Radiant Beams from the Gospel of Life

Chapter Six: When Does God Create a Person?

Evangelium Vitae describes God's work of creating a new human being endearingly in #43, perhaps more so than any previous document of the Magisterium has done. Pope John Paul II, who is both poet and philosopher, put his talents to good use here by the composing these inspiring passages. For example:

When a new person is born of the conjugal union of the two, he brings with him into the world a particular image and likeness of God Himself. The genealogy of the person is inscribed in the very biology of generation....

God himself is present in human fatherhood and motherhood quite differently than he is present in all other instances of begetting "on earth." Indeed, God alone is the source of that "image and likeness" which is proper to the human being, as it was received at creation. Begetting is the continuing of creation.

In procreation therefore, through the communication of life from parents to child, God's own image and likeness is transmitted, thanks to the creation of the immortal soul... Thus, a man and woman joined in matrimony become partners in a divine undertaking.

Michelangelo infused the wet plaster above the Sistine Chapel with his magnificent impression of Adam's creation. God, Ancient of Days, with flowing white hair and beard, supported by heavenly beings in midair, rivets intense attention upon the work He is doing. The company of angels do likewise. Some of them appear to be inquisitive, others astounded, another a bit suspicious and jealous, and a cherub turns away as though unable to comprehend. God has them all there to witness what He is doing, and to introduce them to the new relationship between heaven and earth just now beginning.

God's piercing eyes ionize the space between Himself and Adam; the powerful glance beckons Adam to come forth from the abyss of nothing. God's countenance is kindly, the lips expressing satisfaction. With index finger transmitting a charge of creative power, He draws a massive Adam into living reality.

Adam, just come alive, has a face fixed with questioning and wonder. He looks at God, half comprehending, fully devoted, in an attitude of utter initial dependence. His attitude is relational, intent upon the Person opposite himself. The great mystery of human life has awakened on the earth for the first time.

Adam's body is a living soul, not as though a soul had been inserted into it from outside. He lives his body. Michelangelo did not brush a superficial coating of paint over a hard surface; he insinuated his pigments deeply into the wet plaster so that color became plaster - somewhat as Adam's soul has become an informed body.

In Genesis 1:26 we learn that God contemplated His own nature as the model from which to produce an Adam: "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness." The Bible, sputtering here with limping grammar which cannot express all it intends to say, hastens to add that the image is both male and female:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them (Gen 1:27).

"Him" and "man" in the passage become a "them." The convoluted sentence of the Bible strains to tell us that God views male and female together, not apart from each other, as His image and likeness. If He decides to create one, He creates the other also to complete a balanced image. The two fit together - male and female; the two-in-one flesh is one image of God.

Significantly, the Bible uses two words to depict the human resemblance of God: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Gen 1:26). The word "image" (selem) specifies a physical form. Whereas the word "likeness" (demut) has a more diffuse meaning, referring more easily to a resemblance to God in spirit and life (see Martin, p. 245). Had the Bible not used the two words together, some readers might be influenced to think of God as a physical form, either male or female. The two words tell us that He is everything that male and female are and much more, in the sublime uncreated glory of the Trinity.

And when God fashions a created image of Himself, He does so with care and with love. As a woman looks into a mirror and beautifies her face, so God looks at His created image to make it like Himself.

When Does God Create the Soul?

Platonists asserted that souls are spiritual and immortal; they were not, according to this view, created by God at all, but had existed from eternity; they became imprisoned into bodies and "are united to bodies at one time and separated at another, these vicissitudes following a fixed cyclical pattern through set periods of years" (Aquinas in Summa Contra Gentiles II, 83, 6, referring to Plato, Timaeus and elsewhere).

