When Samuel Johnson sought to reject George Berkeley’s argument that our worldly experience consisted of mental abstractions, Johnson walked to a rock and kicked it, proclaiming, “I refute it thus” as a means of proving the point.
Such ad lapidem arguments often remain the Achilles heel of many pro-life arguments. What seems so patently clear to many of us remains terribly obscure to others. The danger of not making our arguments clear is to have them obscured in such a way where priests, bishops, and even popes make mistakes.
One of these mistakes was in Pope Francis’ recent interview with America Magazine, where the direct question was put to the Holy Father by Gloria Purvis. Should the right to life take priority over the question of social justice?
Francis demurred on the specific question, remarking that the pastoral question of abortion relating to persons should carry far more importance that the political question. Yet, in Francis’ answer, there was a troubling remark that could not be explained away as either a miscommunication or misunderstanding.
While defending the basic human right to exist in clear terms, Francis went out of his way to separate the idea of human being and human person, indicating that this question – long considered settled — was open as a matter for debate:
In any book of embryology it is said that shortly before one month after conception the organs and the DNA are already delineated in the tiny fetus, before the mother even becomes aware. Therefore, there is a living human being. I do not say a person, because this is debated, but a living human being.
This cannot be the case.
Human personhood is roughly defined by two qualities: existence and a rational soul. Pope Saint John Paul II offered his own definition of human personhood in Evangelium Vitae, specifically citing that human being and human person were synonymous terms from the very moment of creation. Quoting from documents on abortion and procreation from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, John Paul II wrote:
It would never be made human if it were not human already. This has always been clear, and … modern genetic science offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be: a person… (EV, 60)
Critics who argued that a reduced potentiality means a reduced personhood find themselves firmly rebuked by John Paul II, who confirms that an “individual person with his characteristic aspects already well determined” is indeed that human being. St. Thomas Aquinas argues that this ensoulment continues until the human person has exhaled his last breath, not when their potential for living is exhausted or diminished.
Francis’ answer is at odds with Evangelium Vitae in a most direct way. By putting distance between human being and human personhood, Francis intentionally or otherwise opens the door to a litany of horribles that have both moral and theological consequences too terrible to ignore.
The long history of human experience illustrates what happens when humanity is permitted to deny the personhood in others: slavery, the Jewish Holocaust, the Holodomor, the 70 million dead babies and mothers victimized by the abortion industry, Canada’s experiment in euthanizing the poor. All give testimony to the cruelty of treating one another as mere beings rather than full persons.
Of course, it is far more likely that Francis has not considered the question deeply enough. Too many Catholics forget how utterly spoiled we were to have such tremendous intellects in the Chair of St. Peter. Francis’ remark rightly emphasizes the pastoral over the political, yet the lack of theological precision in matters of life and death has dire and direct consequences in a world full of wolves.
Which brings us to a word of caution. One should have little interest in the cottage industry of “Francis-bashing” which passes for adult conversation in too many quarters of the English-speaking Catholic world. The great enemy of love, reminds John Paul II, continues to be utility and use.
When human persons are reduced to things, this is where Soren Kierkegaard’s admonishment in The Present Age rings most true: we can do the most terrible things to one another human person on principle. The bloody history of the modern age pays credence to this sentiment; rather than kicking a rock to prove the point, one need only ask St. Peter’s successor to be more mindful, even if we indulge in a little kick now and then.
(Editor’s note: This essay has been edited for sake of clarity since being posted.)
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