Part 2: Fecundity within Human Process:  A few important distinctions and relations, but no big insights.

by David Fleischacker

This is the second installment on a series that will give focused attention to statements and sections of Lonergan’s 1943 essay, Finality, Love, and Marriage. The focus in this blog is to highlight that fecundity and its realization belongs primarily to organistic and sensitive nature.

The R-Series, it differentials, and its characteristics

When Lonergan shifts to articulating the nature of marriage, he wants to situate its specific potentialities and activities within the larger context of the hierarchy of human process. How does fecundity fit into this? His answer begins by differentiating this hierarchy into three ends – life, the good life, and eternal life.[1] Subsequently, he sorts out three sets of human activities, each set being related to a particular end.

The emergence and maintenance of human life is repetitive.  But the attainment of the human good life is a historical development, a unique process, not repeated for each individual, as is life, but a single thing shared by all individuals according to their position and role in the space-time solidarity of man.  Finally, the end of eternal life stands completely outside both the measurable time of repetitive life and the ordinal time of the progressive good life.[2]

Both the ends and the levels of activities form a hierarchy.  The first end and level is the base upon which the second builds, and then the first and second are the bases upon which the third builds.  A later blog will deal with this in detail along with further differentiations that Lonergan develops later in life.  Our focus at the moment is upon the first level which he unpacks as “physical, vital, sensitive spontaneity” (R) which is actuated (R’) in order to effect the emergence and maintenance of human life (R”).  He calls this level the level of “nature” which is of course a rather restricted use of the term “nature.”  Nature has three characteristics.  It is repetitive, spontaneous, and efficient.

As repetitive, one thinks of

  1. One’s heart beats circulating the blood in a recurrent cycle throughout the body.
  2. Being born.
  3. Eating and drinking.
  4. Muscle movements that can repeat.
  5. The growth from young undifferentiated bodies into mature bodies.

Given that Lonergan identifies all physical, vital, sensitive spontaneity as cyclical, it does not seem that he had worked out organic development yet, so any types of repetition were identified as mere cycles, rather than grasping that some are really organic developments.[3] Hence I include in the sampling above both schemes of recurrence (1 and 4) as well as schemes of emergence (2), development (5), and decline (3).  All can be described as repetitive however, and I think this more undifferentiated notion of scheme is what Lonergan had in mind at this point in his life.

Nature is also spontaneous, and Lonergan’s meaning in this text is in terms of community.  “By organistic spontaneity I would denote the mutual adaptation and automatic correlation of activities of many individuals as though they were parts of a larger organic unit.”[4]  He is speaking of how organisms move into a set of relations without “deciding” to do so, and going through the process of deliberation.  It arises out of their repetitive nature, and thus is “spontaneous” in that sense.

Finally, nature is efficient.  Lonergan’s contrast in this case is with human failure and inefficiency.

While nature with the ease of superautomaton pursues with statistical infallibility and regularly attains through organistic harmonies its repetitive ends, the reason and rational appetite of fallen man limp in the disequilibrium of high aspiration and poor performance to make the progress of reason a dialectic of decline as well as of advance…

This property is understand in terms of the contrast with human failure and falleness. However, later in his life,  Lonergan will modify how “nature” is efficient. In Insight, Lonergan will introduce how these natural processes include dead ends and failures, all of which are included in a world that runs along the lines of emergence probability.[5]  Yet his basic point is right.  Nature, as in its physical and organic processes, is distinct from a rational life that is fallen.

The Z-Series: A Type of R-Series

Now we can turn to fecundity and its context.  I developed only the first level of the hierarchy of human process, because that is the level into which fecundity fits.  Lonergan unpacks fecundity in the same way that he unpacks nature.  Fecundity and sex[6] (Z) is actuated in the organistic union of man and woman (Z’) and has a horizontal end in adult offspring  (Z”).  Lonergan identifies fecundity and its realization as an essential aspect of nature.  Fecundity as a potential that is differentiated into the semi-fecundities of male and female belongs to “physical, vital, sensitive spontaneity” (R). The organistic union belongs to an actuation of a “physical, vital, sensitive spontaneity” (R’).  And adult offspring belongs to the “emergence and maintenance of human life” (R”).   In short, Fecundity, symbolized by the Z-series, is simply one facet, and a crucial one, of nature, symbolized by the R-series.

No big points here, but some important distinctions and relations to make.

Next blog will be delivered in one week, on June 4, 2015.  The plan at this moment is to give a bit of exegesis on the good life and its activities, and how marriage relates to that end within the hierarchy of human process.

[1] For those who are familiar with Augustine, Augustine builds on the Greek life and good life by the addition of the Christian notion of eternal life.

[2] Finality, Love, Marriage, 38.

[3] Lonergan does introduce the “progress” of organic development in Insight, 463-467.

[4] Finality, Love, Marriage, 39.

[5] Insight, 126 – 127.

[6] As in gender, not the act.

Part 1: Finality, Love, and Marriage: Gender, Fecundity, and Horizontal Finality (Z’ to Z”)

by David Fleischacker

I have been re-reading “Finality, Love, and Marriage” written by Lonergan in 1943.[1] It is quite an interesting piece once you explore the details and interconnections of the work. Given the upcoming Synod of the Family in Rome, I would like to begin exploring what Lonergan might contribute to a deeper understanding of family life.  Just to get started here are a few of the terms in the piece that I would like to begin commenting upon though not necessarily in the order given,

  1. fecundity,
  2. semi-fecundity,
  3. the passive aspect of love,
  4. the immanent aspect of love,
  5. the active aspect of love,
  6. natural law,
  7. statistics,
  8. concrete plurality,
  9. horizontal and vertical finality,
  10. hierarchy,
  11. organistic spontaneity,
  12. friendship,
  13. charity,
  14. projection,
  15. transference,
  16. the three ends of life,
  17. three levels of life,
  18. grace,
  19. reason,
  20. sexual differentiation.

I will start with fecundity since it is crucial for developing a “viewpoint of marriage.”[2] More specifically, I would like to start with the horizontal finality of fecundity to adult offspring at the organistic level and its differentiation into two sexes, what Lonergan symbolizes as; Z–> Z’ –> Z”.[3]

…. As far as human operation is concerned, [fecundity] is primarily on the level of nature, and its ultimate term is the repetitive emergence of adult offspring.  but sex is more complex.  Not only is it not a substance but it is not even an accidental potency as intellect or sense.  Rather, it is a bias and orientation in a large number of potencies, a typical and complementary differentiation within the species, with a material basis in the difference in the number of chromosomes, with a regulator in the secretions of the endocrinal glands, with manifestations not only in anatomical structure and physiological function but also in the totality of vital, psychic, sensitive, emotional characters and consequently, though not formally, in the higher nonorganic activities of reason and rational appetite. But for all its complexity sex remains on the level of spontaneous nature, and there, clearly, one may easily recognize that in all its aspects it definitely, if not exclusively, has a role in the process from fecundity to adult offspring.  For elementally sex is a difference added to fecundity, dividing it into two complementary semi-fecundities.[4]

Fecundity is the real capacity to generate a new central potency-form-act of the same species.[5][2] And because fecundity involves activation of the fecundity to effect the emergence of a new thing of the same species, and that new emergence has to undergo development from an indeterminate but directed dynamism to a determinate mature adult offspring, the fecundity has a horizontal finality to adult offspring.  And in human beings, like all higher level organic creatures, this fecundity is differentiated into two semi-fecundities or “sexes” which then need to come together in “organistic union” in order to activate the realization of fecundity.

