Some Thoughts Based Upon a Reading from Lombard’s Sentences

Until modern times, when science has demonstrated the way a child is formed in the womb, there were many debates as to when a foetus was said to be ensouled. Since the classical understanding of the soul is that it is an animating principle, the general answer was that a foetus was said to be ensouled when it was formed in a way that it resembled the human form and that it was moving in the womb. Until that point, which was generally assumed to happen around forty days after conception, the flesh was believed to be taken up by the woman’s body and formed so as to receive the soul sent to it by God. Questions about abortion, such as whether or not aborted foetuses would be brought back to life at the resurrection of the dead, were answered according to this assumption. If there were no life, no soul, there is nothing to raise; but once the soul was in place, the child would be raised from the dead, like everyone else. Let us look at this typical presentation of the matter:

From: Peter Lombard, The Sentences: Book 4. trans. Giulio Silano (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2010), 243-4( Dist. XLIV, c.8).

ON ABORTED FOETUSES AND MONSTERS. It is also necessary to inquire whether aborted foetuses and monsters will rise again, and what they will be like.

AUGUSTINE, IN THE ENCHIRIDION: Regarding this, Augustine speaks as follows: “A question arises about aborted foetuses, which have already been born in their mother’s wombs, but not in such a way that they can now be born again. For if we should say that these are to rise again, what we say can be accepted as to those which are already formed. But who is not more disposed to think that they unformed ones perish, like seeds that were not conceived?”[1] — PAY ATTENTION! “It may be very carefully asked and disputed by learned men, when a human person begins to live in the womb and whether life exists in a hidden way which is not yet manifest from the movements of a living being. It seems too exceedingly shameless to deny that those pregnancies had been alive which were cut out limb by limb, lest, if they were left dead in the wombs, the mothers should die too. From the time then that a person begins to live, from that same time he is already able to die. And if he is dead, wherever death may come upon him, I cannot discover how he can be denied a part in the resurrection.”[2]

HERE ON MONSTERS “Now shall we deny that monsters, which are born alive, however quickly they may die, will rise again, and we must believe that they will not rise again in their deformity, but rather with a corrected and perfected nature. (ON CONJOINED TWINS.) A man with two sets of limbs was recently born in the East, of whom an account was brought by most faithful brethren who had seen him, — an account which Saint Jerome left in writing.[3] Far be it from us to think that one man with two sets of limbs shall rise again, and not two distinct men, as would have happened, if twins had been born. So also other births, which, because of their great deformity, are called monsters, shall at the resurrection be restored to the normal human form.” [4]

There are many interesting things in this text, though we will only look at a couple of them.

First, we see that St. Augustine’s opinions were used to generate the normative medieval answer to this question. St. Augustine suggests that, until the time, of ensoulment, the embryo is not alive and therefore will not have a share in the resurrection. His idea should make modern Catholics uncomfortable. It is because, unlike what many think, this uncertainty remains an acceptable position (with many caveats, to be sure). If some of the greatest Catholic minds can be uncertain as to when human life begins, we should not be surprised that others, who are far less holy, far less educated in matters of faith, will also not know what to think of this matter. We are often quick to judge them for their ignorance – yet, in an empirical age such as ours, we should not be surprised that metaphysical questions remain ineffable for the ordinary person. This also points out that, until recent times, the Church’s answer to this question was one of uncertainty, and so we should treat others with charity if they remain uncertain. Indeed, it is quite clear, this tradition influences many people within the Church today. We should at least recognize that they struggle with a question which has been raised since before the advent of Christ, and treat them with charity rather than contempt. Now, to be sure, if one understood the principle of the soul as being the animating force of the person, then when we see self-movement (such as cellular growth and division), it makes sense to believe that the person is alive. But then one could question whether or not the soul of the human evolves as the embryo develops, so that, just as in evolution, so in the womb, we see a creature slowly developing into a human and becoming human at some point when God grants the soul human rationality. I do not find this argument persuasive, because I believe that this is too dualist an approach between body and soul, but it is a metaphysical question which appears to allow different answers depending upon philosophical presuppositions, and we should consider this the modern equivalent of the Augustinian uncertainty.  Bringing up the immaculate conception also does not reveal an answer to this question: the immaculate conception tells us about Mary’s purity, which is tied to her conception, but it does not tell us when the human soul of Mary was placed into the embryo; tradition has long understood that the flesh of Mary was special, was itself cleansed from all impurity, and this could have been done with or without the soul dwelling in the flesh. Of course, I do not believe this is the case, because, again, this requires a dualistic understanding of body and soul, one which believes them to be imperfectly joined together instead of forming one essential unity.