Origen (185?-254?), on the other hand, asserted that God alone is eternal without a beginning, whereas souls do have a beginning. God, he wrongly surmised, created the spiritual souls before He created our visible world. They did evil. After God then created the rest of the universe, He chained them into human bodies in punishment (see Aquinas, loc. cit. 7). Origen asserted that these souls were united to human bodies by God's decree "as a punishment. For Origen thought that souls had sinned before bodies existed, and that according to the gravity of their sin, souls were shut up in bodies of higher or lower character, as in so many prisons" (Aquinas, loc. cit. 21).

Pre-Buddhist traditions in India told about repeated transmigrations of souls, from one dreary life into another, whether animal or human. This esoteric fiction was then absorbed into teachings of Buddhism which has become one of the great world religions.

Tertullian (155-c.220), a professional lawyer in the early Church, had still another idea: parents transmit their souls to their children by generation, he pontificated. His theory of Traducianism that parents beget the souls of their children as well as their bodies was never accepted by the Church. The truth is that God creates each human soul directly and immediately, by His own hand. Parents present the gametes, as we know, but God creates the new person.

All of these missed the very comforting truth that God creates each soul personally when He enlivens a human body, much as Michelangelo pictured God creating Adam, soul and body, in the fresco of the Sistine Chapel. Souls do not exist anywhere before they are outfitted with bodies, neither in heaven nor on earth nor even in the bosom of the divinity. God acts anew with divine power each time He creates another person in a human body. As The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

366 The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God - 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.

But when does God create the new soul? When does He infuse into the gametes presented by the parents a spiritual person who will live forever? The gametes would wilt and be absorbed if God would not, at some point, use them as building blocks to form a new child; if He would not employ them as blue prints in the form of chromosomes and genes which the soul takes under its management to build the new body.

I once asked the late geneticist Dr. Jerome LeJeune at which point God creates the soul; is it at the moment of fertilization, or perhaps at the first division of cells, or a week later at nidation? He already knew what I expected him to say, namely that it is at the time of fertilization. But he winked instead and said: "I have no white telephone to ask God about that." Then he affirmed that from the first instant of the beginning of a new human life the development is unidirectional, sequential, smooth, consistent, without a crimp which might suggest that something new was added after life's take-off. Whatever occurs later in the sequences of development is already prepared earlier, once the single new life began. In other words, science has no data which should lead one to believe that God does not create the new person at the moment of the beginning of the new life process.

At What Stage Does a New Human Life Begin?

And when does that moment of take-off of the new life process occur? We are learning more and more about fertilization in humans and the detonation point of new life. Helen Watt, Ph.D., Research Fellow, Linacre Center for Health Care Ethics, London, points out that a new living being does not start piece by piece, but altogether in one piece:

An organism is a living whole, as opposed to a living part, and for this reason cannot come into existence by degrees. With regard to syngamy, it is not easy to link the appearance of such a living whole with any stage in the lining-up of the chromosomes present in the cell since the entry of the sperm [into the ovum] (Watt, p. 37).

In other words, what was before not a single functioning organism but two separate gametes, begins suddenly and entirely to function as one organism. She finds no evidence that this happens during the lining-up activities of the 23 chromosomes from the sperm with the 23 of the ovum. The lining-up of the chromosomes for the first cell division occurs about 20 hours after the sperm has penetrated the ovum. She indicates that the uni-function of the new organism begins before that. When?

Once the sperm has penetrated through the zona pellucida, the white envelope of the ovum, to enter into the ovum proper, the nucleus of the sperm and the nucleus of the ovum dissolve their nuclear envelopes and expose their contents to each other for mutual coordination as pro-nuclei; they are now within the one cell membrane of the ovum. Perhaps that is our precious moment:

The male and female pronuclei work within one cell for the common ends; for the good of one organism... The formation and activity of the two pronuclei, together with the previous signs of activation, are indications that the cell is working as a living whole geared toward further development.

Moreover, whether or not a living whole comes into being on completion of sperm entry, it is not possible to claim that the sperm remains identifiable on completion of sperm entry. For during sperm entry, the sperm is broken up, not simply enveloped by the ovum... The male pronucleus forms from the nucleus of the sperm. The sperm cannot be identified with its contents. Even should we want to deny that the contents of the sperm turn at once into parts of a new living entity, we must acknowledge that the sperm has been dismantled in delivering material to the ovum (Watt, pp. 37-38).

