Appendix: An Approach to a Key Theological Question
In the debate over human cloning, one of the recurrent issues concerns “ensoulment.” At what point does the post-conceptive entity (or the newly conceived child) have a human soul?
In a remarkable book entitled Redeemer in the Womb, John Saward addresses the issue in a way that is clear and compelling. His concern is theological, specifically about the incarnation of Jesus Christ. However, the implications for the debates over abortion and cloning are clear. He draws on Patristic sources, showing that the questions we face today are not new, and also discusses at length a controversy that has arisen from a misreading of St.Thomas Aquinas.
Saward’s book is not about cloning, but may be helpful to many people trying to understand the first moments of human life.
Chapter One, “The Moment God Became Man,” of John Saward’s book, The Redeemer in the Womb (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993) is reproduced in full, with the permission of Ignatius Press.
I. The Moment God Became Man
In the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth there is a plaque with this inscription: Verbum caro hic factum est “the Word was made flesh here.” It was there, in that particular place, “a city of Galilee” (Lk 1:26), that God became man. But we can be even more specific: it was in the womb of a virgin named Mary (cf. v. 27) that God the Son, without ceasing to be true God, assumed a complete human nature into the unity of his divine person and became true man. Moreover, according to the Church’s teaching, we can be precise about the moment of the Incarnation: it took place when the Virgin Mary said to the angel, “Be it done unto me according to thy word” (v. 38). It was exactly then that, by the overshadowing of the Spirit, a body was fashioned from the Virgin’s flesh and blood, a rational soul created and infused into the body and, in the same instant, the complete human nature united to the divine Word. There were no successive stages in this taking of manhood; the body did not come into being before the soul, nor the soul before the body, nor were either ever other than his, God the Son’s: the flesh was conceived, ensouled, and assumed simultaneously.
The coincidence of the virginal conception and the hypostatic union is a defined doctrine of the Catholic faith. In the words of the “Formula of Union” agreed between St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Antiochene bishops in 433 and canonized by the General Council of Chalcedon in 451, “we confess the holy Virgin to be Mother of God, because God the Word was made flesh and became man and from the very moment of conception united to himself the temple he had taken from her.” Origen’s theory that the soul of Christ pre-existed the creation of his body was condemned by the provincial Council of Constantinople in 543, as was the opinion that the body was first formed and only later united to the soul and the Word. This judgement was later confirmed by Pope Vigilius (d. 555). In 675 the eleventh provincial Council of Toledo declared that it was in his “wonderful conception” that the Word was made flesh, and five years later the Third General Council of Constantinople officially approved the synodal epistle of St. Sophronius of Jerusalem (c. 560-638), which contains this relevant passage:
“He truly became man who is ever acknowledged to be God, and is shown to be in his Mother’s womb who is in the bosom of the eternal Father, and the timeless accepts a beginning in time. He did not become these things in unreal appearance (as the Manichees and Valentinians think), but in truth and reality he emptied the whole of himself by the will that is his own and the Father’s, and assumed the whole mass [of our nature], flesh consubstantial with us, a rational soul of the same kind as ours, a mind like ours. For man is and is known to be all these things; and he was made man in truth at the very instant of his conception in the all-holy Virgin.”
More recently, Pope John Paul II, in one of his catecheses on the person of Christ, made a similar declaration: “The first moment of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God is identified with the miraculous conception that took place by the power of the Holy Spirit when Mary uttered her Yes.”
These documents of the Magisterium echo the unanimous consensus of the Fathers. As a representative of the Latins, we can invoke St. Fulgentius of Ruspe (468-533), who says simply that the virginal conception was the taking of flesh, and that, therefore, “no interval of time can be reckoned between the beginning of the conceived flesh and the arrival of the Majesty being conceived.” St. John Damascene will serve as spokesman for the oriental tradition: “As soon as there was flesh, it was flesh of the Word, animated by a rational and intellectual soul.”