In all organisms that have sexual differentiation, the differentiation involves the creation of complementary gametes that then need to be united to form some kind of a seedling or egg, and then this seedling or egg needs to develop into a mature adult.  Thus, there are a number of steps along the way by which fecundity is both real and then by which it is realized.  It is real if it has formed gametes and there exists a way for the unification of those gametes and this unification can then grow into an adult offspring. In plants, sexual reproduction involves the formation of pollen and ovules.  It is quite a beautiful process to learn about.  Fecundity is partially realized once these gametes are united.  In plants, these gametes can be united in a variety of ways, through the wind for example (grasses) or through water currents (seaweed) or through animal vectors (bees). As well, the “parents” might help to facilitate that unity, such as do the stigma and style in plants.  Following the formation of the seed, it then needs to be formed until it is ready to be released.  And the release of the seed may make use of wind or animals for dispersal.  Think of the exciting helicopter seeds that float down from maple trees or the pine cones that fall from pine trees. Once that seed is “planted” and then grows and differentiate into a mature adult, fecundity has been fully realized. With animals, the process is improved and differentiated because of motor-sensory operations. The chaos of the wind and water is reduced by the motor-sensory union that takes place through mating schemes that involve “attraction and locomotion” as Lonergan noted in order to enhance the effectiveness of reproduction and thus reducing the amounts of bio-energy needed while increasing the collaborative unity between the parents that works toward the successful generation of adult offspring.  After mating, in the simple animals, the formation of the egg is usually the end of the parent’s role.  The process of development is short, and a simple egg is sufficient to provide the “womb” needed for maturity (many fish leave the eggs hidden in the rocks).  But in more differentiated organisms, the development following the formation of the egg is more complex just as it was with the union of the parents in mating schemes or ritual. And so more help is needed. A simple unattended egg is not sufficient. Parents may need to be present not only to protect the egg (or warm it if they are warm blooded) but to be presented after being hatched in order to feed and, in higher animals (including birds), train their young in basic skills.  In general, as one moves to higher and more differentiated organisms, one has to introduce more elaborate schemes for the unfolding of fecundity to adult progeny, from mating rituals to raising the young.

Stage Simple organisms – single celled Plants Simple animals More differentiated animals
Pre-conception interactions Not really relevant. May grow flowers to help attract carriers but no interaction of parents. Simple mating rituals with little to no connection formed between the parents. More elaborate mating rituals that involve a more vibrant union of the parents.
Post-conception interactions Not really relevant. None. Very little if any post-conception protection or care. More elaborate post-conception protection and care with a differentiation of parental roles and tasks.

In short, the more developed the organism, the more elaborate the process from fecundity to adult offspring, and the more differentiated the roles of the parents in mediating that movement from its beginnings to its end.  A rich and differentiated fecundity sets up different roles and tasks in the parents who produced the complementary gametes. And as one thinks about it for a minute, Lonergan could not be more right in saying that with sex (as in gender–a semifecundity–not the act) “one may easily recognize that in all its (gender sex) aspects it definitely, if not exclusively, has a role in the process from fecundity to adult offspring.”

My next commentary will be one week from now, Thursday, May 28,2015.

[1] Bernard Lonergan, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, volume 4, Collection, University of Toronto Press, 1988, 17 – 52.

[2] Finality, Love, Marriage, 42.

[3] Finality, Love, Marriage, 41.

[4] Finality, Love, Marriage 42.

[5] Central potency, form, and act are the metaphysical formulation of the notion of a thing (a unity, identity, whole). Lonergan argues as well that this notion is one of the most development and principle meanings of substance.  See Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, chapter 8 and chapter 15, sections 1 – 2.


40 Years After Humanae Vitae: Observations on the Female Procreative Schemes, The Organic Level


by Dr. David Fleischacker

As with men, the organic and psychic procreative life of women possesses an intelligibility that begins with the finality to conceive life.  And as in men, the lower levels are intrinsically oriented toward higher levels of intelligibility.  Another, way of saying this is that the lower levels of organic life possess intrinsic orientations toward higher levels of intellectual, rational, volitional life, and an obediential potency to a life of sanctified grace in faith, hope, and love. 

Hence, as with the general way of proceeding established earlier, starting with the lowest levels of the procreative order to the highest, we will begin examining the women’s body in its organic structure with one exception, the neurological schemes.  I will deal with the female neuro-schemes in a later blog, because the complexity requires separate treatment.


The female procreative order

The physiology of the women has a number of key elements that relate it to the conjugal union with a man, to the creation and formation of a new human being, and to nurturing the existence of the new life once born. For example,

  • The ovaries provide a place for the developmental growth and maturation of oocytes.
  • The uterus provides for the early formation of a child in the womb and the mother’s mammary glands for the early post-natal life of the child.
  • The woman's body is bio-physically and bio-chemically structured for receiving the spermatozoa of the man and then facilitates the movement of the spermatozoa toward the oocyte.

These features point to the key elements of the female procreative schemes.  Explanatorily, much more is involved.  As has been recognized in earlier blogs, procreativity is an intelligibility that really belongs to the entire unity of a man and a woman. Hence, it is something that is an intelligibility that involves the integration of many of the recurrent schemes of correlation and recurrent schemes of development in the body.  It is closely linked to the neural system, the endocrine system, the circulatory and respiratory systems, the muscular system, the skeletal system, and it is protected by the immune system.  It is not merely a part of the body, but rather it is an ordered intelligibility of the many parts of the human body.[1]

Prior to the woman's own birth, her body came to form all of the oocytes she will ever possess.  However, it will take until adolescence before her body forms to a degree to support the formation and the nurturing of a new life.  Once she reaches procreative maturity, her body has undergone a series of changes that have capacitated her to receive a man and his spermatozoa and to mature her own oocytes for 1) release, 2) fertilization, 3) implantation, 4) growth in the womb, and then 5) growth as an infant.  Many of the biochemical schemes involved in all of these stages are simply unknown.  However, many have been learned in the last few decades because of the high profitability and the demand for the “reproductive” and contraceptive industries.

As was mentioned in earlier blogs, the oocyte is structured to receive one and only one spermatozoa.  Here is a small refresher. The zona pelucida that surrounds the oocyte is species specific (meaning that spermatozoa from another species could not penetrate it).  Furthermore, once a spermatozoa has worked its way through the zona and becomes incorporated into the oocyte, the egg shifts its structure to hinder the entrance of other spermatozoa. Hence, the oocyte has a functional and schematic relationship to the spermatozoa. This scheme forms a new type of being, one that has an intrinsic developmental finality and this finality is oriented toward the mature human adult. On their own, the spermatozoa and the oocyte do not possess this developmental capacity.[2]


Now let us turn to the woman's body.  Oocytes are found within the ovaries.  Since the woman's body is the location where the first 9 months of life are formed, her body is on a kind of recharge cycle that is roughly one month in length (interestingly, I did read one study that argued that if a woman is in a largely natural light environment, her cycle will line up with the cycles of the moon).  This recharge cycle is needed because of how her body has to prepare itself for the possibility of nurturing a new life which requires a tremendous amount of energy to accomplish.  Without the recharge cycle, the woman’s body would be in a constant state of fertility, which would require for example a constant release of a sufficiently matured oocytes, a constant state in which the uterus is prepared for implantation, a constant state of readiness that would burn tremendous amounts of calories and other nutrients far beyond her normal human intake.  From a scientific viewpoint, here are some of the steps involved in the cycle.


