Bodily Resurrection in Catholic Perspectives

Article excerpt

THE MEANING OF BODILY RESURRECTION has perennially been a matter of theological discussion. Responding to the Cathars and their negative view of the body, the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 asserted that "all will rise with their own bodies, which they now wear."(1) In his Summa theologiae, Thomas Aquinas maintained that, after the Resurrection of Christ, the same body, for which his soul had been the form before his death, was again united with his soul: "And because the truth of the nature of the body is from the form [i.e. the soul], it follows that the body of Christ after the Resurrection would be a real (verum) body, and of the same nature as before."(2) According to Aquinas, the body of the risen Christ was "integral" (and therefore included flesh, bones, blood, etc.) and of the same nature as before death, although it was now glorified, incorruptible, and no longer subject to death.(3) Aquinas also considered it appropriate that the body, which the soul of Christ again took on in the Resurrection, had the wounds suffered in the passion.(4) Although it was now "spiritual," that body was real and solid, could be touched and seen, and was able to eat and drink.(5)

Aquinas had earlier articulated his philosophical reflections on the relationship of the bodily and spiritual dimensions of a human being. In his Summa contra gentiles, he argued that "intellectual substances [such as the human soul] are not composed of matter and form; rather, in them the form itself is a subsisting substance; so that form here is that which is and being itself is act and that by which the substance is."(6) That set the stage for his foundational proposition that "it is through the soul that the body becomes a being in act ... for living is the being of the living thing.... Therefore, the soul is the form of the animated body." Aquinas added that "we live and sense by the soul as the principle of life and sensation. The soul is, therefore, the form of the body."(7)

Aquinas's philosophical insights about the human "person" as the profound and enduring unity of a spirit with the body that it informs and actualizes remain influential. That is not the case for his more literal interpretations of bodily resurrection, especially reflected in the excerpts from the Commentary on the Sentences (1254-56) posthumously selected to form the Supplement to the Summa theologiae (1265-72). In those passages, which represent Aquinas's earliest thought, before he had composed the Summa contra gentiles about 1260 or his commentaries on the works of Aristotle in 1261, he proposed that "all the members that were part of the human body before death" will rise in the resurrection, even the hairs and nails, the bodily fluids or humors, and that "materiality" that is necessary for the identity of the human species.(8) He considered it fitting that risen bodies be youthful (and thus not affected by the limitations and defects of childhood and old age), that they rise with the differing statures they would have had at that more perfect age, and that they be male and female, but without any libido.(9) Aquinas also discussed the "impassibility" of such bodies, and whether their senses would be active.(10) Having speculated about the manner in which the "subtlety" of glorified bodies would affect the way they occupied space, he further considered the palpability and agility of such bodies, and maintained that a glorified soul has the power to allow the transformed, glorified body either to be seen or not to be seen by non-glorified eyes.(11)

Karl Rahner has noted that contemporary physics is teaching us more than ever to think abstractly, which means "there will be less of an obstacle ... to our taking the existence of those in heaven very seriously in a non-pictorial way."(12) Speaking about quantum theory, Niels Bohr said that it "forces us to adopt a new mode of description designated as complementary in the sense that any given application of classical concepts precludes the simultaneous use of other classical concepts which in a different connection are equally necessary for the elucidation of phenomena. …