What is a Soul?

Bulletin Q&A Bulletin Article published 10-23-22:

What is a soul?

I have not been receiving many questions in the “Ask the Deacon” box, so I am open to questions wherever they arise. This question came from my 3-year old granddaughter. She asked it as my daughter was reading her one of the books they had bought her at what she calls the “Jesus” store.

Immediately, I went to the Catechism to obtain a definitive answer. This is what I found in the glossary: “The spiritual principle of human beings. The soul is the subject of human consciousness and freedom; soul and body together form one unique human nature. Each human soul is individual and immortal, immediately created by God. The soul does not die with the body, from which it is separated by death, and with which it will be reunited in the final resurrection”

That sounds nice, but not sure if I understand this definition very well, or could explain it to another adult, let alone a 3-year old. Let me try, hindered by the limited length of this article and by my limited philosophical understanding, to give some other insights on the soul.

First the soul of each human being is created by God at the time of conception. Each individual soul is unique. The soul and body are separate things. The soul is not material, while the body is material. The soul and body combine to form a unique human person. “Their union forms a single nature” (CCC #365). The soul is what gives our body its form physically, intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally; its intrinsic nature that animates us. When we are conceived, our soul is how God wants us to be. In a way it is like a blueprint for a house. But the actual construction of a house never perfectly matches the blueprint. In the same way, we do not always perfectly follow the plan set out by God, and our soul takes a different form. We sin and are imperfect. Our form, our soul, is damaged. Our soul is essentially reshaped by our free choices and actions.

To get a little deeper, we can look at philosophical principles from Aristotle, embraced by St. Thomas Aquinas and the Church. One aspect of his philosophy is the idea of causes. The word cause, in this philosophical sense, is a little different than its current common usage. The causes of things are essentially the answers to four questions we might ask to understand a certain thing. And those four questions are:

  • What is it made of?, the material cause,
  • What is it?, the formal cause,
  • Who made it?, the efficient cause, and
  • Why was it made?, the final cause.

The formal cause is basically another name for the soul. It is what we are. Plants and animals have souls that define what they are, but they are not immortal like the human soul. The human soul must be immortal because of the final cause of the human person: why we were made. We are made: to know, love, and serve God in this world so as to be happy with Him forever in the next—both body and soul. Our souls are not spirits, like the angels who have their own complete nature. When we die, our soul is separated from our body. We are incomplete until they are reunited to a perfect human nature on the last day, the resurrection of the dead.

To get back to my granddaughter, maybe a simple answer for a 3-year old is that our soul is a picture of who we are and how we act.

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