Secondly, there is a vague discussion about abortion, about cutting up the foetus limb from limb, for the sake of the mother’s health. There are two ways one could read this text. The first, and most orthodox, would be to say this is about a child which lived and died in the womb: it needed to be taken out lest it caused the woman’s death. However, this is not exactly clear. One could read it as indicating that abortion could have been done for the sake of the mother’s health, and that the child itself was required to be taken out for the sake her life. The method for this would have been brutal, because of the limited medical technology of the time. In either case, Augustine is clear that we are talking about a child which has received its soul, and he says these children will indeed be raised in the eschaton. If one reads it as a discussion of abortion done for the sake of the mother’s health, this does not mean, however, it is approved, nor does it indicate what exactly Augustine thought should be done for those who practice such abortions. His interest lay in the fact that such foetuses will partake of the resurrection, and will be properly formed in the eschaton. Deformity, whether in the womb, or outside, when it leads to death will be something which is healed in the resurrection. Deformity is an accidental, secondary quality. Depending upon the nature of the deformity, of course, the way it is healed will differ: thus, conjoined twins do not have to be seen as conjoined in eternity, though of course, one could suggest their physical union leads to an intimate spiritual communion, and this spiritual communion will remain.

The point of this exploration is to admit that there are difficult questions when it comes to life, and when human life begins, and how we are to understand the human person. What exactly is human life? When does it begin? What qualities of the human person, as they exist in history, will be found in eternity? Even if one has good reasons for their own answers to these questions, that some of the greatest minds of the Church recognized them as important and worthy of consideration via scholastic inquiry, should again allow us to deal with the issue the same way. This is not to say we need to ignore our views of life. Even if one were to come to accept a late ensoulment, this does not mean one can therefore approve of abortion: indeed, even when the majority of the Church considered it probable that the soul was given to the foetus weeks after conception, they did not approve of abortion. We must therefore not entirely confuse the two issues. Though they are related, if we base our argument on the time of ensoulment, in a world where there is no belief in souls, such arguments will fail. Rather, we must look back to the tradition and see why abortion, even if there was no soul in the child, was rejected. We must remember how the Church is to go to people where they are at, with their own presuppositions; focusing on when a child is ensouled requires presupposition which many in an empically-minded world do not believe.

[1] Augustine, Enchiridion, c85.

[2] Ibid., c86.

[3] Jerome, Epistola 72 (ad Vitalem), n2.

[4] Augustine, Enchiridion, c.109.

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  • John C. Médaille

    The faith does not depend on the opinions of this or that learned man, no matter how learned or saintly he might be, but on the ordinary magisterium, which has long since put this question to rest. And one must keep in mind the state of biology at the time, which separated conception from “ensoulment.” The former was a natural process, the later a supernatural one. That is not how the Church views it today.

    • Henry Karlson


      No, the answer to ensoulment has not been answered. The fact that there is a common belief by many today does not make it an answer (1000 years ago, one could have said the ordinary Magisterium believed ensoulment happened at 40 days after conception, but that too would not be correct). The Church has not given an official, definitive answer. There are good reasons as to believe it happens at conception, based upon what a soul is and what we know happens at conception, but again, our response against abortion does not depend upon ensoulment. That is a part of the point.

    • David Nickol

      From the Catechism:

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

      I take immediately to mean “directly,” not “as soon as possible.” And this clearly means the creation of the soul is a supernatural process.

      • Henry Karlson


        That paragraph is, to be sure, quite vague, and “immediately” can mean different things. Indeed, one difficulty is this: for God, whose existence is in eternity, what does “immediate” mean? I think your “directly” is a good interpretation, especially because the “immediately by God” is used in contrast to the parent.

        I would point to this document, where it says “The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion. ” Again my point.

        • David Nickol

          Does God create souls for embryos produced by in vitro fertilization? Will God create souls for human clones? If creating a soul is a direct act of God, why would he be bound to create a soul when human beings do something they ought not do (according to the Church)?

          It seems to me that the idea of souls as things that can exist separately from bodies is a problem, but it seems hard to get away from it in Catholic thought.

          • Henry Karlson


            Well, my answer is as I indicated in my post: self-movement indicates soul, and so I would see souls in such conditions as well. God has given us a means in which to participate in creation, and this goes a long way, and even allows for abuse. Hence, rape can still produce children. The way we co-create with God has become better known, allowing for more power over it, and therefore, more abuse. As for souls apart from bodies: they are a problem, because they were not meant to be. However, this breach and self-destruction comes comes from sin. The resurrection points that the problem is, however, solved in the eschaton.

