Dennis McInerny Series – What is a person? (Part 1)

What is a person? We will begin our response to that important question with a negative reply. A person is not a gift of the state. It is not within the power of the state, or of any other human institution, to confer personhood, the status of being a human person, on whomever it may choose. For any state to suppose it has such power is for it to assume a stance of the most wanton kind of arrogance. It is to perform an act of supreme recklessness and gross injustice. And yet that is precisely what the Supreme Court of the United States did in 1973. In a dark masterpiece of Orwellian logic, the court, after claiming that it was not within its competence to make any pronouncements as to when human life begins, then, by the actual judgment it made, arbitrarily precluded the possibility that human life could begin before the birth of a child.

Since that fatal decision we have gone even farther down the road of mindless nihilism. The court, by legalizing abortion on demand, has effectively invested every adult citizen with the specious right of deciding who is and who is not a human person. And now, not only do we assume the power to confer or withhold personhood, we take it upon ourselves to withdraw it as well. Woe to the deathly sick and the maim and the mentally retarded, for they stand in constant danger of being declared non-persons, and therefore subject to extermination, because they fail to qualify as persons according to standards which are purely utilitarian.

Personhood begins at the very beginning, at the moment of conception. And it is indeed conferred. It is a gift, but a gift of God, not of man. The fact is indisputable that as soon as sperm conjoins with ovum and that minute cell called the zygote comes into being, there is genetically a new human being. That it is a human being cannot be disputed, for what other kind of being could ever be generated by human parents? And it is a human being who is in no way to be confused with the human being who is the mother or with the human being who is the father.

So, from the moment of conception we have dwelling within the mother what is incontestably a distinct, individual human being, a human being minuscule in size, but a human being who has, at that moment, encompassed within its tiny physical self, everything it takes to be an adult human being. It all begins right there, and it is all there right from the beginning. It might be helpful to apply here the philosophical concept of potency. There are two ways of being, actual and potential, and they are both real. An acorn is an actual acorn, but it is also a potential oak tree. To call an acorn a potential oak tree is not simply to wax poetical and indulge in metaphorical language. It is literally true that an acorn is right now potentially an oak tree, meaning that, properly planted, and all conditions subsequently being favorable, it will in fact one day be an oak tree.

The tiny human being dwelling within a woman’s body at the very beginning of its life is chock full of potential. But note very carefully what must be understood about that tiny being’s potential. It is by no means a potential human being. It is an actual human being ab initio, right from the beginning. The potential of that tiny creature is with respect to its adulthood. Though at the moment it is at the humblest and most precarious stage of its life, bearing the rather unprepossessing name of “zygote,” it is nonetheless, at that moment, potentially an adult. That is the thunderously astonishing reality. Every adult human being now living began nowhere else but right there. That is where Dante and Shakespeare and Mozart began. That’s where Our Lady began. That’s where Christ Our Lord began. We have to impress upon ourselves the surpassing importance of this critical fact: potential being is real being. The adult human being is there, in potentia, potentially real, right from the beginning.

But one might say: I agree, given everything that we now know about genetics, that it cannot be denied that what we have from the moment of conception is a human being and nothing else. But we are concerned here with personhood. It is one thing to say that a human being is there right from the beginning, but can we say that a human person is there right from the beginning?

To which I would reply: What else could we say? How could one possibly divorce the notion of human being from human person? What would it mean, in philosophical or theological terms, to be (a) a human being, and (b) not a human person? In fact, as I hope will be made clear by what I will have to say in the following article, the two simply cannot be divorced without lapsing into incoherence. A human being is either at one and the same time a human person, or it is in fact not a human being at all.

If one is going to take the position that it is possible that the tiny zygote must necessarily be recognized as a human being, but not necessarily recognized as a person, then one has a very large difficulty on one’s hands. One is conceding that there exists a tiny creature who is, here and now, a potential adult human being but not a person. What then? The answer would doubtless be: a potential person. The idea is that we are human beings right from the beginning, but not human persons right from the beginning. Personhood is something we grow into. We become persons. Personhood is not a gift, but an accomplishment.

But this line of reasoning won’t do. Recall that the potential with which the tiny zygote is invested is with respect to its adulthood, not with respect to its status as a human being. It does not grow into a human being; it is a human being who grows. To claim that human personhood is not there right from the beginning, that it is something the human being grows into, is to make personhood something apart from a flesh and blood human being. In philosophical terms, it would make of personhood an accidental feature of humanness, rather than something that is essential to it. In other words, it would make personhood an element that is added on to human nature, rather than being, what in fact it is, an integral and inextricable part of it.

And of course if one does not concede that personhood is there right from the beginning—because to be a human being means to be a person—then there arises the insuperable problem as to when a human being becomes a human person. If a human being is not a person from the first moment of conception, if a human being only develops into the status of personhood, then where is the magic line that is crossed from mere human being to human person, and, more pointedly, who draws that line?

As soon as personhood is divorced from human nature as such, a Pandora’s box of evils is opened. When personhood is not accepted as a “given,” as that which is present from the beginning, then personhood becomes a status which is arbitrarily conferred, or withheld, by those with power over this tiny human creature, and according to criteria that have nothing to do with the ontological realities of the situation. “Choice” becomes a matter of choosing who is and who is not a human person. And those who are not so chosen are condemned to death at the very dawn of their lives.

Dr. Dennis Q. McInerny’s articles have been published in the FSSP North American District Newsletter many times through the years and will soon be published in the upcoming book Perennial Wisdom Volume II by Fraternity Publications.

March 1, 2010