FAITH Magazine November-December 2006
The Soul of the Embryo.
An Enquiry into the Status of the Human Embryo in the Christian Tradition
by David Albert Jones,
Continuum, 266pp, £16.99
The aspect of Magisterial teaching which has attracted most vilification by contemporary culture is probably the upholding of the Christian tradition of respect for life before birth. Specifically, it is widely alleged that the Church permitted abortion up until the 1860s and that the idea of personhood from conception is a modern, reactionary imposition. Such is the communal (and seemingly somewhat wilful) ignorance of Church history. One has sat through talks where the writings of Aquinas were rubbished by embryologists who didn’t even know what century he lived in. Such remarks usually pass unchallenged and it is now more important than ever for Catholics to be well-informed in this field. The Soul of the Embryo will be a significant help.
This may make it sound like an apologetic work, which—at least in style—it is not. It will possibly be classified as such in Catholic bookshops but it reads more like a book on Church history. The first four chapters emphasise the deep philosophical divide between the ancient classical world - in which infanticide and child abandonment were widely accepted - and the people of Israel who had been commanded to “fill the earth and subdue it”. The next chapter examines the serious attention paid by the early Church to the precise interpretation of Talmudic passages concerning procured miscarriage and the penalties it incurred. Although the careful inclusion of the original Greek and Hebrew might feel a little heavy going to the non-theologically or classically trained, no prior knowledge isassumed and the book manages to be both accessible without being patronising and scholarly without seeming pretentious. Since the descriptions of many historical events and characters are for reasons of space rather whistle-stop in nature, the major points are reworked in a convenient set of bullet points at the end of each chapter.
The sixth chapter breaks off from the historical narrative to discuss the changing attitude of philosophers towards the human soul. Thomas Aquinas’s defence of the soul as “the principle of life” and “substantial” is well presented as an important part of the most prominent and enduring of western philosophical traditions concerning the nature of the soul. But whilst here and in the rest of the book Jones canonizes the former concept he seems a little less certain about the rational foundation of the soul’s non-material substantiality. In his concluding chapter it is Christian revelation rather than natural reason which is presented as formally clinching their truth—for Christians. Such a state of affairs would imply, we would think, that the foundations of the pro-life movement s not asfirmly grounded in natural reason, and so accessible to all, as they might be, and as Christian tradition has claimed they are. Let us explain. The conclusion of chapter six suggests that, given the twentieth century’s convincing criticism of Descartes’ previously influential concept of “a ghost inside a machine”, “it is now much more defensible to use the classical definition of the soul as the ‘principle of life’. This is the meaning given to the term ‘soul’ in the present work.”(p.91) The traditional Christian concept of the soul, Jones points out, “reaffirms the communality of human beings with other animals, without denying the simultaneous presence of discontinuity.”(p.90). This latter discontinuity seems implicitly to refer to the classical and magisterial idea of the soul’ssubstantiality. In the whole of the rest of the book there is no philosophical defence of this distinction from animals, nor of the spirituality and substantiality of the human soul. Yet these concepts are crucial to the purely rational foundation of belief in the unique and absolute dignity of human life. It is not clear whether Jones feels that such a “proof” from natural reason alone is possible.
In the last two chapters reason and revelation are used well to support the fact that the embryo is an individual member of the human species. Contradictions involved in the modern political denial of this are clearly highlighted. But the only anti-embryo philosophy that is considered is that which accepts the absolute, personal value of self- conscious adult humans but denies it of the embryo. This position, the “most influential” of the genre, is shown to be “incompatible with any ethos founded on protection of the weak, including amongst others, the Christian ethical tradition” (p.242).
However the increasingly explicit and influential philosophical tradition which denies unconditional dignity to any human and makes our ethical status the same as animals is hardly considered.
