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Chapter IV -- 6

However, strangely enough, St Thomas’ doctrine of the human soul does not in his view imply that the full human soul comes to exist in the embryo at conception. In an astonishing development, St Thomas takes the position that the human soul does not come to exist in the embryo at the moment of conception, but in the following rather unusual way: The semen contains a ‘corporeal virtue’, which is neither the animal soul nor a part of it—this corporeal virtue could be construed by us today to be the biochemistry of the sperm and egg—which corporeal virtue leads to the generation of the vegetative soul as the form of the embryo, upon which generation the corporeal virtue dissipates with the semen. This vegetative soul later ceases to be and is replaced by the animal soul. Then, at a certain time in development, the animal soul in turn ceases to be and is replaced by the human intellectual soul. The human intellectual soul itself is created by God at that instant that it replaces the animal soul in the embryo or fœtus. St Thomas is not specific when this creation of the human intellectual soul occurs, but his position implies that the human embryo is not fully human until some time after conception.[1]

As far as we ourselves know, this position of St Thomas has never been received by the Roman Catholic Church, at least not in its obvious implications; for if it had, then, it seems to us, the Roman Catholic Church would have a much milder position on abortions early in pregnancy and on other such matters, positions which it does not in the least have. Of course, it is possible that the Roman Catholic Church formally accepts St Thomas’ reasoning on the matter but takes the moral positions it does on the basis of other reasonings, perhaps even based on other parts of St Thomas’ own work, we do not know.

Moreover, we saw in Chapter III that certain theologians in the Roman Catholic Church wish to revise the date of human conception so that it would occur at the time of implantation of the embryo into the wall of the uterus on about day 12 after fertilization, thus to open the door to abortion and other such practices forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church.[2] It seems to us that if the theologians in question were familiar with the above reasoning of St Thomas and if that reasoning were formally the position of the Roman Catholic Church without there being any other reasoning which negated its implications for bioethics, then the theologians in question would have made use of St Thomas’ model for the purposes of their argumentation. For the theologians in question argue that the embryo does not receive its (human) soul until the embryo implants itself into the uterus; until then, they say, it is merely a mass of undifferentiated cells. In Thomist terms, these theologians should be able to argue that until implantation in the uterus that mass of cells has only the corporeal virtue, or only the vegetative soul, or only the animal soul, and that the human intellectual soul has not yet been created by God. They should then be able to argue that aborting an embryo would be no more than excising a piece of tissue if it were done at the beginning of pregnancy, pulling a weed if it were done early in pregnancy, or swatting a fly if it were done somewhat later in pregnancy: for only when the human intellectual soul were created by God sometime after normal conception could the embryo be deemed fully human. Although the conceptus certainly would be from the moment of fertilization a humanly conceived embryo on its way to becoming a full human being, the theologians in question are anxious to deny it human status until the moment of its implantation in the uterus. But in their argumentation these theologians do not seem to make use of St Thomas’ doctrine of the succession of souls,[3] and this makes us wonder about the fate of this Thomist idea in Roman Catholic theology.[4]

The reader may recall from Chapter III that St Gregory of Nyssa takes the position in On the Making of Man that the complete human soul comes into existence at the instant of conception and that it is joined at that same instant to the body, but that its higher functions manifest themselves only when the body has developed sufficiently to support those functions—without for all that, St Gregory says, the entire soul not being present from the moment of conception. Thus, in St Gregory’s view, the vegetative functions of the soul manifest themselves first, then the animal functions, then the human functions, in proportion to the development of the body that allows those functions or powers to express themselves—without for all that the full human soul not being present in the embryo from the moment of conception.

It might also be remarked that the canons of the Orthodox Church, including the canons of St Basil the Great, St Gregory of Nyssa’s brother, have always forbidden abortion from the moment of conception, the position clearly being taken that the embryo is a full human being from the moment of conception. Indeed, the doctrine of St Basil the Great that the human nature of Christ was divinized from the moment of Christ’s conception depends on St Basil’s understanding that what was conceived in the womb of Mary was a full human being from the moment of its conception. If St Thomas’ doctrine were valid, at least in what it appears to say, then the doctrine of St Basil the Great would be nonsense.[5]

While we by no means have the subtlety necessary to comment on St Thomas’ thinking, it seems to us that the reason that St Thomas took the position he did on the succession of souls was that asserting that the whole human soul was created by God at the moment of conception, although its higher functions did not manifest themselves until the development of the embryo permitted, would have come into conflict with his Aristotelian metaphysics. We are not able to say with certainty what that conflict might be. It might be that because St Thomas viewed the soul to be the form of the body, then in his view it would be impossible for such a form, even a subsistent, substantial form such as the human intellectual soul, to exist as the form of a body which did not yet have that form: in other words, he might have felt it absurd to assert that the powers of the animal soul existed which conferred on the embryo the power, say, to see, before the embryo had actually developed eyes with which to see; or that the intellectual soul existed which conferred on the embryo the power to think, before the embryo actually had a sufficiently developed nervous system.[6] Perhaps a Thomist can explain the matter.

