Soul, Human, Origin of

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Christians are in fairly general agreement that each human soul begins to exist by a direct creative act of God at the moment of its union with matter to form the new human being, with no previous existence. Various other theories have been held, however, and Catholic scholars are still divided as to whether the soul originates at the moment of conception or later during gestation. This article discusses the problem involved and the diversity of solutions offered concerning both the manner of the soul's origin and the time at which this occurs.

Manner of Soul's Origin

Historically, emanationism and traducianism are the two major theories opposing orthodox teaching concerning the origin of the human soul. Recent Catholic discussion, while presupposing the doctrine of creationism, has centered about the degree of immediacy of God's action in the creative process.

History. emanationism was held by pantheists, Pythagoreans, Stoics, and early heretics such as the Gnostics, Manichees, and Priscillianists. They believed that the human soul emanates or flows from the divine substance as a particle or offshoot of God. This theory has been rejected as contrary both to the nature of God and to the nature of the soul. If God is a perfectly simple spiritual substance, He cannot be divided or have parts; conversely, the soul lacks many of the characteristics proper to divine substance, such as eternal self-subsistence and total lack of change. Moreover, this position militates against the individuality of the human soul.

traducianism holds that the human soul is produced by the generative act of the human parents. This explanation supposes a seed or sprout, which may be either material or spiritual. Totally materialistic theories of evolution and other denials of the spirituality of the soul naturally imply that all of man originates through organic generation. A spiritual soul cannot come wholly from material germ cells. tertullian seems to have held such a theory. More palpable is the spiritual traducianism of the Apollinarists, which postulates the origin of the human soul from the souls of the parents.

In Oriental Christianity the orthodox tradition has consistently taught creation of the human soul. The Western tradition was similar, except for Tertullian, up until the Pelagian heresy. The motivation for some to hold spiritual traducianism at that time was an attempt to explain the transmission of original sin in the human race. St. augustine seems to have remained doubtful on the point, along with Fulgentius, isidore of seville, and others. Martin luther and a scattering of both Catholic and Protestant theologians over the past four centuries have favored spiritual traducianism.

Catholic Teaching. Contemporary Catholics appeal both to philosophical reasoning and to the pronouncements of the Church (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [Freiburg 1963] 190, 360, 455456, 685, 1007, 1440, 3024, 3896) to support the doctrine that the soul is created immediately by God. Scriptural proofs are difficult and only suasive, because of contextual problems. The Biblical words for soul usually mean total person. [see soul (in the bible).] Scriptural texts favor placing more stress on the flesh-spirit composite, both in activity and origin, than appears in many post-Cartesian formulations.

The substantial forms (or "souls") of other animals below man, having no existence apart from that of the composite, have no cause other than the causes of the animal itself; but the human soul cannot arise wholly by generation, since it is spiritual and not within the potentialities of matter. The Apollinarists argued that there is no need to postulate the origin of the human spiritual soul by a material process, as the parents' souls could act as a spiritual cause producing a spiritual effect. However, serious difficulties arise in the attempt to explain precisely how this would happen. The soul is simple and could not be compounded from something received from each parent. There is no evidence that it arises simply from one parent, to say nothing of the problems arising if one attempted to designate which one. The parent's soul is simple and spiritual; so there is no possibility of dividing off a piece of it for the child's soul. The new soul could not be educed from the potency of spiritual substance, for spirit does not contain a principle of substan tial change analogous to primary matter in material being. The parents' souls would have nothing to work on, nothing out of which to make the soul.

One might consider whether it is necessary to talk of the parents' souls making the new soul "out of" any preexisting subject, i.e., whether they could simply produce it by their sheer reproductive activity. Aside from the fact that the parental reproductive activity is entirely biological, this solution is rejected because no created cause makes something simply to be rather than not be. Since only the First Cause has being of Itself and hence dominion over existence, only God can give being absolutely, rather than cause what already exists to be in another way. The human soul can originate only through creation by God (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a, 90.23; C. gent. 2.87). The human soul is intrinsically independent of matter in its becoming; i.e., the generative act of the parents is only the extrinsic cause setting the time and place for the origin of the soul. Since an efficient cause is always distinct from its effect, the soul cannot be God, or a part of God. Creation is the antithesis of pantheism.

