resources_nature_txt_Human Spirituality

The spirituality of the human being

Author: Mariano Artigas
Published in: Unpublished text. seminar room of the CRYF.
Date of publication: 15 November 2005

Man is a being of nature, but at the same time he transcends nature. He shares with other natural beings everything that concerns his material being, but he differs from them in that he possesses spiritual dimensions that make him a person.

From agreement with experience, Christian doctrine affirms that in man there is a duality of dimensions, the Materials and the spiritual, in a unity of being, because the human person is a single being composed of body and soul. Furthermore, it affirms that the spiritual soul does not die and that it is destined to be united again with its body at the end of time.

This doctrine is at the basis of the whole Christian life, which would be completely disfigured if human spirituality were denied.

The summit of material creation

It is sometimes said that an order cannot be established among natural beings, as if some were more perfect than others, and it is added that, basically, a classification of this kind subject would be "anthropocentric", because it would try to put man, in a selfish way, in the first place in nature, justifying an indiscriminate use of other beings.

However, disregarding details which are of interest only to the sciences and without attempting to justify any use of nature, it is clear that the Church describes a reality when she states that among creatures there is a hierarchy which culminates in man. "The hierarchy of creatures is expressed by the order of the "six days", which goes from the least perfect to the most perfect. God loves all His creatures (cf. Ps. CXLV, 9), He cares for each one, even for the little birds. But Jesus says: You are of more value than many sparrows (Lk. XII, 6-7), or again: How much more valuable is one man than one sheep! (Matth. XII, 12)" * (1).

The Church teaches that material creation reaches its culmination in man: "Man is the summit of the work of creation. The inspired account expresses this by clearly distinguishing the creation of man from that of other creatures (cf. Gen. I, 26) "* (2).

Material creation finds its meaning in man, the only natural creature who is capable of knowing and loving God, and thus of achieving happiness. The material world makes human life possible and serves as a channel for it development. For this reason, the Church affirms that "God created everything for man (cf. Second Vatican Council, Const. Gaudium et Spes, 12, 1; 24, 3; 39, 1), but man was created to serve and love God and to offer him the whole of creation "* (3).

Man is above the rest of nature and can dominate it, but he must exercise this dominion agreement with God's plans. Pope John Paul II affirms: "It is clear to everyone, regardless of ideological worldviews, that man, although he belongs to the visible world, to nature, is in some way different from nature itself. Indeed, the visible world exists "for him" and man "exercises dominion" over the world; even though he is "conditioned" in various ways by nature, he "dominates" it, thanks to what he is, to his capacities and Schools of a spiritual order, which differentiate him from the natural world. It is precisely these Schools that constitute man. On this point, the book of Genesis is extraordinarily precise: by defining man as "the image of God", it highlights that by which man is man, that by which he is a being distinct from all the other creatures of the visible world "* (4).

Image of God

All creatures reflect, in some way, the divine perfections. But among natural beings, only man shares in God's own way of being: he is a personal being, intelligent and free, capable of love. The Sacred Scripture, in its account of creation, emphasises this by saying that man is made in the image of God: "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them" (Gen. I, 27). Man occupies a unique place in creation: "he is made in the image of God""* (5).

The image of God is given in man irrespective of sex, as is evident from the inspired account that the human person was created by God as male and female.

That man is the image of God means, above all, that he is capable of relating to Him, that he can know and love Him, that he is loved by God as a person. "Of all visible creatures only man is "capable of knowing and loving his Creator" (Second Vatican Council, Const. Gaudium et Spes, 12, 3); he is the "only creature on earth whom God has loved for his own sake" (ibid., 24, 3); he alone is called to participate, through knowledge and love, in the life of God. It is for this purpose that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity "* (6). When we look for the factors that distinguish man from other natural beings, this is the fundamental one: man is capable of relating to God; no doubt there are other important differences, but none is as profound as this one.

Man is a person, not just a thing. The person has a unique dignity: no one can replace him in what he is capable of doing as a person. And it is only between persons that friendship and love can exist. "Because he is made in the image of God, the human being has the dignity of a person; he is not just something, but someone. He is able to know himself, to possess himself, to give himself freely and to enter into communion with other persons; and he is called, by grace, into a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love which no other being can give in his place "* (7).

It would make no sense to use natural science to deny, in the name of scientific progress, the essential difference between man and other beings in nature, for example, by claiming that man has a similar material constitution to other beings and that the differences are due solely to the organisation of the components Materials. On the contrary, natural science provides one of the most convincing proofs of man's peculiarities; it shows that man, unlike other beings, possesses creative and argumentative abilities that are indispensable for posing scientific problems, seeking solutions, and testing their validity at test . The great scientific and technical progress of modern times illustrates the unique capacities of the human person, and it would make no sense to use it to deny what ultimately makes the existence of science possible.

