Whilst on a recent holiday in Italy my family and I were taken by our host to visit a lively family of four girls. The eldest, a girl with an intelligent and gentle face, looked about ten years old. She had a series of epileptic crises about two or three years ago, and after months of hospital, and trekking to and fro to neurology clinics the length of Italy, her parents brought her home to look after her. She sits in a wheelchair, and has been unable to talk or eat or move by herself since the crises, and is fed through a tube into the stomach, a P.E.G. tube. It is difficult to know how much she takes in of what is passing around her.
My wife's cousin, a young priest, visits the family when he can, and we had the privilege of joining him to celebrate the Eucharist at their home. It was brief, simple and reverent, with the sounds of the little ones playing in the garden drifting in. We had a short and pointed homily on the reading about Moses going out of the camp to the Tabernacle where the Divine Cloud of God's presence descended, and where Moses spoke to God as his friend - and how we must leave our daily round to enter into the place of holy and quiet in the presence of God, where we are brought in a hidden way into Heaven's inner court, the Sacred Heart of Christ.
The girl who sat in the wheelchair, Caterina by name, is loved by her younger sisters who do not behave as if there is anything odd or embarrassing about her being there in that way. They talk to, shout at, caress her in the most natural and unfussy way. It was impossible not to come away happier, humbler and with a sense of grace received in that place; perhaps even from that girl. What stuck with me was the sense - and I think the behaviour of her rowdy sisters had something to do with it - that there could be not be the shadow of a doubt in one's soul that Caterina was a person, no less than you or I.
It set me thinking. An idea for an argument has been stirring in my head for a few years, which I have never quite been able to articulate. The simple and theological truth behind it, as I was reminded by a friend recently, is that "your life is hid with Christ in God". What follows might be a valid rationalising of that simple truth, and if it isn't, then you can always disregard what I will say and keep the words of St. Paul who spoke through the Holy Spirit.
There are two common notions of what a person is - one I will call performative, the other socially objective.
The performative notion says being a person is acting like one. The actions we normally expect from a person, the inner life of thinking and feeling, the outer life of communicating and willing, are what makes us who we are. If something does not perform these activities, it cannot be a person. In its crudest form this kind of philosophy would seem to say that we cease to be persons when we fall asleep, so it is usually modified by some kind of appeal to the notion of our potential capabilities. If I fall asleep I am still a person because I am still capable of waking up and doing things: if I were in a coma, i.e. utterly unable to wake or be awakened ever again, well, that would be a different story. One can see, if this is the only kind of philosophy around, where the twilight will fall: on the very old, especially those who have lost their mind; on those badly injured or incapable of communicating; and on those so young that they appear not to have any capabilities at all. There is, I think, something somewhat Cartesian and dualistic about this way of thinking: the body (apart from the inner life of thinking and willing) can be discarded from considerations about the person. Rather like a computer which won't load up anymore - once one has extracted the information from the hard disk, the husk of metal and plastic had better be dumped - a person is really just the bit that processes and communicates information, and the machinery of the body (if it doesn't do its job) is so much rubbish. Respect due to someone e.g. with profound dementia, in this philosophy, is a kind indulgence to their relatives' sentimentality.
The socially objective notion, often a noble and valid reaction against the apparently cruel logic of the performative notion, is that every human being is a person, because of the kind of thing that human beings are together. We are objectively and en masse beings who feel, think and communicate, and are at bottom social beings. Part of the fact of being a person is to bear the responsibility of looking after others. If someone - at a certain stage of their life, or due to a lack of the usual human capabilities - is unable to think or act they are nevertheless part of human society, and we ought to look after them. The appeal in this notion is mostly, I suppose, to the Aristotelian notion of man as a social animal, and therefore an animal with social responsibilities. While one wouldn't object to the conclusion, I think that there is a step missing in this kind of argument. It isn't immediately obvious why every human being is a person, if by a person one means someone who thinks, feels etc. Surely the argument works by sleight of hand, concealing the fact that "person" and "member of the human species" do not have the same definition, but pretending that they do? We may or may not, says the critic, have a duty to all our fellow humans, but do we have a duty to respect every human as a person specifically?
The answer, I believe, lies in the definition of person, thrashed out in twelve centuries of theological dispute over the doctrine of the Trinity and the unity of human and divine in Christ, and present largely in its modern form when St. Thomas Aquinas laid down his quill for the last time. One of the greatest contributions, however, was made a generation before Aquinas, by Richard of St. Victor in his De Trinitate. There are three points from that seminal work that I would like to pick up on.