The Annunciation: The Feast of the Incarnation
God the Son, fully and completely God, eternally begotten in the bosom of the Father, became fully and completely man at his conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary. His human life began at fertilization, which in his case was miraculous, because his Virgin Mother was made fruitful, not by male seed, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is why it is the Annunciation that is the chief feast of the Incarnation. The Nativity of Our Lord is also a celebration of the Incarnation but in a different sense. The Incarnation was effected in Nazareth and then manifested in Bethlehem. March 25 commemorates the moment of the enfleshing of the Word; December 25 commemorates his birth in the flesh taken nine months earlier. Christmas Day is a feast of “theophany,” a celebration, says St. Gregory Nazianzen, of “God manifested to man by birth.” He comes forth from his Mother “as a bridegroom out of his chamber or as the sun from his chamber to run his race” (cf. Ps 18:6). In the stable at Bethlehem, Mary can at last hold in her arms and feed at her breast, see with her own eyes, the Child-God who for nine months has been hidden in the hermitage of her womb. In the Byzantine liturgy, the Church sings with the voice of the Theotokos:
“And she, bending over him like a handmaiden, worshipped him and said to him, as he lay in her arms: ‘How wast thou sown a seed in me? And how hast thou grown within me, O my Deliverer and my God?’”
On Christmas Day, in the company of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds, the meaning of the Incarnation seizes the mind and heart of the earthly Church: God, the Creator of the universe, has become a tiny baby. As St. Bernard says, the Word was made “infant flesh, young flesh, helpless flesh.” But the Church also remembers, especially during the last week of Advent, that, before being a newborn baby, God incarnate was an unborn baby in modern jargon, a fetus, an embryo, a zygote. The first stage of human life that God made his own and thereby divinized was embryonic. The adventure of being human began for the eternal Son at the moment of his conception.
This dogmatic truth is proclaimed in the liturgies of both East and West on March 25. In the Roman Missal of Pope Paul VI, the celebration is a feast of the first rank (a “solemnity”) and is described as “the Annunciation of the Lord.” During the Creed, at the “Et incarnatus est,” the faithful are invited to kneel as a reminder of what the day commemorates. In the Byzantine rite, at Great Compline for “The Annunciation of the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary,“the Church sings these words:
“Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice: for the Son who is coeternal with the Father, having his throne and like him without beginning, in his compassion and merciful love for mankind has submitted himself to emptying (cf. Phil 2:7), according to the good pleasure and the counsel of the Father; and he has gone to dwell in a Virgin’s womb that was sanctified beforehand by the Spirit. O marvel! God is come among men; he who cannot be contained is contained in a womb; the Timeless enters time; and strange wonder! His conception is without seed, his emptying is past telling; so great is this mystery! For God empties himself, takes flesh, and is fashioned as a creature, when the angel tells the pure Virgin of her conception: ‘Hail, thou who art full of grace; the Lord who has great mercy is with thee.’”
St. Maximus the Confessor on Christ’s Human Beginning
If the mystery of man only becomes clear in the light of the Word Incarnate, what does the moment of the Incarnation clarify? For St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662), it confirmed what he already believed on other grounds, namely, that the rational soul of man, which is not generated by his parents, is created immediately by God and infused into the body at the moment of conception (in modern jargon, the doctrine of “immediate animation”).
To assess the authority of this testimony, we must remember who St. Maximus the Confessor was. Thanks to the pioneering work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, he is now generally recognized as the theological giant of the seventh century, the author of the crowning synthesis of Greek patristic theology and spirituality. (St. John Damascene is among his legatees.) He is a second Athanasius, ready to withstand a whole empire in the defense of christological orthodoxy. He is a Byzantine through and through but also a loyal servant of the Pope of the elder Rome, a bridge between West and East. He is scholar but also monk and martyr, living and dying in the faith he preaches. “This is the greatest example of that unity of doctrine and life that marks the whole patristic age; speculation and mysticism of the greatest subtlety are wedded to a soberly faced and consciously grasped martyrdom.”
The texts that most concern us come from the so-called “Second Ambigua,” in which Maximus (in response to the queries of John of Cyzicus) clears up obscurities in the writings of St. Gregory Nazianzen. Origenist monks had given their own perverse reading. Maximus now offers an orthodox exegesis. One of the questions concerns the moment at which soul and body are united. Does the soul exist before the body (as the Origenists teach)? Or does the body exist before the intellectual soul (as Aristotle and the Stoics, in their different ways, teach)? Both hypotheses are to be rejected, says Maximus: the intellectual soul is created by God and infused into the body in the very instant of conception.
