Last Saturday at mass, I heard something along the following lines during the sermon: “We need to look after our souls more than after our bodies, since our souls are eternal and our bodies will be discarded at the end of our lives.” While the intention behind this statement may have been good, and was set in the context of the priest noting that only around 1% of those who attend mass come to confession in his parish, the suggestion of the body being secondary and only temporarily attached to the soul certainly wasn't in keeping with the Church's teaching. Since such dualist views are not uncommon and since I have heard them attributed to Catholicism by some friends of mine, I would here like to take a closer look at what the Catholic Church actually teaches about this topic.
Originally I was going to look at the question of how the body and soul are understood in a broader way, with a look at Scripture, a mention of St. Francis of Assisi, a glimpse at the counter-reformation and then examples from Pope Francis' teaching (e.g., his insistence on the importance of touching the flesh of the poor and suffering), I will instead stay monographic and focus on what St. John Paul II wrote on the subject in his “Man and Woman He Created Them.” As soon as I went back to that book and started re-reading the relevant passages I realized that all of what I wanted to bring into play is there and is expressed crisply and sharply.
To being with, John Paul II's point of departure is that of humans1 being made in the image of God and therefore being a “primordial sacrament”:
“Man appears in the visible world as the highest expression of the divine gift, because he bears within himself the inner dimension of the gift. And with it he carries into the world his particular likeness to God, with which he transcends and also rules his “visibility” in the world, his bodiliness, his masculinity or femininity, his nakedness. [...] Thus, in this dimension, a primordial sacrament is constituted, understood as a sign that efficaciously transmits in the visible world the invisible mystery hidden in God from eternity. And this is the mystery of Truth and Love, the mystery of divine life, in which man really participates. In the history of man, it is original innocence that begins this participation and is also the source of original happiness. The sacrament, as a visible sign, is constituted with man, inasmuch as he is a “body,” through his “visible” masculinity and femininity. The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it.”Note how John Paul II does not say “he has a body” but “he is a body” and that the sacramentality of humans consists in their being a “visible sign” of God's presence in the world. Unlike other sacraments, humans are conscious of their being so and therefore become subjects rather than objects:
“Consciousness of the gift conditions in this case “the sacrament of the body”: in his body as man or woman, man senses himself as a subject of holiness. With this consciousness of the meaning of his own body, man, as male and female, enters into the world as a subject of truth and love.”The body's origins (as gift from God and God's visible sign in the world) and function (as “subject of holiness”) already point to it's being a lasting and intrinsic part of what it is to be human:
“[W]e draw a first hope already from the mystery of creation: namely, that the fruit of the divine economy of truth and love, which revealed itself “at the beginning,” is not Death, but Life, and not so much the “destruction of the body of man made in the image of God,” but rather the “call to glory” (Romans 8:30).”And it is Jesus' resurrection that seals the deal:
“The resurrection, according to Christ’s words reported by the Synoptics, means not only the recovery of bodiliness and the reestablishment of human life in its integrity, through the union of body and soul, but also a wholly new state of human life itself.”It is often said that all philosophy is a conversation between Plato and Aristotle, and the body-soul question seems to be no different. John Paul II here clearly aligns Christianity and Catholic teaching with Aristotle and later with Thomas Aquinas:
“Reflection about the resurrection led Thomas Aquinas in his metaphysical (and simultaneously theological) anthropology to abandon Plato’s philosophical conception on the relation between the soul and the body and to draw near to Aristotle’s view. In fact, the resurrection attests, at least indirectly, that in the whole of the human composite, the body is not, contrary to Plato, only temporarily linked with the soul (as its earthly “prison,” as Plato maintained), but that together with the soul it constitutes the unity and integrity of the human being. This is precisely what Aristotle taught, in contrast to Plato. When St. Thomas in his anthropology accepted Aristotle’s conception, he did so because he considered the truth about the resurrection. In fact, the truth about the resurrection clearly affirms that man’s “eschatological perfection and happiness cannot be understood as a state of the soul alone, separated (according to Plato, liberated) from the body, but must be understood as the definitively and perfectly “integrated” state of man brought about by such a union of the soul with the body that it definitively qualifies and assures this perfect integrity.”Siding with Aristotle here is firmly on the basis of the resurrection, which brings about the original harmony that was created by God “in the beginning”:
“In the resurrection, the body will return to perfect unity and harmony with the spirit: man will no longer experience the opposition between what is spiritual and what is bodily in him. [... It is] not only that the spirit will master the body, but, I would say, that it will also fully permeate the body and the powers of the spirit will permeate the “energies of the body.””John Paul II is quick to insist on the resurrection not having resulted in victory of spirit over body, a subjugation, but in participation and personal fulfillment:
“In fact, in the composite, psychosomatic being that is man, perfection cannot consist in a reciprocal opposition of the spirit and the body, but in a deep harmony between them, in safeguarding the primacy of the spirit. In the “other world,” this primacy will be realized, and it will be manifested in a perfect spontaneity without any opposition on the part of the body. Nevertheless, this should not be understood as a definitive “victory” of the spirit over the body. The resurrection will consist in the perfect participation of all that is bodily in man in all that is spiritual in him. At the same time, it will consist in the perfect realization of what is personal in man.”This also very much echoes Giuseppe Maria Zanghì's thought on how our being in God does not annihilate us, is not a victory over us, but instead:
“I can be myself in Him (being an intimate participant of Trinitarian life in the Word), while being really distinct from Him (by virtue of being a creature different from Him). It is His love that wants me, and the love of God does not withdraw into itself, canceling diversity with the other by totally reverting it to Himself, but “makes” the other and guards them in diversity from Himself, not wanting to possess (like He doesn’t possess Himself) in total reabsorption. [...] Because the relationship between the two “opposing” extremes (I and the other, I and God) is still thought of as ending in one of the two (and, therefore, in the strongest!); while, if Christian faith is true, the relationship does not end in either of the mediated extremes, but in a third that saves them precisely in their diversity.”And - as far as the body-soul relationship is concerned, I believe Zanghí's “third” is precisely John Paul II's “resurrection.”
1 In my own words I will use the somewhat awkward “humans” to refer to both men and women, while in the quotes from John Paul II's writings there will be reference to “man.” Note, however, that John Paul II means “human” when his words are rendered as “man” in English, which is explicit from the full text of “Man and Woman He Created Them” and also reflects the fact that in Polish he uses the word “człowiek” which also refers to both men and women and is used in everyday language without the technical connotations that “human” has in English.