At What Moment Did God Create Me?

Anthony Zimmerman
Address At Celebration of Life
World Family Conference
June 20-24, 2001, Bloomington, Minnesota
Reproduced with Permission

When we pray the Angelus, we assume that the Word was made flesh when Mary said: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord." We do not assume that the sacred event of the Incarnation took place about a week later when Christ was implanted into Mary's sacred womb. The subject of this address is about the moment when we became man. For becoming man is not a gradual process, but is instantaneous. God said: "Let there be light" and there was light. In the same way God said: "Let there be you" and there you were. It was the moment when God's almighty power made the fused gametes of your father and mother come to life.

I have spent a good part of my priestly life teaching in seminaries, both in the States and in Japan, and I love these young men who are typically eager students, but who sometimes give their teacher a hard time by challenging him, by making him prove what he says. Today I am asked to explain to you at what moment you and I became human beings, human persons created by God, whether at the fusion of the gametes, or later on, for example at implantation or at the formation of the brain or at some other biological marker.

We need to answer this question clearly and loudly, in order to shine wisdom into this dark secular world where technicians produce people in laboratories by way of in vitro fertilization; where merchants sell body parts which command higher prices if they come from partial birth abortions; and where technicians place week old human embryos into a solution which explodes their bodies so that they can pluck out prized stem cells for experimentation. Even if we cannot convince secularists to have respect for God when pro-creating people, God is always pleased when He sees that at least a few people recognize His goodness and wisdom in His work of procreation. He once promised Abraham, after a bargaining session, that He would not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if He found just ten good people there:

Then (Abraham) said, "Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there." He answered, "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it." And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place [Gen 18:32-33).

The lesson is that God is pleased with people who admire and respect His laws. The birth of new individuals into our world should always be celebrated with thanks to God. We read in Luke how the angels celebrated the birth of Christ with music when Jesus was born.

And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!" When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us" (Luke 2:8-14).

Handel captured in his masterpiece, The Messiah, the joy the angels expressed, so let us pause briefly to hear the music, to give thanks to God for the birth of Jesus and for our own birth. (Pause for music.) I always like that little blip at the end, when the last of the angels pulled shut the trap door that is between heaven and us.

We have good reason to celebrate the birth of Jesus, because His birth made possible our birth also, in a manner which is mysterious to us, but well known to God. The Pope wrote in Novo Millenio Induente 23 that "It is only because the Son of God truly became man that man, in him and through him, can truly become God."In Christ the Son, we become sons of the Son.

Saint Irenaeus, early theologian in the Church, intuited that God did not deem it proper to raise humans to the state of grace and divine adoption unless the Son of God would first become one of us. "For this reason did the Word of God became man ... that man, mingled with the Word of God would receive adoption and become a son of God. For we could not otherwise have received imperishability and immortality unless we had been joined to imperishability and immortality... and so receive the adoption of sons?" (Adversus Haereses,III, 19.1).

If, then, God would have been loathe to give His grace to any man, unless Christ had first assumed our nature, we can go one step farther and acknowledge that the creation of the cosmos itself, beginning with the big bang, would never have come about unless the Son of God had agreed beforehand to become the Son of Man. The birth of Christ, then, paved the way for our birth. And going back one step, the consent of Mary to the coming of Jesus was her consent to our birth as well. She implicitly became our Mother in becoming the Mother of Christ. When she said YES for Christ, she said YES for us as well.

Unless God had created us, we would not be

Louise Brown, the first human to come to life in a petri dish, is now 23 years old, a human person like every other citizen in the United Kingdom. When Dr. Robert Edwards manipulated human gametes in a petri dish in 1978, he may have seen her come to life through a microscope. And he may even have thought that it was he who brought her to life. We know, however, that when she came to life God was in the room. God spoke the words again which are written in Genesis: "And now let us make man. Let us create Louise Brown." Dr. Edwards should have lit a candle and got down on his knees saying: "My God, what have we done!" He had implicitly bid God to come into his laboratory, to create Louise in that petri dish. Like Thomas, he should have made an act of reverence: "My Lord and my God."