She thus locates a point of discontinuity between the former separate lives of the two gametes and the new single life of one cell. The transition occurs when sperm enters ovum and both their nuclei decompose their container package of the nuclear envelopes. Thus they expose their genetic materials to each other for mutual interaction. This is the point of take-off of single cell action. When that happens - when the former two cells lose their former identity and begin to coordinate as one functioning cell - that is likely to be the critical moment when a human life begins.

It takes about twenty hours of mutual interaction between the genetic contents of the gametes to arrive at the point of the first cell division; the 46 chromosomes - 23 pairs - line up at the equator of the new cell and replicate mirror images. The polar spindles then draw them apart, and new cell walls enclose the entities into two cells. At this first division of the initial fertilized cell into two cells, the new person has likely been alive for 20 hours already. We cannot see with a microscope whether it is a soul which animates the cytoplasm of the new cell initially, because the microscope has no perception to identify a spiritual substance. But we have no plausible reason to suppose that God does not create a new person when sperm and ovum begin a new life together.

In non-scientific terms we may express it as follows. A sperm knocks at the door of an ovum saying: "May I enter?" Finding the door open he enters without waiting for an answer. She quickly slams the door to prevent any other sperm from entering. They unveil themselves and join hands. They exchange wedding rings. The two dance the dance of the genes, settling questions about which genes should be dominant, which should be recessive. After about 20 hours the chromosomes gather their DNA into formed ranks again, line up at the equator, and replicate into two cells; then into 3 temporarily; then into 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128 as the embryo makes its way down the fallopian tube to burrow into the waiting and well prepared endometrium of the uterus. There he or she develops the entire body which will have finally over 75 trillion cells, 25 trillions of which are blood cells (cf. Benedict Ashley in Theologies of the Body, p. 28..

At any rate, I believe it is logical to conclude that our personal life began when the gametes of our parents opened their nuclei to each other and joined them selves into one single cell. I find it less credible to suppose that God created us at some point later of the biological sequences; for example at the time of the first cell division, or at successful nidation; or even later at the appearance of the initial primitive streak some 14 days after fertilization; or at the time of formation of the brain. At all events, the entire process is in God's hands from the beginning until the - I cannot say "the end" because there is no end; once God created us we live forever.

We treat His work with reverence. We dare not disturb and kill the body which God brings into life; whether He brings it into life at the time of fertilization, or whether He intends to bring it to life at a later point of the on-going biological sequences. What God has already done, or has in mind to do, we dare not slap out of His hands.

Pope John Paul II referred, in Evangelium Vitae #63, to the well known teaching of the Church that it was unethical to induce in vitro fertilization for any reason whatsoever:

The moral condemnation also regards procedures that exploit living human embryos and fetuses - sometimes specifically "produced" for this purpose by in vitro fertilization - either to be used as "biological material" or as providers of organs or tissue for transplants in the treatment of certain diseases. The killing of innocent human creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act.

Thomas Aquinas on Delayed Ensoulment

Because some moral theologians appeal to St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) to support a theory of delayed animation of the embryo and fetus, we do well to look at his writings in proper context. He was influenced by the biological notions of Aristotle (388-324 BC), the great Greek philosopher, who had taught that "during the time in which the fetus is an animal and not a man, it has a sensitive and not an intellective soul" (De Generatione Animalium, II, 3; quoted by Aquinas in Summa Contra Gentiles II, 88,3). Because the fetus does not yet have a brain for thinking, goes this logic, therefore it does not yet have the spiritual soul which needs a brain to function intellectually.

Since the soul is united to the body as its form, it is united only to a body of which it is properly the act. Now, a soul is "the act of an organic body" (Aristotle, De anima, II,1). Prior to the organization of the body, therefore, the soul is not in the semen actually, but only potentially or virtually (Summa Contra Gentiles, II, 89, 3)...