  • Pentimento

    I fear that it’s become both irrelevant and disingenuous to cite Augustine and his contemporaries on the issues of abortion and “ensoulment,” in the interest of meeting people “where they are” in their assessment of nascent human life. Augustine could not have known, as we do, that the fetus’s heartbeat is detected at twelve days’ gestation. Since heartbeat equals life, and life equals soul, we must now set aside St. Augustine as an authority on these matters, and accept that “ensoulment” takes place far earlier than guessed at in the patristic era.

    It should be born in mind, too, that pregnancy is almost never detected as early as twelve days’ gestation. In other words, ensoulment can be thought of as coincident with conception, at least for practical purposes. In other words, by the time you know you’re pregnant, the fetus is a living being, which presupposes the existence of its soul. Thanks to advances in medical and ultrasound technology, no one can say in good faith that a fetus isn’t alive, isn’t a person, or doesn’t have a soul after twelve days, which makes moot the idea that other arguments or points of view are tenable in the matter of when life begins.

    Incidentally, abortion was widely practiced in the Roman Empire, and the fact that Christians eschewed it was one thing that set them most noticeably apart from the pagans.

    • Henry Karlson

      Pointing to them helps indicate that the question is one which the Church has addressed for quite some time. We need to be honest with ourselves and our tradition, even if it is not always good for apologetics. Moreover, as I pointed out, the Church still does not define the time of ensoulment, nor does it think it needs to in order to speak out against abortion.

      Moreover, these thoughts are based upon my reading of the Sentences; I just got a copy and read Book 4, so it led me to reconsider this discussion. Knowing that the Church does not (as some think) define when ensoulment takes place, I found it important to look at consider what is being said in one of the most influential writings of the scholastic era. It is not something to be just thrown under the rug — even if people think they know when ensoulment happens, the discussion goes further than that and its points transcend the metaphysics of ensoulment. The modern world often does not know the soul — the Church says we don’t need to know when the soul is placed in the embryo to reject abortion. That tells me we can meet the world without discussions of soul. That is valuable, even if we can go further beyond it after we get through the initial discussion.

      • Kyle Cupp

        The possibility of ensoulment at conception may give further reason against abortion, but as Henry says, the existence of the soul period isn’t necessary to make a case (either moral or legal) against abortion. One can oppose abortion without believing in the existence of the soul if one recognizes or concludes that the distinct, living being in the womb deserves the same respect and legal protections we give to us born human beings.

    • David Nickol

      In other words, ensoulment can be thought of as coincident with conception, at least for practical purposes.

      For abortion, possibly. For embryonic stem-cell research, not so much if at all.

  • phosphorious

    Since heartbeat equals life, and life equals soul, we must now set aside St. Augustine as an authority on these matters, and accept that “ensoulment” takes place far earlier than guessed at in the patristic era.

    This is the grossest simplification I have ever heard.

    No one who is not a Catholic has to take that argument seriously, do they?

    • Henry Karlson

      It would also then raise the question of whether or not there is no life before the first heartbeat, which of course, is long after conception (22 days?). Of course, even then the question remains — can there be a heartbeat without a soul being given to the embryo? Since we can see heartbeats being done on machines with hearts removed from the body, those who want to challenge the soul’s connection to the heart can point to those. Obviously, those who hold on to the soul’s connection to relics might suggest the soul continues to have an influence in such a mechanically beating heart — but as one can tell, this goes on further and further into dark corridors which do not really help us deal with the question of abortion (even if one believes in the connection between the soul and relics, as I do).

      While I think these questions are valuable, within the proper sphere of discussion (intra-Catholic discussions), I agree with you that for the non-Catholic secularist, this kind of discussion is not going to be convincing. It is for this reason I think recognizing the difficulty Catholic thought has had with this issue, being honest about it, showing how it dealt with the question of abortion separate from ensoulment, and how this discussion developed through history, all together will be more beneficial and helpful because it will show us a path of progression in our own discussion with non-Catholics as well. We can learn from the past, and I think we should, before the quick dismissal of it.

    • David Nickol

      If you accept that someone who is declared brain dead is truly dead, and if death is defined as the soul having left the body, then a brain dead individual is someone with a beating heart but no soul.

      It seems to me there is no way whatsoever to determine the moment of ensoulment (if such a thing exists). Also, monkeys, cows, or giraffes have heart beats, but we do not think of them as having souls. (I believe there is a concept of an animal soul, but to the best of my knowledge it’s a philosophical concept, and not a “thing,” as the human soul is . . . sort of.)

      • Henry Karlson


        Yes, animals have souls — Catholic teaching has always said this. Though the general tradition is to define them as mortal vs immortal souls. I have a difficulty with this, and think it went too much in accepting a side on the pagan debate on souls which I disagree with, but one can still say their souls are distinct from ours.

