Human Life Before Ensoulment?

Anthony Zimmerman
Unpublished manuscript
December 2000
Reproduced with Permission

A statement in Part Two of the article "Stem Cell Research and the Human Embryo" (Ethics and Medics, 24,9) calls for clarification in view of its possible conflict with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Although the article does not explicitly approve the statement, neither is there a refutation. That leaves us in no man's land.

The E&M statement reads: "What this reasoning overlooks, however, is that the human embryo remains human even if it is not, at some early point in its development, endowed with a human soul." Does E&M agree with the possibility of such an entity, or disagree, or leave itself in doubt?

The CCC states more forthrightly that if a body is human, then it has a spiritual soul: "The human body... is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul..." (No. 364). (Corpus hominis...est corpus humanum praecise quia anima spirituali animatur.)

The statements are not reconcilable: one presents a human body not yet animated by a spiritual soul. The CCC counters that if there is a human body, a spiritual soul animates it. To re-word the CCC: If it is not animated by a human soul, it is not a human body.

We are aware, of course, that the CDF stopped short of making a relevant philosophical statement in 1987. However, that was before the Pope promulgated the Catechism in 1992. The 1987 passage reads:

Certainly 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? The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion. This teaching has not been changed and is unchangeable.

Five years later, however, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states forthrightly that a human body does not exist without being animated by a spiritual soul:

The human body shares in the dignity of "the image of God": It is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit (364).

We note the logic of the Catechism's statement: If the body is human, a soul animates it to make it so. In other words, there is no zygote or embryo without a soul. "Left over" embryos also, are persons. The Catechism doctrinally outdates claims of delayed ensoulment. It also confirms the CDF's statement of 1987 which teaches that we must treat zygotes and embryos as persons. Even if one would doubt their personhood, one cannot apply the law of probabilism to the case because it is a dubium facti.If one kills what he doubts to be human, he is guilty of killing a person.

Seminarians at the Tokyo Catholic Theological Seminary, as I happen to know, have a Moral Theology teacher who believes in delayed animation. Typical is the teacher's statement made in Koe magazine in 1987:

We must distinguish between a human life and a human being...The fertilized ovum is programmed genetically to become an individual body, so that it has definitely begun its process towards individual human life. In other words, at this stage the fertilized ovum cannot yet be called a human person...

However, at what point of time one can speak of a human person "with a heart" is a problem whose solution is very, very difficult, and neither science nor philosophy can find its way to draw a line ("The Vatican and Reverence for Life," Koe, August-September 1987; translated from Japanese by the present writer).

To confirm this alleged science, he quotes no embryologists, only theologians. It is as though theologians could create scientific facts by a Midas touch if they parade in step with each other:

Moral theologian McCormick uses the term nascent human life (human life in formation). He does not call it individual life. Curran says that during the first 2 - 3 weeks after fertilization one cannot speak of this as being truly human in a strict sense. De Janni, K. Rahner, and various other Catholic theologians express doubt about whether a fertilized ovum can be called a human being with a "heart" before a month has gone by after fertilization took place...As Haering states, there is an area of obscurity during the interval from conception to personalization (Koe article).

Delayed animation as taught in Tokyo is dogma de jour in many other seminaries. A thought about the timing of the Incarnation comes to mind. When would claimants of delayed ensoulment place the time of Christ's Incarnation? Would it be at conception when Mary said: "Be it done unto me according to thy word"? Or would it be later, after implantation and after the appearance of the primitive streak, or beyond? Should Elizabeth have greeted Mary as the "soon-to-bemother of my Lord"? And John, should he have waited with his stirring in the womb until the future body of Jesus had implanted and grown the primitive streak? Delayed ensoulment theology has a problem with Holy Scripture here.

The Supreme Court legalized abortion because of alleged uncertainty about when life begins:

We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.

The decision demolished defenses against abortion in 1973. It provides cover for stem cell research and other death-dealing manipulations of supposedly not-yet-personalized zygotes and embryos today. Catholics ought to speak with one voice, one with science, one with the Catechism: "A human zygote and embryo is a person. A human body never exists, even for a moment, without a human soul."

Philosophical Considerations

I need not repeat what others have argued convincingly, from embryology. The well established human embryology text books agree that a zygote is the beginning of a new human being.

May I add for consideration another turn of thought: for the sake of argument let us suppose that a human body exists initially and for some time without a human soul. We ask what kind of life would animate that body. We recognize that it is "humano-trophic" from the fact that it initiates the sequences that produce a baby and then an adult. There is no initial uncertainty, no probing trophism toward becoming perhaps a mouse or a bear or a lion. Whatever be the nature of that ephemeral and ghostly "life" of a supposedly unensouled zygote, that life normally (miraculously?) develops into babies, never into coyotes or chicken hawks. From function we conclude to being, to esse.The function is human, therefore the being is human.

If the zygote would have a life which is not a soul, then this temporary stand-in would be a biological entity which mimics the functions of a human soul. It develops the species specific enzymes and proteins of human bodies. It undertakes the building of a human organism, including the eventual construction of the brain. But only a spiritual human soul has need of a human brain, the instrument for processing spiritual thoughts and free decisions. Vegetative and sentient life, which is not yet substantially integrated into a spiritual soul, has no need for the living computers and speech facilitators housed in our skulls. Flowers and birds do not attempt to grow a forebrain to process speech. For them, blooming and chirping is enough. Human zygotes and embryos, however, unerringly pursue the path to build a forebrain, a midbrain, and a stem brain from the very beginning. From the moment of fertilization the cascading and unraveling of pre-set sequences continues on schedule, "come hell or high water," until that brain is formed, and then until the baby grows into adulthood. The end demonstrates the nature of the beginning.

If the initial zygote is humano-trophic but without a human soul, the growth upon which it embarks would exceed its biological capacity. A temporary stand-in for a coming soul would be a misanthrope, a biological square circle, a shoe too small for the foot to fit in. It would be Liliputian, its capacities under-proportioned to its task. We don't appoint an ant to build a universe, and we should not expect an animal to build a man. A temporary stand-in life would be assigned to perform a task without capacitating equipment. It would be like a coyote howling at the moon, like a mouse squeaking to become a man, like horses sitting in the chariot trying to steer Ben Hur. Nemo dat quod non habet. "The end is where we start from" when we ask whether a zygote is really one of us, or whether it has a temporary life which is as impossible is a square circle.