Body and Soul - Renewing Catholic Orthodoxy

Editorial FAITH Magazine March - April 2008

The Renewal of Doctrinal Education

In December, Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster issued a document - Fit For Mission? Schools- which sets out with doctrinal clarity and pastoral concern the Catholic principles and standards he expects the Catholic schools in his diocese to follow. Please God, it will gradually bring about real change and revival of Catholic education in that diocese and beyond.

Some commentators have picked up on certain practical outcomes specified in the document, such as the instruction to display crucifixes in all Catholic classrooms, encouragement of the Rosary, regular Confession and Eucharistic devotion in Catholic schools. These are important provisions to be sure, but they are not recommended in a vacuum. The core of this document is about the renewal of religious education along with wholehearted commitment to ongoing conversion through the sacramental life, personal prayer and Christian action.

Bishop “POD”, as he is affectionately known by his domestic church, sets out the essential topics which must be addressed in any presentation of the Catholic faith as follows:

• God and Creation

• The Spiritual Person

• Sin and Redemption

• The Divinity of Jesus Christ

• The Church

• Eternal Life in Christ.

Catechesis on the Soul Essential

Of these six themes, it is arguably the second that is most likely to be neglected, simply because teachers and catechists are likely to be particularly ill informed and ill equipped to explain the Church’s teaching on this vital point. Lest anyone doubt that it is a vital point of Catholic teaching, under the heading The Spiritual Person, the Lancaster document gives the following quote from the Catechism:

“The Christian vision of the human person made in the image of God with a spiritual soul as well as a body is of central importance. The soul, the seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material, can have its origin only in God (CCC 363)”.

Could the average Catholic teacher in the UK give a reasoned account of the teaching that each of us has “a spiritual soul as well as a body”, and that the soul is “irreducible to the merely material”, to our scientifically aware but deeply secularised young people? Are most of them even aware that that this teaching is “of central importance”?

If not, they can hardly be blamed for their ignorance. Over recent decades the overwhelmingly dominant view in Catholic academic and educational circles has been heavily weighted against the traditional account of body and soul. In fact any form of “dualism” with regard to the constitution of human nature has frequently been sneered at as philosophically dated and theologically distasteful. Later in this issue Fr Francis Selman provides some significant examples of this.

We have often remarked on the widespread influence of Teilhard de Chardin and Karl Rahner, both of whom portray matter and spirit as twin, dialectical, aspects of a common universal energy and metaphysical category. It has to be said too that, for all the beauty and depth of much of his theology, Hans Urs von Balthasar holds much the same philosophical presumption on this point, although he is less systematic in applying it throughout his works. The theology and philosophy of Edward Holloway stands alone as a contemporary synthesis which on the one hand rejects any dialectical tension at the heart of being and at the same time upholds the real distinction between matter and spirit. Both stances are presented as vital to Catholic orthodoxy and to a vision of creation and salvation as a‘garment woven without seam’.

Definitive Teachings about the Soul


Of course we do not teach that the soul is in any way a separate entity, only inhabiting the body as a temporary resident, so to speak. Dualism in that sense is indeed alien to the Catholic faith. The human person is a single entity defined by material and spiritual components such that the spiritual soul is metaphysically the “form of the body” (cf. CCC 362-368).

This phrase is defined by the Church. As we shall bring out below it means that a human body can only exist as a holistic and functional reality in the cosmos through the spiritual soul. And by corollary, it means that the spiritual soul holds all the material powers of the body in integral unity as human and personal.

And yet we must not be afraid of the “dualist” tag, rightly understood, when speaking about human nature. For it is also Catholic doctrine that body and soul do not share the same genesis because matter and spirit are not one common order of existence. This need not imply any opposition between matter and spirit. Both matter and spirit are ultimately from God’s creative hand. Both, therefore, are “good” in their essential definition and both are intrinsically ordered towards fulfilment in the glory of God.

In fact matter is only intelligible through relationship to spiritual mind that controls and directs it. In the case of matter below man this is through relationship to the Mind of God that frames the whole of creation, and in the case of human nature through direct integration with the individual and personal centre of control and direction (intellect and will) that we call the “soul”. Nonetheless it remains true that while the body originates from the interdependent material processes of Nature through parental generation, the “... the spiritual and immortal soul is created immediately by God” at the moment of individuation at conception (CCC 382). Soul and body, therefore, are correlative but distinctive orders of being within the one entity that is Man. This means that they canpotentially be, and are actually separated at death.

