When Does The Person Begin?

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

Questions have answers

A book like this is to some extent an autobiographical one of how I have come to understand the question which arises out of the moment of our beginning: did we begin body and soul at conception; or did the body begin before the soul and was the soul therefore created in union with it?  The conclusion to which I have come is summed up by the following principle: where the body lives, there the soul is, and where both are is the person.

But just as one term is inseparably connected to others, so one question is inseparably connected to others and so it is because I accept this question about the origin of human life within the context of the tradition out of which this question has arisen578, I accept that this question of the moment of animation of the human being would not be a meaningful question, would not even exist as a question in the same way, if there did not exist a 'soul' and a 'body' and 'life' and 'death.'  In other words, on the whole I am not trying to prove the existence of these things, even if it were possible, so much as to understand what their real meaning is and to apply that meaning to an outstanding question: when does the soul animate the body?  Thus my thinking about these things has been clarified and informed by the very terms which, increasingly, I seek to understand and which, to that extent, this work records.

Finally my acceptance as it were of this tradition out of which and within which I now work, is an acceptance which I regard as a fundamental part of my conversion to the existence of God: a fact inseparable from a meaning which together forms me in reality.  For not only have I suffered such agonies of uncertainty as to be plagued by impossibly interminable questions, but this state which in some way arises out of the denial of reality, seems in some way to be particularly evident in our society and indeed, one might say, in the very weakness of the humans beings who inherit original sin.  Our dialogue with reality is therefore analogous to our dialogue with one another579 and can only proceed to the extent that one agrees with what reason and Revelation tell us to be the true nature of what exists.  For truth is not the creation of man but the Person (cf. Jn 14: 6) who goes before him in everything that he does580, just as creation is not the work of man but the work of God who gives to man a participation in the work of creation, just as God gives to man a participation in His work of making known the truth: as if natural truth is ordered to divine truth581, just as the work of making known the natural truth is ordered to the work of making known the divine truth.

If then there is a virtue that I would want for myself or for any other investigator of reality it would be to have the humility to listen; and, therefore, if there is any merit in what I have written, it is only because I am not as deaf as I used to be!

What follows is first of all an attempt to define the terms which are fundamental to the aforementioned principle and then to give an account of the facts and difficulties which occasioned it.

A working definition of terms

This is an attempt to indicate the main roads which run through the little part of the map of things with which this book is concerned.  Alternatively it is an attempt to indicate the general structure in the cross-section of a tree, taken as it were at the point between the roots and the trunk.


On the one hand it is God who is as it were the definition of the term of unity; and on the other hand it is God who is as it were the definition of the terms of diversity.  The mystery of the Blessed Trinity could be said, therefore, to be the defining Reality which at the same time transcends all definiton582.  For God is the ever existing mystery in which the propositions of faith583 and reason terminate584, just as the being of the Blessed Trinity is the transcendent origin of the design inherent in all His creation585.  Therefore God is both that which no greater can be thought586, and at the same time God is intelligible to thought.


This is the term for the real unity of the identity of Christ.  For Christ is at once the Son of God and Divine and the son of man and human587.  This seems both to give and to draw out a profoundly relational sense to the reality of the person.  For Christ Himself is from the Father, as the very name of the Son indicates, and He is at the same time the Person through whom we receive the Holy Spirit588, just as a human being cannot but come into existence as the son or daughter of their parents589.

Secondly, the pivotal place of 'person' in the mystery of Christ raises the question of whether or not the sacrament of baptism is in fact an ontological completion of man, just as the 'union' of God and man in Christ is as it were the fullest expression of what it is to be a man.  This would be because man is ordered by God's original design of him, to communion with Him.  In other words the Blessed Trinity is three Persons in one God and we are called to enter into the personal communion590 with God which constitutes the Church: a personal communion which Christ anticipates on His incarnation as He 'has in a certain way united himself with each man'591.  For this call to communion is not something incidental to our being592, it is as it were the very object of its design: the final end593 intended from the beginning594; and if to begin a part is to beget the whole, the end of man is integral to the beginning of man: the beginning of man is ordered to his end.  This has as it were the horizontal dimension which is expressed in the diversely complementary humanity of each one of us being either a man or a woman595, and more generally in the reality of the multitude of relationships which constitute the family of man.  Therefore to be a person is what applies to us as an individual and to us in community.  For we are called to be what we are596: a community of persons597.

St. Augustine saw that each Person of the Blessed Trinity was a 'subsistent relation'598.  Furthermore it could be said that the relationality of the term person corresponds to the mystery of the fact that each person of the Blessed Trinity is as it were ever open to the life of the others599.  This fundamental relationality of being is developed by David Schindler in the threefold proposition of being from, in and for600: a conception of human being which is 'modelled' on Christ.  This relationality is also evident in W. Norris Clarke's view that 'To be is to be substance-in-relation'601; and, finally, it was this same author who, after quoting from St. Thomas Aquinas that "Person is that which is most perfect in all of nature"602, went on to say that 'the person is not something added on to being as a special delimitation; it is simply what being is when allowed to be at its fullest'603.

