Embryos are bigger than their bodies

Anthony Zimmerman
June 1, 2001
Reproduced with Permission

Embryos are indeed tiny at their inception; so tiny that the naked eye can barely see them even if the viewer knows where to look.

We were once that tiny. But we are the same person now as then, even though our bodies have reached ample proportions. Large or small, a human person is more than his body.

The Greek philosopher Plato who died about 347 BC proposed an interesting theory by which he sought to separate bodily human life from the human function of thinking. He reasoned that material bodies cannot do any thinking because matter cannot produce ideas which are immaterial and abstract. But he reasoned also that the soul which gives life to the body cannot think either, because that soul is incapable of distancing itself from matter.

Plato therefore spoke about a third faculty of man, of a "spirit" in addition to body and soul. The "spirit" was the element in man that made it possible for him to think. The soul was simply joined to the body to give it life. That would make the soul of man similar to the soul of an animal, but the "spirit" joined to the composite would be the thinking component.

Today we read about theories that a human embryo has some kind of human life at its inception, but that the personal component and identity is added later. Inserting further confusion into this do-it-yourself philosophy, the Supreme Court of the USA in its arbitrary decision of Roe v. Wade mumbled that: "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."

This protestation of feigned ignorance has become a life and death sentence for millions of children prior to their birth. For the doomed unborn children it was an act of terrorism, of an Osama bin Ladenesque decision to hi-jack medical facilities to kill babies.

Was Christ fully man from the beginning?

Plato's theory about a body, soul and "spirit" interested the heretic Nestorius before he was excommunicated by the Council of Ephesus in the year 431. In simplified terms, he theorized that the Virgin Mary gave birth to a Christ who possessed a human body and soul but not yet that third element, the "spirit." Only later, after some years, was the "spirit" added, he theorized. This Spirit was the divine Son of God, he said. The heresy of a delay in Christ's divinization is an eerie forerunner of today's scientific and philosophy heresy that we are bodies and souls for a limited time before we finally become fully human.

The heresy of Nestorius did not pass away without a struggle. He was Bishop of Constantinople, and when Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria attacked him, he counter-attacked saying that Cyril was the heretic. Mary, he said, can be named the Christotokos, because she was the mother of Christ before the Logos descended on him. It was unholy and dangerous, he warned, to call her Theotokos, since Christ was not yet God when Mary gave birth to him.

Rome heard about it, and Pope Celestine (420-432) asked for precise information. It became obvious that Nestorius was the heretic. Briefly, the Council of Ephesus as assembled and upheld the doctrine of Cyril and of Rome:

All went well that first day. The Council opened in the Church of St. Mary at Ephesus. Nestorius was offered an opportunity to appear three times, but refused. The letters of Cyril and of Pope Celestine, in which the teaching of Nestorius was condemned, were read and approved. A number of other statements taken from the writings of earlier Fathers were also read; these were offered in support of the teaching of Celestine and Cyril. Nestorius was then declared to be deposed as bishop of Constantinople and excommunicated for his heretical teaching.

The people of Ephesus celebrated this great triumph that very night. They passed through the lighted city, carrying torches and incense in honor of what had been accomplished. The truth concerning Christ and the honor due His Mother had once again been affirmed. (John L. Murphy, The General Councils of the Church, Bruce Publishing Co. 1959, p. 52).

The title Theotokos was specially dear to the citizens of Ephesus, because tradition holds that Mary lived there after she left Jerusalem. The house where she very likely spent her final days on earth is a prime tourist attraction today. With good reason the citizens of Ephesus were elated in 431when the Council confirmed that she is truly the Mother of God.

Nevertheless political and theological skirmishes continued about the nature of Christ's humanity. It was Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461) who would define and fix in precise terminology that Christ was one person in two natures, one divine from eternity, one human when born into time. His teaching was adopted at the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451. The "Dogmatic Epistle" of Pope Leo confirmed at the Council reads in part:

The uniqueness of each nature being preserved and combined in one person, humility was assumed by majesty, weakness by strength, mortality by eternity, and for the sake of paying the debt of our creation, an inviolable nature was joined to a passible nature; so that, because it was adapted to our relief, one and the same mediator of God and men, the man Jesus Christ [I Tim. 2:51 both could die by reason of the one, and could not die on account of the other.