One might object that the body is in potency to the soul, and therefore the soul must be educed from the potency of matter. This does not follow, for to be in potency to a form is not necessarily to have that form in potency. Matter is in potency to any form that can actuate it, and the human soul does this. But only material forms can be educed from the potency of matter. (see matter and form.)

God's Activity. This doctrine of creation might seem to detract from the fullness of parenthood, since the parents do not generate the soul, but their offspring are truly theirs nonetheless, for it is not necessary that one produce all the component parts in order to be the true cause of a thing. Relations such as father and son are said of the person, not of the part.

However, the precise nature of the cooperation between God and the human parents is more complex and intimate than suggested by the older formula "God creates the soul, the parents make the body." Man is one being, not two. Both God and parents contribute to this unique act of existence. Moreover, acceptance of evolution among theologians has turned attention to the notion that all creatural causality is an instrument of God (St. Thomas, De pot. 3.7), a doctrine neglected in the centuries of vigorous opposition to occasionalism. teilhard de chardin and Karl rahner applied this thinking to the origin of the first man. The same reasoning can be used regarding the origin of all other human souls; but in both cases it seems more logical to posit union with the human zygote at the moment of conception, rather than holding mediate animation or that the first man was originally subhuman.

The degree of immediacy of God's action in creating the human soul, whether the first or subsequent ones, is hence controversial. One can detract neither from the unique role of God nor from the vital, if secondary and instrumental, role of the parents. God's causality is not one link in a long chain of causality, but basic to, and cooperating with, all others. Similarly, one can avoid neither the unique nature of the human soul as the terminus of the divine action nor the existential unity of man as a composite produced by the complex cooperation of many causes.

Time of Soul's Origin

origen, priscillian, and other Neoplatonists taught that human souls existed separately before being united with matter. This opinion is considered heretical (Enchiridion symbolorum, 403, 456).

Arguments Against Preexistence. Unlike an angel whose nature it is to exist by itself as a complete substance, the human soul has as its proper role union with matter to form this man and no other. Hence any existence previous to the man is contrary to the very meaning of soul as substantial form (Summa theologiae 1a, 90.4). The separate existence of the soul after death does not contradict this, since the soul retains previously acquired knowledge, a transcendental relation to matter, and even a certain exigency to be united with matter; but before actual union with matter to form a body it has no such relation. The notion that God has a supply of souls that are not anybody's in particular until He infuses them into human embryos is entirely unwarranted by any evidence. Such souls would have no individuality, no personal human identity, and would be in an unnatural state because of their inability to acquire any knowledge in the way proper to man. The theory that man is born with ideas carried over from a previous life has little to support it, and much evidence against it (see metempsychosis). The soul is created by God at the time it is infused into matter, i.e., when it is substantially united with an embryo appropriately disposed to receive it and form a man.

Time of Infusion. Exactly when this happens is more controversial, and still an open question with scholastic philosophers of high standing on both sides. All agree that since the soul is the principle of vital operations, the human soul is present when there is specifically human operation. Because there is evidence of specifically human operations from the first moment of conception, a majority assert that the human soul is present then.

Aristotle thought that he was unjustified in asserting true human life in the male before the embryo was 40 days old and in the female, before 80 to 90 days. St. Thomas followed him in teaching a succession of forms, the embryo having first a vegetative soul and later a sensitive one, before the human soul finally arrives. Modern studies in embryology reveal that at the moment sperm and ovum unite and the two pronuclei fuse, an orderly process of development begins with a definiteness governed by the pattern of the DNA molecule. The new individual is characterized by the resulting unique constellation of genes and chromosomes before the zygote divides for the first time. This organization is not only intricate and vital; it is specifically human. The chromosomes contain determiners for specifically human eyes and ears, not just animal eyes and ears in general. The offspring of all vertebrates may go through the same stages of embryological development, and in similar ways, but each goes through those stages in ways that are characteristic and peculiar to its own species. Embryology considers the living body from the one-cell stage onward to be a human individual, not some general plant or animal that will become human in 40 or 80 days.