Jones has, perhaps unwittingly, well highlighted one of those crucial fault lines in Catholic thought that Faith magazine and movement attempts to discuss: Can natural reason convince a modern man that we are qualitatively different from animals? Does the traditional Catholic approach, for all its strengths well highlighted in Jones’ book, suffice for the task? We are not sure this crucial debate has yet happened in our modern anti-life culture. Chapter seven is a fascinating discussion of the development of Catholic thought on the origin of the soul. Concerning the “direct creation of the soul”—‘creationism’ - Jones asserts that despite the fact that virtually all “the major scholastic theologians… held creationism to be absolutely certain…. there was never a time when the CatholicChurch formally defined its teaching on the origin of the soul.” (p.105) Jones uses a 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia to back this up but makes no reference to the later authoritative affirmations of Pope Pius XII, Pope Paul VI, and of the Catechism paragraph 366.
Further chapters deal methodically with a wide range of topics including ensoulment, redemption and the embryonic Christ, medieval church law, the contribution of the Protestant Reformers, and milestones in the history of embryology. The final chapter contains a superb analysis of contemporary biomedical issues such as IVF, cloning and embryo experimentation, including the very best discussion of the implications of monozygotic twinning that I have come across; the book is almost worth reading for the final chapter alone.
Those in search of something approaching the topic from the point of view of practical ethics may be slightly disappointed. There are one or two generalisations and omissions concerning recent legislative developments. For example, Jones reiterates the misinformation of the pro-cloning lobby (accidentally in his case) by stating that the destruction of embryos to produce stem cells was recently banned by President Bush. Not so: unlike the UK which operates a licence system for such experiments, American academics and corporations are free to destroy embryos to derive stem cells but are not eligible for public funding to do so. Although a vast number of column inches in the worldwide media continue to propagate this misunderstanding, this is obviously a very minor transgression in thecontext of the book.
Any Christian (or non-Christian) who reads this book will finally get the opportunity to see the majority of the Magisterial teaching placed in its historical and philosophical context. May it be read and discussed, widely.
Theology and Modern Physics
by Peter E. Hodgson,
Ashgate, 282pp, £16.99
The question of the interplay between science and theology is of perennial importance. In our time, it is a popular misconception that religion is opposed to science or that science somehow disproves religion. This book helps to show that this is not the case. The book begins with an overview of the history of physics up to the beginning of the 20th century.
Hodgson seeks to outline why a detailed understanding of the structure of the world began to emerge in 17th century Europe. He also explores why this did not happen in the Muslim world or elsewhere. There follows a detailed discussion of two of the greatest ever revolutions in physics— Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics, for all its success, is still an incomplete theory which leaves many open questions in physics and philosophy. Different ways of resolving these problems are examined. The author goes on to explore cosmology, chaos theory, symmetry in physical theories and particle physics, always making connections with theology. Finally, Hodgson briefly discusses the fate of science in non-Christian (or post-Christian) societies before providing anepilogue summarising his thoughts.
Hodgson argues that the Christian belief that God created the universe to be good, ordered, and accessible to the human intellect is crucial for the development of science. If this view is not held, then there is little motivation to seek detailed understanding of nature. Modern science then is rooted in a deeply held Christian worldview based on revelation (especially the Old Testament concerning creation) and influenced by ancient Greek philosophy. He traces the real birth of modern science to the high Middle Ages, when civilisation was permeated by Christian belief. Conditions were right for philosophers at the first universities to synthesise these ideas and lay the foundations for the developments later made during the Renaissance.
The book is also notable for its criticism of the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, accepted by many physicists. This holds that the world is fundamentally ‘fuzzy’ or undefined on the smallest scales and that nothing can be definitely said to exist until it is observed in some (unspecified) way. It is also non-deterministic (asserting that you can only predict the outcome of a quantum mechanical experiment up to a certain probability) and requires non-local interactions which act faster than light. Such a view is fraught with difficulties, but has allowed physicists to make predictions which agree closely with experiment. A convincing alternative to the Copenhagen interpretation which both matches experiment and is philosophically satisfying has not yet been found.However, Hodgson rejects Copenhagen-ism and suggests interesting alternative directions for interpreting Quantum theory. He urges intelligently that it is necessary to reclaim reality and determinism (a view also held by Einstein). Some philosophers have speculated that the fuzziness of Copenhagen-ism can explain our experience of free will, a view Hodgson rejects.
