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Understanding the human soul takes a multi-faceted approach

Understanding the nature of the human soul can be understood from theological, philosophical and spiritual dimensions

The month of November, which begins with the feasts of All Saints Nov. 1 and All Souls Nov. 2, traditionally is a time in which Catholics pray for the souls of the faithful departed.

Because we don’t know who goes to heaven after death (except those who have been canonized saints), it’s important to pray for the souls of the deceased, so that they may united with God in His Kingdom.

But what do we truly understand about the nature of the human soul?

We know that every human being is created with a soul. Our soul and body together form a unique human being. Each human soul is individual and immortal, immediately created by God. The soul does not die with the body; rather it is separated from the body at death. Our Christian hope is that our body and soul will be reunited in the final resurrection.


The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God at the moment of conception — it is not a creation of the child’s parents. While the body is mortal, the soul does not die. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this about the soul: “It does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection” (CCC 366).

Through sanctifying grace that we receive from the sacraments of the Church, we are given a share of God’s divine nature and become “heirs of heaven” said Larry Feingold, associate professor of theology and philosophy at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary.

“From sanctifying grace, we receive the theological virtue of charity, which is the capacity to love God in a new way as our Father, and therefore to love our neighbor in a new way as sons and daughters of the Father,” he said. This is the most important benefit of sacramental grace — it gives us a new power to love as Jesus has loved us.

All of the sacraments help to feed our soul with the grace to live our lives in unity with God. This is especially true of the Eucharist, Feingold said, which is the ultimate sacrament of charity, where we receive and are spiritually nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ, who died for love of us.


If we’re to understand more about the existence of the human soul, we must turn to philosophy for the answer, said Father Fadi Auro, assistant professor of philosophy at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary.

“The human soul is not empirical or sensitively observed — it has to be reasoned to,” said Father Auro. “The proof of the soul and the immortality of the soul is properly a matter of philosophy, not science.”

Philosophy conclusively proves that the soul is both spiritual and immortal. Even pagan philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato came to that conclusion in their research. Likewise, our Catholic faith reveals that the human soul is spiritual and immortal, but these truths can be understood beyond a faith perspective and from human reason, said Father Auro.

Anything that is living has a soul, because a soul is the principle of life and activity of natural substances, he said. For example, a tomato has what Aristotle would call a vegetative soul, and a dog would have an animal soul, which is responsible for the unity of the substance and all of its operations.

What’s different about humans, though, is that we have a rational soul, said Father Auro. “It is only the rational soul that is spiritual and immortal,” he said. St. Thomas Aquinas has said that action follows being; therefore, “if we find the substance, or a creature, that is capable of purely spiritual activity, we have to conclude that the creature performing it is also spiritual,” said Father Auro.

Seeking holiness is not about living our lives well, but about participating in the life of God. Through the sanctifying grace given by God through the sacrament of baptism, humans have the capability of becoming supernatural organisms.

“That raises the soul from being a merely natural organism to being a supernatural organism that is now capable of doing things that no natural organism can do,” Father Auro said. “We can know and love God.”

Through baptism, humans also receive the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and with it the ability to know God by faith, and loving Him by charity. We also receive infused supernatural moral virtues, the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the indwelling of the Holy Trinity in the soul.

“The life of holiness is the life of the supernatural organism,” he said. “I am made alive naturally by my soul, but I am made alive supernaturally by my soul infused by grace” at baptism. “We’re merely natural beings until baptism, when we are able to participate in the life of God.”

“then 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.”

Genesis 2:7


Often the words soul and spirit are used interchangeably. But the Church shows us that there is a difference between the two, explained Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Robert Hermann.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The Church teaches that this distinction does not introduce a duality into the soul. ‘Spirit’ signifies that from creation man is ordered to a supernatural end and that his soul can gratuitously be raised beyond all it deserves to communion with God” (CCC 367).

“The soul is the body’s connection to created reality,” Bishop Hermann said, and “is related to the material world — its pleasures, its joys, its frustrations. When we get caught up in the attachments of the soul — to pleasurable things (of the world) — that leads us away from the Kingdom.”

In contrast, the spirit is our inmost, direct connection with the spirit of God. When we develop that connection with God, most notably through our prayerful relationship with Him, “then the Holy Spirit comes into our soul,” Bishop Hermann said.

The Holy Spirit separates us from the physical pleasures of our earthy lives, and from the attachments to anger, resentment, bitterness and unforgiveness, as well as our unhealthy attachments to others.

“The Holy Spirit purifies us, and that’s the painful process that we go through our entire life,” Bishop Hermann said.

There are examples of this written in Scriptures. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, St. Paul writes: “May the God of peace Himself make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

From Hebrews 4:12: “Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.”

Purgatory purifies us from all the earthly attachments that we have not given up to the Holy Spirit before we die, Bishop Hermann said. It completes the work of purification needed to move to God’s heavenly kingdom.

“Even in purgatory our spirits are attached to God,” Bishop Hermann said. “But during that time of purgation, we may not experience that attachment, because we’re going through the pain of allowing God to purify our souls of all the attachments that died with us.”

Yet, even in purgatory, God relates to our spirit and gives us hope. “There’s an incredible joy that the Holy Spirit brings to us when He quickens our spirit with His gifts,” he said.

>> Catechism of the Catholic Church on the soul

The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that “then 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.” Man, whole and entire, is therefore willed by God.

In Sacred Scripture the term “soul” often refers to human life or the entire human person. But “soul” also 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: “soul” signifies the spiritual principle in man (CCC 362-363).

The human body shares in the dignity of “the image of God”: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit:

Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day.

The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature (CCC 364-365).

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