Pro-Life Strategy and Arguments for the Soul

Editorial FAITH Magazine March-April 2007

Abortion Strikes at the Root of Human Identity

One dimension of the anti-life culture to which Church documents and pro-life movements in general have, as yet, paid little attention is the denial of the spiritual soul in each human person. Much pro-life argument focuses on the contradiction inherent in the liberal secular fight for the ‘human rights’ of various adult minority groups whilst simultaneously denying the most basic right to life to the unborn. Such pro-life argument typically points out that to justify this pro-abortion position by claiming that the unborn child is not human is at best biologically incoherent and at worst dangerously self-defeating philosophical myopia.

This approach to pro-life propaganda characteristically goes on to affirm that in addition to killing an innocent person, abortion undermines the inalienable dignity of every human being, adults as well as the unborn. As the very notion of the definitive value of the human person is eroded, the concept of absolute right and wrong is lost from legal principle and social practice. And it is undoubtedly true that maintaining concepts of absolute moral value, of objective right and wrong is the only intelligible basis upon which you can protect and promote the flourishing of every member of the human community. To exclude one person is to undermine all.

Yet such pro-life polemic still does not deal with what is a major contributory factor of the modern anti-life mentality. Agnosticism about human dignity and objective morality in various forms plays a significant role in the justification and promotion of ‘abortion rights’ around the world. The ever widening range of so called ‘rights’ and correspondingly diminishing range of duties is a sign that the whole concept has lost its moorings in our society.

As Fr Dylan James brings out later in this issue, the justification of ‘human rights’ today is less and less grounded on the objective nature of Man and more and more on the shifting sands of utilitarianism. And Jeremy Bentham, the founder of British utilitarianism, famously said that “human rights is nonsense - on stilts!” In such a confused milieu, merely pointing out that abortion undermines human dignity fails to press the right intellectual buttons.

Doubts about the Difference between Humans and Animals.

Unless this fundamental agnosticism about human nature is effectively challenged, the momentum of the anti-life movement would appear unstoppable. Many pro-life advocates and resources can unwittingly allow this flawed anthropology to prosper because they do not offer any proof or argument for the existence of the spiritual soul, which is the only rational ground for a uniquely human ‘personhood’.

Some might argue that it is not the place of pro-life movements to engage with such philosophical, even, theological issues, and to do so risks alienating pro-life materialists, even that it might appear to denigrate the human body. Yet as we approach the 40th anniversary later this year of the British abortion act it is a good time to reassess our approach. 

For most people in modern Britain, the basic definition of what is human is increasingly confused and conflictual. The boundary between animal and human dignity is increasingly blurred. The public consensus veers between sympathy for animal rights – although it is only some animals that are included, you do no hear much about the ‘rights’ of insects and spiders, for example – and uncertainty about the moral boundaries surrounding human life and death – although, of course, outright murder is still regarded as a crime. Yet most pro-life teaching and debating strategy seems to assume the transcendent value of human life and identity. When addressing the average secular British citizen, we simply cannot make that assumption, because the modern anti-life ethic has been forged in a culturethat is increasingly materialistic and relativistic at its core.

In traditional Catholic thought, it is precisely the spiritual soul that makes us qualitatively different from animals, grounding our eternal destiny in the Life of God and giving a communal and vocational value to our life on earth. In order to challenge the agnosticism which fosters the ‘pro-choice’ mentality, we urgently need a reasoned and reasonable defence of the inalienable value of the human person based on sound, contemporary arguments for the spiritual soul.

Recent Pro-life Polemics

Last summer this writer attended a European pro-life seminar. Excellent cultural analyses were followed by a question time. At this point the largely Catholic panel was asked to explain the basis of the unique dignity of the human species in a way that was accessible to non-Christians. They attempted some tentative answers, one even suggesting that ‘Process Theology’ might help, but they were clearly unprepared for the task.

In 2006 the inspiring American group “Catholics and Evangelicals Together” published an agreed statement entiteld That They May Have Life. It is a noble document, making numerous excellent points based on both reason and revelation, acknowledging that pro-life politics is “supported by reasons that are accessible to all and should be convincing to all”. However, it sets out only to answer the question: “which human beings … possess rights that we are bound to respect?”, without addressing whether and why any beings at all should have such rights.

