Embryonic Ensoulment

I found Father Pacholczyk's interview to be fascinating (“The Little Flower Blossoms in Yale Neuroscientist,” Inperson, May 4-10). I was somewhat taken aback when he said, “An embryo is a human being, a being that is human, that is not some other kind of animal. Whether it's a person yet at the moment of conception, whether it's been ensouled — those are very interesting intellectual discussions but they're not ultimately relevant.”

The last sentence of the above quote got more than a raised eyebrow from me as I read it. I always thought the Church's teaching was that at the moment of conception an embryo is ensouled and is considered life, and if it is life it is human. Am I wrong in my interpretation? It seems to me that you can't be human without a soul.

I wonder if Father Pacholczyk has had his opinion considered by a panel of theologians. I look forward to reading an explanation of his comments in a future edition of your paper.


Newport, Rhode Island

Father Pacholczyk Replies

Mr. Mills' comments are emblematic of a rather common misunderstanding about the Catholic Church's teaching on ensoulment. The Church has never definitively stated when the ensoulment of the human embryo takes place. It remains an open question. The “Declaration on Procured Abortion” from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1974 phrases the matter with considerable precision:

“This declaration expressly leaves aside the question of the moment when the spiritual soul is infused. There is not a unanimous tradition on this point and authors are as yet in disagreement. For some it dates from the first instant; for others it could not at least precede nidation [implantation in the uterus]. It is not within the competence of science to decide between these 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 …”

And the moral affirmation of the Church is simply this: that the human embryo must be treated as if it were already ensouled, even if it might not yet be so. It must be treated as if it were a person from the moment of conception, even if there exists the possibility that it might not yet be so. Why this rather subtle, nuanced position, instead of simply declaring outright that zygotes are ensouled, and therefore are persons? Because, as the declaration stresses, there has never been a unanimous tradition on this point.

The matter has been discussed for centuries, and delayed ensoulment was probably the norm for most of Christian history, with immediate ensoulment gaining some serious momentum of its own only in the 1600s. Aquinas, for example, held that ensoulment occurred not right at the first instant but at a timepoint removed from the beginning, in order to allow the matter of the embryo to undergo development and become “apt” for the reception of an immortal soul from God. Augustine seemed to shift his opinion back and forth during his lifetime between immediate and delayed ensoulment. Even today in various quarters, the discussions continue, with new embryological details like twinning and chimaerization impinging on the debate, and new conceptual questions arising from the intricate biology surrounding totipotency and pluripotency.

In the final analysis, it is salutary to realize that it is God's business as to when he ensouls the human embryo, and we may never categorically resolve the matter from our limited vantage point. More relevant to the discussion is the fact that we do not need an answer to this fascinating and speculative question in order to grasp the essential moral conclusion that human embryos are absolutely inviolable and deserving of unconditional respect.

The Church's perspective on this matter is sometimes characterized in these terms: “If we don't know whether the early embryo is a person, we shouldn't destroy it, in the same way that we shouldn't shoot into a patch of dark bushes, because it might be a person making the rustling noises. Because there's a chance the embryo is a person, we can't risk destroying it.” This is a problematic summary of the Church's position, however, because she actually embraces a much more forceful line of argumentation, namely: that we know exactly what is in the bushes, and therefore we cannot ever shoot. We know exactly what the embryo is, namely, a human being, a being that is clearly and unmistakably human. It is not a zebra type of being, a plant type of being or some other kind of being. This is a scientific affirmation which does not ultimately depend on religion, value systems, or imposing anything on anyone. It is a matter of simple empirical observation.

All of us began as embryonic human beings, and such human beings are never to be instrumentalized for stem-cell extraction or other destructive ends. Hence the Church recognizes that we need not worrys about the fine details of the timing of personhood or ensoulment in a misguided attempt to identify a basis for the moral question. We need only recognize that once you are constituted a human being (which always occurs at fertilization or at an event that mimics fertilization like cloning), you are an embryonic member of the human race who is to be protected unconditionally.

The human zygote, thus, is already a being that is human, and such beings are sacrosanct entities, because that's what we all directly spring from at the root level. What the human embryo actually is, even at its earliest and most undeveloped stage, makes it the only kind of entity capable of receiving the gift of an immortal soul from God; no other animal embryo can receive this gift. Hence, the early human embryo is never merely biological tissue; at a minimum, it is the privileged sanctuary of someone meant to develop as a human person, and to be treated and respected as such. Once you are a human being, you are a bearer of human rights, even if your person-hood/ensoulment might end up coming further along in the sequence of things. This teaching, I am convinced, may well be one of the strongest declarations of the Church's belief in the absolute primacy of the value of personhood over all other considerations. The human person, even in its most incipient and precursorial instantiation in the embryonic human being, is to be safeguarded in an absolute way.


Fall River, Massachusetts