        Still, one can see beating hearts — with hearts removed from the chest. It doesn’t have to be just the brain dead having this; but, hearts removed (for all kinds of reasons) beat without it being a part of the body, and therefore, not seen as connected to the ordinary motions of the soul.

  • Dan

    This is yet another poignant example of one of the key problems I see within our faith – we construct all sorts of convoluted frameworks to defend our perceptions of elements of reality that we truly don’t understand.

    Don’t we need to understand what a soul truly is before we start worrying about when it makes its appearance? It seems that if we would admit our ignorance instead of trying to explain mysteries that we simply don’t understand, we wouldn’t have egg on our face for trying to explain things we don’t know anything about (geocentrism, ensoulment, etc..). In doing so, I believe faith would be far more respected, valued, and attractive.

    In continuing this pattern, we risk eliciting ridicule from future generations of scientists and theologians who balk at our primitive understanding of reality and our feeble and ill-informed attempts to define them as if we had any idea what we were talking about.

  • A Sinner

    “St. Augustine suggests that, until the time, of ensoulment, the embryo is not alive and therefore will not have a share in the resurrection.”

    Well, he does, but his story about cutting the child out (which died) was interesting. I disagree that there is any uncertainty here; he is clearly talking about a fetus that died and needed to thus be removed (hence the “lest they be left dead in the womb”).

    His point is that if we can distinguish a fetus as dead…then it must have been alive. He must have assumed that pregnancies which ended before ensoulment were simply reabsorbed by the mother or something (not being “dead” and in need of removal).

    This is actually an argument, from our perspective, for life beginning at conception. Because we would call the embryo even “dead” in a miscarriage at any point, and hence it must have been alive in order to have died. Of course, nowadays it is not the life that would be disputed so much as the status as an independent person. But I don’t think there was any question here of viewing the fetus merely as an organ of the mother which dies and needs amputation; they weren’t THAT dumb back then. And besides, how often does a part of a person die and not the whole person? Surely those who believe it’s “part of the mother” don’t believe it’s as dispensable as hair or fingernails…

    • Henry Karlson

      A Sinner

      Augustine’s story would not indicate ensoulment from conception, since the form is not there from conception. Again, I am not denying there is ensoulment at conception, but I am pointing out the Church has itself not made a ruling on this. There are reasons for this. It is much more complicated than people assume. Again, it is similar to the question as “when did human life begin in evolutionary history.” We don’t know. The similarity of the growth of the embryo in the womb with the evolution of humanity has had some suggest that ensoulment parallels the advent of humanity in the evolution of humanity. Since we don’t know one, we don’t know the other. This, of course, is talking about the predication of a human soul; one could say it is a pre-human soul in there, and it eventually evolves into a human soul due to the work of God on it. I don’t, but one must understand that this is one of many places where questions remain and the Church has not given a proper definition. And we have got to recognize that if the Church has not, we do not need to demand it of others. Our position against abortion does not require it.

    • Henry Karlson

      As for Augustine’s story, the reason why it is vague is:

      Augustine doesn’t explain how the foetus was known to be dead, and why they would believe such an operation to remove it, but from bit, would have taken place. That we end up with a dead foetus is agreed, but how and when and why it died is not indicated, unless one suggests that the context gives us the clue. The context: a discussion on abortion.

  • Austin Nedved

    First, we see that St. Augustine’s opinions were used to generate the normative medieval answer to this question. St. Augustine suggests that, until the time, of ensoulment, the embryo is not alive and therefore will not have a share in the resurrection. His idea should make modern Catholics uncomfortable. It is because, unlike what many think, this uncertainty remains an acceptable position (with many caveats, to be sure). If some of the greatest Catholic minds can be uncertain as to when human life begins, we should not be surprised that others, who are far less holy, far less educated in matters of faith, will also not know what to think of this matter. We are often quick to judge them for their ignorance – yet, in an empirical age such as ours, we should not be surprised that metaphysical questions remain ineffable for the ordinary person. This also points out that, until recent times, the Church’s answer to this question was one of uncertainty, and so we should treat others with charity if they remain uncertain. Indeed, it is quite clear, this tradition influences many people within the Church today. We should at least recognize that they struggle with a question which has been raised since before the advent of Christ, and treat them with charity rather than contempt.

    And some of the Popes approved of slavery. Do we have to take pro-slavery views seriously today because some people in the Church used to? Do we have to treat those views with respect? Ought we to recognize that they struggle with an issue that has been raised since before the advent of Christ, and treat them charitably rather than contemptuously?

    The teachings of the Church today are clear on this issue. Reasonable people cannot disagree here.

    • Henry Karlson


      Do you understand the point of the post? Yes, we should look into the past, read what was said, recognize it; even in mistakes there will be truths to find. Nonetheless, the Church does not teach (as people think) that human ensoulment takes place at conception. It is generally believed to be the case, assumed to be the case, but when the question arises, the Church says “not defined.” See the two references I have given in this thread.