Many of the objections put forward by pro-life agencies in Britain against recent euthanasia Bills gave precedence to the ‘thin end of the wedge’ type of argument, often pointing to Holland as a worst case example. Against the Mental Capacity Bill , for example, a powerful case was put forward arguing that respect for the will of the patient was being legally and morally undermined -but not why the individual’s will is relevant, let alone why it should be inviolable. Pro-lifers protest rightly that the social value of the individual enshrined in our centuries old legal tradition is being eroded by various anti-life measures, but unfortunately less importance has been placed on defending the value of human nature per se by arguments from natural reason.

Secular Human Rights: Standing on Shaky Ground

Ignatius Press’s Catholic World Report carries an insightful “Last Word” penned by one ‘Diogenes’. In the January 2006 edition he examines a piece written by Ann Furedi, the director of the UK’s principle abortion provider the, partly Government funded, BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service). He discerns a Lady Macbeth-like “moral desperation” and psychological denial in her pushing of the “abortion rights” agenda so strongly as to be blatantly self-contradictory by then denying any rights to the unborn.

A lengthy quotation from Ms Furedi begins: “For those of us who emerged from a progressive humanist tradition, ‘rights’ designates the requirements for participation in bourgeois, democratic society.” As Hamlet put it: Ay, there’s the rub! Her apparently firm affirmation of certain rights is a self-conscious social construct, culturally specific and thoroughly post-modern. On this humanistic and historically contingent basis there is actually a certain logic in applying 'rights' only to some human beings.

Of course from an objective standpoint we know that the whole mentality is warped. The humanist concept of ‘rights’ is indeed ultimately no more than a temporarily agreed consensus. It may well be true that self-consciousness about standing on such shaky ground is the reason why the talk of a woman’s 'right' to abortion services has become an uncritical mantra, rising to a aggressive assertion when challenged, for this kind of feminist. But we need to be able to demonstrate the flaws in the logic and to make a case for the objectivity that is missing. It is not enough just to point out the "desperation" and denial evidenced in the likes of Ms Furedi's shrill campaigning.

Ms Furedi and those who think like her will always find a degree of justification for their position until they are shown that the idea of human rights is not a mere social contract based on the will of a politically and historically transient majority. Only then will they see the need to extend the most basic right of all to every human being, from conception to natural death.

The Retreat of American Catholicism In the Summer/Fall 2006 edition of the Human Life Review there is a typically thought-provoking article, which has received plaudits from the incisive pen of Richard John Neuhaus in the January issue of First Things. George McKenna’s “Crisis Cross: Democrats, Republicans and Abortion” charts the tragic loss to American Pro-Life activism of a generation of Catholic Democrats who came of age during the 60’s Civil Rights movement and the 70’s rise of the feminist movement.

Their loyalty to the Democratic party was rooted in the party’s commitment to social justice. McKenna links their preparedness to accept the Democratic Party’s adoption of an unambiguous pro-abortion policy in 1980 to four further causes: (i) an inferiority complex towards their “secular humanist” “soul mates (in) the civil rights movement” who “dismissed (Catholic) concerns about killing unborn children.”; (ii) their partial assimilation of Teilhard de Chardin’s view of the inevitable progress of history; (iii) the historical tension between Catholicism and the traditionally Protestant and economically exploitative Republican party which, under Reagan, became the pro-life party; and (iv) the fairly sudden capitulation of Archbishop, then Cardinal, Bernadin supported by most Bishops.

Crisis and Betrayal Inside the Camp

In the mid-1970’s Bernadin stated that “the obligation to safeguard human life arises not from religious or sectarian doctrine, but from universal moral imperatives concerning human dignity …”, and trumpeted the right to life as the most fundamental of all rights. However, by the early 80’s he was downplaying the abortion issue as the key ‘life’ issue. Prescience about the Cardinal’s capitulation may, it seems, have emboldened the Democratic Party to take such a clear-cut pro-abortion stance.

McKenna uses the group behaviour theory of sociologists Erikson and Durkheim to explain how this led “Catholic liberals in the Democratic party uncomplainingly (to) accept the party’s pro-abortion plank … (and) to explain why the Bishops … shut their mouths …”. But this diagnosis makes the Bishops and liberal Catholics look too easy a push-over. How was it that the Bishops could so quickly downplay the traditional view that the pro-life position arose from “universal moral imperatives concerning human dignity”? How was it that politically aware Catholics, even if increasingly lapsed, found the secular humanist’s pro-abortion position so hard to argue against?