If one were to wait for clear evidence of rational activity before concluding belief in the existence of a human soul, it would not be a matter of days, but of years. As long as the embryo is clearly the product of human generation, it has a human nature even if severe organic defect prevents it from ever exercising any rational activities, as in the case of some developmentally disabled individuals. Examination of the fetus through its early stages gives no clue as to when one can draw the line. The available evidence seems to force one back to the very moment of conception.

A minority view points to the problems of fragmentary life, transplants, divisibility of lower animals such as worms, and human identical twins as arguments in favor of the mediate animation held by St. Thomas Aquinas, which seems to handle these difficulties more neatly.

The problem of when the human soul is created received renewed attention in the latter half of the twentieth century with the rise of modern reproductive technologies and the growing possibility that human embryos might be made the object of scientific experimentation. In vitro fertility laboratories, in an effort to increase the efficiency of their procedures, began producing many more human embryos than they actually needed for implantation, leading to the frozen storage of tens of thousands of human embryos in laboratories throughout the developed world. The emergence of this problem convinced the Vatican that new statements of concern over this practice were necessary and these included renewed calls for the world community to respect the dignity of the human being from the moment of conception.

The debate over whether the soul is immediately infused or arrives at some later point in embryological development was not the most pressing moral problem faced by the Church during the rise of legalized abortion. Nonetheless, the much referenced footnote 19 of the Declaration on Procured Abortion (1974) took note of the debate between proponents of immediate and delayed hominization and stated that:

It is not within the competence of science to decide between these two views, because the existence of an immortal soul is not a question in its field. It is a philosophical problem from which our moral affirmation remains independent supposing a later animation, there is still nothing less than a human life, preparing for and calling for a soul in which the nature received from parents is completed.

One finds here two important points: the question of when the soul is infused is not one that can be decided by any empirical means, and even if the soul were to be infused at some later point in embryological development, the zygote that is present at fertilization is surely a human life. As such it deserves the same respect as is due to any other human being.

With the discovery of human genome, and the recognition that it contains the entire code for the epigenetic unfolding of the human being, there was a growing conviction among many Catholic theologians that personhood must begin at conception. Others, in spite of this new evidence, insisted that the lack of individuality in the early embryo, which is capable of twinning in its earliest stages, or the supposed absence of a proper material foundation to support the human soul, such as the "primitive streak" (primitive spinal cord and brain), which appears at approximately 14 days, left the question at best undecided or perhaps even settled in favor of delayed hominization on scientific grounds.

In 1987 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith entered this debate with Donum vitae: Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation. The document addressed a panoply of moral issues related to modern reproductive technologies, but it took special note of the question of the origin of the human soul. The Congregation stated that it was "aware of the current debates concerning the beginning of human life, concerning the individuality of the human being and concerning the identity of the human person" and then, calling attention to recent findings of science that indicated that a "new human individual" is constituted at the moment of conception, remarked:

Certainly no experimental datum can be in itself sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul; nevertheless, the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo provide a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence from this first appearance of a human life: how could a living human creature not be a human person? The Magisterium has not expressly committed its authority to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion. [I.1]

Thus, while leaving the door open for the possibility of later animation, Donum vitae placed the weight of the Vatican on the side of those who view a personal presence in the human zygote; however, because this document did not make its judgment definitive, the debate on this important topic continues. What is clear beyond any doubt is that, in the view of the Church, "the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say from the moment the zygote is constituted, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality."

The prospect of so-called therapeutic human cloning, in which human clones are made and destroyed for research purposes, and the desire among certain members within the scientific community to exploit the unfortunate plight of frozen human embryos, has greatly heightened the stakes in this debate and promises to keep the question at the forefront of philosophical and theological discussion well into the twenty-first century.

See Also: soul, human; immortality.

Bibliography: p. overhage and k. rahner, Das Problem der Hominisation (Freiburg 1961). r. lacroix, L'Origine de l'âme humaine (Quebec 1945). r. north, "Teilhard and the Problem of Creation," Theological Studies 24 (1963) 577601. m. flick, "Problemi teologici sull' 'ominazione'," Gregorianum, 44 (1963) 6270. m. hudeczek, "De tempore animationis foetus humani secundum embryologiam hodiernam," Angelicum 29 (1952) 162181. a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 190350) 15.1:135065.

[j. e. royce/

e. j. furton]