Accordingly, in the whole and perfect nature of true man, true God was born, complete in His own, complete in ours...And just as the Word does not withdraw from the equality of the paternal glory, so His body does not abandon the nature of our race.

When the Bishops heard it they responded: "Behold the faith of the fathers, the faith of the Apostles...Thus through Leo has Peter spoken!" (Murphy, 62).

Believing that God forged the hypostatic union of one Person in two natures within a tiny embryo in the chaste womb of the Virgin Mary, we must take a different view of embryos from that of unbelievers. From the moment of His conception in a human nature, the little Embryo was none other than the Son of God united hypostatically to His human nature. If someone had killed the little Embryo, for example, to obtain embryonic stem cells, he would have killed the Son of God in His human nature. When we were embryos, we were not God, of course, as Jesus was. Yet, shall we not reflect that we were already ourselves, human persons with our individual identity stamped upon us by God? Our tiny appearance did not negate the fact that we were already there, whole and entire. We were ourselves fully launched into our life-span on earth to be followed by life forever in the next world.

In fact, the soul can even go on living apart from the body, as we will all do for a while after our bodily death. The soul can think and will while the body disintegrates to await its resurrection. As the Preface for the Christian Death states: "When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven."

How big is an embryo?

We ask, then, was our soul at the embryo stage any smaller in size than our soul is at the adult stage? Yes and no. We animate more atoms and molecules now than when we were tiny embryos, but the soul can accommodate itself to any size body, and can even live apart from the body. I suppose we would have to say that our souls elbow more living space for themselves in large bodies than they do in small, but we also have to say that our souls are whole and entire in each of our living cells. And in each microscopic somatic cell the soul animates all of its contents and parts: the double-walled container membranes, the nucleus with its DNA, the endoplasmic reticula, the mitochondrion, the Golga apparatus, the transport vesicula and digestive vesicula. And in each of these components again the soul also dwells whole and entire, in the molecules, the atoms, the positrons and electrons, the component particles of these in turn. The soul interplays there with the stronger and weaker atomic forces and magnetic forces, the same that hold together the cosmos. We must conclude, then, that the soul eludes efforts to calibrate its size by yardstick or nanometer. And the soul escapes material measurement entirely as soon as it moves from the body out of this tangible world.

For example, can we say that the soul of St. Theresa of the Little Flower of Jesus is larger in size, or smaller in size, now that she lives in heaven awaiting the resurrection of her body? Now that she is spending her heaven joyfully showering down roses upon those who pray to her?

Or Saint Peter, is he larger or smaller now in heaven than his bones which are buried beneath the altar of St. Peter's? He wields power from heaven in the affairs of this world, for the Lord employs him, as He does the other Apostles, to take care of His Church: Jesus said to them, "Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matthew 19:28).

Science: The life of an embryo is a human life

Scientists can tell the difference between the life that throbs in a human embryo from that which animates the embryo of an animal. The proteins and enzymes of the human embryo are species specific to humans alone. The body building plan of the human DNA also incorporates the plans for the human forebrain, which will be the organ for human thinking, a plan which appears to be quite ambitious for that little speck of matter which we can barely see with naked eye. No animal embryo has similar plans or ambitions to build an apparatus for thinking. Science, then, can verify by its own observations that this embryo body is a human body, not an animal body.

Scientists, however, cannot see the soul. They can see only the body which the soul animates. Neither can scientists verify the existence of thought in the human forebrain. They can only verify that the nerves there are buzzing and must be doing something which they cannot detect with the microscope. For the scientist to come to the conclusion that a spiritual soul does the thinking with the 12 billion nerves of the brain as instrument, he must do some thinking himself, apart from looking through the microscope.

The Catechism and Embryos

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes two basic points relevant to our theme:

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.

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.

The heresy of Nestorius that Christ had a human body but not a "spirit" and the contention of those today who say that an embryo is a human being from the beginning, but not yet a person, have tantalizing similarities. Against those who claim that human embryos are only potential human persons, until such time as two weeks after conception, or later still, the Catechism states forthrightly that "it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul." Science agrees that what it sees from the beginning as a human life is the starting point of a continuum of that same human life. When we deal with embryos, therefore, we deal with people. Mary is the Mother of God because the Person she bore in her womb is God whose Mother she is. An embryo is a person because God created him or her, because He animated the body with the immortal soul. One who deals with embryos, then, deals also with God who created this embryo and does not forget him or her. "Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands" (Isaiah. 49:25-16).