Moreover, as Aristotle teaches in the De generatione animalium (II,3), the fetus is an animal before becoming a man. But during the time in which the fetus is an animal and not a man, it has a sensitive and not an intellective soul... (op. cit. 88,3).

The vegetative soul, which is present first (when the embryo lives the life of a plant), perishes, and is succeeded by a more perfect soul, both nutritive and sensitive in character, and then the embryo lives an animal life; and when this passes away it is succeeded by the rational soul introduced from without, while the preceding souls existed in virtue of the semen (89,11).

The sensitive soul by which it was an animal does not remain, but is succeeded by a soul both sensitive and intellective in character, by which it is at once animal and man, as we have already made clear (89,13).

Aquinas goes on to explain why God cooperates in creating humans even if the pregnancy is the result of adultery: "For it is not the nature of adulterers that is evil, but their will, and the action deriving from their seminal power is natural, not voluntary (89,16).

In the Summa Theologica Aquinas sums up neatly his concept that in humans there is first a vegetative soul, which is then replaced by a sensitive (animal) soul; finally God creates the spiritual soul which replaces the forerunners:

We conclude, therefore, that the intellectual soul is created by God at the end of human generation, and this soul is at the same time sensitive and nutritive, the pre-existing forms being corrupted (I, 118, 2).

Having followed the reasoning of Aquinas here, who accepted the biology of Aristotle, we ought to do him the favor which Shem and Japheth did to their father Noah: "But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father's nakedness" (Gen 9:23). Noah didn't know the strength of the wine, and Aquinas didn't know the biology which Jerome Lejeune and other geneticists know.

What would Aquinas say today, knowing that from the time of fertilization the single cell embryo has in it the complete program to develop his or her brain? He had reasoned that God creates the spiritual soul when the body has the organs proper for intellectual functions. Yet Aquinas reasoned that the soul was created in the fetus, although the brain was obviously not yet fully developed for intellectual operations. By this logic, I believe, he would reason today that the soul is created in the first cell at the time of fertilization, when it has a program to develop the brain.

Such is the view of Agneta Sutton (p. 72) who follows Stephen Heany in this assessment: "On a 20th century Thomist understanding, the rational soul required for embryo-genesis must inhere in the conceptus itself; there is no other possibility" (Sutton 72, quoting Heany). We can agree with this. We logically assume that had Aquinas known that the initial cell was already equal to the task of building the brain, he would have changed his conclusions to adjust them to modern scientific data rather than adhering to the outdated biology of Aristotle.

God Creates the Individual Soul Straightaway

God creates our souls by direct and immediate action, out of nothing: "God alone brings the human soul into being" (Summa contra Gentiles, 87,1). He does not create them beforehand, in the work shop of heaven, but here and now in the gametes provided by our parents. Exercising almighty power He declares: "Let us make THIS man in our image, in our likeness" (cf. Gen 1:26). And that is how we come into being. He apparently does no violence to the gametes which the parents had provided, which are poised to work in coordination as one organism. For the soul which He personally creates animates these presented organic substances and patterns as they are arranged, without dealing them into another set which is not inherited from the parents, the grandparents, and all the ancestors going all the way back to Adam and Eve. The soul makes THESE genes in this already pre-arranged set of chromosomes come to new life, to resurrect them now into a living person. Sperm and ovum alike had been readied for the transition into one single new organism to be created by God. At this point of time, when God personally intervenes in human reproduction, there is another beginning, another exercise of divine power, similar to that which Genesis describes:

Darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, "Let there be light;" and there was light (Gen 1:1-3).

In our beginning, God spoke: "Let there be life." Or, more precisely, "Let there be THIS life." He creates it in the initial single cell which is already genetically patterned to format the entire body-build which is to follow; into its construction units of 100,000 genes, of which scientists have identified and located about 2000" (Gormally, p. 27). The three billion nucleotides (building blocks within the genes referred to as A,T,C and G) into which God breathes the life-giving soul, identify this individual unmistakably from any other who has ever lived before or will ever live hereafter: "Any two human beings will differ on the average in about 600,000 nucleotides" (Gormally 27, quoting R.C. Lewontin). There will never be a duplicate.