      • Austin Nedved

        I think it’s undefined because it is irrelevant. Not only is the question utterly irrelevant, defining the point of ensoulment would be dangerous.

        Suppose the Church declared that ensoulment occurred at conception. People would claim that our objection to abortion was based on purely religious beliefs.

        If the Church said it occurred at some later point, people would try to convince Catholics to support legal abortion up to this point. Pseudo-Catholic groups would claim that one could be Catholic and support abortion up to whatever particular point the Church decided ensoulment took place.

        It seems obvious to me that ensoulment occurs at conception, but I think the Church would do well to refrain from making any sort of definitive statement to this effect.

  • Thales

    I was discussing this topic over at Mirror of Justice a while ago, and here’s my thought:

    The Church often speaks cautiously, especially when it comes to matters of science. That is why I don’t think there is any definitive teaching on the precise moment of ensoulment. Scientifically, what exactly happens when fertilization happens is still quite mysterious, especially when considering the phenomenon of identical twins where you have a fertilized zygote splitting into two, which becomes two individual human beings. (Cloning is another example.)

    Now despite this uncertainty about the precise moment of ensoulment (or, I should say, because of this uncertainty), the Catholic Church is pretty clear that whatever human life there is from the moment of conception must be respected and protected.

    Re: early views on ensoulment. I think it’s fair to say that early opinions on ensoulment were based, in part, on a mistaken understanding of how a human being develops in the womb. With today’s science, there is no doubt that only a few days after conception, there exists an individual entity with a unique human DNA and with some kind of principle of living/developing/maturing entirely separate from the mother. Thus, I think Augustine et al, with the benefit of today’s science, would speculate that the moment of ensoulment was earlier than they previously believed.

    • Henry Karlson


      Obviously, the Church says there should be no abortion. However, I think we are too quick to dismiss the early views of Augustine and others. Many knew medicine and a bit of what happens to the embryo (despite what moderns think); notice how they discuss when a human soul is found is when the body is formed as a human. This would suggest that, they knew, before such a human form could be found, something was growing in the womb. This isn’t something which science has newly discovered. We might find the human form came earlier than they thought, but it still fails to grasp the distinctions they themselves had between formed and unformed bodies. They wouldn’t be able to discuss “unformed” bodies if they had no conception of it. I am not saying they are right (I rather follow the belief that the soul joins in the creation and formation of the body, as the Cappadocians suggested, explaining its unformed state is not indicative of a lack of soul but rather, the soul is working its stamp upon the flesh), but I am saying their views were not as naive as positivists would have us believe. This does not, however, mean we can accept abortion: as I said, even those who did not believe ensoulment had taken place rejected abortion at such a stage in the pregnancy.

      • Thales


        I understand the distinction you are making between “formed” and “unformed” bodies, and that is my point: I think Augustine et al, with the benefit of science, would probably say that the “formed” body is earlier than they previously expected.

        I’m not an expert in this field, but it was my understanding that early beliefs were that the “unformed” matter was in the woman growing for a time, and then ensoulment happened later, perhaps at quickening – and at this time the matter gained its form, and there was now a unique and separate entity within the woman. In other words, the soul (or “form” of a human being in the Aristotelian sense) now made the human being to be a unique human being – but this ensoulment happened only after a time during which the mother’s body developed the matter capable of receiving this form.

        My point is that with science, I believe that it is fair to say that only a few days after conception, there is a unique human being with a principle of living/developing/maturing entirely separate from the mother. In other words, the entity has something that makes this entity to be an autonomous human individual with its own principle of living and development, ie, an Aristotelian “form” or soul.

        • Henry Karlson


          I disagree- science cannot make that statement; rather, metaphysics (which transcends science) can discuss the soul. But again, just as in previous times they knew something was growing but did not know when the human soul was involved, so too just because we see something growing now, it is a jump to state that the foetus has been ensouled. More needs to be done. That is my point. It’s not that I disagree that ensoulment takes place at conception, but rather, it is not as easy as that — if it were, the Church would not need to say as it does, this has not been answered. Why is the Church more cautious?

      • Austin Nedved

        When the ancients drew distinctions between “unformed” and “formed” embryos, they were drawing a distinction between people who didn’t look like them and people who did. Think about it: “the embryo is not yet ‘formed’ ” just means “the embryo doesn’t look like us.”

  • phosphorious

    This does not, however, mean we can accept abortion: as I said, even those who did not believe ensoulment had taken place rejected abortion at such a stage in the pregnancy.

