: Benziger Brothers, Inc., 1947-8), Pt I, Qu 1, articles 1-3 and 5-8.  The abbreviation for this translation will be SuTh.    Back
19 Cf. Vatican I, Dei Filius, art 3017 on Faith and reason cannot contradict each other, page 46 of TCF    Back

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