The second great truth articulated here in the Catechism is that God creates the soul. It is not the parents who give life to a soul, it is not the technician in the laboratory who creates a soul when he brings together sperm and ovum. No technician has ever succeeded in giving rise even to animal or plant life by fusing together non-living chemical elements. The egg and sperm come alive, become a person, precisely at the moment when God creates an immortal soul to animate the materials here assembled by parents or technician.

A relationship arises immediately, then, when a person begins to live. As Pope John Paul II told young people in Kazakstan on his recent trip: "My answer, dear young people, is simple but hugely significant...You are a thought of God, you are a heartbeat of God. To say this is like saying that you have a value that, in a sense, is infinite; that you matter to God in your completely unique individuality."

That tiny speck of the embryo's body, therefore, has an incredibly precious value, worth more than heaven and earth, because he or she is related to God. When we deal with embryos we cannot avoid dealing likewise with God, the partner to this relationship. Because God says, "Thou shalt not kill," anyone who deliberately kills this child aligns himself at opposite poles from God who created this life: "See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 18:10). The little one is not alone. Touch him or her, and you line up all of heaven in hot anger against you.

But, someone may object, do not the parents give to their child at least the sensitive life, the body, the flesh and blood of this new person, even though they do not give it "spirit," the immortal soul which God Himself creates immediately?

Let's think about that for a moment. What they provide is sperm and ovum. Do these have life? Sensitive life, perhaps, patterned on the genes of their parents? I confess that I have often wrestled with the thought. Are sperm and egg are bundles of automated chemical materials which react chemically but without life? Or are they animated temporarily by the souls of their parents, until such time as the new soul takes over? Or do they have a sensitive life of their parents, separated from the parental spiritual soul? You decide. I have not come to an answer.

At any rate, when God creates the soul, this is a human soul which animates specifically human proteins and enzymes and DNA. If there is existing life at the time when God animates the materials with a spiritual soul and personhood, the soul created by God takes over and integrates into its own life whatever life there may have been before. The soul is "one piece," not just a part of the new life.

Let us call to mind how completely the soul will control the body after our resurrection. Our bodies will be spiritualized by the soul, as the body of Christ turned subtle after His Resurrection. Christ didn't open doors but went through them when He appeared to the disciples on the evening of His Resurrection. "Peace" he said, apparently using human breath and vocal cords. "Feel my hands and my feet," He said, knowing that He was palpable. He appeared here, He appeared there, He appeared where'ere He willed. He ignored gravity and rose up at will into the sky when ascending to His Father. His human soul still animated the same body now as the one conceived in the chaste womb of His Mother Mary, but the body now glimmered with the glory of the spiritualized soul.

Each embryo awaits a resurrection of the body. The cryo-preserved embryos who now live suspended between life and death will live for eternity in a manner that God has not revealed to us. May they also enjoy life in a happy hunting ground, as the Lenape Indians awaited:

On the twelfth day the spirit leaves the earth and makes its way to the twelfth or highest heaven, the home of the Creator, where it lives indefinitely in a veritable "Happy Hunting Ground," a beautiful country where life goes on much as it does on earth, except that pain, sickness, and sorrow are unknown, and distasteful work and worry have no place; where children shall meet their parents who have gone before, and parents their children; where everything always looks new and bright. There is no sun in the Land of Spirits, but a brighter light which the Creator has provided. All people who die here, be they young or old, will look the same age there, and the blind, the cripples - anyone who has been maimed or injured - will be perfect and as good as any there. This is because the flesh only was injured, not the spirit. (See Chapter 5 of The Primeval Revelation in the web site: http://zimmerman.catholic.ac).

God has not judged it proper to reveal to us the state of the eternal lives of cryo-children. That is His secret. What is not revealed we do not know: "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to our sons forever, so that we may observe all the words of the law" (Deut. 29:29). We know that the goodness of God will not disappoint us when we do find out. Let us hope that the Good Shepherd will bring them also into His presence, despite His words: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:5).

Yes, the body of the embryo is tiny, but he or she is immense, having God as protector, being snuggled safely in the arms of His love.