    But certainly this should have some affect on the argument concerning the legal status of abortion. A conscience not informed by catholic teaching can reasonably disagree on when human life begins, and so abortion can’t reasonably be outlawed.


    • Henry Karlson


      No, because abortion can be dealt with on a basis outsideof this side-debate, which is the point. The Church does not see the question of when life begins is necessary in order to reject abortion. Remember, the Church’s position on natural processes and not thwarting them in sexual reproduction. Now, I know many people might not agree (today) with such a view, but it was quite common until recent times, and it formed a kind of natural philosophy which can be researched and mined to help deal with the question. Thus, the Church can say, once conception takes place, the potential human person has rights, whether or not one sees it as ensouled, the potentiality and its connection to the human family gives it rights (though I am not going to say we are on the same level as other animals, nonetheless, I think some of the arguments used by animal rights activists, often non-Christians and unbelievers themselves, speaks highly to the question here: why are they opposed to such treatment to other animals, why do they find it wrong to stop an animal’s pregnancy? )

      • phosphorious

        But this argument still requires a commitment to catholic teaching.

        For example, while the Church may claim that a potential person has rights, this is not obvious. It is certainly not obvious that the potential person has the same rights as the actual person which is the mother.

        (I should mention that I’m in favor of legalized abortion, exactly for the reasons stated above: it’s not at all obvious to natural reason that an embryo is a human being. Treating abortion as murder is highly problematic.)

        • Henry Karlson


          It doesn’t really do so; again, I would suggest looking into the animal rights discussions on whether or not it is acceptable to procure animal abortions. Such debates do not, for the most part, engage Catholic teaching, and yet you will find consitent rejection of animal abortions. This is where I would begin a secular discussion on abortion — and one I think is done with some service in the book “Why Animal Suffering Matters.” The fact that we can recognize animal rights, and see such treatment of animal foetuses is an abberation should itself indicate general principles that can then be applied to humans as well.

  • Thales


    I wonder if we might agree more than you think.

    I agree with you that science cannot say when ensoulment occurs. What I’m saying is that science can tell us when there is an individual entity with a unique human DNA and with some kind of principle of living/developing/maturing entirely separate from the mother.

    Augustine’s science stated that after “quickening”, there was a human entity with some kind of animating principle of living and developing. Metaphysically, Augustine could then reasonably speculate that ensoulment had occurred. I think today’s science can state that a few days following conception, there is a human entity with some kind of animating principle of living and developing. Metaphysically, then, I think it reasonable to speculate that ensoulment had occurred.

    I’m not arguing that ensoulment happens at conception. I don’t know when it happens. In the case of identical twins, ensoulment must necessarily happen after conception. So I think it wise for the Church to not make a definitive proclamation on the exact time of ensoulment.

    But even though I don’t know the exact time of ensoulment, I know that several days after conception and after the possibility of a splitting zygote, there exists one entity with a unique human DNA and with its own “life principle” separate from the mother. I’m comfortable about arguing that at that time, there is a soul present (though I recognize that the Church has not said anything definitively about this time either.)

    • Henry Karlson


      I don’t think we entirely disagree. I agree, as I said, I think metaphysically one can posit ensoulment at conception, but I am pointing out, scientific data does not go either way. Even in Augustine’s time, with what they knew, one could (and imo should) have seen it that way (hence my nod to the Cappadocian theory of body development).

      • Thales

        “…scientific data does not go either way.”

        I’ll grant that at conception, the scientific data is still inconclusive about whether there is an individual entity with a unique human DNA and with some kind of principle of living/developing/maturing entirely separate from the mother. But at 4 weeks from conception, the scientific data is conclusive that there is a small human being present, something Augustine’s science was uncertain about.

  • phosphorious

    Talk of “ensoulment” raises a question: are we assuming that the soul predates the body, and is added to our material substance as a crucial ingredient?

    That strikes me as bad Aristotle.

    • Thales

      No, I don’t think that assumption is necessary or present here in the discussion.

      • phosphorious

        I wasn’t sure. But certainly part of the problem is that the notion of ensoulment is perhaps not that well defined. Forget the timing of it. . . what is it, exactly?

        If it is the moment that the fetus gains the various faculties associated with being a rational animal (sensation, perception, conscience) then that moment would seem to happen sometime after conception.

        • Thales

          My Aristole is rusty, but I think that for him, a “form” or “soul” is that which makes a thing to be that type of thing and not anything else. So, there is the “form” of a dog which makes the dog to be a dog and not a cat or a dog-corpse. Aristotle thought that the “form” of a human is immaterial (because humans were capable of reflection), while the form of dogs, and cats, and tables, etc. were material. Catholic teaching agrees that the form of a human is immaterial, and says that it is an immortal soul infused by God. When that infusement happens is what we’ve been debating.