Surely the intellectual influence of Catholic thinkers who tended to confuse matter and spirit, such as Teilhard and Rahner, is of greater relevance than McKenna acknowledges. The universal moral imperatives of scholastic thought, which were inferred from the uniquely spiritual nature of man, were attacked as unreasonable by materialistic humanism, and modern Catholic thought was no longer sure of its own philosophical ground. The pen is mightier than group dynamics. Only an anthropology which makes a clear-cut distinction between men and animals can be the foundation of a coherent pro-life vision. It is this apologetic that has been missing during the rise of anti-life culture.

Catholic Tradition and the Soul

Our civilization’s moral code was founded on Judaeo-Christian revelation, which in turn gave rise to a rational conviction that every human person is made in the image of God. Not that man was regarded as aloof from and alien to the rest of Nature. The human vocation to glorify God by sharing in the very Life of the Trinity places Man at the peak of creation, summing up and fulfilling the dignity and purpose of every creature under heaven. The dignity of man - and therefore the wrongness of killing innocent human beings - stands at the heart of natural law in the Christian dispensation, in contrast with the ancient pagan world. This necessarily entailed a radical distinction between human and animal life which could be clearly articulated. It was on this basis and this heritage that thesecond millennium concept of “human rights” was originally developed.

Jesus spoke about death of the soul as more to be feared than death of the body. From the fifth century onwards, Western Catholic thinkers have believed that each individual soul is immediately created by God. It does not emerge from bodily or genetic inheritance. Thomas Aquinas and the scholastic tradition further clarified that the soul is non-material and metaphysically distinct from the body. The soul is spiritual, that is it exists in the same personal order of being as God himself, albeit in a participated and contingent manner. It entails the power to love freely, to enter into communion and to form community. It is this capacity to build human communion in this life and for eternity which is the very purpose of creation. From this flows the fundamental value of each humanperson.

Scholasticism argued that this truth about the soul could be rationally inferred from the characteristic activity of ‘abstract thought’. Thinking involved grasping universal ‘forms’, which were non-material, whereas physical sensation – the animal mode of ‘knowing’ -could only grasp local ‘materiality', instinctively interacting individual to individual. So we could infer that thinking must be a non-physical action. Purely physical things, such as animals, are not made in the direct image of God, so they do not individually survive death, they do not have a personal destiny in God. Hence, while cruelty to animals is an offence against Man’s duty of care, we are permitted to eat them, for example.

The Challenge from Modern Science

The rise of modern science put pressure on this traditional defence of the soul. As materialists dismissed the soul altogether, Christian thinkers felt the idea more and more to be an intellectual embarrassment, associating it with denigration of the body and a superstitious view of creation.

Influential theologians, from Teilhard through Karl Rahner to Herbert McCabe have cast doubt upon the metaphysical distinction of matter and spirit in Man. Teilhard depicted the ascent of evolution, including Man, as the complexification and intensification of a single twin faceted energy which simply emerges into a new and more spiritual (or "radial" as opposed to "tangential") dimension with the emergence of Man.

Rahner developed a related and similarly monist pattern of thought in which subjective Spirit is seen as ‘going out’ of Itself in the act of questioning so as to become objectified in the material realm. He actually called matter “frozen spirit”. Matter then gradually "transcends itself" to become liberated once more as Spirit in the act of recognition and ultimate Self-acceptance. For Rahner, this dialectic not only encompasses but actually flows from God’s own Being. “When God becomes Not-God, Man happens” he wrote. So, Man is God going out of Himself into the materiality of non-Being, and Jesus Christ is Man re-entering Divinity in the final synthesis of the Cosmic Dialectic. It is clever, but in the last analysis it is not Catholicism.

It is no surprise that Rahner struggled to give any unequivocal affirmation of the soul’s individual survival after bodily death. Whilst philosophically more traditional, the Dominican McCabe shared the fashionable desire to let the distinction between body and soul in man slip out of usage. His prominent 1985 simple question and answer New Catechism of Christian Doctrine completely left out any mention of the human soul, in significant contrast with the old "Penny Catechism" of very similar name and format.

In our November/December 2006 issue we published a mainly positive review by Edmund Nash of the important The Soul of the Embryo: An enquiry into the status of the human embryo in the Christian Tradition by David Albert Jones. Nash carefully argued that Jones had, unfortunately, not faced the question: “Can natural reason convince a modern man that we are qualitatively different form animals?”. It is significant that this lacuna has not been an issue for most other reviewers.

Catholic Teaching Today

Later in this issue Pere Jobert quotes this important statement from a 1998 talk by the Servant of God Pope John Paul II:

“Anthropological reflection, in fact, leads to the recognition that, by virtue of the substantial unity of body and spirit, the human genome not only has a biological significance, but also possesses anthropological dignity, which has its basis in the spiritual soul that pervades it and gives it life.”