Building upon the work of St. Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus offers a number of arguments, philosophical and theological, but the decisive consideration, as we shall see, is christological.
Maximus insists that man is not a soul using a body but a unity of body and soul, a “synthesis,” a “complete figure” (eidos holon). This “completeness” (ekplerosis) of the human person enjoys a physical as well as metaphysical priority. If a man is essentially a whole, then he must be a whole from the beginning: the genesis of body and soul must be simultaneous. This soul is defined in relation to this body; that body in relation to that soul. Each must, therefore, belong to the other from the outset. After all, even after separation in death, they do not lose their reference to each other. Maximus even suggests that, were soul not wedded to body from the beginning, there would be no reason why it should not, so to speak, divorce and remarry at the end: reincarnation would be as reasonable a human destiny as resurrection.
There is a quiet humor about some of Maximus’ reasonings. He says that if the embryo immediately after fertilization is endowed with only a vegetative soul, then men father plants, not men. But in fact the act of fertilization establishes a human-to-human relationship between father and child; I am conceived by my father. Then again, Maximus says that he suspects that concealed behind the delayed animation theory is a Manichee distaste for any sort of association of the intellectual soul with the sordidness of sex.
In Maximus’ opinion, the strongest proof for the doctrine of immediate animation is the Incarnation.
“I regard nature’s very maker, by the mystery of his Incarnation, to be the champion and infallible teacher of this doctrine. He truly became man and confirmed that he possessed the complete nature and existence [of man], subsisting in accordance with his coming into human existence. He inaugurated the renewal of nature, that is, conception by seed and birth through corruption, which human nature contracted after the transgression, when divine and spiritual increase degenerated into multitude.”
Maximus applies to the Incarnation a distinction first used of the Trinity by the Cappadocians, namely, between “definition of nature” (logos tes physeos) and “manner ofexistence” (tropos tes hyparxeos) It is the difference between what a thing is and does and how it is and does it. Maximus applies the distinction to Christ’s conception. Its virginal and miraculous manner (by the direct operation of the Holy Spirit, without seed) does not make his human nature different from ours. In its “definition of nature,” Christ’s humanity is the same as ours; it differs from ours only in the “manner of its coming-to-be” (tropos t^es geneseos).
“By nature, [Christ’s humanity] is the same [as ours], but, through the conception without seed (asporia), it is not the same, since this human nature was not that of a mere man but belonged to the One who for our sakes became man.”
The miraculous how of Christ’s conception reveals who he is; it does not make him any the less what we are. This is the doctrine of Pope St. Leo the Great (d. 461) in his Tome. The Son of God becomes man “in a new order, generated in a new birth,” but this newness so “singularly wonderful and wonderfully singular” has not abolished the nature of our race.
The newness of the virginal conception is the sign that here God is doing a new thing (cf. Is 43:19): he is becoming man to make all things new (cf. Rev 21:5). In an ordinary conception, a human person is thrown into existence through the “urge of the flesh and the will of the male” (cf. Jn 1:13). He is one more son of Adam, come to swell the numbers of an ageing fallen “multitude,” with no other destiny but death. At the virginal conception, however, by the will of the Trinity, an eternally existing divine person, the only Son of the Father, becomes man to gather the scattered children of God into unity and bring them to the unageing newness of eternal life.
“The Word’s birth for us in the flesh took place in a superior way to our own. Neither the will nor the thought of the passion-marked flesh preceded it, as happens in our case through the pleasure that has craftily made itself master of our birth. No, only the will of the Godhead preceded [the conception of Christ] through the Son who effected in himself his own Incarnation in fulfilment of the Father’s loving plan and by the co-operation of the Holy Spirit. He thereby made new in himself and by himself the mode (tropos) of birth introduced into nature and accomplished the seedless conception in the Holy Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary.”
Apart from the saving novelty of its virginal manner, the conception of Christ is in all respects like ours. For us, then, as for him, it is the moment from which we are fully and completely human, endowed with rational soul as well as body.