Follicular Phase → Luteal Phase

Relationship to creation of new life

Let us begin our explorations of the monthly cycle of a woman with the follicular phase.  This phase derives its name from the follicles which reside within the woman's ovaries.  Each follicle contains an oocyte which is surrounded by a kind of protective sheath of cells (granulosa cells).  At the beginning of this phase, hormones trigger some of the follicles in the woman's ovaries to begin to mature, which means that the oocyte grows in size, adding components that would be needed for fertilization and by an embryonic human being.  When the maturation of the follicle begins to take place, the granulosa cells divide and increase in number, forming multiple layers around the oocyte, and between these layers an atrial pouch forms that fills with fluids, rich in hormones. This process leaves just one layer of granulosa cells around the oocyte. At the same time, these cells secrete a layer of thick gel around the oocyte called the zona pellucida. 14 days after the follicular phase begins, the most mature follicle will burst open, releasing the oocyte with its zona pellucida and the one layer of granulosa cells. This release marks the end of the follicular phase and the beginning of the luteal phase. The remaining part of the follicle then forms into a corpus luteum.  Blood vessels have permeated this corpus, and the cells begin to produce progesterone and some estrogen, which then travel into these blood vessels and subsequently into the body, triggering various responses.  One of the important responses in the woman’s body is the modification of the uterus, creating a special lining suitable for implantation and the growth of a young child.  If no fertilization results, then the entire scheme returns to the follicular phase to begin the cycle anew.  The entire meaning of these schemes is oriented toward the creation of new life.


Relationship to man

One can also focus on a variety of other changes that take place in the woman's body.  Some of these  relate the woman to a man.  The woman begins to secrete a mucous that is designed to facilitate the conjugal act.  The woman's olfactory senses come to respond to male pheromones in a new way.[3]  During the conjugal act, the triggering of similar schemes as found in the male body results in the expansion of blood vessels in a variety of places in her body. It also results in a contraction of muscles in her body that work to move the spermatozoa more completely into her body, and into the regions that have been prepared to direct and facilitate the movement of the spermatozoa toward the oocyte.


Luteal Phase → Pregnancy

 If conception of the zygotic person takes place and implantation occurs, the woman's body then begins another set of changes that prepare for her role in forming the young boy or girl in her womb, and subsequently in nursing and caring for him or her in the first years of life.[4]  The implantation itself triggers various changes, including the release of a hormone that keeps the uteral lining from disintegrating and shedding. Even her brain will undergo significant changes to facilitate both bonding as well as increased abilities to attend to the needs of the child within the environment (thus, this facilitates increases in some of the cognitive abilities of the woman as well—more on that in a later blog).


Pregnancy → Birth

 Once the child is born, the preparation taking place in the woman's mammary glands during pregnancy then gives way to small quantities of breast milk called colostrum, specifically designed for the needs of the newborn. Then, the nutrients shift to “milk” for the duration of nursing.  Interestingly, during nursing, the nerves triggered release two hormones from the pituitary gland in the brain: prolactin and oxytocin. Prolactin then triggers the mammary glands to pull proteins and sugars from the blood stream to produce the milk.  Oxytocin results in triggering cells in the breast to contract and push the milk out.  Oxytocin also causes cells in the uterus to contract, thus shrinking it.[5] Nursing also inhibits a hormone needed for the maturation and release of new oocytes, hence the reason that many, though not all, women who are nursing will not become pregnant until nursing ceases.


Far more can be said about many of these interlocking procreative schemes, however, the few mentioned here should be sufficient to give the reader an appreciation of the close integration of many events that take place in the women’s body and which form the procreative organic schemes. 


[1]This language follows the neuro-scientist Shewmon who has argued for a variety of “wholistic” properties that belong to the body as a whole, and really require the integration of a variety of different parts of the body. Hence, for example, healing of the body requires the operative integration of many systems, and is really not a property of just one part of the body.  Likewise, the procreative life of the body is not merely the result of the uterus or the vagina or the ovaries. It really is an feature of an integration of many schemes.

[2] As a note, this key fact is one of the grounds for claiming that the human person begins at this point, though because of the intrinsic independence of the human capacity for self-transcendence from the empirical residue, this is not as easy as one might suppose.  I presented this in an earlier set of blogs (“When does the human person begin to exist?”)

[3] As a note, recent studies in the last few years indicate that women will be more attracted to men with a greater complementarity in their immune systems.  This complementarity however is not found if the woman is taking the contraceptive pill.  For one summary of this, see this BBC article:

[4] The argument that the zygote is a human person was made in another set of blogs entitled “When does the human person begin to exist?”  In this blog, I started with St. Thomas' definition of a person.

[5] You can find a summary of these points at Another interesting study linked oxytocin to bonding. Here is a summary of it.

40 Years Since Humanae Vitae: A Metaphysical Distinction

by Dr. David Fleischacker
As with men, the organic and psychic life of women possesses an intelligibility that begins with the finality to conceive life.  And as in men, the lower levels are intrinsically oriented toward higher levels of intellectual, rational, volitional life, with an obediential potency to a life of sanctified grace in faith, hope, and love.
Before continuing with the female procreative schemes, I would like to bring some clarification to the nature of finality within the human body. This also requires a slight expansion in the notion of emergent probability as it was developed in INSIGHT, in the chapter on development (chapter 15). 
Schemes of Recurrence vs. Schemes of Development within Things
The slight expansion results from the need to make a distinction intrinsic to complex organisms between schemes of recurrence and schemes of development, both of which maintain the life of the organism.   One might think of a mature organism as a flexible range of schemes of recurrence.  This is certainly true in part.  The mature cells of the circulatory or the respiratory systems form schemes of recurrence (though many of these are only “completed” in higher conscious levels).  The respiratory system supplies oxygen and removes carbon dioxide from the circulatory system.  If oxygen decreases in an environment, the respiratory system will increase its rate to maintain the particular need for oxygen in the organism (this is also linked to neural processes).  So, the respiratory system has a “flexible” way of responding to the environment.  Likewise, the needs of other cell systems in the body for disposing carbon dioxide and increasing oxygen increase the rate at which the circulatory system operates.  Hence, as one exercises, one’s heart rate will increase (again, this is also linked to the neural system).  Then, this in turn will cause increased rates in the respiratory system. One breaths harder.  This also points to a vast flexible range of schemes of recurrence that allows us to operate in different manners in different environments.
However, the maintenance of our organic systems is not through schemes of recurrence.  Rather, it takes place through adult stem cell systems, which are related to these systems developmentally rather than functionally (or correlationally).  These adult stem cells possess a developmental finality that is oriented toward maintaining the organic cells systems and their ability to operate in flexible ranges of schemes of recurrence.[1]
In addition to maintenance however, the stem cells help to increase the flexibility of the schemes of recurrence of the cell systems. Muscle stems cells will increase their rates to adjust to greater muscle needs.[2] The circulatory stem cells will shift and expand to adjust to changing needs of the circulatory system.
Thus, these schemes of development (as opposed to schemes of recurrence) rooted in stem cells function both in maintaining and in increasing the flexibility of matured schemes of recurrence.[3] Complex organic systems that possess stems stem cells are thus comprised of both schemes of recurrence and schemes of development.
Returning to the Procreative Schemes of Recurrence and of Development
Thus the procreative system, like other organic systems, is comprised of both schemes of recurrence and schemes of development (biologists call these schemes of development “developmental pathways”).  Just as adult stem cells provide for the maintenance and increase the flexibility of adult cell schemes of recurrence, so the procreative stem cells provide for the maintenance and the increased flexibility, and the development of the human race. Thus they have a developmental relationship to that which is the conscious realization of the finality of the universe as a whole.  The procreative system thus has a magnificent horizontal and vertical finality intrinsic to it, because it has a developmental relationship to the creation and formation of adult human beings and to the fullest realization of the finality of this universe.  Adult human beings are integrations of many levels of intelligibility from inorganic and organic life through all the levels of conscious existence, and therefore the procreative system has vertical intelligibilities intrinsic to it as well.  Furthermore, human beings are “systems on the move,” which is why they are not merely single individual species defined by a non-developing set of conjugate forms, but rather, human beings are ongoing horizontal and vertical unfoldings of intellectual, rational, and volitional operations. Procreative systems therefore also possess an intelligible finality to the human person as an intellectual, rational, and volitional “system on the move.”
A few consequent notes on The Procreative Schemes of Development, Emergent Probability, and the Scale of Values.
The procreative system comes to possess one of the most far reaching intelligibilities within the order of emergent probability as a whole. Emergent probability has a general finality of increasing systematization or intelligibility and meaning, as Lonergan argues in INSIGHT, especially chapter 4, and more precisely in the later chapters on metaphysics.  The human person is the height of the increasing intelligibility of this universe, and it is elevated all the more by the fact of grace and the actuation of the capacity for self-transcendence in a love that is without bounds.  The procreative system therefore is one of the key elements that makes possible a being who is on the horizon of truth, being, and the good, and who thus comes to be the conscious realization of the finality of the universe as a whole.  This finality intrinsic to the procreative schemes of development is thus incredible.  And though it is beyond the current blog, I would like to add a pointer to the objective moral value of the procreative schemes. When one bases the horizon of the good on the horizon of the true and the intelligible as Lonergan does, then the level of intelligibility is proportionate to the level being, which in turn is proportionate to the level of objective goodness.  This elevates the procreative schemes to one of the most important schemes within this universe.
As I will discuss in the next few blogs, the woman’s procreative schemes are central to the emerging perfection of this universe and of the human race and all of the persons that comprise it.


