We Really Are 'Soul Brothers'

Robert Stackpole Answers Your Divine Mercy Questions

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jun 11, 2008)
I am sure that many of my readers have seen films from the 1970s in which someone goes to a ghetto in an inner city and the African-Americans there greet one another as "soul brother." We may laugh at such language today, but do you realize how appropriate that description is? We are, in fact, "soul brothers (and sisters)"!

In recent months, I have had several questions come in about what we mean in the Catholic Faith by the word "soul." For example, one of our readers named Gerry asked:

When St. Faustina refers to the soul in her Diary, what does she mean? The soul is a metaphysical thing, yet she writes of her soul as knowing God and being intimate with him. So what is the soul? ... I want to know more. Is she talking about consciousness or the voice that we all hear in our minds? I don't know.

Another person wrote to me just recently:

When reading St. Faustina's Diary, I notice the word "souls" listed many times. These words are descriptive, like "fainting soul," or "poor soul," or "humble soul," etc. Does God see our souls with a different light depending on where we are in our relationship with Him?

Both excellent questions. We don't often hear the word "soul" used in everyday speech these days, and sometimes it can seem as if the Church and her saints are speaking a foreign language. But, like any language that deals with important aspects of our lives (computer terminology or government taxation language, for example), it can be well worth our time to learn the lingo.

So what does the Church, in general, and St. Faustina, in particular, mean by the human "soul"?

Saint Thomas Aquinas can help us here. In his writings, he defined the soul as the first principle of life in living things. In other words, the soul is what separates the "living" from the "non-living." In this broad sense, therefore, all living creatures have souls. Plants have "vegetative" souls, which enable them to nourish themselves and reproduce. Animals have these same powers. But their souls, which St. Thomas calls "sensitive souls," also give them the capacity to feel pleasure and pain, and to store up images in their memory. Human beings, however, have an even higher kind of soul — souls that include all the vegetative and sensitive capacities, but also further capacities such as the ability to engage in rational thought and voluntary action. That is to say, intellect and free will.

As we shall see, for this reason St. Thomas concludes that, unlike animals and plants, all human beings have "spiritual" or "immaterial" souls that naturally survive the decomposition of the human body at death. In other words, St. Thomas believed in the natural immortality of the human soul. Unlike animals and plants, therefore, human beings are made up of a spiritual or immaterial "soul," as well as a physical "body" consisting of matter and energy. In short, unique to our world, we are body-soul creatures, not just physical creatures. And that includes all of us: every human being from conception until death (so, maybe we had better say we are not just "soul brothers," but "body-soul brothers"!).

Saint Thomas believed that the human soul is the "spiritual" or "immaterial" aspect of the human person. The historian of philosophy Frederick Copleston, S.J., summarized all these arguments for us in his book Aquinas:

In the human being we find many activities which, considered in themselves, transcend the power of matter. For example, the mind or intellect can conceive and know other than purely material things, and this shows that it is not itself material. ... We should not be able to pursue logic or mathematics, or work out an abstract theory of physical science, were the mind corporeal. ... Again, self-consciousness is a sign of the immaterial character of the human mind. ... And the same can be said of free choice [in other words, if our choices were always merely physical events, they would be mere reactions to other physical events, not voluntary actions].

At one point in his Compendium of Theology, St. Thomas tells us that human beings have a natural desire for immortality and supernatural knowledge of the essence of God, and this is yet another sign that the human soul is immaterial and incorruptible, for we would not have natural desires for such knowledge unless it was somehow attainable.

If St. Thomas were alive today, he would have at his disposal all kinds of extra arguments drawn from modern science for the immaterial, spiritual nature of the human soul. For example, psychologists have noted that Siamese twins and identical twins, although possessing the same genetic make-up and almost exactly the same formative environment, end up with strikingly different personalities, implying that there is a third element (not just one's genes and environment) that makes a person the kind of person he or she is. That extra element is the human soul. Then there are all those cases of people who have been pronounced, medically speaking, "dead," yet who mysteriously came back to life again, and later described their experiences of death as "out-of-the-body" and "life-after-life" experiences. If you can be "out of your body," then there must be some aspect of you that is not your body. That aspect is your soul!

Again, there is the evidence compiled by Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield. He experimented on willing human subjects who were undergoing brain surgery under local anesthesia, and therefore fully conscious (remember that the brain has no pain receptors, so it didn't hurt!). He found that electrical stimulation of the motor cortex of the brain (the part of the brain responsible for movement of the limbs) gave rise to actions disowned by the patient. In other words, the patients described the actions of their limbs, caused by such brain stimulation, as actions done to them, not by them. There is clearly something different about the way our motor actions are processed when they are voluntary, when they proceed from our free will, as opposed to when they are just caused by electrical activity in our brain. This suggests again that acts of our intellect and will flow from our spiritual soul, and not from our physical brain alone.

It is important to recognize that for St. Thomas, as for the Catholic Tradition generally, the relationship between the human body and the human soul is a very close one. The body and soul are certainly distinct aspects of the human person, but they are literally "made for each other"! Some people get confused about this. As soon as they come to believe that we actually posses immaterial "souls," they start to think that the "soul" is the real "me," and the real "you," and the truly immortal aspect of "me" and "you," and therefore that the human body is unimportant.

On the contrary, the human body and soul need each other. On the one hand, the body needs the soul to be a living, human body (when the soul separates from the body, that is what we call "death"). On the other hand, the soul needs the body, too. In order to gain most kinds of knowledge, the soul needs the sensory data and visual images provided by the body in order to have something to think about! Most forms of knowledge come from the soul reflecting on, and drawing conclusions from, the data provided by the five sense of the body.

Think about it: If you want to form a relationship with me, how do you do it? In most cases, the only way is by speaking words with your lips, or making gestures with your body, or using your body to type out letters on a screen. All these bodily things (sound waves, visual images) are then picked up by my body and stored in my brain, and then my soul reflects upon them: "Wow, this person is trying to communicate with me that he wants to be my friend!" Without our bodies, interpersonal communication and human relationships would be well nigh impossible! So would all the arts and sciences! The soul has all these potentials for knowledge and personal relationships and creativity, but without the body, we could never fulfill those potentials. That is why St. Thomas tells us: "It is not to the detriment of the soul that it is united to a body, but for the perfection of its nature."

And that is also why, as a good Catholic theologian, St. Thomas welcomed the Biblical doctrine of the "resurrection of the body," because a human being is not just a soul without a body, nor a body without a soul, but a compound of body and soul, to the perfection of both aspects of our human nature. In other words, our final destiny in Christ is not merely to be everlasting, disembodied spirits (like Casper the Friendly Ghost!). We are to be raised on the last day in the fullness of our humanity, in a glorified body and soul, in the same way that our Savior, Jesus Christ, was raised on Easter morning.

If a human being is, by God's design and definition, a body-soul creature, both in this life and the next, then this has tremendous implications for how we live our lives today. But we are out of space for this week, and will have to continue exploring this topic next week.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).Got a question? E-mail him at questions@thedivinemercy.org.

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