Those who have studied the old Baltimore Catechism will remember the definition of man as a creature composed of body and soul and made in the image and likeness of God. Man, then, is composed of a material element (the body) and a spiritual element (the soul) not as two independent elements that happen to be joined together, but as two incomplete elements that need each other to form a complete whole, namely, the human person. As the new Catholic Catechism explains, “spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature” (CCC 365). While the soul after death can exist apart from the body, there is an incompleteness in its condition apart from the body until it will be reunited with the body at the end of the world. Our salvation, then, will be fully realized only with the resurrection of the body, when the whole man will enjoy the beatitude of the life to come.
In the account of creation in the book of Genesis, reference is made to both of these essential elements in man. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” (Gen. 2:7; CCC 362). The soul of man, though unseen, is just as real as the body. It is unfortunate however, that man is often much more aware of and concerned about the care of his body and its needs than of the soul, even though the welfare of the soul is by far the more important. It is the condition of the soul at the end of our life on earth that determines our eternal lot, not that of the body.
Both philosophy and theology contribute to our knowledge of the soul. While theology relies on God’s word as it comes to us through revelation, philosophy can tell us much about the soul from the light of natural reason.
God is a pure spirit of infinite knowledge and power. He is the source of all that is good and beautiful and true. Infinitely happy and at peace within Himself, in His boundless love and goodness He willed to bring into being creatures capable of sharing His own eternal beatitude. After creating the physical universe and “all kinds of living creatures: cattle, creeping things, and wild animals of all kinds . . . God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness'" (Gen.1:24,26). In what sense are we made to God’s image and likeness?
If we consider this question from what we know from psychology, we have no difficulty in seeing the likeness to consist in man’s spiritual nature, his intellect and will which separate him from the rest of animal creation. As the Catholic Catechism explains, the "'soul' refers to the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God's image." (CCC 363) The whole science of psychology, however, was entirely unknown to the writer of Genesis, who did not have our concept of the rational soul and its spiritual faculties. For that reason, scripture scholars tell us that the image of God found in man - in the mind of the author of Genesis - was man’s dominion over creation making him like God who has absolute dominion over all. That is, man is given a share in God’s lordship, yet subject to God’s supreme rule.
“Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground.” (Gen. 1:26)
“God created everything for man, but man in turn was created to serve and love God and to offer all creation back to him.” (CCC 353)
It is in being created in God’s image, making us capable of sharing in God’s own life through divine grace, that constitutes the unique dignity of the human person.
“Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead.” (CCC 357)
The common classification of living things in this world is: plant, animal and man; and this classification is made according to the special kinds of activity that each of these grades of life is capable of. Each of these categories has a principle of life (or soul) which is the source of the activity proper to that category. For example, plant life is capable of nutrition, growth and reproduction. Animal life is capable of all the activities of plant life - plus the activity of sensation and local motion. Human life (the rational animal) is capable of all the activities of the brute animal plus the power of reasoning, of conceiving abstract ideas, and of free will. For example, a dog can recognize one individual as friendly, and another as mean; but the human mind can conceive and understand the abstract concepts of friendliness and meanness.
Thus, there is a vast difference between the principle of life (the soul) in man, and that in plants and brute animals. For the soul of man is a spiritual being, created immediately by God at the moment of conception, is independent of matter, and lives on after the dissolution of the body; whereas, the principle of life in plants and brute animals is material, entirely dependent on matter, ceases in being at the death of the plant or animal. Moreover, the human soul, a spiritual being, is capable of being perfected and elevated to a higher order of being, a sharing in the very life of God through sanctifying grace.
The human soul, therefore, is the ultimate interior principle by which man lives, and is the indispensable source from which all his human operations flow, namely: (of the body) nutrition, growth, reproduction and local motion; (of the soul) the spiritual activities by which we know and understand truth, reason to new truths, and make judgments as to what is right and wrong. In all these functions of the intellect we mirror the all-wise and all-knowing God. The other spiritual power of the soul is that of the will by which we deliberately and freely choose to act or not to act - in which we mirror the infinite freedom that God possesses.
When we speak of the soul as the source of life and all of man’s activities, we mean the soul and its faculties or powers. For, in itself, the soul is not immediately operative (St. Thos. I,77,1). That is, the soul is the source of life for the body, but not its spiritual activities of thinking and choosing. For this it needs the spiritual faculties or powers of operation - intellect and will - which flow from the essence of the soul. (ibid. a.6)
When we consider the faculties of the soul we can see why God made us in His image and likeness. God is LIFE (Jn. 14:6), and it is by reason of the spiritual soul of man that he is capable of sharing in the life of God through grace. God is LOVE (1 Jn. 4:8), and it is by means of the will that man is capable of loving God and sharing in God's love. God is TRUTH (Jn. 14:6), and it is by means of the intellect that man is capable of knowing God and sharing in God's knowledge. In other words, since God is a pure spirit, only a spiritual being could share in the life and love and truth that pertains to God’s very essence.