Maximus’ argument rests on his firm persuasion that the mystery of the hypostatic union of divinity and humanity in Christ is the key to understanding man, indeed, the whole created order. As Balthasar has shown, he makes the Chalcedonian dogma of “union without confusion” a universal law of being, a fundamental axiom of metaphysics. The revealed doctrine of the Incarnation builds upon a naturally known philosophy of man, but it also contributes its own distinctive light and casts out the lingering shadows in man’s self-understanding. The radiance of the virginal conception sheds its beams on every natural human conception. Through the Incarnation, man learns the truth about his beginnings.
Christ’s Human Beginning and Ours: St. Thomas Aquinas
Where Maximus saw a confirmation, Scholasticism found an exception: unlike other men’s, Christ’s body was animated by a rational soul at conception. The Schoolmen (following Aristotle) held the view that the rational soul is not infused at the first moment of conception but at a later time, that is, when the embryo has attained a sufficiently advanced state of bodily development.
The philosophers of antiquity were not well up on the biology of modernity, and so they lacked the means (which we now have) of distinguishing an early human embryo from those of other species. To outward inspection, all embryos seemed to be of the same kind. The development, therefore, of a non-specific embryo into a recognizably human one had to be a process of substantial change change of nature or form, change of soul. (“Soul” here means the form of the body, that which makes a body to be the sort of body it is, its life-principle, the source of its characteristic functions.) For Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, human generation is a drama of transformation, of “coming to be” and “passing away.” At first, the embryo has a “vegetative” soul: it is capable of nourishment and growth. The vegetative soul “passes away” and is succeeded by a soul that is both vegetative and sensitive: the embryo is capable of sensation as well as nourishment. Finally, the sensitive soul is replaced by one created directly by God, a soul that is at once vegetative, sensitive, and rational: the embryo is alive with the life of man.
St. Thomas stood by this theory, not just because it came to him from Aristotle, but because it corresponded to what was observable in nature, and he was convinced that a sound philosophy must be empirically based. “The judgement that the intellect makes concerning the nature of a thing must conform to what sense perception shows about the thing.” Now the ancient world and the Middle Ages knew nothing of ovulation; indeed, the ovum itself was not discovered until 1827. As far as St. Thomas was concerned, conception took place through the activation by semen of a special secretion of blood in the womb. What is more, though he grasped the truth that matter must be suitably and sufficiently organized in order to be animated by a rational soul, his judgement of what constituted organization was determined by the limitations of current observation. For Aristotle (and so for St. Thomas), the soul is “the primary act of a natural organic body” (s“matos physikou organikou), that is to say, a body with organs, parts serving some essential function. Only when the embryonic body was equipped with recognizably human organs and limbs was it deemed to be alive with human life; when completely formed, it was evidently informed by a rational soul. Once there was the body of a man, there was a man, a rational animal.
St. Thomas taught that Christ’s body did not develop in the normal manner. Having been created directly by the Holy Spirit from the flesh and blood of the Virgin, without any involvement of male seed, it was fully formed, perfectly organized, from the first moment of conception, and from that first moment was animated by a rational soul. St. Bonaventure held the same opinion: from his conception, Christ’s body had “perfection of organization.”
There is an obvious difficulty with this opinion. If the incarnate Word is to be called “man” univocally, why should he differ from other men with regard to the animation of his human body? In the terminology of St. Maximus, it would seem to imply a difference in the “definition of nature” rather than the “manner of existence.” St. Thomas considers this question in an objection quoting St. Leo the Great. He replies that the difference between Christ and us in this respect is one of timing, not of nature. Our Lord’s animation was essentially the same as other men’s in the sense that his rational soul, like all others, was infused as soon as the body was formed. What was different was the time of that formation: Christ’s body was perfectly formed at an earlier moment than other men’s.
Were he alive today, St. Thomas would without doubt hold the doctrine of immediate animation. The fundamental principles of his philosophy of man are independent of his obsolete biology; indeed, when applied to modern knowledge, they provide formidable support for immediate animation. Stripping off the shell of the out-of-date science, we find the permanently valid kernel of his thought on the soul. This is not wishful thinking. It is simply the application of the Thomist axiom stated earlier: philosophy must have an empirical base.