The author also observes that caution is required when trying to let science influence theology. This is partly because science can be a quickly changing field. What seems established fact can be disproved by a new experiment and what seems inexplicable might be a trivial result of some new theory. Any theological implications we try to draw from science run the risk of quickly being discredited. Another reason for caution is that scientific theories often use everyday words in a technical way. Unless theologians thoroughly understand the science, they run the risk of abusing terminology and distorting it to match their prejudices. Theology must take account of the way our world view develops through science, but must genuinely engage with it and not be reactionary. This work provides anexcellent overview of physics and the history of physics in relation to theology. Peter Hodgson is an Oxford researcher and teacher in physics and is perfectly positioned to comment on the science. As a member of Pax Romana (the International Catholic Movement for Intellectual and Cultural Affairs), he has a certain theological competence. He makes a point of including some detailed technical and mathematical descriptions of the physics discussed because, as he states, it can only be properly understood in those terms. For the technical reader this poses no problem, but for a non-physicist these passages will probably be challenging. With effort, most people should be able to get to grips with the maths, but these sections could be skipped without losing the gist of the argument.Occasionally, the work would have benefited from closer proof reading and more time spent explaining concepts for the benefit of the non-scientist. However, the extensive and detailed bibliography means anyone who is interested always has somewhere to turn. Overall, this is an enthusiastic and fascinating work and the views and insights that the author puts forward are intelligent and well-argued.
The Reformation in England
by Raymond Edwards
Understanding the New Age Movement
by Stratford Caldecott
Catholic Truth Society (CTS) 60 pp, £1.95
Remember when the CTS bookstand at the back of the church carried a few thin booklets with curled-up edges? Not any more. A full makeover a few years ago ensured a whole new approach. It now provides materials for schools, DVDs and videos, an interactive website, and more. The latest range of booklets—comfortable size, attractive illustrated covers, good quality print and production—tackles precisely those areas of religious and cultural life on which Catholics need accurate information in a bite-sized form that they can easily assimilate. Raymond Edwards, whose occasional features in the Catholic press are always a good read, has done an excellent job covering the English Reformation. The tone is balanced, the style measured, and the whole thing is immensely readable. He makes good useof the new material and insights now available, eg. Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars and J.J. Scarisbrick’s research. I found Edwards’ look at the Gunpowder Plot particularly useful—he asks the right questions and enables the reader to explore the whole thing from different angles, not excluding those of Government propaganda and twisted history. His analysis of the situation at the start of the reign of James I makes useful reading, as does his earlier detailed exploration of the political, financial and social scene in the latter part of Henry VIII’s reign. This would be a useful booklet for those who find history 'difficult' and also for young Catholics whose education often leaves them confused in this particular area. Stratford Caldecott’s booklet on the New Age is timely andnecessary. Perhaps too many of us have dismissed this whole phenomenon as silly nonsense: crystals and spells and meditation and bogus bits of folklore. But we need to understand the context, and the reality; people are hungry for the spiritual, the 'other' in life, which is excluded by the consumerist pressures of today. They are confused by what they have been taught of Christianity and have adopted the notion that the Church has been responsible for many of the wars and most of the injustice in European history. The idea that there has been a secret wisdom, passed on down through the centuries, revealed here and there by spiritual masters, occasionally breaking through even in the Church, is very appealing. Its trappings such as candles, scents, interpretation of dreams, use of ritualsand music, can make it all seem important and valuable. It is helpful to have the history and background to the collection of ideas that have come to be known as New Age mysticism, and to be encouraged to see the movement for what it is. But Caldecott also offers thoughtful— and challenging—comments on how best to counter it. He suggests, surely with uncomfortable accuracy, that we have seen the end of “cultural Catholicism”, of faith simply passed on, largely unchallenged, through families in the context of a settled community life. We must now be far more evangelistic, expecting converts from new sources, recognising the central importance of a beautiful liturgy, listening to people’s need for the things of God and giving them real food for their spiritual hunger. These booklets have anattractive feel, and are moderately priced. They would be excellent for use in a discussion group. Their content is high-quality, written in good English and with a complete absence of clichés. This is Catholic publishing at its best, and is what the CTS was designed to do.