Vatican astronomer Father George Coyne said neither Yes nor No to answer our question whether life can spring spontaneously from matter.

But he left us with a cryptic maybe with these words: “If it happened at least twice, then it happened many times,” (National Catholic Register, April 9-15). My response is that life is a special creation introduced into our planet by a new act of God. Expertly mixed bionic soup and a prod of electric current cannot produce this elusive entity.

A live plant and a live animal act markedly different than the atoms and molecules that they circulate through their systems. Life is a total mystery to us. From science alone we know not whence it comes nor whither does it go. We cannot grasp life with our hands, nor can we add even a day or a night to our mortal life-span. Life eludes not only our grasping hands; it escapes our intellectual probes as well.

Life is not found with either microscope or telescope, being invisible. It weighs nothing on our scales, even the most sensitive ones. It comes not through doors or windows. It just is or it isn’t.

Thomas Aquinas inquires about life.

Thomas points to what life does, but dares not say what it is. He points to “self-movement” as the defining difference between living and non-living creatures:

“I answer that ... we say then that an animal begins to live when it begins to move of itself: and as long as such movement appears in it, so long is it considered to be alive. When it no longer has any movement of itself, but is only moved by another power, then its life is said to fail, and the animal to be dead. ... Accordingly, all things are said to be alive that determine themselves to movement or operation of any kind: whereas those things that cannot by their nature do so, cannot be called living, unless by a similitude” (Summa Theologiae 1,18,1).

Geneticist Jerome Lejeune once said: “Life is taking advantage of the movement of the particles, of molecules, to put order inside the chance development of random movement of particles, so that chance is now transformed according to the necessity of the new being” (“Testimony,” Blount County Court, 1989, p. 39).

Life as seen in the lowly strawberry plant.

A strawberry plant extends downward its roots to anchor itself in the soil and to absorb into its system water and the elements dissolved in it. It extends its stems upward to expose its leaves to the sunlight and strengthens a stem to support a growing juicy fruit. Its life operation builds conduits to carry water and dissolved minerals from root to leaves and to distribute them as needed throughout the plant. It grows, it fructifies, it sends out one or more shoots to grow new plants. It enters hibernation in the fall, and renews itself in spring if its life survives the winter. It “moves itself.”

Neither the water in the strawberry plant, nor the chemical elements of its structure, not even the filaments and cells appear to capture life. Water does not live, nor do cellulose, sugars and salts. The life of the strawberry plant does not pour itself over into its building blocks.

The plant draws water for itself from the soil, and discharges it from stomata of its leaves, but the water is not in control of these operations. The plant builds its amino acids from imported elements, shapes them into proteins and ties them into long molecules, but these do not act independently. They are directed and coordinated by a force other than themselves. The plant is an integrated unit in which something remains in charge. The sundry parts are passive in relation to the integrating force.

Our personal human life force.

Our own life — the spiritual soul — continues to operate whether we are asleep or awake. And even when awake, life does far more things for us than we could possibly do with conscious awareness. It is only of recent date that we have come to know the things that life does in us — “the mechanism of protein synthesis involving the ribosome, the transfer RNA and the enzymes required to attach the correct amino acids to the correct transfer RNA, the cell membrane” (Arthur V. Chadwick, “Abiognic Origin of Life. A Theory in Crisis,” Internet).

Life itself is living mathematics, chemistry, physics, medicine; are science and creativity beyond our comprehension?

Life is living intelligent design in action. At night, as we sleep, life repairs and refreshes its sundry body parts systematically, much as mechanics check airplanes between flights. When we awake in the morning, we are freshly prepared for the new day. We need not argue that intelligent design accounts for the origins of irreducible complexities. Day and night we are being designed intelligently into irreducible complexities by our mysterious life force, without need of our attention or awareness.

Life eludes search parties.

Where does life dwell so that we might come and see it? When architects build high rises we can find them at their headquarters whence they commandeer workers and materials. But the strawberry plant commandeers its materials, breaks them up or fuses them together and sets them in place without ever being seen or heard. Just what is this life?

Life is like a reigning queen hidden behind veils, who appropriates and utilizes material elements with dictatorial finality, then discards them disdainfully when they are no longer useful to her. The materials merely float in the swift channel of her life movement that she directs without consulting the materials.

Life hires no undertakers.

The life of a dead strawberry plant leaves behind material traces of what it has once enlivened, but life itself simply disappears. It is a has-been of cosmic history. It does not even make waves in the cosmos when it stops living. No ghosts survive from plant or animal life. The lives are not even has-beens because they are no more. Search the heavens above and you find it not; search the earth below and you see it not. Ask the elements that once participated in its dynamism, but they say nothing. When non-human life dies, it slips into nothing and never becomes something again. The remains that it leaves behind are orphans not knowing a father or mother that no longer exists.

Conclusion

Life is a mysterious entity. It most certainly did not arise spontaneously from the combined forces of non-living elements alone; pax, Father Coyne. God did a new thing when life appeared on our planet.

Father Anthony Zimmerman

is a retired professor of moral

theology, Nanzan University,

Nagoya, Japan. His books and articles are posted

on Catholicmind.com.