At the recent RH bill debate aired by ABS CBN/ ANC last May 8, a certain Dr Sylvia Claudio from the pro-RH bill panel curiously argued on the inconsistency of the Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion. She claimed that both Thomas Aquinas and Pope Gregory IX actually maintained that ensoulment took place at a later stage of the foetus, and thus abortion is permissible prior to that point as the being has not yet assumed a status of a human (somehow implying that ensoulment grants the status of being human).
Aside from the fact that science has not yet discovered the elementary aspects of embryology in the 12th century (yes 12th century and yes, Catholics do assert that science and reason are compatible with the faith), it is disingenuous for Dr Claudio (an agnostic by the way, who does not even believe in the existence of souls) to argue on the basis of ensoulment when the pro-RH side insists that religious views do not have any place in the deliberations on the RH bill. Talk about inconsistency.
At any rate, Fr Melvin Castro of CBCP responded by saying that when we talk of Church teaching, we talk about official declarations of a Magisterial nature. Certainly, although I doubt Dr Claudio – who claims she studied Catholic doctrine deeply – grasps the concept. Fr Castro went on to say that everyone knows Pope John Paul II, right? and proceeded to state key teachings on the sacredness of life in all its stages from Evangelium Vitae. Now that’s Magisterium for you, in other words OFFICIAL CHURCH TEACHING. I had to capitalize that one, just in case agnostics can not follow as well.
This talk about ensoulment triggered a small discussion in our online prolife circle. This post comprises some of my own personal inputs.
When we talk about the Magisterium, it is a basic approach to reference as a primary source none other than the Catechism of the Catholic Church. On the subject of ensoulment, this is the closest passage I have come across:
“2274 Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being”.
No specific mention of ensoulment, yet is explicit in saying that it must be treated as a person at the moment of conception. Now, personhood in Catholic theology considers a human being as animated by a spiritual soul while the same Catechism asserts that “the human person, made in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual” (362) . A simple question should follow: Is a person granted ensoulment – even at its moment of conception? My considered thought consonant with the foregoing is yes, although one can argue that treating a fertilized ovum as a person can be distinct from acknowledging that indeed ensoulment has taken place at the precise moment of conception. I wish the Magisterium was more explicit, as CDF’s Donum Vitae stated in 1987 that “The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature [of ensoulment at conception] but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion”. Note however that the revised CCC which is more emphatic, was released in 1992 – five years after Donum Vitae.
I am convinced that in spite of the absence of explicit Magisterial pronouncements declaring ensoulment at the point of conception, the weight of Scriptures along with the Church’s pronouncements on personhood and sacredness of life from the moment of conception points to an inexorable commitment towards the declaration of ensoulment at the point of conception. I believe there is no essential need for a further solemn declaration to this effect, for it is already an absolute certainty: Life is sacred in all its stages.
Anyway as I have mentioned earlier, it is disingenuous for the pro RH-bill panel to bring up the matter of ensoulment in the debates on the RH bill. As if ensoulment should be a factor that must figure in the deliberations in the proceedings, especially when the same pro side says religious bias should not be factor at all – as a democracy must embrace all religions. It is clear that Claudio just wants to attack the Catholic Church with her argument, as her issue does not have any bearing at all to factors that will weigh in legislative deliberations.
Finally here are some reactions from a priest (Fr JJ), whom we respect a lot.
Evangelium Vitae #60 of JPII says that the Church cannot be certain as to the SCIENTIFIC and EMPIRICAL moment of ensoulment as it is scientifically impossible to ascertain, because the soul is a spiritual reality. But the Church is philosophically and theologically certain that the soul begins to inhere at the moment of conception. At the very least, empirically speaking, “even the mere probability” that the soul is already present absolutely prohibits interventions that could kill the human person.
That’s the irony, even atheist and materialist who don’t even believe in the existence of a soul goes to the ensoulment argument to justify abortion. At the minimum level, we don’t have a right to kill a person just because he has a soul. I don’t have a right to kill you not because you have a soul, which even in adults is unverifiable empirically anyway. This remains a philosophical/theological/religious claim. I cannot kill you because you have life and I am not the author of life. The same minimum respect for life should be given to the newly formed and developing person who undeniably has life at the moment of conception.
Later on, Dr Claudio said something to the effect that the Catholic Church should respect the diversity of beliefs in the country. On that point she is right, although it goes without saying that one must understand those beliefs first. On the other hand that’s not quite right either. One is perhaps permitted not to understand, but one must NOT go on attack mode while pretending to understand.