[1] The word “system” can include both the schemes of recurrence and the schemes of development. Thus, one can distinguish in these organic systems between that which is functionally related (defined by mutually related conjugate forms) and developmentally related.
[2]This is true not only for organic systems, but higher systems as well. One can think, for example, about how values are maintained in society.  Human beings are higher systems on the move, and for a variety of reasons, the way this takes place is by expansion and replacement.  The birth of the young, and their education into citizens, family members, members of culture, and religion not only maintains the life of these “institutions” but also gives those institutions a principle for greater flexibility in its mode of operation in the world and it gives those institutions the possibility of development.  In general, once someone has reached a certain level of maturity, change slows down. This stabilizes the system, and gives it endurance.  If maturation was good on the whole, then the overall life of the system will be better.  If it was a decline however, then the entire system will become less stable.  This is true in organic systems as well as in human systems.  The longer cycle of decline that Lonergan explains in INSIGHT illustrates this point.  Voegelin, in his account of ideological societies, points out that the greater the ideological structure of the society, the shorter its life.  Hence, modern ideologies, especially those that are tyrannies such as the Nazi regime, or modern dictatorships, are short lived.  Only societies increasing attuned to the “Beyond” have endurance to them.  One can point out that these same insights are found in the revelations of the Old Testament.  Societies that have apostatized will become destabilized and eventually destroyed either by an internal or external enemy.
[3]On a technical note, schemes of recurrence are grasped by combining conjugate forms (known by implicitly defined relations) and their statistical emergence and ongoing existence.  Developmental recurrences add finality to the intelligibility of how they operate.  The relationship of a stem cell and a mature cell is one of development. Thus, it is not the systematic relationship of one cellular conjugate form to another that has been actualized, but rather the relationship between the cellular conjugate forms of a stem cells and those of a mature cells, which is one of developmental finality.

40 Years After Humanae Vitae: Male Procreative Schemes

by Dr. David Fleischacker

Some say men all start with a female body, however this is only partially true as far as I can tell. This view is based primarily on morphology and how the presence of testosterone results in male morphology, and its absence results in female morphology. And since we all start with a single celled body which looks the same, it seems to be true. However, this little body is already differentiated into male or female in terms of the biochemical and genetic schemes within the zygote. I do not mean to say, however, that the gender of the zygote could not be changed. If one could change the key factors that provide the “male” biochemical schemes of recurrence into female schemes, then the zygote would become a female. This points to the contingency of existence however, and is not support for those who might claim an ultimate irrelevance as to whether one is male or female. And this does not change a basic point. The schemes in place are either male or female, even if genetic defects deform these schemes, or cause problems. These initial schemes in the zygote provide basic differences that, as they unfold, lead to the more complex differences in the cell systems that form the body. Thus, we really are either man or woman from the beginning.

However, men and women also share many similarities based on the common systems that they possess, common systems which possess common functions which are related to many other schemes on our planet. For example, our lungs and respiratory system relate us to the atmosphere that we breath. Our muscles and bones relate us to various types of movements that serve a variety of purposes from walking on the planet, with its terrain and gravitational field, to eating and chewing. Our digestive system relates us to the food sources that were and are regularly encountered in the environment. Our eyes relate us to the bulk of the light wavelengths that make their way through our atmosphere. [However, even in these “common” systems, many differences exist which relate men and women not only in complementary ways to each other, but in different ways to the ecosystems in which we live. For example, differences of average bone and muscular mass; differences in vision — women can see better at night, men during the day; differences of the skin’s sensory neurons — women have far more skin sensory neurons than men.]

However, these systems are also related to the internal structure and livelihood of the organism of our beings. They have integral relations to all the other systems in the body. For example, the circulatory system carries cells of the immune system, oxygen and carbon dioxide for the respiratory system, hormones for the hormonal system. One can say the same for all other systems of the body which thus form interconnected schemes of recurrence.

These interlocking schemes of recurrence in the body give it a great deal of interior freedom to respond to the world in which we live. It gives more niches in which we can live and move, which is also why human beings can be found throughout many types of ecosystems. There are limits however. We do not have the organic capacity to live under water or at the coldest regions of the earth. Our bodies can only adjust to certain ranges of temperature, food supply, oxygen, etc.. Conscious intentionality of course further expands the possible ecosystems in which we can live. Practical intelligence creates technologies, such as clothing, shelter, and even space-craft which create local environmental conditions suitable to the ranges in which our organic schemes can operate.

And thus, our bodies came to be formed and structured not only in relationship to the world, but in multiple relations and schemes within our own bodies as well, all for the purpose of successful living in that world with greater degrees of interior freedom.[1] Thus, we increasingly systematize our responses to both schemes in the world and in our bodies within the context of generalized emergent probability. (For more on emergent probability, see INSIGHT, chapter four, chapter eight, and its most complete intelligibility in chapter fifteen and sixteen).

In both male and female, the procreative schemes are functionally related to conception, hence the man and woman are correlated in a variety of complementary manners to each other.[2] And in both men and women, the procreative schemes possess their own way of increasing or even decreasing the probabilities for conception. If the woman’s body for example goes below a certain level of body fat–perhaps during a drought or shortage of food—her fertility shuts down. Conversely, the body provides a number of schemes that help to enhance conception. Pheromones as well as biochemical schemes actualized through the conjugal act, and even higher psychic relationships of the voice and touch, have significant ramifications both for the coming together of man and woman, and once they do, in causing biochemical and cellular changes further enhancing the likelihood for the union of spermatozoa and oocyte.

In a man, the organic procreative schemes include the meiosis that forms the spermatozoa, the neurons in the penis linked to triggering changes in its structure and form (which takes on a form for the purpose of depositing the spermatozoa in a particular place in the woman’s body) and even neurological and psychic responses to the smell of the woman when she is fertile which further attract him to her. This is to name just a few of the organic and psychic procreative schemes. All of them contribute to increasing the probability of conception. Thus, these schemes simply do not make sense except in relationship to conception.

Contraception adds something that has an intent that is contrary to the functional intelligibility of all these schemes.[3] Though some of the male procreative organs possess other functions in the body (such as riding the body of cellular by-products through urination. However, most likely, if that is all it did, men would not need to have a penis), during the conjugal act they acquire a particular form and participate in the activation of various schemes which do not pertain to fighting wars, capturing prey, tackling viruses and bacteria, gaining oxygen for the blood, digesting food, nor for any other functional relationship to the body and the planet. They are for conception. One can hopefully see how, in “the language of the body,” to use John Paul II’s phrase, biochemically and organically, thus using a condom or some other contraceptive is contrary to the very intelligible conjugates constitutive of the schemes.