It has been common in recent years for scripture scholars to tell us that the idea of the separation of body and soul after death – indeed that any systematic distinction between body and soul – was alien to the Hebrew vision of the Old Testament. Not only is this untrue to the carefully nuanced, symbolic text of Genesis, it is a blatant contradiction of more explicitly developed doctrine found in the book of Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth), “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (Qoh 12:7). It is true that death as we know it was not God’s intention for human beings. Death in this manner is a result of the Fall which will eventually be reversed. But the fact remains that the soul is immortal by nature and endures while the body decaysinto dissolution.

That the souls of the just enjoy the Beatific Vision while yet awaiting the resurrection of their bodies is also solemnly defined doctrine ( Benedictus Deus(1336): DS 1000; cf. Lumen Gentium 49). This teaching simply cannot be maintained in an unequivocal sense on a fundamentally monist view of matter and spirit. Rahner illustrates this point in his final work Foundations of Christian Faithwhen he concludes that his approach to the unity of the human person implies that it is “superfluous to ask what a person does while his body is in the grave and his soul is already with God” (Chapter nine, Part two).

Pastoral Presentation of the Issue

How then do we present the Church’s teaching to the modern world in its orthodox meaning, yet without introducing any sense of arbitrariness or incoherence into God’s works, which is what the thinkers named above were all rightly keen to avoid?

The continuity between man and the animals on the bodily level has become increasingly evident in modern times. A degree of kinship between human beings and the rest of physical creation has always been clear to an extent, but the depth and detail of our interrelationship with the rest of life on the planet is being confirmed over and over again in breathtaking detail by new scientific advances such as genetic studies and molecular biology. We should not try to downplay or deny this, especially since the very unity of the laws of Nature can point the modern mind so powerfully towards recognition of God as Creator, the Supreme Mind that frames the vast Unity of Meaning and Finality that is the material universe.

Yet we must also make a convincing case for the uniqueness and transcendence of the human personality within the scheme of material life. There are indeed clear signs of transcendence over the material order in the human personality; not just higher refinements of animal behaviour – although of course these are also present – but factors that operate on a truly novel principle. Unlike the animals, we are not satisfied with living within a single ecological niche. The biological framework of survival based behaviour and social stimulus is not enough for us.

Our brains no doubt work on the same patterns as other brains in nature, but the human quest for knowledge is not just bounded by the needs of survival. We indulge in pure speculation and seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Our minds delve far beyond the things we can reach directly with the physical senses. We reach out to the very boundaries of creation and beyond. This is both the wonder and the burden of being human.

We also yearn for more than just the satisfaction of bodily needs. The human will and creativity faculty are a further witness to our freedom from the environmental harmonics of animal urge and instinct. We actively shape and develop the environment itself based on our own insight into the structure and patterns of Nature. At our best we do this in harmony with the laws of creation, enhancing the world with our own creative developments and inventiveness. Tragically, we can also break the laws of our own well being and perhaps even the natural harmony of the planet we live upon. We are not supposed to do this, of course, but the fact that we can do so still demonstrates the transcendent power of the human spirit. No purely material creature could break the material laws of directionalcontrol that shape and define its very essence.

All of this shows that we are not just creatures who are controlled and directed. We are creatures who exercise control and direction. That is to say, we are not just matter we are mind as well. Our fairly constant and active consciousness of our physical environment furnishes the foundational experience of what such mind and matter are.

Is Infusion of the Soul Arbitrary?

But how did we come by this awesome power? By what logic and from what need were we given the creative faculty of mind or spirit at the core of our being? It will not be enough simply to assert that God ‘gave us’ souls, as if He arbitrarily chose to create this animal life form with a spirit. Even bright ten year olds can sense something childish and magical in a faith so expressed. This is how the Faithpamphlet What Makes Man Unique? presents the issue:

“If it is true that evolution produces more and more powerful brains as it progresses, and this requires more and more control from the environment to ensure its meaningful and balanced behaviour, then, somewhere along the line, things must reach a natural limit. Nature could produce a supreme brain that was still within its control, but if things were to develop one step beyond that, then it would indeed have created something that was out of control and could not be given a programme of life - an animal that had no place or meaning in Nature.