The Catechism states that humans come to life via the soul whom God creates:

364 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:

"Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honour since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day" (GS 14:1).

365 The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the "form" of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.

366 The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God - it is not "produced" by the parents - and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.

God is present at the beginning of every human life

When God creates a new human being, He is totally present, just as when He said in Chapter One of Genesis: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." God does not create souls in heaven and put them on hold until He unites them with bodies. The body comes to life in a moment, when God speaks with almighty power, speaks with thunder that reverberates in heaven as well as on earth: "Let there be life!" And there is life. And God sees that it is good. He saw in the laboratory of Dr. Edwards that Louise is good. She will live for her given span of mortal life on earth, then move into eternity to live there for ever and for ever. When time stops, when the dead rise from their graves, Christ will call both Louise Brown and Doctor Edwards into His presence and assign them to their proper place, either to His right as sheep to be rewarded in heaven, or to His left as goats to be driven out of His sight forever.

We cannot see the soul when it enlivens the body, just as we cannot see it depart from the body at the moment of death. But as Pope John Paul II said, we can perceive signs in the body that the soul is no longer there, namely that death has taken place. He said that the "vital organs that occur singly in the body can be removed only after death, that is, from the body of someone who is certainly dead. In this regard, it is helpful to recall that the death of the person is a single event, consisting in the total disintegration of that unitary and integrated whole that is the personal self. It results from the separation of the life-principle (or soul) from the corporal reality of the person. The death of the person, understood in this primary sense, is an event that no scientific technique or empirical method can identify directly. Yet, human experience shows that, once death occurs, certain biological signs inevitably follow, which medicine has learnt to recognize with increasing precision" (August 29, 2000, 18th International Congress of the Transplants Society).

Ode to the soul

Various theories about the transmission of the soul

Saint Irenaeus(c.125-207) took up arms against Plato (c.427-347 BC) for teaching that souls existed formerly in another life before they came down to earth and entered human bodies. Not so, responded Irenaeus. Souls had no such previous lives (Ad. Haer. II,33,1). Plato had allegedly explained that souls forget their former lives when they enter human bodies, but Irenaeus responded that this was an ipse dixit invention without a shred of proof (33,2). If there had been a previous life the soul would remember it. Irenaeus continues:

If, therefore, the soul remembers nothing of what took place in a former state of existence, but has a perception of those things which are here, it follows that she never existed in other bodies, nor did things of which she has no knowledge, nor once knew things which she cannot now contemplate. But, as each one of us receives his body through the skillful working of God, so does he also possess his soul. For God is not so poor...that He cannot confer its own proper soul on each individual body..." (II,33,5).

Re-incarnation: The false idea of re-incarnation, prominent in Buddhism, is becoming popular today among people who want to think that if they didn't make it to heaven the first time through life, they can try and try again. It is wishful thinking. As the Catechism teaches:

1021Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ. The New Testament speaks of judgement primarily in its aspect of the final encounter with Christ in his second coming, but also repeatedly affirms that each will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with his works and faith. The parable of the poor man Lazarus and the words of Christ on the cross to the good thief, as well as other New Testament texts speak of a final destiny of the soul - a destiny which can be different for some and for others.

Tertullian(c.160-220)was a Roman Lawyer who invented a theory that parents beget the souls of their children, much as animals beget their offspring. He started with original sin, saying that Adam polluted his soul with the sin, and then passed the sin on to his children when he begot their souls from his own. "Tertullian distinguishes between the seed of the body and the "seed" of the soul and teaches that the act of generation reproduces the entire man, soul and body. Thus he speaks of a soul-producing seed which arises at once from the out-drip of the soul" (Johannes Quasten, Patrology II, 288). In Chapter XXVII of his book De Anima, Tertullian expounds that soul and body are conceived, formed and perfected simultaneously, at one and the same time. He writes there:

For although we shall allow that there are two kinds of seed--that of the body and that of the soul--we still declare that they are inseparable, and therefore contemporaneous and simultaneous in origin... The two substances, although diverse from each other, flow forth simultaneously in a united channel; and finding their way together into their appointed seed-plot, they fertilize with their combined vigour the human fruit out of their respective natures... Accordingly from the one (primeval) man comes the entire outflow and redundance of men's souls...