Psychic Sublation of Procreative Organic Schemes

The procreative desire of a man sublates the procreative conjugate forms and schemes of his body as a man.[4] In the same way that the organic needs for nutrition are sublated into hunger, the organic procreative schemes are sublated into psychic procreative desire.

All psychic desire that sublates lower organic schemes elevates the probability for fulfilling the conditions needed to complete the schemes of the lower order. Thus, hunger elevates the probability for sustaining the nutrients of cells and cell systems, and their underlying biochemical schemes. Hunger will integrate many other systems in the body both organically, such as the muscular and skeletal system, as well as psychically, such as sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste–a series of integrations that take place in relationship to the ecological schemes that are involved in gaining these nutrients.

Procreative desire integrates the organic and psychic schemes of the body for a different reason than hunger. In the body, it will integrate muscles, bones, the hormonal system, the circulatory system, all with a complex pattern of schemes that becomes completed in the conjugal act. And psychically or experientially, it integrates the motor-sensory schemes and desires. And these schemes intrinsic to him, also relate him to the environment, more specifically it relates him to the woman both at the organic level and at the psychic level (or zoological level as it can also be called. In human beings, when this level comes to be the matrix in which higher levels of consciousness emerge, then Lonergan calls it the “level of experience”) as intersubjective–“intersubjective” since it is the relation of the psychic level to another human being. Furthermore, it does not relate him to her in just any fashion whatsoever. It relates him to her as his procreative complement. Thus, eating will not really fulfill this desire.

The importance of this procreative desire, which then becomes procreative pleasure as the schemes for the conjugate act come to be activated and completed, is clearly recognized by all of us. If it was non-existent, then it would be highly unlikely that the conjugal act would take place even if the organic changes needed for intercourse to take place could still be realized.

This highlights something interesting about the relationship of the higher psychic to the lower organic schemes in the human body. The organic schemes only become complete schemes in virtue of the functioning of the higher. Without such procreative desire-pleasure, the procreative organic schemes would simply not be schemes. This is why the organic reproductive schemes of animals has such a greater range and freedom than the organic reproductive schemes of plants. The zoological-psychic level greatly liberates the potential reproductive schemes of animals and relates those schemes to the world of motor-sensory immediacy–and thus to ecological niches.

The main point here, is that such psychic desire-pleasure has a sublational and correlational intelligibility. It sublates the finality of the organic male procreative system on the one hand. And it psychically and intersubjectively relates the man to the woman on the other. He then relates to her as the procreative other with whom he can unite and thus fulfill procreative desire-pleasure, which in turn completes the organic procreative schemes.

Male Contraception and Procreative Desire

Male contraception of course, is not designed to stop this procreative desire at the level of the psyche (experience), but rather is designed to stop the completion of the procreative schemes at the level of the organic (or biological). However, it would not want to stop all of these organic schemes. It could stop them by stopping the ability for erection and the contraction of the muscles used for moving and depositing spermatozoa. However, normally stopping these contractions would eliminate the key desire that a man wants to experience and the very reason he is engaging in the conjugal act because the neurons involved in these contractions are those that are immediately sublated into the highest psychic desire (pleasure) that ends when the spermatozoa have been deposited. Thus, male contraception could include stopping the ability to form sperm, however, most involve the hindrance of the release of sperm. And none involve the hindrance of those schemes required for the emergence of psychic pleasure linked to the depositing of the spermatozoa.

If some men could have this psychic experience that normally sublates the contraction of the muscles involved in ejaculation, they would do so. Such men would of course have to take a drug or insert some type of neural stimulants into their brains to trigger the brain neurons needed to mimic the depositing of the spermatozoa. In general I suppose, these would be the same men who masturbate. And one can imagine them hooked up to these neural stimulants for days on end.

However, there would be some who would still rather have the ability to unite with a woman, rather than just experience procreative desire. And the reason for this I suspect would be to enjoy the correlational intelligibility operative within the desire, a desire which is functionally related to the woman, and with her possess a finality for the creation of a child. As someone I met once put it, “I never had real sex with my wife until we decided to have a baby.” He had of course used contraception prior to this. Hence, for this kind of man, who wants the woman as well, there is a bit of pretending that is involved when he is contracepting. He is saying to himself, perhaps even to the woman, “for the moment, let us pretend that we are uniting to create life.”

Intellectual, Rational, and Moral sublation of Procreative Schemes

Though the focus here is upon the organic and psychic-intersubjective schemes in the man, I do want to say a bit about how these are sublated into intellectual, rational, and moral schemes. And though I will not be able to treat this in a manner that reveals why the most meaningful and intelligible conscious context that sublates the procreative organic and psychic schemes is that of a sacramental marriage, I would like to give a few pointers. I am hoping that I can develop this point by itself explicitly in a later blog.

Intelligence sublates the procreative organic and psychic schemes both descriptively and explanatorily. Because the question of conception and contraception is linked to the drama of human living, rooted largely then upon description, most people will operate from this point of view. However, in a scientific society like ours, the explanatory element becomes relevant.

Descriptively, the man learns about the coming together of men and women, he learns about his parts, and he learns how they work, and he learns what they mean within the customs and mores of his culture and his faith. His role in procreation can be described, in a healthy context, as something he gives to the woman, something he deposits into her body. And likewise, if the context is healthy and right, it is something she wants to receive. And he can descriptively recognize that intersubjectively he wants her to want to receive him. And he wants to give what he has to give. And he wants what he has to give to bear fruit in her, with her, for her body to bear the child that he helps to bring about. And he wants her to want this as well.

However, besides the basic knowledge of procreative intersubjectivity, he also comes to learn of the relationship to the woman in its social and personal elements through the mediation of culture. He learns about whether he should commit to her or not, whether he should respect her, whether he should give his life to her, whether he should merely use her at his own pleasure, whether he should seek a family with her, whether he should commit to that family, and whether as a husband and father, he will assume potential relationships with extended family members and friends. Thus, an entire context comes to provide the meaning to this relationship.

Distortions of the procreative meaning of his being happen all the time. The man may truncate the functional intelligibility and finality of his procreative organism and of his procreative psychic desire. He may not for some reason understand these, or understand his relationship to the woman. He may not have appreciated the great goods involved. The great beauty of his body or hers. The great meaning of procreativity. He may not understand the customs and culture of his time. Then again he might, and those customs may themselves distort his understanding of what should be. He may be morally corrupt either because he does not appreciate the significance of commitment or he does not follow the commitments that he knows are right. He may be merely a hedonist or a rapist. He might have no care and concern for what his body or his desires really mean. He may be an adulterer who is violating a commitment he has made to another, to his wife, to her body, to her whole being and life.

In the end, these descriptive schemes either sublate the procreative schemes in an increasing intelligible manner, or they introduce deformations in those schemes by awakening them in part then shutting them down in part, creating contradictions in the intelligible meaning of these acts.

Faith, hope, and love can also sublate the procreative organic, psychic, intellectual, rational, and moral schemes, giving an even higher vertical meaning to these schemes. The Catholic position on marriage and family is one which fully upholds the intrinsic intelligibility of the procreative schemes organically and psychically, both in men and woman, and brings these schemes into the context of Divine wisdom and love. However, I would like to save this discussion for a blog of its own.

The Male Role in Conception and Contraception: So, where do statistics fit in?

The man produces a certain ideal frequency of spermatozoa that could then be released from his body into the woman’s body in various ways. This frequency both of the numbers of spermatozoa created and the numbers of spermatozoa released can be changed in many ways.

-He could change the “ideal frequency” of the production of spermatozoa in his body, perhaps by drugs or by surgery that destroy the stem cells which differentiate into spermatozoa.
-He could change how many are released from his body by means of cutting and tying his vas deferens in a vasectomy.
-He could also change the frequency of those spermatozoa that would enter the woman’s body. He can “spill his seed” before he enters her body or he could use a condom.

