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Existing in embryo

By Michael Pakaluk
Posted: 12/7/2007

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I want here simply to call attention to a way of thinking that used to be taken for granted but has now largely been lost, involving something very common and in the experience of everyone. Yet that we are unable now easily to think in the way that used to be familiar to us is one important reason, I believe, that the civilization of the West is perishing.

I have in mind what might be called the notion of “existing in embryo.” By this I mean: we acknowledge that it is possible for the “substance” of a thing already to exist at the very beginning of its growth, and that it have all of the reality of the fully existing thing, only requiring time for increase and maturation. This “substance” is not yet manifested. It is real, but it is hidden. All of the reality of the fully developed thing is present, but it does little to make its reality felt. If we do not acknowledge it, it will not force us to acknowledge it, and we can if we wish destroy it, as its existence, although real, is frail.

The most natural example of “existing in embryo” is of course how a human being exists in embryo and develops thence to birth.

I encountered recently the notion of “existing in embryo” in separate discussions by two popes. In “Love and Responsibility” by Karol Wojty a I found a striking passage in which he claimed that “attraction is of the essence of love and in some sense is indeed love,” and then he drew attention to how sometimes a married couple can look back to the first moment of their mutual attraction and say that their love already existed there as if “in embryo.”

Next I found Pope Benedict in his recent encyclical referring to St. Paul’s definition of faith as “the substance of things hoped for” and remarking that “through faith, in a tentative way, or as we might say ‘in embryo’ -- and thus according to the ‘substance’ -- there are already present in us the things that are hoped for: the whole, true life. And precisely because the thing itself is already present, this presence of what is to come also creates certainty: this ‘thing’ which must come is not yet visible in the external world (it does not ‘appear’), but because of the fact that, as an initial and dynamic reality, we carry it within us, a certain perception of it has even now come into existence.”

Pope Benedict was arguing against Luther’s subjective understanding of faith and insisting, on the contrary, that a Christian’s certainty of faith springs from the actual existence and operation within him (a “habitus,” in St. Thomas Aquinas’ terms) of the reality of the life of grace.

Notice how both writers so naturally appeal to the concept of “existing in embryo.” Notice also how rich that concept is. To accept that it is possible that a thing exist in embryo is already to accept a host of metaphysical distinctions. One must draw a distinction between the appearance and reality (since the “full reality” exists but is not manifested); between human consent and objective reality (since the “full reality” exists even if we fail to acknowledge it); between essence and accident (since the “full reality” has all that is essential and differs only by maturation and growth); and between gift and cooperation (because the “full reality” is a kind of endowment that calls for our thankful assistance).

That attitude that we should naturally have toward something that exists in embryo is hope. If the full reality of a thing is already present but is not yet manifested, then our proper response is to accept its reality with certainty and to expect and look forward to its eventual manifestation, which is precisely hope.

Just as the most ordinary and natural example of “existing in embryo” is the existence of the full reality of a human being in the womb of his or her mother, so the most ordinary and natural expression of hope for a human is the expectation of that child’s birth.

Suppose then that a society declares as a matter of its public morality and ultimate law--the view that counts as “official” in the public square--that there is no fact of the matter that a human being ever exists in embryo. On this official position, someone who is “pro-life” and believes that we do so exist is merely engaging in a kind of wishful thinking. Such is the condition of nearly all Western societies.

It would not be surprising if the consequence of the adoption of such an outlook were, precisely, hopelessness.

I do not mean merely that to reject life through abortion is to reject the future and also to reject the possibility that good can come of evil.

This is of course true. But I mean also that when it legalizes abortion a society rejects, as a matter of public consciousness, the usual and ordinary way in which we as human beings experience “hope” and have practice in living the attitude of “hope,” since it denies publicly that we exist in embryo.

Since grace completes nature, supernatural virtue rests upon natural virtues. How then can we have hope in God, if we cannot even muster enough hope to be confident that the birth of a human being is something good?

Michael Pakaluk is a visiting professor of philosophy for the year at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.