          I disagree with you that the moment of ensoulment is when the fetus gains the various faculties. Instead, ensoulment is the moment when the human entity gains that principle which makes it to be a living human entity and not anything else.

          Why do I say that ensoulment is not when a human gains faculties? Because I’m a human being, not because I’m right now perceiving or using my conscience or using my senses – if I was in a coma, I wouldn’t be sensing or perceiving, but I’d still be a human being. Instead, I’m a human being because I’m the type of thing that senses, perceives, etc., regardless of whether I’m actually capable of exercising these faculties.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    I want to raise a question of personal interest that takes this discussion in another direction. Augustine wrote

    “So also other births, which, because of their great deformity, are called monsters, shall at the resurrection be restored to the normal human form.”

    Here he is clearly speaking about obvious physical defect. But what of those genetic defects that have consequences for mentation? As I mentioned elsewhere, my oldest son has Down Syndrome: a genetic defect that shows up either at conception or at some point thereafter. (There is good, but not conclusive reasons to think that it is a transcription error that occurs just as cells begin to differentiate, but that is neither here nor there.)

    As a consequence, who my son is as a person has been shaped from before birth by these genetic anomalies. He has speech problems, moderate retardation, motor control issues, etc. So what would it mean to say that these are healed at the resurrection? Okay, it would great if he no longer needed hearing aids and could form a clear sentence, but those are ephemera. What would “a normal human form” mean in his case?

    I got to thinking about this question many years ago after reading a column by George Will, who also has a son with Down Syndrome. He referred to it as an ontological condition–shaping his son’s very being. I’ve never been able to work out a satisfactory answer to this question, so I hope I can pry you all away from abortion to ruminate on it! :-)

    • Henry Karlson


      It certainly is a question which can get tricky. We had a discussion/debate (with no agreement in the end) on the issue here:

      Though I agree with you that it is an important question and should be discussed further, right now I will leave what little I said in that thread as a general presentation of how I would deal with the question: I think genetic defects are physical defects, and that they lead to further physical defects which hinder full and proper use of one’s natural abilities in those who have Down’s Syndrome. Others disagreed. Nonetheless, I would agree that there is something ontological which is shown here; it is something, though, we will not appreciate until the eschaton — that is, there is something ontological involved, but I think our fallen mode of existence turns that ontology into something it is not meant to be.

      • David Nickol


        Isn’t there an assumption here that we will all be meeting up again after death? C. S. Lewis didn’t seem to think so. I quoted a longer version of this in the previous thread:

        Unless, of course, you can literally believe all that stuff about family reunions “on the further shore,” pictured in entirely earthly terms. But that is all unscriptural, all out of bad hymns and lithographs. There’s not a word of it in the Bible. And it rings false. We know it couldn’t be like that. Reality never repeats. The exact same thing is never taken away and given back. How well the Spiritualists bait their hook! “Things on the other side are not so different after all.” There are cigars in Heaven. For that is what we should all like. The happy past restored. . . .

        • Henry Karlson


          “Unscriptural” for Catholics isn’t an argument, remember. However, I would say Lewis is wrong here. While we don’t know what it will be like is different from saying this means we will not see and meet each other in the eschaton. Indeed, some of his other texts, such as the Great Divorce, suggest that only those who divide themselves from Christ, who try to be alone, will not be seen in the universal body of Christ. Even he, however, wondered if they will come back in the end.

    • David Nickol


      My niece, who is developmentally disabled, is now around 20 years old, and although she can speak, she will never be able to read or write. It is very difficult to imagine that she would be herself with a “glorified body” and all of her intellectual and emotional deficits corrected. When we discussed this before (I am going from memory) I recall we tried to pin Henry down on what was the essential person that would be a constant before and after the resurrection. Of course, if we are unlucky, we have the experience here on earth (sort of) in reverse, as when someone suffers a severe brain injury of reaches the later stages of Alzheimer’s. We do see some people (maybe most people) feeling there is some continuity of a loved one before and after these kinds of tragedies. People have been known to spend a lot of time visiting relatives in persistent vegetative states and the like. On the other hand, I have seen people on television documentaries about Alzheimer’s basically say that the person they knew is gone.

      It seems to me there has to be some kind of continuity before and after death (if indeed there is an afterlife in anything remotely like what I was taught in Catholic school), otherwise it will be more like reincarnation than resurrection.

      I am no expert at all, but in reading a small amount of what Aquinas had to say, it struck me he was engaging more in fantasy than theology. And does it really sound like heaven for everyone to have perfect bodies, be 33 years old, and not have any children around? And as I asked before, will this mean that Jimmy Durante won’t have a big nose in heaven? And what about personality traits that cut both ways? Will there be no people with sharp tongues and wicked senses of humor like, say, Dorothy Parker?