However, the key here is that none of this changes the correlational intelligibility of all the procreative schemes in the man’s body. These schemes at both the organic and psychic levels are functionally related to conception.

With regard to these higher levels of intellectual, rational, and moral conscious intentionality, one must ask, how does this bring fulfillment when it activates the finality of the body and psyche, and then deactivates part of it? What is the meaning of such a contradiction in the very schemes of recurrence and the intelligibilities involved? I would suggest it is an absurdity. This means that it not only lacks completeness of intelligibility, but there is a contradiction in the activities taking place. What could be more contradictory than the schemes for procreation being activated only to introduce others that shut it down?

Natural Family Planning and Contraception

This really brings up a major difference in the manner that a man changes the statistical probabilities for conception when he is contracepting vs. using natural family planning. In the man who wants to conceive, his intelligence, rationality, and moral acts unite to make a decision to enter into the woman’s body. The contraceptive man makes the same decision. In both, conception then becomes possible. However, with contraception, the man blocks the completion of the procreative scheme of recurrence by hindering the regular numbers of release of his spermatozoa into the woman’s body. He is thus making a distinct decision separate from his decision to enter her body. In natural family planning, he is not changing anything about the statistical probabilities of sperm either leaving his body or entering the woman’s body. He is thus not introducing something that intentionally disrupts the procreative schemes of recurrence and the finality of his own body. Thus, he is not introducing an absurdity into his decisions and his personal integrity with regard to the organic and psychic-intersubjective schemes of recurrence, though he may be doing so in other ways, such as one would find in rape, casual sex, and adultery.

The moral ramifications of this depends in part upon the intentional response to the value of the procreative schemes and of conception itself. Conception is not merely a biological act, nor are the procreative schemes. As I argued in earlier blogs, the spermatozoa and the oocyte possess a finality toward the development of an intellectual, rational, and moral self-transcending being. Theologically, this being is in the image and called to the likeness of God, and thus, if one recognizes this great importance, this sacred importance of the zygote, one will also come to recognize the great value and good of the procreative schemes, at both the organic and psychic levels (and of course such recognition will raise these schemes into the higher conscious levels as well). Thus, in the man who uses contraception, he is seeking procreative fulfillment but then he turns against what he has started, and says “no” to the finality that he has awakened. Thus, he says no to the potential for the creation of one who is an intellectually, rationally, and morally self-transcending being. He says no to this being that is in the image and likeness of God. He says no to this being who would be called to becoming a child of God. And when one rejects the child of God, one is also rejecting God. So, in the end, he says no to the Creator of life.

It is important to highlight something at this point. Notice that the “no” is one that emerges only after he first says “yes” to the activation of the procreative schemes. Husbands and wives all the time make decisions to not have conjugal relations at various points in their lives because of time or place or some other rational ground that would make such relations highly inappropriate. But, if the man wants to reach the stage that results in an experience sublative of what should be the “depositing” of the spermatozoa, and then says no, he has in that “no” rejected life. There are of course many other ways that a man can reject life. He could reject it in general, and never desire to see any child conceived with his wife. He could distort his relations with his wife in a multitude of ways. The point here is simply in relation to the man using contraception. He has introduced an absurdity into decisions.

All of this is a bit different in the woman, because the structure of the procreative schemes are a bit different in her, and thus the ramifications for contraception and the place of the woman in natural family planning are a bit different. I will examine this in a future blog.

[1] For more on degrees of freedom, see Insight, page 264ff.
[2] I say “procreative” instead of “reproductive” because I think technically it is a more correct. The parents schemes do not “produce” children, but rather participate in the creation of children. Though I do not want to enter into a full discussion of this at this point, the existence of a human central form (central form is Lonergan’s transposition of substantial form), comes to be neither through efficient causality nor emergent causality. This has to do with the nature of human conscious intentionlity as constituted in its transcendental basis by the transcendental notions. These notions are what cannot be caused by that which is intrinsically conditioned by the empirical residue. The parent’s participation in the “coming to be” of their children is through schemes that are intrinsically conditioned by the empirical residue. The more immediate cause therefore of the “coming-to-be” of the central forms of their children is due to a Transcendent cause. I picked up this term from Dr. William May in his book Marriage: The Rock on which the Family is Built.
[3] Correlational or functional intelligibility is what is sought by classical heuristic structures. See chapter 2 of Insight.
[4] As with the use of procreative instead of reproductive at the organic level, so I choose to use “procreative desire” instead of sexual desire, which in this day and age tends to be divorced from the intelligibility of the procreative intelligibility. Also, I am using the term “sublation” in the manner that Lonergan defined it in Method in Theology. It is interchangeable with higher and lower levels within a “thing” as Lonergan defines this in chapter 8 of Insight.

40 Years after Humanae Vitae: Part 4, The Oocyte

by Dr. David Fleischacker

The oocyte (the unfertilized egg) has an interesting formation. Before a little girl is born, all of the oocytes that she will ever possess have already been formed in her body, already preparing for the potential creation of her own child. These oocytes are formed via the first stages of the process of meiosis, a process which already relates this young unborn girl organically to the male complement of the human race. [In general, for any organisms, mitosis results in the division of a cell into two like daughter cells. In contrast, the ultimate result of meiosis is to create cells with one half of the DNA make-up of the original, so that it can then be united with one half the DNA make-up of another organism, so as to create a new being with its own DNA make-up distinct from the parents. Furthermore, in the case of more complex creatures in which diverse ecological and social roles enhances the life of the species, sexual differentiation nuances the context of meiosis, such that then the two contributers of DNA to the progeny are male and female.]

These oocytes are found in the girl’s ovaries, linked to follicles that help to provide nutrition, immunity, and protection. At birth, this little girl will possess 1-2 milliion of these oocytes. Later, when the girl becomes a woman, and begins to release these oocytes, the release is into an environment that has prepared the way for conception and growth of a new human being. The fertility cycle of the woman’s body goes through two basic stages, the first prepares her body to increase the likelihood of conception. This includes everything from her relationship to man (it literally changes her organic and psychic make up in relationship to men), to how her body will bio-chemically and organically receive, filter, guide, and capacitate spermatozoa. The second phase provides a “womb” for the development of a fertilized egg. It provides a place to bind (through the umbilical chord), and to be protected, warmed, nourished. I will treat some of these later, but at the moment, our focus is on the oocyte itself.

The oocyte contains chromosomes, mitochondria, and other bio-chemical/molecular elements that have a variety of functions, some of which keep the oocyte alive and healthy in its maternal environment, others which have a functional relationship to future development of the zygote that results from the fusion of the oocyte with a spermatozoa.

Functional Relations to the Spermatozoa

In examining the relationship between the oocyte and spermatozoa, there are many elements known, and many more that are unknown. However, given the large reproductive industry in the US (and the world) much is known already about the biochemical and organic, and even psychological elements that effect the likelihood of union between a spermatozoa and an oocyte.

Here are just a few samples of what is known that highlight the functional relationship. On the surface of the oocyte are cilia that will be involved in binding the spermatozoa, and eventual fusion. Surrounding the oocyte like a protective atmosphere is the zona pellucida (ZP). The ZP contains proteins that both bind and transform the spermatozoa (technically called the acrosomal reaction), that releases further enzymes from the spermatozoa which then increases its activity so that it can makes its way through the ZP and get to the surface of the oocyte. These proteins will only bind spermatozoa of the same species. Thus, only human spermatozoa will bind human ZP.

Once the spermatozoa has ungone its transformation, and reached the oocyte, the cilia on the cell wall of the oocyte pull it in and bind it (other proteins are involved in this process), at which point the spermatozoa undergoes further transformation, and begins to fuse with the oocyte. Once fusion takes place, then the contents of the spermatozoa are incorporated into the oocyte itself, thus forming a zygote.

