Each day during the week of September 24 through 29, you'll find a new question and answer. Check back every weekday and scroll down to see that day's entry! Let us know what you think--or question!--by emailing us at email@example.com>
Q. I am a first grade Sunday school teacher. We had a lesson on creation last week. We discussed how God created us (man) in his image and likeness, which means we have a soul. To distinguish how much God loves us and how we are different from his other wonderful creations, I reinforced the fact that we are His only creation that has a soul.
I had a couple of children go home and tell their parents I said their pets will not go to heaven. These parents have asked me to tell their children that their pets do have souls and that they do go to heaven. I have a problem telling the children what I believe to be untrue.
According to my understanding, we bury pets for a ceremonial event to ease our sorrow, not because we believe their souls will go to heaven or that their bodies will one day be rejoined with their souls. Am I correct? If so, how best can I explain this to the children and their parents?
E.J., via email
A. You really have two questions here: (1) Do animals have souls? (2) Do animals go to heaven? Tomorrow we’ll address the second question; for now, we’ll address the first.
It all depends, of course, on how you define “soul.” Ancient writers, both pagan and Christian, often used the term “soul” (Greek psyche, Latin anima) to refer in general to that part of an animate (living) creature which sets it apart from inanimate (non-living) creatures. In other words, a “soul” was simply a creature’s “principle of life.”
Using that definition, then, animals and even plants have a “soul” because they are alive. These were known by the ancients as “sensitive souls” and “vegetative souls.”
Yes, I know how strange that sounds to our modern ears. How odd to think of my wife’s rosemary bush as having a “soul”—though, thank goodness, that “soul” would depart once she harvested and dried it to use in our spaghetti!
It’s important to note, however, that even if we use the term soul as the ancients did, we must observe that plants, animals and humans have different kinds of souls. The plant’s “vegetative soul” (its life principle) enables it to reproduce and to assimilate nourishment for growth. That’s something a rock, for example, can’t do.
Animals can do that plus other things. Their “sensitive” souls allow them to move; to sense and respond to external stimuli; and (in some of them) to perform rudimentary mental functions such as learning and even communication.
Even so, the human soul is unique. Of all earthly creatures, only humans are made in the image of God with a soul that is fully rational, able to reason and communicate at high levels and to choose good or evil with a free will. (That is, of course, unless we admit the possibility of so-called “faerie folk”—but that’s a question for another day. In any case, I emphasize the word earthly because we aren’t including here angels or possible extraterrestrial intelligences.)
Among earthly creatures, only humans are truly able to love in the full sense of the word: to will the highest good of another. Humans can know and love God and enter into friendship with Him in a way that no other earthly creature can. Through sanctifying grace, the human soul is capable of the Beatific Vision in heaven—that is, capable of entering so fully into union with God that we can see Him and know Him as He is.
Perhaps you should say something like this to your young students: Animals have “souls” in the sense that they are alive; they aren’t just objects like rocks or chairs. But they don’t have souls the same way human beings have souls. The human soul is something much higher and greater, and that makes it possible for humans to have a deep friendship with God in a way that other creatures can’t.
A. Before we assure children too quickly that only people go to heaven, we should remember that even great Christian thinkers such as C. S. Lewis have debated this issue and left the possibility open.
Some people point to the scriptural account of Elijah’s being taken to heaven by “a chariot of fire and horses of fire” as evidence that animals can be in heaven (see 2 Kings 2:11–12). But I don’t think that we can draw any firm conclusions about the matter from that particular passage.
It’s good that you’ve taught the children that human beings have important qualities setting them apart from other earthly creatures and allowing them to have fellowship with God in a way that the others can’t. Given that uniqueness, it may well be that life in heaven is a privilege animals don’t share with us. But Scripture seems to be silent about the matter, and as far as I know, the Church has never pronounced on it authoritatively.
In any case, we do know that, since animals cannot have sanctifying grace in their souls, they cannot receive the Beatific Vision. So if animals go to heaven, it wouldn’t be for the same reason that humans are in heaven.
What other reasons might there be? It just might be that God will allow the animals we’ve loved on earth to take part somehow in our heavenly life as part of our eternal happiness. In fact, since God Himself takes delight in all the good creatures He has made, He may give animals a life in heaven for the sake of His own pleasure.
Whatever the case, I think we can allow children to leave this particular question open. We can also assure them that God loves every creature He makes, that He loves their pets even more than they do, and that when their beloved pets die, they will be in His care.
One final note: Since the lower creatures aren’t morally responsible for their actions on earth, they cannot deserve a reward, but neither can they deserve a punishment. So they cannot suffer in hell.
I’m reminded how one of C. S. Lewis’ readers once made fun of his speculation that at least some animals might be allowed a heavenly existence. The wag demanded to know: “Where would they put all the mosquitoes?”
Unperturbed, Lewis replied wryly that a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men might very easily be combined . . .
Q. Is the mind located in any special part of the brain?
J.C., Sarasota, FL
A. As with the two previous questions this week (click here and here), the answer depends largely on how you define your terms. If we define the human soul as that aspect of us which is not the body—our “principle of life,” or that which animates us—then we might view the mind as that aspect of the soul with which we reason, feel and make choices. This would encompass what we often refer to as the intellect, the affections and the will, including the memory and the imagination. The mind is thus distinct from the “lower” aspects of the soul shared with the lower animals—those qualities of life that allow us to assimilate nourishment, grow, reproduce, sense, respond to stimuli, and so on.