The 1985 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Instruction on Respect for Human Life states,
“By virtue of its substantial union with a spiritual soul, the human body cannot be … evaluated in the same way as the body of animals … The natural moral law expresses and lays down the purposes, rights and duties which are based upon the bodily and spiritual nature of the human person.” (Introduction, section 3).

The Teaching of John Paul II

Pope John Paul II quotes this document in his 1995 Encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae. Of course these statements express Catholic truth and they are welcome interventions in our cultural crisis, but, sadly, neither document grounds these points explicitly in reason. Neither does the 2004 International Theological Commission’s Human Persons Created in the Image of God. Except for tentatively touching on the implications of modern science in paragraph 30, it spends more time sympathising with “present-day theology (which) is striving to overcome the influence of dualistic anthropologies that locate the imago Dei exclusively with reference to the spiritual aspect of human nature.” (para. 27)

 Pope John Paul II strikes a good balance in his “Discourse to the Working Group (concerning Brain Death)” in December 1985 when he says that the value of human life “springs from what is spiritual in man … (the body) receives from a spiritual principle - which inhabits it and makes it what it is - a supreme dignity.” (para. 14).

Evangelium Vitae states that “God’s own image and likeness is transmitted thanks to the creation of the immortal soul.” (para. 43). The Catechism of the Catholic Church confirms the Penny Catechism’s emphasis that we are primarily (“most especially” CCC 363) in the image of God in our spiritual soul. The “human body (is such) precisely because it is animated by the spiritual soul.” (364). It talks of the “profound” personal “unity of body and soul” and adds that “it is because of the spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living human body; spirit and matter in man … (form) a single nature …. The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God.” (365-6)

Loss of Coherent Apologetics

There has been a long tradition within Catholic catechesis of making a rational case for the immortal nature of man. Yet it is virtually nowhere to be found in popular post-Vatican II catechetical schemes. Belief in the spiritual soul is no longer prominent in the Catholic consciousness. This state of affairs not only fails to engage with the core issue at the heart of the culture of death, it also tacitly encourages agnosticism about life after death, human freedom, the ultimate nature of evil and the human need for prayer and religious practice.

The Catholic Church is the standard bearer of the fundamental dignity and right to life of every member of our species based on an objective and universal morality. She needs to make a renewed case for her teaching concerning the human soul. In this regard we do need to return to the essential outlines of the Thomistic tradition while developing its specific arguments and detailed categories in the light of modern science.

A significant reason for the catastrophic collapse of the old anthropology and its associated catechesis was this unrealised need for the perennial philosophy to be updated. We are convinced the decline of Catholic cultural influence cannot be ascribed to external pressures alone. We should at least consider the possibility of a fault line, not within Catholic doctrine itself, but in the way we present it.

A New Vision

We cannot repeat again the details of our modern argument for the human soul here. The September-October 2006 editorial of Faith and the Faith pamphlet What Makes Man Unique? rehearse the argument that modern science helps us to defend the distinction and complementarity of physical body and spiritual soul in Man. These issues are not merely of academic interest. Inalienable human dignity can no longer be taken for granted in public discourse in the twenty-first century. We desperately need a coherent and fully elaborated vision which reaffirms the reality of the spiritual in Man, of the spiritual realm as a whole, and its relationship with a fully intelligible and Divinely constituted material realm.

Pope Benedict's New Year's Day 2007 Message for the World Day of Peace states that today peace

"is threatened by indifference as to what constitutes man's true nature. Many of our contemporaries actually deny the existence of a specific human nature and thus open the door to the most extravagant interpretations of what essentially constitutes a human being. Here too clarity is necessary ..."

And in his Angelus address for 28th January 2007 Pope Benedict talked of the existence of a

“limitation (of) human reason (which) produces a terrible schizophrenia, evident to all, because of which rationalism and materialism, and hypertechnology and unbridled instincts, coexist. It is urgent, therefore, to rediscover in a new way human rationality open to the light of the divine ‘Logos’ and to its perfect revelation that is Jesus Christ, Son of God made man. … reason, illuminated by faith, finds the strength to rise to knowledge of God and of spiritual realities.”

If we could only be open to such a grace, we might find ourselves better equipped to turn the tide of rapid moral decline in our civilization and fight back more effectively against the demonic onslaught upon human life and happiness which we rightly name the culture of death.

Faith Magazine