The formation of the zygote then immediately triggers a variety of reactions. Meiosis that had begun before this young mother was born is completed, and followed by mitosis, which creates two daughter cells in which the DNA from the oocyte and the spermatozoa are now united.

The spermatozoa not only contributes the DNA complement for a new human being but also other factors that are necessary for continued development, for example the centrioles that form the centrosome, which is crucial for cell division, differentiation, and development.

It is interesting to note that the “packaging” of the chromosomes in the spermatozoa is complementary to the packaging of the chromosomes in the oocyte. This packaging happened in a certain fashion such that once it was fused with an oocyte, only certain genes will be transcribed and thus provide needed proteins that complement the proteins made by the oocyte. It is the complement together that allows for the zygote to begin its ongoing division and development.

So notice, the oocyte is “designed” or formed as a functional complement to the spermatozoa. The ZP is designed to bind and transform a specific species of spermatozoa. The cell wall of the oocyte was designed to unite with spermatozoa, and then fuse with it. The DNA form a complement that is crucial for the future development of the human being.

Developmental Relations of the Oocyte: Its finality

The genetic make-up and life of the oocyte possess a form which is really aimed at the creation and then further development of a new human being. To a biologist, this may be obvious, but in a culture which makes use of the reproductive system (and its vertical integration into the psyche — which I have not addressed yet) for shared pleasure alone, this is easy to forget. The oocyte was not designed to protect the woman, or to help digestion, or to provide skeletal components, or endrine functions, or neural functions, or contribute to any other systems in the body, or to provide pleasure for the sake of pleasure. It is for the reproduction of a new human being. This “reproduction” results from the union of an oocyte and a spermatozoa, a union which results in a developing entity, a development which unfolds into all the systems of the human body: the circulatory, skeletal, neurological, immune, etc.. In turn, the neurological systems become the matrix for the vertical emergence of motor-sensory conscious intentionality. And moter-sensory conscious intentionality in turn becomes the lower matrix upon which emerges intellectual, rational, and moral consciousness (these are not caused by the emergence of the motor-sensory consciousness however, as I argued in an earlier blog dealing with when the human being begins to exist). To put this in a slightly older language, vegative life unfolds to give rise to sensate life, and sensate life then provides a dispositive cause for rational life. In a later blog, I intend on bringing this finality out more fully, after treating the moment of conception.

In short, the oocyte is functionally related to the spermatozoa, and in union with it, it has a horizontal relationship to all of the systems of vegetative life, and a vertical relationship to sensate and rational life.

40 years after Humanae Vitae: Part 3, a note on counterpositions

by David Fleischacker

This last week, I gave a little talk on the role of the Church in the conversion of St. Augustine, and in preparation for this, I read through the first number of books of his Confessions. It reminded me of an important point that Lonergan makes regarding the notion of development and finality, and also of the difficulty of breaking from the deformations of the human soul that hinder the emergence of an understanding of the fullness of the intelligibility of conception.

Books seven and eight in the Confessions are particularly revealing. Augustine spoke many times of his inability to understand even himself, let alone God and evil prior to his conversions described in these books. What is amazing in all of this, is that theoretically, we can understand ourselves, evil, and the basic meaning of God through the natural light of our own reason. However, because of our distortions in life, we become blind to them. Augustine’s own “swirling mists of lust” (Rex Warner translation), kept him tied to the “out of doors” and would not allow him to grasp anything beyond immediate sensory and imaginative types of knowledge. He “pictures” God, Jesus, and his own soul as being made of this type of material spread throughout the universe. He created, as he says, merely figments of his imagination about his soul and God. And in the end, this means he understood virtually nothing about these non-imaginable realities.

The way many of us live in relationship to our bodies and to our procreative abilities indicates a similar type of distortion in our own minds, which ends up slanting our heuristic anticipations, which in turn distorts and severely limits the answers we discover when thinking about men, women, conception, children, family, and many other important facets of our humanity.

So, it is with a bit of fear and trembling that I continue to enter into this exploration of the intelligibility of conception.

We are in need of the same conversions through which Augustine passed. In book seven, chapter ten of his Confessions, he describes one of the first major stages of his conversion. It was a conversion of his mind, opening it from its material entrapment into the brighter and much larger world of the incorporeal. It was dispositively prepared for by the prayers and graces that came from his mother and Ambrose, his initiation into the catechumenate of the Catholic Church, and his reading of the Platonists. Through both grace and reason, God then prepared him for a moment of divine love that would flood his heart and open his mind. It allows him to grasp the very meaning of God for the first time, and along with it himself, the meaning of evil, and the deformations of his own soul caused by his own sin. However, this first conversion does not turn around his will, a second and more important type of conversion which he then describes in book eight.

Thus, I think for many of us, like Augustine, we need to pray for “the medicine of the Church” to heal our faith and to open our minds to the intelligible and true.

These conversions have direct bearing upon the topic at hand, perhaps more than many other intellectual and moral challenges in our modern world. Lonergan notes in his sections on metaphysics, that one of the reasons he put the notion of development (and its normativity rooted in operators) so far along in INSIGHT is because this notion is especially impacted by the counter-positions in philosophy. Since finality is a crucial element in the notion of development, exploring it within any facet of this universe requires a thorough-going intellectual conversion to the intelligible and the true, and how we become attuned to these through understanding and judgment.

And arguably one of the greatest and most powerful sources of the dialectic that causes intellectual and moral inauthenticity is that linked to the procreative dimension of human life. Thus, these conversions are in particular need for the current topic.

Understanding the fullness of the meaning of conception requires among correlative and statistical insights, insights into finality, both in relationship to the man and woman through whom generation occurs, and in relationship to the child that comes to be conceived and then has the potential to grow into adulthood, and even eternal life. If one’s heuristics are distorted by concupiscence, then there is little hope for breaking through into these intelligibilities.

Thus, with a note of caution, we proceed.

40 Years since Humanae Vitae, Part 2: Finality and Spermatozoan

By Dr. David Fleischacker

Sometimes, when one begins a journey, one never knows how it will entirely end. In part, this is true for what will be following in the subsequent blogs on Humanae Vitae. However, I have also been thinking about this for many, many years, and so a bit of it is simply presenting parts of a large forest that I have traveled through, and to which I have returned on occasion. Conception has continued to unfold in increasing degrees and realms of intelligibility. I must admit that it is a bit daunting to know how to introduce this forest to others until one has walked around the forest for some time, and come to know all of its fauna and beauty, and then thought for an even longer time at how to begin the introduction. So, this is my first attempt at introducing the intelligibility of conception as it has begun to illuminate my mind over the years.

I have decided to start with biology and biochemistry, not the whole of it, but some pointers. I will not go through all of the details of the experimental studies and the actual formula and equations, some of which I have read, many of which I have not. But I will give sufficient pointers to the intelligibility that is gained and how it relates to the question at hand on the meaning of conception. This will include the biology of the spermatozoa, the oocyte, the egg, the male body, female body, both in terms of the conjugate forms as well as the statistical realization of these forms. It will also require turning to the higher and lower levels of the forms (chemistry to biology for example), and moving up to the very highest levels of human conscious existence.

So, to take a cue from INSIGHT, when Lonergan was quoting positively from Descartes (which of course was not true for all that Descartes had to say), we need to start with small problems and work to larger ones. In intelligibity, what comes first is the general heuristics: The questions. And the questions then begin to modify along the way as intelligibility then begins to rise up, bit by bit, until the entire forest comes into view. Hence the forest does not come into view without careful attention to the parts. One cannot miss it by paying attention seemingly too much to the parts. One only misses it if in the end understanding does not emerge.

And, thus, let us begin with a simple starting point: the spermatozoa and the oocyte. In this blog, I will focus upon the first.