“Such a creature would be un-natural by definition. So, in fact, such an event could never happen - at least not on its own. Everything in the universe, including our own brains, is built up on this principle of control and direction, and Nature cannot break its own fundamental law without the whole process of the universe being undermined and coming to grief. “And yet evidently something has given us power over the physical environment, power to work out the laws of nature themselves and control them for our own ends, power even to destroy Nature itself with our technology if we are foolish enough. It looks like the impossible has actually happened. How do we explain this?...

“This ‘new power’ cannot be something material, something which arises from the organisation of atoms and molecules and electrical energies of the universe... Therefore it can only come from one other source. It must come directly from God. The human body comes about from the seed and egg of parents in common with other animals, but the soul is created immediately by God’s loving command and wise, eternal will. Whenever a new human life is conceived the soul must also be there. This is because the formula or pattern that makes up the human body makes no sense and has no place in Nature without the spirit to hold it together and give it a meaning and a purpose.

“God will always create the soul at the instant the body begins, because he honours his own creation and therefore he constantly provides what is needed for it to make sense and come to its completion. It’s not as if God is caught by surprise with the arrival of the first human being, or by any of the rest of us! God’s creative wisdom and loving will for his creatures is ever present and always perfect”.

Body and Soul Co-created as a Single Nature


So there is no question here of the body being created before the soul such that the spirit is somehow added onto an already formed creature. Neither is there any suggestion that the soul pre-exists the body.

In Catholicism, A New Synthesis Edward Holloway wrote:

“There is nothing arbitrary about the soul of man, either in Nature or in the process of evolution. Man is, through the soul, both continuous with the evolutionary process and also a special creation. ... the soul must be co-created with the forming and organisable matter of this animal which is going to be Man. The matter cannot be intelligible and rational – i.e. harmonic in nature - without the personal co-existence in it of spirit. It is through this immediate ... principle which is the ‘better half’ of its being and which gives it self conscious intellect and fully reflective selfaware will, that man is defined as a new species within ... Nature”. (p.83)

And the same Faith pamphlet goes on to expound this point in more pastoral language:

“So the human soul is something new in creation, in the sense that it does not evolve or arise from the potential of matter/energy, but it is not something arbitrarily ‘stuck on’ to Nature, an intrusion into the process of evolution. In any case ‘matter’ in evolution is always controlled and directed by the Mind of God from the beginning. That’s how it all makes sense, and how it all works. In the case of human beings, the matter of our body is now controlled and directed by a mind which is individual and personal to each of us. This is something that was foreseen and planned for in creation, and it only happened when matter had been brought to the peak of its natural development with the finest brain in Nature.


“The soul does not exist as something in its own right before coming into union with the body. It is created simultaneously with the body and only makes sense in terms of the whole human nature of the individual who comes into being. What is created at that moment is a single new creature – a human person – with the capacity to become conscious and free ‘in the image and likeness of God”.

The Soul as ‘Form’ of the Body


But how does this catechetical perspective fit with the Church’s definition of the soul being the “form” of the body? The “form” in traditional Aristotelian thinking is the principle of the intelligible organisation of matter. This concept was adopted and adapted very effectively to serve Catholic theology by St. Thomas Aquinas. In that “realist’ tradition the intelligible actuality of a thing is not a projection from the mind of the observer – as in Kant and the subjective schools that come from him – but is an intrinsic aspect of the thing itself. This is true of the soul and the body in man.

In other words the spiritual soul is not merely a name for the subjective arena of human consciousness. The soul is an objective reality. In fact it is the very ground of our reality as living organisms of human form. For the “form” is also the power through which what is potential becomes actual reality. It is not an arbitrary or external addition to an entity that already has a coherent form of existence. The soul is therefore the body’s principle of existence, its breath of life and identity. Without the soul the body has no power to cohere as an organism or even a meaningful entity within creation.

In his philosophical works Edward Holloway suggests a slight realignment of detail within the realist tradition in the light of modern insights into material reality. But this does not mean that he rejects that tradition. In fact quite the opposite. He sought to preserve it by authentic development and vindicate the Church’s defined teaching in the modern world.

In place of accepting a basic ontological dualism between “act” and “potency” as distinct metaphysical principles at the root of being, he suggests that for material existence the concepts of “act” and “potency” or “matter” and “form” can be seen as two aspects of just one single complex of contingency.

In Holloway’s vision there is indeed a formal principle of unity and intelligibility which makes the material being more than just a reductionist assembly of its parts. But we need not have recourse to abstract “universals” intervening on a separate material potential to bring about entities in their various kinds.

