“Ask a Priest: When Are Souls Created?”

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Q: 1. What is the Church’s official position? Does God himself create the soul at conception? If so, isn’t conception a sacrament, a supernatural act on God’s part? 2. If God himself creates a soul at conception then: a) How can he create an imperfect soul having original sin?; b) If God has to wait for humans to copulate and conceive, then isn’t God a secondary cause? Are humans causing God to act on demand? 3. My wife believes that all souls were created at one time. When Adam sinned, they were all “contaminated” at once. This gives the most logical answer to original sin, but it doesn’t give a method of how pre-created souls are assigned bodies. -C.L.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Thanks for your intriguing questions. Some of them deserve book-length answers, but I’ll try doing my best at brief responses.

Does God create the soul at conception? On this question, the Church has only made one thing clear. Here is how the Catechism puts it, in No. 2270: “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person — among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.”

As you can see, the Church refrains from trying to make any kind of scientific evaluation of the precise instant of ensoulment. Embryology is a scientific field still in development, and the Church’s role is not to be a scientist. But the moral issue is clear: From the moment of conception, we have a human life, and we need to treat that human life with its proper dignity.

Isn’t conception a sacrament, a supernatural act on God’s part? Conception could be thought of as a sacrament in the sense of a sign, that is, something that points beyond itself to something supernatural. Conception can be thought of as spouses participating in the creative love of God, which is a sign of the spouses’ dignity, the sacredness of their union, and the creative inner love of the Trinity.

The creation of a soul is a supernatural component of the advent of a new human life. But conception itself can be seen as a natural act, since it follows certain laws of nature.

How can God create an imperfect soul having original sin? This touches on an issue that has been debated for centuries.

The notion of original sin is mysterious, thought its effects are plain to see all around us (and in us). Let’s just say that God is infinitely good, and everything he creates is good. It’s not that he creates imperfection in a soul – that would contradict the notion of God’s goodness. Such a notion is also philosophically problematic, since evil and imperfections are kinds of non-being, the absence of being.

Maybe there are two ways of approaching this subject.

First, think of this analogy. John is standing on one side of a barbed-wire fence, his daughter Sally on the other side. It is Sally’s birthday, and John wants to give her a beautiful new coat. He passes the coat to her through the barbed wire — and, lo and behold, the garment is torn. It weighs the same, has the same amount of fabric, but when it reaches the hands of Sally it is damaged. John wanted to give her a beautiful coat, but it was delivered with a defect.

That is kind of what happens with the creation of a soul. God creates it pristine, but in the delivery it is damaged — for original sin is a defect. It is a defect we inherit from our first parents (see the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3). Now, why things work this way is still a great mystery. But that is the way it is.

A second way of seeing God’s creation of souls is to focus on his mercy and patience. Though man sinned against God and brought evil into the world, the Almighty didn’t give up on us. He didn’t allow the sin of man to stifle his desire or propensity to raise up many new lives. In fact, he sent his only Son to lift up fallen humanity, to redeem it, to purify it.

As to second part of this particular question: First, it is better to say that animals copulate. Human spouses partake in a sacred union of love.

In a sense, yes, God chooses a kind of secondary role here. He waits, so to speak, for the free action of human beings before creating a new soul. In another sense, though, God is ultimately the primary cause of all created life. He created the husband and wife. He gave them intellects and bodies and free will. So whatever they do, they are using the gifts that God has given them.

God is also in charge in that he sees all history at a glance. Yet it remains part of his plan to allow humans to “force his hand,” so to speak. Maybe this point could be better perceived as a sign of the freedom that a loving Father grants to his children.

Souls don’t pre-exist the human bodies to which they are united. St. Thomas Aquinas outlines some reasons for this view (see the Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 118, Article 3). Still, the “contamination” of mankind with the sin of Adam remains something of a mystery. Suffice it to note that all of us inherit characteristics good and bad from our parents — it is part of the interrelatedness of being human.

I hope this helps. God bless.

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