The essential principles of Thomist anthropology are as follows:
A. The soul is not the self. A man is not only a soul but something composed of soul and body. The soul separated from the body is not a man. The soul on its own can no more be called a person than a hand or foot on its own. The person is the possessor of the complete nature of the species.
B. It is natural for the soul to be united to the body. That is why the separation of soul from body at death is “against nature” and why the resurrection of the body is in a certain sense “necessary.”
C. The soul is the form of the body. “Form” here means the innermost shaping principle of a thing, making it to be what it is. The soul is not a motor in a machine, making it move. No, it is what makes the body what it is, the body of a rnan. An ensouled body is the body of a living human being.
D. The rational soul, which is not transmitted by the parents, is infused by God as soon as the body is ready to receive it. It must be suitably organized. St. Thomas explains how the human body is suitably disposed by the Divine Artist for those spiritual acts of which only man among bodily creatures is capable. His senses are not just for food and sex but for knowledge, and so he does not sniff around on the ground but stands upright and can lift up his face to contemplate the heavens.
Modern biology has proved that the fundamental “disposition” or “organization” of living matter is genetic (cf. D). We can now do what the ancients could not: we can distinguish the human embryo from embryos of other species. The perceptible form of the zygote, its genetic structure, may therefore be regarded as, so to speak, the outward and visible sign of its metaphysical form, that which makes it to be what it is, a member of the human species (cf. C). “The human zygote as we understand it today with DNA and RNA would in Thomas’ understanding eminently satisfy as having the organized matter required for the infusion of a human spiritual soul.”
Thus man is a natural and complete whole from his conception (cf. A and B). The embryo is alive with unmistakably human life. For St. Thomas, that is just another way of saying that it is ensouled with a human (rational) soul. “It” is already “he” or “she.”
The doctrine of immediate animation makes St. Thomas’ Christology shine with even greater power. It resolves tensions and unanswered questions.
1. The Angelic Doctor tells us that, while Our Lord’s conception was wholly miraculous in the sense that its active principle was the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit (rather than the natural power of male seed), it was wholly natural when we consider the matter furnished by his Mother. Strictly, on St. Thomas’ view, one ought to add that the conception was also, if not miraculous, at least extraordinary in the sense that his body was animated at an earlier moment than any other human body. If, however, Christ is like us even in the moment of his animation, then we can appreciate the sense in which, though in its manner it is miraculous, his conception remains completely natural, the beginning of real and complete human life.
2. If the Son of God’s embryonic condition is like that of every other human being, we understand better what St. Thomas has to say about his self-emptying and his assumption of our “natural and blameless disabilities.” He emptied himself, not by laying aside his divine greatness, but by taking on our human littleness, and first of all the microscopic infirmity of the embryo. He accepts the limitations of the long, slow womb-way to birth. Apart from the virginal manner of his conception and birth, the Christ Child, unborn as well as newborn, is like every baby.
3. St. Thomas’ doctrine of man is undoubtedly christocentric. He does not confuse philosophy with theology, truths of natural philosophy with truths of supernatural revelation, but his faith in God-made-man does give added weight to what his reason tells him of man-made-by-God. As Josef Pieper says:
“Thomas might never have had the courage to defend natural and visible reality, in particular man’s corporeality, as an essential part of man and would never have had the courage to draw the ultimate conclusions from this conviction had he not thought in terms of the Incarnation of God. . . . One who believes that the Logos of God has, in Christ, united with the bodily nature of man cannot possibly assume at the same time that the material reality is not good. And how can visible things be evil if the “medicine of salvation” deriving from that prototypal Sacrament be offered to man in the same visible things . . . when the sacraments are performed.”
As a general principle, this is certainly true. In the Summa Theologiae, anthropology is presented in a christological (and Trinitarian) frame. Man (at the end of the first part and throughout the second part) is enveloped by the one Lord Jesus Christ: in the mysteries of his divinity (in the first part) and in the mysteries of his humanity (in the third part). St. Thomas looks at the human person in the light of the divine person of the Word-made-flesh. Only with respect to the moment of animation does the principle appear to have been inconsistently applied.