Unity and duality

When we try to understand our being, we stumble upon an undeniable reality: that we are one being, but we possess different dimensions. "Man is a unity: he is someone who is one with himself. But in this unity is contained a duality. The Sacred Scripture presents both unity (the person) and duality (the soul and the body) "* (8).

Duality is real. It is not the result of a dualistic mentality that has already been overcome, which could be dispensed with today. Certainly, reality can be conceptualised from different perspectives, and it may happen that some formulas represent some aspects better than others. But our being has both Materials and spiritual dimensions, and this reality does not depend on the ideas of an era.

It is sometimes claimed that dualism would be alien to the perspective of Sacred Scripture, which stresses the unity of the human person. It cannot be forgotten, however, that Sacred Scripture itself contains clear affirmations of the constitutive duality of man. Pope John Paul II comments on this: "It is often emphasised that the biblical tradition stresses above all the personal unity of man (...). This observation is correct. But this does not prevent the duality of man from also being present in the biblical tradition, sometimes in a very clear way. This tradition is reflected in the words of Christ: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul, but fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna (Matth., X, 22). The biblical sources authorise us to see man as a personal unity and at the same time as a duality of soul and body: and this concept has been expressed in the whole Tradition and in the teaching of the Church "* (9).

Any reliable explanation must respect the sure facts of human experience, which refer both to the unity of the person and to the duality of his basic dimensions. The difficulties in conceptualising both aspects at the same time indicate that man is a complex being, and nothing would be gained by arbitrarily simplifying the problem.

Soul and body

In order to express the constitutive duality of the human being, a now classical terminology has been used for centuries, according to which man is composed of soul and body. The Church has used this terminology in its formulations, while introducing the necessary clarifications: for example, that soul and body are not complete substances, and that the soul is a substantial form of the body. When the Church speaks of soul and body, she refers to the spiritual dimensions and Materials of the human person, who is a single being; but she also stresses that the spiritual soul transcends the dimensions Materials and therefore subsists after death, when the conditions Materials make it impossible for the person to remain in the state that corresponds to him in his earthly life.

In the face of exaggerated dualisms which undervalue the dignity of the material, the Church has always taught that "The human body shares in the dignity of the 'image of God': it is a human body precisely because it is animated by the spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person who is destined to be, in the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Spirit (cf. I Cor. VI, 19-20; XV, 44-45) "* (10).

In the Sacred Scripture, the term soul is used with different meanings; sometimes it designates the human life, or the whole person. "But it also designates that which is most intimate in man (cf. Matth. XXVI, 38; Iohan. XII, 27) and most valuable in him (cf. Matth. X, 28; II Macc. VI, 30), that by which he is particularly the image of God: "soul" means the spiritual principle in man "* (11). This is the sense in which we speak of the soul when we affirm that the human person is composed of soul and body.

Undoubtedly, the most important thing is the content of the doctrine; the words in which it is expressed may vary, as long as the authentic content of the doctrine is respected. With regard to the human soul, among "what the Church teaches in the name of Christ" is the following: "The Church affirms the survival and subsistence, after death, of a spiritual element which is endowed with consciousness and will, so that the human "I" itself subsists. To designate this element, the Church uses the word "soul", consecrated by the usage of Sacred Scripture and Tradition. Although she is not unaware that this term has various meanings in the Bible, she is nevertheless of the opinion that no valid reason is given for rejecting it, and at the same time she considers that a verbal term is absolutely indispensable for sustaining the faith of Christians "* (12).

Unity of soul and body

The Second Vatican Council expresses the simultaneous unity and duality of the human person with a brief and lapidary formula: corpore et anima unus: "One in body and soul, man, by his very corporeal condition, unites in himself the elements of the material world, so that through him they reach their cima and raise their voice to the free praise of the Creator "* (13).

The unity of the human person has always been enunciated by the Church in the face of exaggerated dualisms. At one of the Ecumenical Councils, Aristotelian terminology was used to emphasise precisely that soul and body form a single reality: "The unity of soul and body is so profound that the soul must be considered as the 'form' of the body (cf. of Vienne, year 1312: DS 902); that is to say, thanks to the spiritual soul, the subject that integrates the body is a human and living body; in man, the spirit and the subject are not two united natures, but their union constitutes a single nature "* (14).

At final, "man, created in the image of God, is both a bodily and a spiritual being, that is, a being who on the one hand is united to the external world and on the other transcends it: as a spirit, he is a person as well as a body. This truth about man is the object of our faith, as is the biblical truth about his constitution in the "image and likeness" of God; and it is a truth constantly presented, down the centuries, by the Magisterium of the Church "* (15).