The very origin of the term Person seems to indicate something relational, such as does 'an actor's mask'604, while another use of it signifies what is uniquely individual: 'Cicero used the term "persona" to designate the totality of ways in which each individual human differed from every other'605.  It is not possible, however, to investigate the connection between this and the concept of 'incommunicability'606, if indeed there is one, nevertheless the dimension of the person which this contributes is that each one of us is 'other' to another, although not as 'Other'607 as God is to man.  Thus incommunicability is a kind of polar requirement of being called to communion608.

Boethius defined a person as 'an individual substance of a rational nature'609.  He used the term 'substance' in the definition to exclude that type of being which is called accidental610.  The difference between accidental and substantial being is that accidental being inheres in the substantial being611; and, therefore, accidental being refers to those things which cannot exist in themselves but only in another, whereas substantial being is that which exists in itself and is called subsistent612.

God is the definitive meaning of the term613 Person in that God is the Blessed Trinity: the three Persons in one God.  Therefore the mystery of God is implicated in the mystery of man614, which is expressed both biblically and philosophically when the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: 'The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual'615.

If the person is the whole human being, one in body and soul616, then in a way it is wholly appropriate that Mary expresses as it were the created sign of this openness to life in her openness to Christ.  Thus when Hans Urs von Balthasar speaks of Mary's 'unreserved openness to God'617, he seems to bring together - or to see as undivided in the first place - the bodily and spiritual dimensions of the one attitude of the person to God: its corporeal root and spiritual crown.  Finally: 'A person discloses himself in his actions, and the better we know a person, the better we understand his actions'618.

The actions of a person are of a threefold order.  The first order of the acts of a person are those which flow from the bodily totality of that person and are human both in that first sense619, such as the acts of eating and digestion, and in a second sense620 to the extent to which they inform the moral life621, such as the inherent structure, function and rhythmn of the acts and processes of human reproduction.  The second order of human acts are those which flow from man's heart and will determine the moral goodness or evil of our being622.  Finally, these acts will also involve a fundamental actuation623 of the vocation to love, whether that of virginity or marriage624, and as such reveal the profundity of the 'image' of man in which he is made.  For man is made in the image of God who is love (1 Jn 4: 8).

What seems to emerge from all this is that the person of Christ is at once the subject of his Divine and human natures in the sense that he is the unifying subject of all the relationships of which he is an expression, whether as God-man, a human being one in body and soul, or interpersonally united to all.  Therefore a definition of what it is to be a person must take account of this absolute abundance of relationships which is at the heart of being a person; and so whatever it is that makes it possible for man to be a person, in terms of the metaphysical structure of his being, it must be such as to express how this mystery is manifested in the reality of his total being.  It is for this reason that it is of especial relevance that Pope John Paul II employs the term 'incarnation' in his definition of the relationship of soul to body: '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'625.

The word manifestation626 keeps turning up in this and similar connections and, because of this, one begins to think that creation is fundamentally ordered to the manifestation of the Creator.  Even the very word existence appears to have a root meaning which is that for something to exist is for that something to manifest itself627.

Finally, if one considers the totality of what it is to be a person, from the point of view of the undivided628 individual, one in body and soul, then inevitably one expects a participation of the body in what it is to a person629.  Thus the 'body' is essential to the person because it is in virtue of the difference between the body and the soul that the human person as a whole manifests the unity-in-diversity that God is.

Pope John Paul II says that the body expresses the person629.  This seems to be an articulation of the doctrine that would reveal the body to be an expression of the person in the sense that the body participates in the act of existence630 which is at the same time the act by which a person exists as a person.  In other words, the act of God by which a person comes to exist is an act of God which at the same time constitutes the 'parts' in their substantial unity, one in body and soul.  Therefore the person is one in being, while both a composite of body and soul.

If this is true then it would follow that the person is one in being from conception.  For if the conception of the body and the creation of the soul were two different 'moments', then not only would this be contrary to the natural meaning of a beginning631, but that it would also and inevitably introduce the problem of successive souls632 and at the same time a distinction between the original act of the body and the original act of the human soul.  A perfect act of unifying existence would, therefore, be one that was so from the natural moment of the beginning of what then becomes each inseparable part of being a person; however, it does not follow that although the act of existence of a person is one act for both body and soul, that the unity is indivisible.  It does follow, however, that any radical division of these parts is 'unnatural' to the unity so constituted633 and is indeed a mystery in its own right634: a mystery, however, that is ordered to the mystery of the resurrection635.  For man was made for 'incorruption' (Wis 2: 23), but it was 'through the devil's envy death entered the world' (Wis 2: 24).

Thus there seems to be an inseparable connection between of the doctrine of the person and the doctrine of form636 and matter.