Tertullian asserted furthermore that the souls of parents function in the behavior of the children:

Cleanthes, too, will have it that family likeness passes from parents to their children not merely in bodily features, but in characteristics of the soul; as if it were out of a mirror of (a man's) manners, and faculties, and affections, that bodily likeness and unlikeness are caught and reflected by the soul also...The soul, therefore, is (proved to be) corporeal from this inter-communion of susceptibility.

Tertullian was wrong, of course. Parents supply the seed of the body, God brings their seed to life with the soul which He alone creates.

Lactantius, who died in the second or third decade of the fourth century , repudiated Tertullians proposal saying that bodies can produce bodies, but souls cannot produce souls. "The manner of the production of souls belongs entirely to God alone" he wrote (De opif. 19):

A question also may arise respecting this, whether the soul is produced from the father, or rather from the mother, or indeed from both... Nothing is true of these three opinions, because souls are produced neither from both nor from either. For a body may be produced from a body, since something is contributed from both; but a soul cannot be produced from souls, because nothing can depart from a slight and incomprehensible subject. Therefore the manner of the production of souls belongs entirely to God alone.

"In fine, we are all sprung from a heavenly seed, and all have that same Father," as Lucretius says. For nothing but what is mortal can be generated from mortals...

From this it is evident that souls are not given by parents, but by one and the same God and Father of all, who alone has the law and method of their birth, since He alone produces them...(The production of souls) is the work of God,--namely, the conception itself, and the moulding of the body, and the breathing in of life, and the bringing forth in safety, and whatever afterwards contributes to the preservation of man: it is His gift that we breathe, that we live, and are vigorous. For, besides that we owe it to His bounty that we are safe in body, and that He supplies us with nourishment from various sources, He also gives to man wisdom, which no earthly father can by any means give; and therefore it often happens that foolish sons are born from wise parents, and wise sons from foolish parents.

Origen(185-253) had still another idea about how we got here. Influenced by the philosophy of Plato, he theorized that souls once lived a previous life in another and celestial world where they sinned. God then punished them by banishing them from that world and imprisoning them into human bodies for purification and restoration. Each of us, so theorized Origen, lived once before and committed sins in that previous existence. Big sinners received bad bodies, not so big sinners received better ones (see De Principiis, I,5,6,7). Origens theory has no acceptance within the Church.

That God creates each soul was a doctrine of the early Church, as championed by Irenaeus, and accepted by the Magsterium and is now embodied in the Catechism.

Biological data about the beginning of human life

When two space ships approach each other in space they are not yet one unit. Each is being maneuvered to join the other. When finally the collar of one fits on that of the other, stability is not yet achieved. But when the bolts snap into place and the two ships are firmly joined into one single orbit, then space people cheer and celebrate because they have achieved their purpose.

I like to think of fertilization as the moment when sperm and ovum cease acting as separate units and fuse into a new unit as one functioning body. God's creation of a new human being cannot be something gradual. When immovable eternity inserts an action into moving or successive revolving time, it catches an instance of entrance and then rides on into revolving time. The soul is a spirit which was not, which now is, which will live on forever, or die forever apart from God in a never ending death of loneliness. The electronic microscope cannot catch sight of the spiritual soul as it enlivens the body, but it might catch the moment when a body comes to life.

The moment of human life take off

There is a remarkable instantaneous change in the ovum the very instance the sperm makes contact with it. The ovum hardens its shell and so prevents entrance of other sperm. One person wrote about seeing it happen on a TV exhibit:

Do you know, I have actually seen this happen on TV? The very instant that the FIRST sperm cell enters the egg, the egg wall turns hard and opaque. So I have seen it with my own eyes: biologically, the fertilized egg instantly knows itself to be a unique individual, and immediately asserts its rights to an unviolated integrity. Our libertarian friends who are so interested in the rights of individuals to be left alone should be keenly interested that the assertion of this right is the instantaneous first act of the fertilized ovum.

