Whenever I talk about or write about the six non-negotiables (I’m adding “religious liberty” to the five non-negotiables we list in our Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics, as our government forces its citizens to act contrary to a well-formed conscience), I always begin with what is the most important moral issue of our time, abortion: The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person—among which is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life (CCC 2270).
Let’s put this as simply as we can: It is almighty God who creates each and every soul of each and every human being for God’s own end; therefore, no one except God has the right to take the life of any innocent human being. As Jeremiah says: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jer. 1:5).
Again, in Psalm 139:13-14: “For you formed my inward parts, you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am wondrously made. Wonderful are your works!”
Inevitably, when debate about this issue arises at any length, the question of “ensoulment” will arise. You will hear—if you have not heared already—folks say words to the effect of: “Didn’t St. Thomas Aquinas teach that ensoulment did not take place for many days, even months, after conception?”
Indeed he did. He taught “ensoulment” occurred at forty days for a male and eighty days for the female. But, folks, this is a classic example of a red herring argument. That is, this is bringing up a point that really has nothing to do with the real issue at hand. It is designed to be a diversionary tactic.
Poor St. Thomas has been abused for many years over this, but what we have to understand is that Aquinas was simply using what was the common scientific understanding of conception in the thirteenth century. The science of the day taught that the human body was formed over time through the mixing of the semen of the male and the accretion of the female’s menstrual fluids, and “the quickening,” as it was sometimes called, or “ensoulment,” did not take place for months. The formation of the baby would pass through a vegetal stage and sentient stage before reaching a form that would be prepared sufficiently to receive a rational soul. Remember, the mammalian ovum would not be discovered until the nineteenth century. Thirteenth-century science did not know when conception really took place or, more precisely, how long it took for the body to form before “ensoulment” could take place.
We should note here that abortion was never permitted by the Church and was always considered gravely sinful, even if it were to be performed before ensoulment. At the very least, medieval Christians understood this to be an act of contraception if not the killing of an innocent human being. Thus, again, it was viewed as grave sin. The very earliest Christian documents we have all concur that abortion was always considered grave sin. Indeed, most likely the most ancient extra-biblical Christian writing that we know of is the Didache, written about A.D. 70, and it condemns abortion unequivocably.
At any rate, with the advent of modern science there is little debate as to when a human being becomes a human being. You will not find a biology textbook today that says anything other than the fact that at the moment of conception, we have a human being. We now know what conception is and when it takes place. While it is true we still do not know down to the millisecond when “ensoulment” takes place, we do know that when we detect life at the first instance of conception, at the first instance of the fertilization of the ovum, the soul is already there. There can be no human life without the human soul. The Church has in recent years developed its teaching on this matter to the point where we can say the magisterium is now teaching that the embryo possesses the dignity of a person from the moment of conception. Let’s take a look at the progression here by first examining the CDF’s Declaration on Procured Abortion, of November 18, 1974, which states:
From the time the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human life it were not human already.
The instruction from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of Feb. 22, 1987, Donum Vitae (I., 1):
The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.
This document makes very clear that, at the moment of conception, or at the moment of a human being’s existence at conception, he possesses and is a body/soul composite and should, therefore, be treated as a human person. That is a key phrase—“like a human person.”
Let us now look at Pope St. John Paul II’s great encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae of March 25, 1995:
Some people try to justify abortion by claiming that the result of conception, at least up to a certain number of days, cannot yet be considered a personal human life. But in fact, [he now quotes the 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion] “from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. This has always been clear, and … modern genetic science offers clear confirmation” (EV, 60).
John Paul clearly states we have a “personal human life” and “a new human being” at the moment of conception. Of course, this newly conceived human being is a person, because without both a soul and a body you don’t have a human being. And, according to the infallible teaching of the Council of Vienna (1312), it is the soul that is the “substantial form of the body,” which means the soul is that which makes the body a living human body, and along with the body, makes the person a living human person. From the moment of conception, then, there exists a human person with all of the essential rights—especially the right to life, I might add—that are afforded to all human persons.
Then, we have the Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II, August 15, 1997:
From the first moment of his existence, a human being must recognized as having the rights of a person—among which is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life (CCC 2270).
Notice, this says not only that the embryo should be treated “like a person,” as we saw from “Donum Vitae” of ten years earlier, but that from the first moment of its existence it possesses the rights of a person.
And now most recently, in what was a follow-up to the 1987 Instruction of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum vitae – we have Dignitas Personae – On Certain Bioethical Questions – promulgated on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Sept. 8, 2008. In this document the Church repeated and made clear the teaching of the Church with regard to the personhood of an embryo from the moment of conception. It begins by quoting Donum Vitae, using its teaching as its foundational principle and then it makes the conclusion that from the moment of conception the embryo possesses the dignity of a person. That means it’s a person folks! And that is why the document was named “Dignitas Personae” or “The Dignity of a Person.” Again, this is not just to say the embryo should be treated like a person, or even that the embryo is merely a human being; rather, it is a person. Let me quote from section 4 of “Dignitas Personae:”
It is important to recall the fundamental ethical criterion expressed in the Instruction Donum vitae in order to evaluate all moral questions which relate to procedures involving the human embryo: “[quoting Donum vitae I, 1] Thus the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say, from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from the same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.”
5. This ethical principle, which reason is capable of recognizing as true and in conformity with the natural law, should be the basis for all legislation in this area. In fact, it presupposes a truth of an ontological character-, as Donum vitae demonstrated from solid scientific evidence, regarding the continuity in development of a human being.
If Donum vitae… did not define the embryo as a person, it nonetheless did indicate that there is an intrinsic connection between the ontological dimension and the specific value of every human life. Although the presence of the spiritual soul cannot be observed experimentally, the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo give [quoting Donum vitae I, 1 again] “a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?”
(Now the document goes beyond the wording of Donum Vitae and makes a more definite conclusion, when it says) “Indeed, the reality of the human being for the entire span of life, both before and after birth, does not allow us to posit either a change in nature or a gradation in moral value [in other words, no more movement from vegetal to sensitive to a rational soul], since it possesses full anthropological and ethical status . The human embryo has, therefore, from the very beginning, the dignity proper to a person.”
This is crucial for all mankind to understand. The very principle that makes us alive at conception, the human soul, is what makes us a unified and vivified life-form. And it is what makes us, along with the body it vivifies, a human being and therefore a person. Thus, abortion at any stage of the development of a pre-born baby is not just the killing of a cell, a bunch of cells, a body, or even a soul. It is the killing of a pre-born human being… a human person.
Now some will say here: “The Church still did not say ‘the human embryo is a person.’ And that is true. However, the writing is on the wall for such a statement and the fact is, the Church seems to leave no wiggle room here for any other conclusion. If the embryo possesses the “dignitas personae,” then the embryo is a person.
But most importantly for our purpose here, the direct killing of an innocent human being, from the moment of his conception, is always and in every circumstance, gravely sinful.
Thus, no Catholic can morally support laws or politicians that ”take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of [abortion] or vote for it” (Evangelium Vitae, 73)..
Written By: Tim Staples