By DONALD DeMARCO
March 25 is the Solemnity of the Annunciation, the day that Mary said “yes” to conceiving Christ. Consistent with the inaugural day of Christ’s life in her womb, the Nativity, or birth of Christ, is exactly nine months later, on December 25.
March 25, appropriately, is the International Day of the Unborn Child, in agreement with the notion that human life begins at conception. Also, on this date, March 25 (in 1995), Blessed John Paul II issued Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). Toward the end of this most important encyclical, the Holy Father refers to Mary’s second “yes” that she made on the day of the cross.
“When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’” (John 19:26).
As John Paul explains, at this moment, the time had arrived “for Mary to receive and beget as her children all those who become her disciples” (n. 103). On the Annunciation, Mary conceived Christ; at Calvary, she received His disciples. In both instances she was eminently a Mother: “This Mary becomes the model of the Church, called to be the ‘new Eve,’ the mother of believers, the mother of the ‘living’” (n. 103).
The Gospel of Life is a strong defense of human life throughout the continuum from conception to natural death. Its defense of life in the womb is of particular importance not only because of the prodigious rate of abortion throughout the world, but because of the ease by which abortion is rationalized as an acceptable procedure. Yet, as John Paul asks, “How can anyone think that even a single moment of life could be separated from the wise and loving work of the Creator, and left prey to human caprice?” (n. 44).
Tragically, however, the life of the unborn is all too often “left prey to human caprice.” The word “caprice,” it is interesting to note, is derived from the Italian word capra, meaning “goat.”
“Capricorn,” the southern zodiacal constellation, means “goat-horned” (capra + cornus).
It is a strange thing that a rational animal can behave more like a goat, whose movements are whimsical and unpredictable, on an issue as dear to him as his own life.
To be “capricious,” according to Webster’s Dictionary, is to be “lacking predictable pattern or law, changeable, erratic, whimsical.”
A goat, needless to say, does not make a good model for life.
Though the Catholic Church is routinely criticized for displacing reason with faith, it is actually the secular world that is guilty of this practice. Consider the following two examples.
In the year 1620, Thomas Fienus, a professor of medicine at Louvain in Belgium, published a biomedical treatise, De formatrice fetus liber (On the Formation of the Young Fetus) in which he rejected the Aristotelian notion of a succession of souls. Fienus argued that the soul must be present at the beginning in order to organize the body. He reasoned, on the basis of empirical evidence, that there must be one soul from the beginning that establishes the specific unity and individual continuity of the developing embryo.
In that same year, 1620, Paolo Zacchia, physician general of the Vatican state, published a book entitled Questiones medico-legales (Medical Legal Questions) in which he reasoned that the rational soul is created and infused at conception. Like Fienus, he maintained that the soul must always organize the body if development is to be determined from within.
In 1644, Pope Innocent X conferred upon Paolo Zacchia the title, “General Proto-Physician of the Entire Roman Ecclesiastical State.”
Both Fienus and Zacchia approached the nature of the fetus and its time of conception in a purely reasoned and empirical manner. Today, we have even stronger empirical evidence indicating that human life begins at conception. It would be absurd to believe that fetologists and embryologists of today have fallen back to a period of science which antedates 1620. Empirical science is progressive. It is moral integrity that may backslide.
March 25, like the advent of spring, is a celebration of a beginning — the beginning of life. But it is also a celebration of a renewal — proclaiming, once again, the moral significance of that beginning. We read in Jer. 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”
To these words, John Paul II adds, “the life of every individual, from its very beginning, is part of God’s plan” (n. 44).
The Annunciation proclaims a beginning, but it also foreshadows a plan. But the plan cannot materialize if the message of the Annunciation is rejected.