Scientists Serra and Colombo: life begins at fertilization

Geneticist Angelo Serra and bioethicist Roberto Colombo related to the Pontifical Academy of Life in February of 1997 what science currently knows about the process of human fertilization and subsequent development. In essence they inform us that fertilization marks the beginning of a new human life who is an individual person. Allow me to restate their science as found in their article "The Epigenesis of the Embryo" in the book, The Identity and Status of the Human Embryo, selected pages 150-179, Proceedings of Third Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life (Vatican City, February 14-16, 1997, Edited by Juan de Dios Vial Correa and Elio Sgreccia.

They tell us that the conception of a human being follows a pathway of several steps that occur in compulsory order.The process starts as soon as a sperm associates with the ovum in the latter's thick coat called the zona pellucida. The zona pellucida of the ovum binds the sperm tightly by means of sperm receptors, mainly ZP3 glycoprotein. Reciprocally the ovum is bound to the sperm by the sperm's binding proteins, receptors on the surface of the sperm plasma membrane. "The outer membrane of the sperm and its plasma membrane fuse at many sites. Small vesicles are released which mainly secrete acrosin. This is thought to facilitate penetration by dissolving the zona matrix, and interacting with a second glycoprotein of the zona itself, ZP2. The action of the sperm dissolves a passageway, and the receptors of the zona propel the sperm on its way to the goal. The speed is about one micron per minute. A micron is one millionth of a meter. So the sperm burrows its way through the zona by dissolving it, and the receiving ovum draws it on with its corresponding receptors. A number of sperms may be engaged in the process at the same time.

When the first spermatozoon reaches the perivitelline space between the zona pellucida and the membrane that encloses the plasma of the ovum, it can finally make direct contact with that authentic membrane of the ovum. The instant of contact triggers immediate action, a coordinate cascade of events. Microvilli and contracticle proteins - actin and mysin - of the ovum propel the sperm into the plasma of the ovum. Then the ovum slams the gate shut. Under the action of oscilline, a propagation of a calcium wave blitzes around the fertilized ovum to instantly harden its shell thereby preventing penetration by other sperms which have lost the race. The receptors of the zona pellucida which had helped the first sperm to penetrate its coat are neutralized, no longer helpful to subsequent sperms. Call it slamming the door and waving the other suitors away. Bear with me as I quote from their article:

That new cell is the zygote,the one-cell embryo:a new cellthat starts to operate as a unique system, a unit,a living being ontologically one,essentially similar - although with some peculiarities - to any other cell in the mitotic phase. One of the first activities is the cortical reaction,due to secretion of hydrolitic enzymes - such as proteinases, peroxidases and other enzymes - from the thousands of lysosome - like cortical granules, leading not only to inactivation of sperm receptors in the zona pellucida and to its hardening, but mainly to isolation and protection of the new being that initiates its own life cycle (ibid p. 151).

The above description of the process of fertilization pin-points, I suggest, the exact moment when the combined gametes come into a new life of their own. It is the moment when the sperm has passed through the thick zona pellucida, has reached the perivitellum space between the zona and the membrane containing the ovum. When sperm contacts ovum and the ovum draws it into its cell plasma, and at the same time hardens its shell to prevent entrance by additional sperms, that is the time, so I believe, when new life begins. Let us say: "When the ovum slams its doors shut, heaven swings its doors open to shine a new life into our cosmos. God descends from eternity into time to work a miracle. He enlivens the fused gametes with a soul. The newly fused unit, if the fusion is anatomically and physiologically possible, isolates itself from possible "also tried" sperms, and as we shall see shortly, protects herself from possible harm from her mother. It takes off on one continued and uninterrupted process of life through the compulsory sequence of steps of embryonic development. The moment of contact between the head of the sperm and the soft envelope of the ovum, I believe, is the moment of the beginning of a new life. Before that moment, the egg is open to the first sperm which can reach it. After that, the two work together as a unit. God, who created nature, who hides within the activities of nature, would chose this moment to create life, so I believe. Before that the ovum still works independently of the sperm, and the sperm independently of the ovum. After that historic moment there is unity. If God does not make the new unit come to life, it has no life and will be reabsorbed by the mother's tissues.

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