Even so, we’re on tricky ground here, considering how many various meanings have been assigned over the centuries to the word “mind.” For a look at some more possibilities, click here.
Is the mind located in any special part of the brain? Scientists and philosophers have long debated the exact relationship of the mind to the physical brain. Church teaching would keep us from concluding, I think, that the mind is located—in the sense of contained within or limited to—any part of the brain, or even the brain as a whole.
The mind is intimately connected to and influenced by various parts of the physical brain, of course. Science continues to demonstrate how various segments of the brain are primarily associated with particular mental faculties. But the mind is not just a function of the brain cells, not just the sum of chemical reactions taking part in the nervous system, as some insist. The mind is part of a reality—the soul—that extends beyond the matter and energy of the physical universe.
I just received a review copy of a new book that might shed more light on this subject, though I haven’t yet read it so I can’t yet offer an evaluation. It’s entitled The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary (HarperOne, 2007). For more on this subject, you might want to check it out.
Q. My atheist friend insists that science has disproved the existence of miracles, and even my religion professor claims that the biblical stories about miracles are just legends or “figurative language.” Isn’t the existence of miracles a tenet of the Christian faith?
J. M., Houston, TX
A. You are correct. Miracles belong to the very fabric of the biblical story from beginning to end. To dismiss them out of hand as impossible is to deny the foundations of the Christian faith. As St. Paul insisted, a Christianity without miracles such as the resurrection of Christ is no Christianity at all. It is “empty,” “false,” in “vain” (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).
Some have indeed claimed that science has actually disproved the possibility of miracles. But consider Webster’s dictionary definition of a “miracle”: “an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.” Using that as a working definition, let’s look closer at the claim.
Science attempts to construct an accurate picture of the natural world. Essential to its method are observation, hypothesis, and experimentation through controlled conditions. Given this goal and method, how exactly would science go about disproving the possibility of miracles?
On a given occasion, of course, scientists might well be able to demonstrate that an extraordinary event can be accounted for by purely natural causes. But how could they show that it is impossible for an event to have ever occurred in history that surpassed “all known human or natural powers” and had “a supernatural cause”?
First, scientists would have had to be present for observation at every event in history that has a claim to be miraculous. That is obviously not the case. Second, they would need a hypothesis that reasonably accounts for every such event that has ever occurred. They have no such hypothesis. Finally, if an event should actually have a cause beyond nature (supernatural), then the merely natural means at scientists’ disposal would be incapable of observing it or controlling it for experimentation.
In short, science is too limited in both scope and method to disprove the possibility of miracles. On the other hand, science is often able to rule out known natural causes for certain extraordinary events. So the Catholic Church makes careful use of scientific methods when examining claims for contemporary miracles, such as those that appear in a cause for canonization — knowing that, since an almighty God exists, truly “nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37).
For more on this subject, check out the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 156, 159, 434, 515, 547–¬49, 1335, 2003–94.
Q. How does the Pope go about choosing his name once elected, and may he use his own birth name, such as Josef Ratzinger?
M. K., via email
A. First some background: The earliest popes did not choose a different name once they took the papal throne. The first to do so was Pope John II (died 535). He was a Roman by birth, bearing the pagan name Mercurius (that is, he was named after the Roman god Mercury). So he took the Christian name John, because he thought a pagan name would be a dishonor to the papal office. Pope John III (died 574) may also have adopted his name.
In the latter part of the tenth century, four more popes chose new names for themselves upon ascending the throne. The custom was firmly established by the middle of the eleventh century.
The choice of name belongs to the pope himself. Though there is no canon law requiring that someone take a different name upon becoming pope, the tradition now has the weight of centuries behind it. In addition, the practice has a certain usefulness, since it allows each new pope to make a kind of statement about his hopes and intentions for his papacy.
Reasons for the names chosen have varied. Popes John II and John III apparently took that name to honor their martyr predecessor, Pope St. John I. When a German named Bruno was named pope in 996, he probably took the name Gregory V as a way to reassure the Romans that even though he was a “foreigner,” he would serve them faithfully as earlier, Italian, popes had done.
In our own day, Blessed John XXIII and Paul VI were the popes who presided over the Second Vatican Council. As a way of honoring them and associating themselves with the work of that council, Paul's successor took the name John Paul (the first instance of a pope taking a double name), and John Paul's successor chose to be called John Paul II.
Pope Benedict XVI probably took that name for several reasons. St. Benedict (c. 480 – c. 547) is the patron protector of Europe, and this pontiff seems especially concerned about that continent’s threatened spiritual welfare. He has also spoken of the need for the Church to be a creative spiritual minority within the world as the Benedictine and other religious orders have been. Also, the previous Benedict was a peacemaker, as this Benedict hopes to be.
One final note: A Roman named Peter was elected pope in 1009, but he changed his name to Sergius IV. His reason? Since the first pope, St. Peter, held a unique position as the “Prince of the Apostles,” Sergius thought there should not be a “Pope Peter II.”
To this day, the name Peter has never been taken by another pope.
Nevertheless, a centuries-old prophecy, attributed, with considerable controversy, to St. Malachy (died 1148), makes this intriguing prediction: “In the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church there will reign Peter the Roman, who will feed his flock among many tribulations; after which the seven-hilled city [Rome] will be destroyed and the dreadful Judge will judge the people.” For more on this alleged prophecy, see the entry for 08-23-07 click here
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