578 Cf. LML, footnote 19, page 16.    Back
579 Cf. ST, Pt I, Qu 32, art 1, page 71.    Back
580 Cf. H. de Lubac, Abbyssus abyssum invocat, page 295 of Vol XIV, No 3, Communio (Fall 1987).  Abbrev. AA.    Back
581 Cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Logic: On the work as a whole, pages 623-624 of Vol XX, No 4, Communio (Winter 1993).  Abbrev. TL.    Back
582 Cf. CCC, articles 39-43, page 17.    Back
583 Cf. CCC, art 170, page 46.    Back
584 Cf. CCC, art 36, page 16.  Cf. also TFSF, page 19.    Back
585 Cf. LF, art 6, page 6.    Back
586 Cf. SuTh, Pt I, Qu 2, art 1, page 11.  I am using this definition of God without entering into the question of its use as a proof of the existence of God.    Back
587 Cf. The General Council Of Chalcedon, Symbol Of Chalcedon, art 302, pages 154-155.    Back
588 CCC, art 248, page 65.    Back
589 Cf. MPJ, page 192.    Back
590 Cf. M. J. Dorenkemper, Person (In Theology), page 168 of Vol XI, NCE.    Back
591 Gaudium et Spes, art 22, page 923 of VCII.    Back
592 Cf. L. W. Geddes & W. A. Wallace, Person (In Philosophy), page 168 of Vol XI, NCE.    Back
593 ACD, page 73: Beatitude.    Back
594 Cf. B. M. Ashley, Teleology, page 979 of Vol XIII, NCE.    Back
595 Cf. LTW, art 7, page 12.    Back
596 Cf. FC, art 17, page 32.    Back
597 Cf. FC, art 18, page 34.    Back
598 M. J. Dorenkemper, Person (In Theology), page 169 of Vol XI, NCE.    Back
599 Cf. RLB, page 407, and MC, art 27, page 18.    Back
600 PPTR, page 176. Cf also IAB, page 270    Back
601 PBS, page 609.    Back
602 PBS, page 601, footnote 1: Summa Theologiae, I, q. 29, art. 3.    Back
603 Ibid.  Cf. also J. Lotz, Being, page 84 of the Encycolpedia of Theology, ed. K. Rahner, (Tunbridge Wells: Burns & Oates, reprinted 1986).  Abbrev. ET.    Back
604 BCED, page 239: Person.  Cf. also M. J. Dorenkemper, Person (In Theology), page 168 of Vol XI, NCE.    Back
605 K. L. Schmitz, Concrete Presence, page 312, and footnote 23 (De Officiis, I, pp. 107 ff.), of Communio, Vol XIV, No 3, (Fall 1987).  Abbrev. CP.    Back
606 Cf. T. E. Clarke, Incommunicable, page 427 of Vol VII, NCE.    Back
607 Cf. DOB, page 365: Holy.    Back
608 Ibid, page 428.    Back
609 ST, Pt I, Qu 29, art 1, page 68.    Back
610 L. W. Geddes & W. A. Wallace, Person (In Philosophy), page 166 of Vol XI, NCE.    Back
611 R. E. McCall, Substance, page 767 of Vol XIII, NCE.    Back
612 T. U. Mullaney, Subsistence, page 763 of Vol XIII, NCE.    Back
613 Cf. TFSF, page 19.    Back
614 Cf. Gaudium et Spes, art 22, page 922 of VCII.    Back
615 CCC, art 362, page 92.    Back
616 ST, Pt I, Qu 29, art 1, page 68.    Back
617 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Commentary, page 175 of what is published as Pope John Paul II, God's Yes To Man, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988).  Abbrev. Com.    Back
618 CCC, art 236, pages 62-63.    Back
619 A, page 193.    Back
620 Ibid.    Back
621 Cf. ST, Pt II, Qu 94, art 2, page 287.    Back
622 Cf. VS, art 71, page 109.    Back
623 A, page 186.    Back
624 FC, art 11, page 20.    Back
625 FC, art 11, page 19.    Back
626 Cf. EV, art 34, page 60; E. G. Hardwick, Matter, (Theology Of), page 483 of Vol IX, NCE; OUMW, art 4, of the Gen. aud. of January 9, 1980, page 109: Adam seems to exclaim of Eve 'here is a body that expresses the "person"!'; and Dei Verbum, art 4, page 752 of VCII; and cf. also 1 Jn 1: 2.    Back
627 Cf. C. Fabro, Existence, page 720 of Vol V, NCE.    Back
628 L. M. Corvez, Individuality, page 474 of Vol VII, NCE.    Back
629 OUMW, art 4, of the Gen. aud. of January 9, 1980, page 109.    Back
630 Cf. C. Fabro, Existence, page 723 of Vol V, NCE.    Back
631 Cf. P. B. T. Bilaniuk, Creationism, page 429 of Vol IV, NCE.    Back
632 Cf. Pt I, Qu 118, articles 1-2, pages 162-163.    Back
633 Cf. Pt I, Qu 76, art 1, page 113.    Back
634 Gaudium et Spes, art 18, pages 917-918 of VCII.    Back
635 Cf. A, page 162: C. G., 4, 79.    Back
636 L. W. Geddes & W. A. Wallace, Person (In Philosophy), page 167 of Vol XI, NCE.    Back

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