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Humans Are Spiritual and Corporeal Beings

1986, April 16

General Audience

Created in the image of God, man is both a corporeal and spiritual being. Bound to the external world, he also transcends it. Besides being a bodily creature, as a spirit he is a person. This truth about man is an object of our faith, as is the biblical truth about his being constituted in the "image and likeness" of God. It is a truth constantly presented by the Church's Magisterium during the course of the centuries.

In the course of history, this truth has not ceased to be the object of intellectual analysis, both in the sphere of philosophy and of many other human sciences. In a word, it is the object of anthropology.

Man is an incarnate spirit, or if you wish, a body informed by an immortal spirit. This truth can already be inferred in some way from the description of creation contained in the Book of Genesis and in particular from the "Yahwist" account. This account uses a stage setting and anthropomorphic images. We read that "the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being" (Gen 2:7). The continuation of the biblical text helps us clearly understand that created in this way, man is distinguished from the entire visible world, and in particular from the animal world. The "breath of life" has made him capable of knowing these beings, of naming them, and of recognizing that he was different from them (cf. Gen 2:18-20). The "Yahwist" account does not speak of the "soul." Nevertheless we can easily deduce from it that the life given to man in the act of creation transcends the mere corporeal dimension (that which is proper to animals). Beyond the material, it reaches the dimension of the spirit, which contains the essential foundation of that "image of God," which Genesis 1:27 sees in man.

Man is a unit. He is one in himself. But this unity contains a duality. Sacred Scripture presents both the unity (the person) and the duality (body and soul). One thinks of the Book of Sirach which says: "The Lord created man out of earth, and turned him back to it again"; and further on: "He forms men's tongues and eyes and ears, and imparts to them an understanding heart. With wisdom and knowledge he fills them; good and evil he shows them" (17:1, 5-6).

From this point of view, Psalm 8 is particularly significant. Exalting man, it addresses God in the following words: "What is man that you should be mindful of him, or the son of man that you should care for him? You have made him little less than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him rule over the works of your hands, putting all things under his feet" (Ps 8:5-7).

It is frequently emphasized that biblical tradition stresses especially the personal unity of the human being, by using the term "body" to designate the whole man (cf. Ps 145:21, Joel 3:1; Is 66:23; Jn 1:14). The observation is exact. But notwithstanding this, the duality of man is also present in biblical tradition, sometimes very clearly. Christ's words reflect this tradition: "Do not fear those who deprive the body of life but cannot destroy the soul. Rather, fear him who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna" (Mt 10:28).

Biblical sources authorize us to view man as a personal unity and at the same time as a duality of soul and body. This concept has found expression in the Church's entire Tradition and teaching. This teaching has assimilated not only the biblical sources, but also their theological interpretations, which have been given by developing the analyses conducted by certain schools of Greek philosophy (such as that of Aristotle). It has been a slow, constant work of reflection. Under the influence of St. Thomas Aquinas, it culminated principally in the pronouncements of the Council of Vienne (1312), which calls the soul the "form" of the body: forma corporis humani per se et essentialiter (DS 902). As a factor determining the substance of the being "man," the "form" is of a spiritual nature. This spiritual "form," the soul, is immortal. Later, the Fifth Lateran Council (1513) authoritatively stated this-the soul is immortal, in contrast with the body which is subject to death (cf. DS 1440). The Thomistic school emphasizes at the same time that, by virtue of the substantial union of body and soul, the soul, even after death, does not cease to "aspire" to be reunited with the body. This is confirmed by the revealed truth about the resurrection of the body.

The philosophical terminology used to express the unity and complexity (duality) of man is sometimes criticized. But it is beyond doubt that the doctrine on the unity of the human person and at the same time on the spiritual-corporeal duality of man is fully rooted in Sacred Scripture and Tradition. The conviction that man is the "image of God" because of the soul, has frequently been expressed. But traditional doctrine does not lack the conviction that the body also participates in the dignity of the "image of God" in its own way, just as it participates in the dignity of the person.

In modern times the theory of evolution has raised a special difficulty against the revealed doctrine about the creation of man as a being composed of soul and body. With their own methods, many natural scientists study the problem of the origin of human life on earth. Some maintain, contrary to other colleagues of theirs, not only the existence of a link between man and the ensemble of nature, but also his derivation from the higher animal species. This problem has occupied scientists since the last century and involves vast layers of public opinion.

The reply of the Magisterium was offered in the encyclical Humani Generis of Pius XII in 1950. In it we read: "The magisterium of the Church is not opposed to the theory of evolution being the object of investigation and discussion among experts. Here the theory of evolution is understood as an investigation of the origin of the human body from pre-existing living matter, for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold firmly that souls are created immediately by God..." (DS 3896).

It can therefore be said that, from the viewpoint of the doctrine of the faith, there are no difficulties in explaining the origin of man in regard to the body, by means of the theory of evolution. But it must be added that this hypothesis proposes only a probability, not a scientific certainty. However, the doctrine of faith invariably affirms that man's spiritual soul is created directly by God. According to the hypothesis mentioned, it is possible that the human body, following the order impressed by the Creator on the energies of life, could have been gradually prepared in the forms of antecedent living beings. However, the human soul, on which man's humanity definitively depends, cannot emerge from matter, since the soul is of a spiritual nature.

A fine synthesis of creation as set out above is found in the Second Vatican Council: "Though made of body and soul, man is one. Through his bodily composition he gathers to himself the elements of the material world; thus they reach their crown through him..." (GS 14). And further on: "Man is not wrong when he regards himself as superior to bodily concerns, and as more than a speck of nature or a nameless constituent of the city of man. For by his interior qualities he outstrips the whole sum of mere things" (GS 14).

In this way, then, the same truth about the unity and duality (the complexity) of human nature can be expressed in a language closer to the modern mentality.