When we speak of sharing in God’s life and love and truth, we are referring to a soul in the state of grace. By reason of this divine gift of grace there is in man a supernatural organism made up of grace and the infused virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit, parallel to and perfecting the natural organism made up of the soul and its faculties of intellect and will. Just as the soul is not immediately operative, but needs the powers of intellect and will to think and choose, so grace (which divinizes the soul) is not immediately operative, but needs the infused powers (infused virtues and Gifts) to perfect and elevate the intellect and will. Fr. Antonio Royo, O.P. describes this parallel:
Not only did God create the heavens and earth and the various plants, animals and man, etc. at the beginning of time, but the work of creation still continues and will continue until the end of time. For each time that human conception takes place, God creates another human soul and infuses it into the minute fertilized element that is capable of developing to full maturity. So the soul does not exist before the body as do the angels, one of whom is assigned as guardian of the new human person; but comes into being at the very instant of conception. But what about the first man? According to the scriptural account our first parents came into being not through human conception but through the direct action of God. Did God accomplish this at one time, or in stages? Whether God formed the body of the first man in one act, or by an unfolding process (under the special guidance of God) so that the soul was created and infused into the body at a later stage of formation, the Church has not made a formal statement on the matter. What the Church has emphatically stated is that the human soul of every human being is created by God constituting a human person.
Scripture scholars do not understand the “days of creation” in the same sense that we understand the word “day.” Whether the forming of the body of the first man was done in a short period of time or over a long period of development, is not important as far as our faith is concerned. As Pope Pius XII declared in his encyclical “Humani Generis:”
In other words, the Church is more concerned about what God did in this matter, than how He did it.
A spirit is a being without a body that has an intellect and free will. A pure spirit is one that has no dependence on matter either for its existence or any of its activities. God is uncreated pure spirit; the angels are created pure spirits. The human soul is a spirit which, while not dependent on the body for its existence, is dependent on the body (during life in this world) for its operation. While it exists apart from the body after the death of the body, it retains a natural affinity for the body to which it will be reunited at the end of the world.
Since the soul is spiritual with no material parts, it has no size, no shape, no weight, nothing that could be observed by the senses. It cannot be measured, nor can it be divided. While the soul, in itself, is not in space, it can operate in space, in the sense that it is the spiritual source of life that vitalizes every part of the human body. It is in this sense that the soul is where it operates.
Because the soul is spiritual, it is immortal. Not only can the body be destroyed, but of its very nature it is destined for dissolution. But the soul has no material elements that can decompose or be destroyed. It comes into being by the creative hand of God, and only that same divine power can cause it to cease to exist. God implanted in the human soul a longing for happiness which will be perfectly fulfilled only in the life to come.
While the soul is independent of the body in its existence, it operates in and through the body. When God created the first man and woman, there was perfect harmony within the whole being of both of them. All of man’s lower nature (appetites, inclination and passions of the body) was perfectly subject to his higher nature (intellect and will) and man’s higher nature was perfectly subject to the plan and will of God.
But as we know that harmony was gravely marred. When our first parents rebelled against the plan and will of the Creator the source of that harmony was lost - causing a rebellion within man, that is, the rebellion of his lower nature against the higher. As a result of that revolt against God, our first parents lost sanctifying grace by which the soul was elevated and perfected to share in the very nature of God, and their intellect (which was obscured) and their will (which was weakened) were no longer in control of the appetites, inclinations and passions of the body. Man’s life on earth became a warfare (Job 7:1), the flesh rebelling against the spirit (Gal. 5:17), and his higher nature more inclined to seek his own will rather than God’s (Rom. 7:19).
The whole of the Christian life is a struggle to restore the order and harmony that was lost by the fall of our first parents. But this will be realized only in the measure that there is restored the subjection of our lower nature (bodily appetites and inclinations) to our higher nature (intellect and will), and the subjection of our higher nature to God. This, however, is possible only with frequent prayer for the help of God’s grace, and true penance and discipline of our self-seeking tendencies.
God created us in His own likeness, not only that He might share with us His own divine life through grace, but that the three divine Persons might come to dwell in the depths of the soul. What a great mystery is this. The Creator of the entire universe delights to dwell in every soul in the state of grace. Yet, we can become so immersed in the externals of life that we are completely oblivious of the divine Persons, hidden but truly present, in our inmost being. The Lord waits for us to be attentive to His presence: to breath a prayer of adoration, to express a word of thanks, to seek pardon for some failing, to ask help to overcome some weakness. He awaits our attention to speak to us; but how often we are so impatient to give our attention to other matters, that his voice is drowned out by the clamor of superficial and passing demands. “Do you not know that your are temples of God, and the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16)
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