Speaking Rightly about Christian Hope and the Resurrection of the Body
Catholic faith affirms human nature as an intrinsic fundamental unity between body and soul. Nonetheless, because the soul is immortal, Catholic teaching asserts that the soul survives even when it is separated from the body between death and resurrection. This belief in the survival of the separate soul can lead to a misguided understanding of the afterlife. It also has potentially detrimental consequences for the people of God in the present life. If the afterlife is conceived as a pure spiritual reality disconnected from the material world, the faith-filled practices of popular religiosity can lose their embodied character and be reduced to nothing more than pious spiritual devotions that are totally disengaged from the responsibilities and realities of Christian life. Guided by these concerns, this inquiry reflects on the manner in which Church teaching on the human soul is communicated through rites and rituals for the dead, especially in the selection and interpretation of biblical texts and in the choice of liturgical prayers. This study also reviews the historical evolution of Church teaching on the soul as well as the foundations that have contributed to Catholic understandings of theological anthropology and eschatology. Particular attention is given to Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of human nature and the human soul as the substantial form of the body. Further attention is given to the inherent difficulties encountered with regard to the notion of the separated soul after death. Challenged by questions raised in accord with theological reasoning, the separation of body and soul also is contested by contemporary scientific data suggesting that the brain has a central role in the generation of human intellectual functions. As Catholic theology has traditionally attributed these functions to the soul, it becomes evident that theology must be in dialogue with science if Church teaching is to give a more reasonable account of human nature. The problem of the separated soul is further examined in the light of the post-Vatican II theological debate on the notion of intermediate state. Two distinct views on this subject are presented in the works of Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger. While Rahner considers the intermediate state as an intellectual framework for thinking about the afterlife and not a matter of binding faith, Ratzinger considers the intermediate state as an important belief connected to the doctrine of the immortality and the survival of the soul after death. This study argues that Rahner’s view is more appropriate as it leaves the question of the intermediate state open to theological debate while also affirming the symbolic dimension of eschatological language. In conclusion, this dissertation proposes Rahner’s hermeneutical principles for the interpretation of the Church’s eschatological assertions as a means to preserve foundational Catholic beliefs while respecting their metaphorical nature. It also proposes that all eschatological assertions of the Church only can be rightly understood and interpreted in light of the resurrection of the body, the central Christian hope and symbol of the permanent and fundamental body-soul unity of human nature.