His first contribution was profoundly simple: when we think of things, we ask the question "what?" (e.g. what kind of thing is this?) When we speak of a person, we ask the question "who?" (e.g. who was that man?) The unique name of a person cannot be given to someone else: they are who they are, and who they are is - in his technical terminology - incommunicabilitas: their personhood cannot be someone else's, for they are themselves and no-one else. I think this makes a great deal of intuitive sense, for even if dementia or madness can be a frightening and alienating thing for the family of a sufferer, there is never a point at which the relatives say, "No, this is not a person any more". They may say "I have lost the person that he was", but that is something quite different: it is a loss of remembered characteristics (personality) of which they feel so bereaved, but the sense that this is a "who" is distinguishably a different matter.
The second point that Richard makes is that the persons of the Trinity are distinguished wholly by their relation to each other. Because the Father, Son and Spirit are eternal, they are not distinguished by any of the generic distinctions by which we tell each other apart - our height, the colour of our hair, etc. - but by the relation each has to the other. The Son is not the Father because the Son is begotten of the Father, and is filled by the Spirit which "is not given in measure [is not given partially, but utterly] unto him". While we are indeed partly who we are because of the colour of our hair etc., I think it is worth considering how little of our own person is a matter of our own making, and how completely our existence is found relation to others. Like the Son, we receive our existence from another. In fact, the conscious exercise of our will and thought depends utterly upon the datum or the gift of what we already are when the exercise of that will and thought is awakened in us. What we are in our freedom is what we do with the life given to us ultimately by our parents, the food they fed us, and what was fostered in us. We are, from head to toe, from each atom and cell to total organism, from inmost desire to the blinking of our eyelid, relational beings embedded within our inheritance and the cosmos. Within this radical relation that is our existence, there is freedom and will, yes: but even that turns out to be exercised by virtue of the others around us. Because there are other talking beings who taught us to speak, we are free to talk to them - and only then to talk to ourselves (i.e. to think). We are only free to act as "social beings" because there are other social beings with which to act. In fact therefore, both our will and our inner life and its imaginative apparatus is parasitic on relation: our inflated notions of solitary selfhood are largely illusory projections. The only freedom to be ourselves is not actually to live in isolation, but to be a self in relation to others, and whether we like it or not that is our identity as person and the very seat of our individuality.
A pertinent moral lesson flows from the radically relative nature of our personhood, which is that the capabilities we think of as most central to us as persons are in fact not our primary reality. Having an "inner life" of thought and will is secondary to having been conceived and nourished and spoken to by others. Our reality as persons is in operation firstly by the gift of our existence, not by our self-awareness. The intuitive sense of a mother that their child, though so injured that they cannot move or speak, is a person, is rooted in this truth. The question about the personhood of embryos is also subtly shifted when this truth is accepted. It is no longer an argument about when an embryo attains sentience, or about the possession of the genetic material and potential of human development. For an embryo is not merely an abstract thing of science, it is something with two parents, and it is therefore a person through its relation to them. Their responsibility is continuous with their knowledge of the formation of that embryo.
The third and final point that I want to draw from Richard of St. Victor is that he sees the Holy Spirit as fully personal Love. "Relation" is a somewhat abstract and colourless term and does not describe something that exists at all: rather like Newtonian empty "space" (although Newton saw space as "location" to be fair to him, and as fact because of God's omnipresence). We would do better to speak instead with Dante of l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle, the love that moves the sun and the other stars. There are fathers and sons, mothers and children, lovers and spouses, friends and enemies, all in some way or other entering into Love, or seeking to frustrate it. Our acts are not mere flailing around in a vacuum-like space called relation, but are either like light, beams pregnant with the energy of creation, or they are like darkness, horrible black holes of destructive self-imprisonment.
The philosophy of the person is in its form and import Trinitarian, partly because the formation of Trinitarian dogma and clarity about the philosophy of person came in tandem in the thirteenth century. One is a person because of one's relation to God: or, translated by Richard, one is a person because one is loved into existence by God. Whether waking or sleeping, whether one has lost one's mind or is sane, whether one cell or billions, the Holy Trinity is the centre and guarantee of one's personhood. Caterina is a person, I suppose, as are her sisters, because they exist in the life of the Holy Trinity. They are begotten by the Father in Christ, by the Spirit of Love. The difference between her and her sisters is that Caterina's will is more deeply hidden in Christ - like Moses in the tabernacle, she talks to God as a friend, and her dwelling is in the Shechinah, the Divine Glory of God's inner chamber. But one glimpses the Love in which she dwells by the way that girl is loved in that house.