  • ChooChoo

    A couple of months back I submitted a PhD thesis which was a sort of cultural history of abortion in the early medieval west (c.500-900). Not claiming any especial expertise, but I did briefly discuss this passage from Augustine in order to discuss two (somewhat different) early medieval takes on the question drawing (rather selectively) on Augustine in the seventh century.

    Just a couple of random points…

    1. The vocabulary of “formed”, “unformed”, “ensouled”, “animated”, “quickening” etc is dangerous insofar as it implies consistency over great swathes of time. Forget, for example, any Aristotelian metaphysics. Across the texts I studied, came across examples of formation/animation being understood synonymously, and other examples where they were understood to be distinct and separate.

    2. Augustine simply isn’t consistent or settled on these questions. (A shorter eschatological treatment of ‘abortivi’, or miscarriages, in City of God is, again, somewhat different). In context, Augustine

  • http://Iknewyoubeforeyouwereborn Anna Lynskey

    Where does “I knew you before you were born” and the witness to that teaching, the Magnificat, lose you?

    God you are creepy.

    • Henry Karlson

      Oh, is that you, Carol?

      1) God’s knowledge is in eternity. The text could be “before you were conceived, I knew you.” Do you understand yet?
      2) Technically the verse is about the prophetic call of Jeremiah. I know we can use that to reason and suggest something about God’s knowledge of us all, but poor Scriptural exegetics, often used by Protestants, taxes verses out of context in this fashion.
      3) This is why this verse did not suggest an answer to the question of ensoulment to the Doctors of the Church.

      And if you are Carol, or one of her followers, no I did not deny the truth. Far from it. Once again, do not confuse what you believe to be the truth AS the truth, or confuse what you believe the Church teaches as the Church even as what the Church teaches. The humble soul is willing to learn and be corrected. Luther thought he knew what the Church taught, even quoted Scripture and said “see, objective truth.” Don’t end up like him.

      • Carol

        Oh, come on now Henry, since when have I been shy about putting my name on things!

        You’re losing me here.

        How could God have not known Mary before she was conceived if at the moment of conception He withheld original sin? It was all planned out so of course He knew her before she was conceived. He also knew of Christ before He was conceived which is why He created a perfect human being to carry Him in her womb.

        • Henry Karlson

          I don’t know if you are shy about putting your name on things or not, but it echoes exactly what you wrote in your post.

          As for losing you — well, it doesn’t seem to be too difficult. Think this through. The point is God’s foreknowledge does not tell us anything about ensoulment.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Thanks to Henry and David N. for responding. I went to the earlier thread and read parts of it. Here are some random thoughts.

    I agree with David N.’s comments about continuity between this life and the next. Reading the earlier discussion about whether a child and an adult are the same person, it seemed to me the answer is yes, but only if you include a temporal and evolutionary dimension to identity. Extrapolating from this to the resurrection is tricky, but I guess that the same rules should apply: whoever we are in the life to come should (supernaturally) evolve out of who we are now.

    While ruminating on this, I remembered a discussion on a different front I had had a few years ago. Someone asked me what would happen if nanotechnology evolved to the point that we could make genetic repairs to my son now? What would happen to my son if over a short span of time, all of his cells were repaired, one by one? Obviously, this is all speculative, but thinking about how he would grow and evolve as a person, does raise the question: would he still be himself? If the answer is yes, then it gives a clue to the resurrection, when we are promised that “all things will be made new.”

    If not, in what sense would he no longer be himself? A dualist, seeing the soul as completely separate from the body, would not see any change. But if we take a more integrated view of the connection between the body and the soul, then such a fundamental change in the body may have metaphysical consequences.

    • Henry Karlson


      The discussion is complex; one of the more interesting scholarly presentations was Bynum’s work, which I recommend to anyone. I myself hold fast that imperfections found in bodily form at once represent something real, but because of the fallen order of nature, it ends up presented in empirical form in a wounded fashion. This allows for the defects to be solved while the real ontogolocial presentation behind it to remain. Of course, I think the problem is we are looking at many things in the light of a fallen order of nature, and it is hard to look beyond it, and much of it is speculation. Nonetheless, since I also see such development happens not only in humanity, constantly being lifted up into higher and higher modes of being through theosis, but with animals as well, I think it gives me more freedom to look at it as evolutionary. The question is: what is it which makes one the same. We can go very Buddhist and say we are not the same person from moment to moment, and there is truth in that — however, even Buddhists would posit something like the alayavijnana (or some other means) to shows identity. The same would be the identity between a seed and what grows out of it: it is the same, though quite, quite different, or what happens with butterflies, where it still is the same, even if radically different.