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Abortion, the Church, and Thomas Aquinas

The Catholic Church has long held that the soul enters the body at the moment of conception. Actually, there have been divergent views on the matter in the past but the whole question depends on views advanced by mediaeval theologians such as Thomas Aquinas or the even earlier Augustine of Hippo.

When these men wrote it was widely thought that the future human being was prefigured in the father's semen and the mother was merely a receptacle. (This idea entailed, of course, the further idea that we must all have within us a near-infinite number of future individuals, one within the other, but these implications don't seem to have been fully worked out.)

Anyway, like a lot of other traditional assumptions, the notion of the soul entering the body at a specified moment, whether at birth or later, seems destined to become incomprehensible in the light of advancing scientific knowledge. Already human embryos containing a few animal genes are being produced for research, and the converse is also possible. But where does that leave the soul? At present embryos of this kind are destroyed after a few cell divisions, but what would happen if they were implanted and allowed to develop?

Would there then be souls which were part-human and part-animal? And if so, what would their status be? Christianity (unlike, say, Buddhism and Hinduism) has always postulated a radical gap between human beings and the rest of creation.

In fact, of course, the dilemma already exists for the Church even if the embryos are never allowed to develop, since the soul is supposed to enter the body at conception. The fertilized egg must have a soul in the test tube as soon as the sperm enters it.

The concept of the soul has already been rendered largely untenable if not downright meaningless by our increasing knowledge of the brain, but modern genetics is going to accelerate its disappearance. Not, of course, that this will have much effect, at least for a time, on how most people think about the matter. The maintenance of religious belief depends on the ability to compartmentalise one's thinking.

Note added 17 June: We don't have to invoke modern cytogenetics to invalidate the idea of soul implantation at conception; the existence of monozygotic ("identical") twins does this already. Such twins result from the splitting of a zygote after a few cell divisions. Are we to assume that the already implanted soul now splits too?

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John Floyd on :

Albert Einstein (in 1930) spoke of a higher level of religion where the question of the "soul" is irrelevant.

The first level is the religion of fear. The second level is the religion of Dogma, and the third level is that which goes beyond a anthropomorphic, personal, intervening god, and is the level where one senses the cosmos, and ones relation to that cosmos in some small way. Here there is no room for organized religion or churches, and the soul (as conceived by Christianity) is not something of concern.

Reaching this third level seems to be a permanent state from which there is seldom, if ever, conversion back to the religion of dogma. If we did not brainwash our children from the youngest age, more might get beyond their inducted church dogma to a higher level of personal awe and being within the cosmos . . . but you already know that.

billy c. on :

Anthony, luv. Have you ever sat down with Thomas and read him in Latin? I have. He didn't espouse the notion that a HUMAN soul is present at conception. There were, in his view, stages. A mineral soul. A vegetable soul. An animal soul. And finally a human soul. I was shocked. It not only was like Aquinas was aware of evolution centuries before Darwin, but also as though he thought each of us repeats evolution all over again before we get our butts spanked and gasp our first breath. You may suspect, as I do, that Thomas, medieval as he was, would probably be pro-choice. A soul of course is only an interesting concept, at least a first, of an aging Greek man named Plato. To Thomas it meant that which makes a thing what it is. I've always wondered whether Thomas had some scientific basis for his views, especially as he was taught by Albertus Magnus. Toodle-doo.

Anthony Campbell on :

I haven't read him in Latin. But I don't think that Thomas had any sort of premonition of Darwinian evolution. What he was talking about was the Great Chain of Being, which is a very unscientific concept.

The quadripartite scheme (mineral, vegetable, animal, human) derives from Aristotle and was widely adopted in the Middle Ages, and not only in Christianity. The Sufi mystical poet Jalal-al-Din Rumi says that he died as a mineral and was reborn as a vegetable; he died as a vegetable and was reborn as an animal; he died as an animal and was reborn as a man, so why should he fear to die as a man, since he would be reborn on a higher plane.

Jim Mellett on :

Hi people- I just discovered this site, and enjoyed the detailed, knowledgeable discussions. I'm preparing a response to a New York Times Sunday Magazine article (20 Dec 2009) on the rise of Aristotelean-Thomistic Catholicism and its influence on politics in the US. I am a retired geology prof, and am passionate about evolutionary biology. I am also appalled by the complete absence of reality in discussions about abortion and contraception.

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