When we say that God creates the soul, we mean that He makes it out of nothing. He does not project part of Himself into the new person, although some people have thought so. Some have argued that God puts something of Himself into man in order to give him life, using this text of Genesis 1:26: "God formed man of the slime of the earth; and breathed into his face the breath of life." Aquinas argues that God very evidently does not make us become parts of His uncreated life, because we all have defects and limitations, whereas these are not in God. He writes:

And, indeed, Scripture implies this in saying that man was made "to the image" of God. And this "breathing" of which Genesis speaks signifies the pouring forth of life from God into man according to a certain likeness, and not according to unity of substance. So, too, "the spirit of life" is said to have been "breathed into his face," for, since the organs of several senses are located in this part of the body, life is more palpably manifested in the face. God, therefore, is said to have breathed the spirit into man's face, because He gave man the spirit of life, but not by detaching it from His own substance. For he who literally breathes into the face of someone - and this bodily breathing is evidently the source of the Scriptural metaphor - blows air into his face, but does not infuse part of his substance into him (Summa Contra Gentiles, II, 85, 15).

When God has already created a new life, then it is surely an "abominable crime" to kill that persons's body by abortion. Equally abominable is the crime of destroying the preparatory materials in which God is about to create life. Let us suppose without agreeing, that God does not create a person at the time of fertilization but later. A comparison may help us.

Abortion might be compared to an imaginary crime of a terrorist bombing the fresco of Adam in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Horrible, we would say, condemning the crime. But equally criminal would it have been had someone destroyed Michelangelo's preparatory materials while his masterpiece was in the making. For example, if Michelangelo had spread his plaster in place, traced the sketch of Adam into it, mixed his paints, and taken brush in hand; if someone had then climbed the scaffolding, had knocked the brush from Michelangelo's hand, overturned the paint buckets, and scraped off the plaster. The world might never have learned about it, nor would it ever have seen this masterpiece. But preventing Michelangelo from painting his masterpiece would have been a blow to all humankind. Even so, killing what God has created, or what He intends to create, is criminal. Is an insult against God, is a loss for humanity. Let no one slap out of God's hands the model of THIS life which He intends to create in the materials the parents have provided. We dare not insult God in this manner. And if we have done so, wittingly or unwittingly, let us ask His forgiveness through the merits of Christ.

Precious is the life which God entrusts to parents. God demonstrates His esteem for the human dignity of fathers and mothers in a complimentary manner, when He asks them to care for the life He created. As William G. White, M.D. writes so well:

Human fatherhood is bestowed by God the Father. Every child is God's child first, then his father's and mother's. A human man and woman, in an act of love for each other, provide the conditions which are necessary for the creation of a child - but they do not create the child; God does. Even when they violate His law, when they have intercourse outside of marriage, when their act is not an act of love: if a child is created it is God who creates him, and He creates him because He loves him. Even when their act is an act of exploitation, even when it is an act of hatred, brutality, rape; if a child is created, it is God who creates him, and He creates him in love. God is every child's Father before his human father is his father. In a sense, we are all, like St. Joseph, merely foster fathers (White, p. 11).

We close with a final word from the Pope which reveals his esteem for the vocation of marriage and parenthood:

It is precisely in their role as co-workers with God who transmits His image to the new creature that we see the greatness of couples who are ready "to cooperate with the love of the Creator and the Savior, who through them will enlarge and enrich his own family day by day" (Gaudium et Spes 50). This is why the Bishop Amphilochius extolled "holy matrimony, chosen and elevated above all other earthly gifts" as "the begetter of humanity, the creator of images of God" (#43).

Next Page: Chapter 7: Overpopulation and Natural Family Planning
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