As a graduate student back in the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, I was blessed with the opportunity to study under some of the most renowned theologians and philosophers in the country, if not the world, e.g. the future Cardinals Avery Dulles, Angelo Scola and Carlo Caffarra among them, as well as the likes of Benedict M. Ashley, OP, Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, John Finnis, William E. May, Ralph McInerny, Fr. Francis Martin, Paul Vitz, Msgr. Robert Sokolowski and Ken Schmitz. As part of our graduate degree program in Sacred Theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, we were required to attend, at times, various lectures by internationally renowned scholars. On one such occasion, I remember filing into one of the large lecture halls at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, to attend a lecture on ensoulment – i.e., the moment when the human being receives a rational and immortal soul by God – by one of the greatest and most famous philosophers, Catholic or otherwise, of the 20th century.
I recall seeing, as I was looking for a place to sit in the packed room, that there was an elderly and shabbily dressed woman smoking a cigar seated at the front of the lecture hall. I remember saying to myself at the time: “Why in the heck is this ‘bag lady’ here? And why is she sitting in the front of the classroom and smoking no less?!” I thought maybe she saw the lights on in the building and decided to come in off the streets in order to warm herself up on a cold winter night and found herself unknowingly amongst a bunch of Catholic intellectuals. But no one seemed to mind having her in attendance.
I eventually found a seat at the very back of the room (A usual spot for me). Just as I was taking my seat, the Institute’s Vice-President and Academic Dean, Carl A. Anderson, also one of our professors, and now the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, and Benedict Ashley, the great Dominican Thomist, now deceased, began introducing the famous lecturer. As she rose to take the podium, my jaw literally dropped, as I realized that the “bag lady” was in fact our speaker, the celebrated British analytic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001), author of the classic 1957 book on action theory, Intention, possibly the greatest female philosopher of all time, and one of the most distinguished philosophers of the modern age, in addition to being a well-known eccentric, as I would later come to discover (Her husband and fellow Catholic convert, the eminent British analytical philosopher, Peter Geach, passed away on December 21, 2013 at the age of 97).
Professor Anscombe gave a wonderful lecture on the subject, with an equally delightful response from Fr. Ashley. Anscombe, although 100% pro-life – she would be arrested for protesting in front of abortion clinics in England – defended the older view of St. Thomas Aquinas of “delayed hominization” or “delayed ensoulment”* and Ashley, relying on the empirical evidence of modern science, defended the view of “immediate hominization,” arguing that if Aquinas had had available to him the powerful instruments of modern (embryological) science, that he too would have taken the “immediate ensoulment” position.
Luke Gormally, Anscombe’s son-in-law and himself a bioethicist, sums up her position this way: “Though her reading of the embryological evidence left her unconvinced that there was an individualised human form at the very earliest stages of development, she held that abortion at these stages was, if not the killing of an individual human being, at least the killing of ‘a living individual whole whose life is – all going well – to be the life of one or lives of more than one human being’ which it would be pedantic not to call murder.”
“Immediate ensoulment”, the view that Ashley embraces, is the one that argues for the infusion of the spiritual soul at fertilization/conception – not sometime later, as Anscombe’s position argues for. We now know from modern biology, as Ashley expressed it in a later article,** that “the human body that can serve as the material proximately prepared for the infusion of a spiritual soul is in being from the time that the organ of central control [OCC] is present within the organism, and this is at the time of completion of fertilization.” This OCC in the adult is the brain, but in the zygote, it is the nucleus of this one-celled human being, which contains all the genetic information necessary for self-directed growth and development (p. 47).
Anscombe vs. Ashley was a lively exchange between two brilliant and faithful Catholic thinkers during an evening some 25 years ago that further reinforced my conviction, first taught to me by my parents many years ago, that you should “never judge a book by its cover” … Or, in this case, a philosopher by his or her face.
*As far as I know, the lecture was not recorded or published. But cf. G.E.M. Anscombe, “Embryos and Final Causes,” in Human Life, Action, and Ethics: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe, eds. Mary Geach & Luke Gormally (Imprint Academic, 2005), pp. 45-58. This essay, wherein she engages the views of the late renowned geneticist Jérome Lejeune, shows that Anscombe was also familiar with modern science. She notes that the Catholic Church, while staunchly opposed to abortion, has nonetheless “not adopted the doctrine of ‘immediate animation’.” (p. 54). The essay was given originally as a paper in 1990, about a year or two after her John Paul II/Dominican House of Studies lecture.
** Benedict Ashley, O.P., & Albert S. Moraczewski, O.P., “Is the Biological Subject of Human Rights Present from Conception?” in The Fetal Tissue Issue, eds. Peter Cataldo & Albert Moraczewski, O.P. (Pope John Center, 1994), pp. 33-59.