Rather the formal identity of organic beings arises from the layered patterning of elements and energies within the vast unfolding formula of matter. The Universe, which constantly subsists in relationship to the Mind of God, is the matrix of meaningful actuality that specifies and interrelates creatures in their interlocking natures. So it is ultimately God’s Mind and Will framing all things though the Law of universal Control and Direction that shapes and bestows the dynamic “forms” of nature.

This is what determines, delimits and identifies the ‘nature’ of material things. The template of their being is nothing abstract at all. It is the living fact of their place within the laws and layers of meaning embedded and embodied in creation as set out in God’s great purpose which is to be fulfilled in Christ. This is what defines all the potentialities and the actualities of matter in cosmic development.

One of the advantages of this small but significant realignment of realist metaphysics is that it takes away any need to speak of “animal souls” or “plant souls”, even if they are carefully and somewhat oxymoronically qualified as “material souls”. Such language always was an inelegance in Christian philosophy, but in today’s world it is a potential source of confusion which we are better off without.

However, when it comes to Man, the principle of intelligibility that integrates, actualises, orientates and is the driving force of human nature as a going concern in the universe has to be of a different order from matter. This, as we have seen, is in order to make sense of Man’s intentional consciousness, creative behaviour and organic brain, as well as his destiny in Christ.

With human beings, the principle of meaningful integration as a specific unity, the principle therefore of individuation and existential actualisation, must be distinct in operational power and hence in origin from the material body. And yet, because this situation is demanded by, and indeed prepared for by, the deepest Law of creation itself, there is perfect continuity in God’s works and perfect unity in the nature so created. The body cannot even begin to exist without the soul. The soul is truly the “form” of the body as defined by the Church, for in this the unique and supreme case matter and form must be really distinct within the unity of the one being.

Human Identity and Our Current Cultural Crisis

We are aware that there are those who will dismiss this whole debate as being of only academic interest, with little pastoral and social relevance. Yet the body/soul question in one manner or another underlies almost every aspect of our contemporary crisis of faith and culture.

In November 2006 Cardinal Carmillo Ruini, the Vicar General of the Diocese of Rome and at the time the head of the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI), gave a keynote address to an international conference entitled “University and The Social Teaching of the Church” ( Università e Dottrina Sociale della Chiesa, Rome 17.11.06). He said that at the root of the social and moral upheavals of our times is a “new anthropological question”. Not only have “recent scientific and technological developments ... given man a new power to intervene on his own identity” but the dominant intellectual culture of our times “refutes that anthropological dualism which conceives of man as constituted by body and soul” and portrays “the unity of existence in a radically reductionist manner”. Human nature is“brought down to the level of the bodily dimension alone”.

He pointed out how, because of the dominant reductionist view of human nature, scientists are increasingly tempted to treat the human individual as “an object to be investigated, measured and experimented upon” rather than as an “irreducible subject”. For this reason he spoke of the urgent need to counter the “naturalistic interpretation of man” with its inherent “negation of transcendence” that “puts an end to hope”.

Cardinal Ruini spoke of “false interpretations” of cosmic and biological evolution which “contribute more than a little to a purely naturalistic understanding of man” and which also lead to “the denial of the existence of a personal God distinct from the world” and the denial of “the transcendence of the human subject, made in the image and likeness of God”. In order to answer these false interpretations the Cardinal called for a rediscovery of the legacy of Christian anthropology. At the same time he also called for a new rapport between “science, philosophy and theology”.

The question of human identity, he said,

“...can only be confronted constructively by means of a multidisciplinary approach that summons together the empirical sciences, philosophy, theology, history, law, literature and art. We are not just talking about a convergence of disciplines, but of an authentically global synthesis in which the various forms of knowledge ... find common ground in a shared personal and social vision... We must not imagine that the socio-cultural challenge of today can be met with theological thought that specialises in the content of doctrine or concentrates on religious experience. It is necessary to collect the questions posed by contemporary human knowledge, especially scientific, and respond to them, showing the reasons for the faith and the plausibility of believing and living as aChristian. This fundamental theology, which insofar as it is reasonable may be publicly proposed to all, must become the base for the cultural formation of the new generation of priests... I would call rather for a great synergy of creative thought in various fields”.

Needless to say we enthusiastically agree with His Eminence. We pray that we and others in the Church may be inspired in taking up the challenge.

Faith Magazine

March - April 2008