Let us note that St Thomas clearly takes the position that any subsistent form such as the human soul or an angel can only come into existence by a creative act of God, that is, by an individual act of creation.[7] Following, again, his Christianized Aristotelian metaphysics, he denies that there is any other way that such a subsistent form—that is, a form which can subsist independently of matter—can come into existence.

In Chapter III, above, we discussed St Gregory of Nyssa’s own theory that the human soul was transmitted with the male sperm at the moment of conception. We also discussed there the limitations of St Gregory’s theory, even in view of the actual practice today of cloning humans by transplanting the nucleus of a somatic cell of a donor into a denucleated, unfertilized human egg.

Curiously enough, whatever its other theoretical weaknesses, St Thomas’ doctrine of the succession of souls is more adaptable to the question of ‘parthenogenetic cloning’[8] than any other doctrine concerning the origin of the human soul at conception. For St Thomas’ notion of the ‘corporeal virtue’ could easily be adapted to the data of the molecular biology of the cloning procedure, as could his doctrine of the succession of the vegetative and animal souls followed by the creation by God of the human soul. But, apart from this ease of adaptation, St Thomas’ doctrine does not agree with the teaching of the Orthodox Church, which follows St Gregory of Nyssa’s doctrine that the whole human soul comes to exist in the conceptus at the instant of conception. Of course, in practice in the Orthodox Church, the Nyssian doctrine that the soul is transmitted with the male sperm at the moment of conception is usually replaced with the doctrine that that human soul is created by God at the moment of conception, most likely under the influence of Roman Catholic mediæval Scholastic theology. Of course, in either case, the doctrine that the human soul comes to exist at the moment of conception leaves open the question of what happens in the case of ‘parthenogenetic cloning’.

Let us also note that St Thomas and St Gregory of Nyssa both consider the male sperm sufficient for the generation of a human being (apart from that aspect in St Thomas of the creation by God of the human soul sometime after conception). St Thomas is clear, evidently following Aristotle, that the woman provides the matter for the embryo to grow.[9] It is in this sense that he interprets the passage of Genesis[10] which makes of Eve a ‘helper’ for Adam: the woman ‘helps’ the man in the process of generation of a new human being by providing the matter for the embryo to grow.[11] Of course, here we see both St Thomas and St Gregory of Nyssa to be limited by the biological knowledge of their time.

In Introduction a l’Étude de Saint Augustin,[12] on which we have relied for our understanding of St Augustine’s anthropology and psychology, we find a somewhat ambiguous presentation of St Augustine’s views on the origin of the human soul. Gilson reports that St Augustine recognized four hypotheses, concerning how God created the souls, tending to but never definitively adopting the first. These four hypotheses are:

1. When God created the first human soul, that of Adam, God created all the other souls in it once and for all. This is to be taken as the basis of a doctrine of the transmission of the soul with the sperm, such as St Gregory of Nyssa taught. However, St Gregory himself did not espouse the actual pre-existence of souls, but their virtual pre-existence through the foreknowledge of God.

2. God creates the soul of each individual expressly for him (presumably at his conception).

3. All the souls, after having pre-existed in God, are sent by him to the bodies which they must animate.

4. All the souls, after having pre-existed in God, descend voluntarily so as to animate the bodies.[13]

However, Gilson elsewhere[14] states that St Augustine taught in his commentary on Genesis that all the souls of men were created together during the six days of creation, before they were or are inserted into their bodies, which bodies are of course created at the moment of conception, or, in the case of Adam and Eve, at the moment that God made their bodies. This appears to be the basis of hypotheses 3 and 4 above.

Of course, the Fifth Ecumenical Synod, which took place after St Augustine’s death, condemned the notion of the pre-existence of souls, and hence, by extension, the notion that all the souls of men were created together in the way suggested by St Augustine. Of course, it is clear from what we have seen in Chapter III, above, that this condemnation by the Synod was set into the context of the Origenism of the epoch of the Synod, from which Origenism just as clearly St Augustine is completely free, but the decision of the Synod has always been taken in the Orthodox Church as condemning every notion of the existence of the human soul prior to the conception of the man whose soul it is. We will see in Chapter V that St John of Damascus takes the condemnation in this sense, although he does in a general way refer to Origen.

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[1] ST Ia, 118, 1 and 118, 2, ad 2.

[2] See Breck Chapter 3 pp. 130 ff.

[3] At least insofar as Breck presents their views.

[4] Breck p. 140 indicates that the notion that the human intellectual soul is infused into the human body sometime after conception is still a live issue in Roman Catholic theology.

[5] We will discuss the Orthodox doctrine of divinization (theosis) in Chapter V.

[6] Recall that in St Thomas, the mind of man makes use of bodily-based perceptual functions.

[7] ST Ia, 118, 2.

[8] What we have just described, i.e. Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT).

[9] See for example ST Ia, 118, 1, ad 4.

[10] Gen. 2, 18–24.

[11] ST Ia, 98, 2.

[12] Gilson Aug.

[13] Ibid. p. 67.

[14] Ibid. pp. 268–9.


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