We are all justly appalled at the remark of Indiana senatorial candidate Richard Mourdock declaring that if a pregnancy resulted from rape it was “intended by God.” Our instantaneous sense of moral outrage quickly descends into something much worse, however, when we come to realize that this was not a private belief of fanatical religious fundamentalists, but is the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.
The doctrine in question has to do with the official Catholic “belief” in the direct creation of the human soul and its infusion into the fertilized egg by God. This “ensoulment” is not some gloss from a half-forgotten mediaeval disputation, it is current doctrine and actively taught. It was publicly re-affirmed as recently as 1992 with great clarity by the Vatican itself in the “Catholic Catechism” designed to prepare converts for baptism and to teach the laity.
Here are the words of the Catechism, #366: “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.” The reasoning behind this is straightforward. According to the Church the soul is “spirit;” it is of a different order of being from matter. The human sperm and ovum are only organic matter; they are incapable of producing a spiritual soul. Therefore God himself “immediately” — without the mediation of the activity or the bodily material of the parents — creates and infuses each and every soul into its developing zygote.
Since “God” is all-powerful, if “he” does this, “he” must freely intend to do it, otherwise we would have to say that “God” was somehow coerced by sexual activity into infusing a soul. Therefore if a pregnancy occurs it is because “God” intended that a human being should result from that act of rape. The logic is ironclad and the conclusions inescapable. What is absurd are the premises — the doctrines involved — the existence of a spiritual soul different and separable from the body, human genetic material incapable of producing a human being, and a “God” who personally creates and infuses souls. It is all absurd. False. A lie. Those that promote it are equally responsible for what people like Mourdock think and do.
I will keep my commentary within a Catholic frame of reference. Mourdock’s remark was not only an insult to women, it was an insult to “God.” Our initial outrage came from our sense of moral goodness and a reverence for the benevolence of “God.” No “God” worthy of the name could ever intend any such thing, therefore the entire doctrinal construct adduced to support it is patently erroneous and must be discarded. The logic here is also ironclad. The goodness of “God” is the premise that unmasks and condemns the falsity. There are even further implications that we would rather not deal with: that the institution that claims such things, and even teaches them on the authority of “God,” by that very fact reveals itself to be if not intentionally fraudulent, then deceived, incredible and unreliable.
Even in the ancient Aristotelian terms in which the doctrine is expressed, there is no justification for saying there is a soul separable from the body. Matter (the body) and form (the soul) were metaphysical principles each responsible for certain aspects of the one substance, the human organism; they were not thought of as separate substances. The rationalizations devised by the mediaeval theologians to dodge that impasse were a gross capitulation to the requirements of the Inquisition.
The so-called “providence” that claims a person-God oversees and micro-manages all events and occurences is also erroneous. Even the great Thomas Aquinas whose explanations have formed the basis of much of what the Church teaches, taught that divine providence is completely fulfilled in the natural order. Miracles are always possible, he says, but they are not to be expected. Everything in nature is accomplished by secondary (natural) causes and not by the direct action of “God.” The Church teaching on ensoulment would contradict this. It would take a perfectly natural function and insist that it was a miracle.
The genetic material of the parents — the male sperm and the female ovum — are fully capable of generating a complete human being directed by their DNA at work in embryonic development. The reproduction of a human being is no more miraculous, requiring the direct “immediate” intervention of God, than the generation of a calf from a bull’s sperm and a cow’s egg. These are equally natural events that are carried through by the living reproductive cells of the parent organisms. The same is true of the almost uncountable number of living species of plants and animals on the planet. To suggest that, even in the creationist terms used by the Church, the same provident “God” who made each species capable of reproducing its kind on its own, failed to accomplish that goal in the case of humankind alone, is ludicrous.
So we see that the problem runs deeper than the offhand remark of some opportunistic politician angling for votes. There are ideological and institutional underpinnings that are revealed in all their absurdity in these events. They always seem to escape notice, however, and so they always remain unchanged, poised and ready to contaminate the minds of the next generation of unsupecting believers who credit this Church with a unique access to the truth that it does not have. It is time we allow our outrage to have its full reforming effect … not superficially, but all the way down to the root of the problem. These “doctrines” must be exposed for the absurdities that they are.
As with so many things that need changing in our mediaeval Church, begging for reforms without recognizing the dogmatic bases that feed the offenses and protect the offenders, is whistling dixie. If we want a changed Church we have to begin by changing the terms in which doctrines are understood and expressed. The absurd doesn’t disappear when a Church calling itself infallible insists it is the truth — it becomes grotesque.