Q&A with Fr John Flader: The child and the soul

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Sarah with an ultrasound photograph of her daughter. Source: Supplied

“Dear Father, can you please tell me at what stage the soul enters the body of a foetus? My daughter has had several miscarriages and I am wondering whether there was a soul and whether the soul could go to heaven.”

By way of background we should be aware of two truths. First, by the word “soul” in general we mean the life principle of a living thing. Every living being, whether a plant, an animal or a human being has a soul. It is the soul that gives unity to the being, and in philosophical terms it is called the “form” of the matter.

Only in humans, however, is this soul spiritual, capable of understanding, thinking, loving, etc. And since the human soul has its own act of being, independently of the body, it continues to exist when the person dies.

Second, the human soul is created directly by God. In the words of the Catechism, “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” (CCC 366; cf. CCC 33).

As regards the history of the question, Aristotle (384-322 BC) taught that a human being first had a vegetative or plant soul, then a sensitive or animal soul and finally an intellective or human soul.

For him, ensoulment, the entry of the human soul, took place 40 days after conception for males and 90 days for females. It was believed at that time that only after this number of days was movement felt in the womb and so was pregnancy certain.

Among other early beliefs, Stoics maintained that the living animal soul was received only at birth through contact with the air and it was transformed into a rational soul at the age of 14. Epicureans and Pythagoreans believed that the soul began to exist at the moment of conception.

In the early Church Aristotle’s view was accepted by many. But the idea that the soul was infused at conception was also accepted as early as the 3rd Century and was confirmed by St Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th Century.

Later the Aristotelian view became more common, based on the belief that only the formed foetus possessed a human soul. Augustine in the 5th Century was of this opinion, although he did speculate about the possibility of the soul being present before that.

St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century largely accepted the Aristotelian notion that the embryo first had a vegetative soul, then a sensitive soul and only after 40 days an intellective human soul.

Jumping forward to the present, the Church has still not defined when ensoulment takes place. It remains an open question.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Declaration on Procured Abortion (1974) says: “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 womb]. 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 for two reasons: 1) supposing a belated 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; 2) on the other hand, it suffices that this presence of the soul be probable (and one can never prove the contrary) in order that the taking of life involve accepting the risk of killing a man, not only waiting for, but already in possession of his soul” (footnote 19). So while we cannot be absolutely sure when the soul is infused, we can assume that it is there very early on, even when there is an early miscarriage.

As regards its salvation, the Catechism teaches: “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them.

Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ (Mk 10:14) allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism” (CCC 1261).