The Biological and Biochemical Structure of Spermatozoa: a functional relationship to the oocyte and the Woman’s body

Many of us have seen pictures of male sperm. But to understand the male “seed,” one needs to examine its biochemical structure. In the frontal end of the spermatozoa is a pocket of enzymes. Contained within the head of the spermatozoa is genetic material. And toward the tail end of the head is a group of mitochondria that surround the actual tail which protrudes. Mitochondria provide ATP, a high energy molecule that fuels the cells and their activities. In addition, the spermatozoa has molecules on its surface that react in various ways to its environment.

There is much more as well, but these few pieces of information give us an interesting starting point to raise some questions. What is the function of the enzymes? What is the function of the genetic material? What is the function of the mitochondria and their distribution? What is the function of the surface molecules?

One cannot answer these questions by looking at the spermatozoa alone. Observing its behavior under the microscope only gives a small part of what is needed to understand it as a whole. On a slide, it would move about for a time, depending upon the environment, and then die. Nothing would be learned about the enzymes in the frontal end or about the genetic material inside. More elaborate experiments would reveal the particular nucleotide sequences of the genetic material, the particular chemical structure of the surface proteins that react to the environment, and all the chemical and biophysical details about the mitochondria and how they drive the propulsion of the tail. Yet, dropping it onto a petri dish, studying it under a microscope, breaking it down into all of its biochemical cycles simple does not explain what it is, even if these biochemical studies prepare the way. In all of these cases, a fundamental intelligibility is still missing.

It is only when we examine it in relation to the woman’s body and the unfertilized egg that we begin to understand its form. The relationship to the woman’s body and to an unfertilized egg begins to expand the needed phantasm for insight. The frontal end enzymes dissolve a protective coat surrounding the unfertilized egg. And many, many sperm are need in order for this softening to take place. Some of the surface proteins set in motion a set of chemical and biophysical changes which allow the sperm to move up the fallopian tube drawn toward the egg. The genetic becomes an intrinsic constituent of the egg, if it is fortunate to enter. Even the mitochondria and the tail are related to this entire process, because biochemical schemes of which they are part relate ultimately, through those surface proteins mentioned earlier, to the egg itself. They literally help to propel the spermatozoa in the right direction, guided by the radar detecting surface proteins.

In other words, without a relationship to the woman’s body and oocyte, those enzymes really have no purpose or meaning. The genetic material is meaningless. The surface proteins would likewise be senseless, and really would not help the creature to do much except within the protective environment of the woman. In other words, the entire cellular form of this cell is designed to become united with an egg, and not just anywhere, but in and through a woman’s body (or in other words, to the schemes of recurrence of the woman’s body — I will examine this futher in a later blog, once I examine the statistical element in these relationships). Thus, in answering these questions, one discovers that each of these parts possess an intelligibility that only makes sense in relation to both the environment in which they operate and the destiny to which they are aimed.

The Genetic Material of the Spermatozoa: A relationship of finality to the zygote and its unfolding stages of development

The genetic material reveals a finality. It contains within it a complement of chromosomes, haploid in number relative to the full set found in standard human cells. In these chromosomes are found millions of nucleotide sequences, some of which have intelligible relations to protein formation (Proteins are complex molecules that help to carry out many functions in an organism (eg. to help catalyze chemical reactions), and hence are called genes. Now, some of these genes are found in many different species of animals, such as those involved in encoding proteins for DNA synthesis–which takes place when a cell divides into two, and both cells need to have the same “genetics”). Others tend to be unique to one creature, the human being, and some even unique to either the male or female form of our species. Most of these genes are inactive, some will remain so permanently, others will be activated when they become integrated into the egg, others only if they happen to be within cells that have differentiated along a certain line of development, and become part of a particular cellular system (skeletal, muscular, circulatory, immune, etc.). The point in all this, is that the genetic material only has a formal intelligibility that becomes developmentally actuated within a human being. Thus, this genetic material only makes sense or means something in its relation to a human being. This is quite interesting, because it means that even within the spermatozoa, the genetic material contains real existing pointers to human life, and only this “pointing” makes sense of this material and why the male body forms this spermatozoa as it is.

In other words, in its operating, the spermatozoa has a functional relationship for integration into an oocyte (more technically, it is one of the reproductive conjugate forms), and ultimately into a horizontal finality that unfolds a zygote into a differentiated multicellular system. It also has vertical relationships, however those will be dealt with in the appropriate blogs.

A Concluding Note

It is important to highlight that the pointers to the biochemistry and genetics of the spermatozoa belong to larger patterns in the reproductive schemes of human beings, and hence, one cannot really understand the spermatozoa and its “meaning” until all of these–and even higher yet–level schemes have been sufficiently understood, especially those that are the highest, which really then identify the kind of “thing” to which these schemes belong.

40 Years since Humanae Vitae: Lonergan, conception, and contraception. Part 1.

by Dr. David Fleischacker

Since it is the 40th anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae this year, I thought it might be worthwhile to explore one of the key issues linked to this encyclical, that of contraception. However, before such an issue is addressed, I thought it might be worthwhile to investigate the intelligibility of conception in order to provide a more adequate context for addressing contraception.

Part of what raises my own interest is a private letter written by Bernard Lonergan in September, 1968. It is a letter that has been in circulation in a variety of contexts, and subsequently, it needs to be carefully examined.

In this private letter to a priest, Lonergan is addressing the shifts in Catholic moral theology that he understands as taking place regarding the marital act. One of the shifts is a rejection of the Aristotelian understanding of the relationship between the marital act and conception. He is also highlighting the differentiated unity brought out in Vatican II and in Humanae Vitae between the procreative and the unitive (or mutual love) ends of the conjugal act.

Seemingly, the thrust of the private letter raises into serious question the position that the Church has taken against contraception. At least that is how I have seen some others make use of it. However, in the letter itself, there are no statements as far as I can tell that directly reject the Church teaching regarding contraception. There are statements in the letter that reject any positions based soley on the Aristotelain understanding of the relationship between the conjugal act and conception. However, it does not immediatelly follow that the position of the Church is wrong. Did Lonergan personally make this conclusion?

Whatever the case of Lonergan’s position in 1968, it would be worthwhile to remember a few points.

1. In 1968, there existed a great deal of confusion at that time regarding the issue. The new emphasis on the unitative end of the conjugal act and its relationship to the procreative end was not explanatorily clear to many people.

2. A private letter to a commrade that barely develops the issue historically, philosophically, and theologically should have virtually no weight of authority. Using this letter to justify any position without any real explanatory and scholarly support would border on a type of authoritarianism based on Lonergan’s name alone, something that I think would be a bit unsettling to him and should be to any of us.

So, what would I like to do? I would like to draw out further questions using the full weight of Lonergan’s philosophy, and some of the insights that would shed light upon the meaning of both conception and contraception. Already, I see many questions not raised in the letter which a more thorough treatment of the subject would demand. Here are just a few:

1. What precisely are the contributions of horizontal and vertical finality in understanding conception and contraception?

2. What does conception and what does contraception do to the relationship between the man and the woman psychologically, sociologically, spiritually, etc., etc., etc.?

3. The few references to the statistical relationship between the conjugal act and conception given in the letter need to be spelled out in far more detail. What could modern biology contribute to understanding this relationship?

4. In terms of the statistical relationship of conception, and its finality, what precisely at the level of decision is the liberty of the man and likewise, what is the liberty of the woman? As an observation, how natural family planning changes the statistical relationship is rather different than how a contraceptive changes that relationship, because the decisions involved are rather different. Hence, this has an existential ramification that needs to be explore.

So, in light of finding further questions, and exploring those questions, at least philosophically, I would like to proceed on a new set of blog questions starting with the intelligibility of conception and in this context, the meaning of contraception.