The human person is a synthesis of the material and the spiritual: "in his very nature he unites the spiritual world and the material world "* (16). An important consequence of this doctrine is that the dimensions Materials are good and willed by God: "The human person, created in the image of God, is both a bodily and a spiritual being. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it states that God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being (Gen. II, 7). Man as a whole is therefore willed by God "* (17). The body is something good, willed by God, and destined for eternal life: "Therefore it is not lawful for man to despise bodily life, but, on the contrary, he must consider his body good and worthy of honour, since it has been created by God and is to rise again on the last day "* (18).

The spirituality of the human soul

In some eras, the Church has had to emphasise the goodness of the body in the face of those who proposed a spiritualism which condemned as evil everything that has to do with the material. Nowadays, it is often necessary to confront the opposite extreme: a materialism that ignores the spiritual dimensions and tries to reduce man to the dimensions Materials that can be studied by the methods of the empirical sciences.

In this context, Pope John Paul II has stressed that man is more like God than like nature: "We are aware of the many attempts that science has made and continues to make in various fields to demonstrate man's links with the natural world and his dependence on it, in order to insert him into the history of the evolution of the various species. While respecting such research, we cannot limit ourselves to it. If we analyse man in the depths of his being, we see that he differs from the world of nature more than he resembles it. Anthropology and philosophy also proceed in this direction when they try to analyse and understand man's intelligence, freedom, conscience and spirituality. The book of Genesis seems to come out of all these experiences of science at meeting and, speaking of man as the "image of God", allows us to understand that the answer to the mystery of his humanity is not to be found in the way of resemblance to the world of nature. Man is more like God than like nature. In this sense, Psalm 82:6 says: "You are gods", words that Jesus would later quote "* (19).

The Second Vatican Council teaches: "Man is not mistaken in asserting his superiority over the material universe and in considering himself as something more than a mere particle of nature (...). Indeed, by his interiority he is superior to the whole universe "* (20). Quoting this passage from the Council, John Paul II comments: "Here is how the same truth about the unity and duality (complexity) of human nature can be expressed in a language closer to contemporary mentality "* (21).

Human spirituality is amply attested to by many important aspects of our experience through human capacities that transcend the level of material nature. At the level of intelligence, the capacities to abstract, to reason, to argue, to recognise truth and to enunciate it in language. On the level of the will, the capacities to will, to freely self-determine, to act in view of an intellectually known end. And at both levels, the capacity for self-reflection, so that we can know our own knowledge (know that we know) and will our own acts of willing (will to will). As a consequence of these capacities, our knowledge is open to all reality, without limit (even if particular knowledge is always limited); our willing tends towards the absolute good, and is not satisfied with any limited good; and we can discover the meaning of our life, and even freely give it a meaning, projecting the future.

In our time, materialism is often presented in scientific garb. It usually argues that everything human is related to the material, and that man is as material as all other natural beings; his special characteristics are explained by the peculiar organisation of the components Materials. He adds that science has already explained many aspects of the human person, and promises that in the future it will increasingly explain the rest. However, materialism is an illegitimate reductionism; it tries to explain the whole of reality by resorting only to the components Materials and their functioning, renouncing any question of another subject: this reductionism is baseless and even goes against scientific rigour, because it does not distinguish the different levels of reality and the different perspectives to be adopted in order to know them.

On other occasions, criticisms of human spirituality are based on the possibility of building machines that equal, and even surpass, human capacities. Machines can certainly match and surpass us in many respects, but they lack the interiority characteristic of the person and the capacities related to that interiority (intellectual and argumentative capacity, personal and moral conscience, capacity to love and be loved, for example). Attempts to equate machines with people often fall into a basic fallacy: they demand that the human person be defined in terms of specific operations that can be imitated by machines.

The immortality of the human soul

The Church affirms, along with the spirituality of the human soul, its immortality: when man dies, the spiritual soul continues its existence. The immortality of the human soul has been affirmed on different occasions by the Magisterium of the Church*(22), and the Second Vatican Council teaches: "In affirming, therefore, in himself the spirituality and immortality of his soul, man is not the plaything of an illusory mirage caused only by external physical and social conditions, but touches, on the contrary, the deepest truth of reality "* (23).

It is certainly impossible to imagine the state of the human soul separated from the body, because our imagination needs sensible data, which we do not possess in this case. But, by the same token, we cannot imagine God either, and this does not in any way affect his reality: we have the capacity to know spiritual realities by soaring above the conditions Materials.

Although Christian faith gives special certainty to this statement, we can know the immortality of the soul through our reason. On the one hand, because if the soul is spiritual, it transcends natural conditions and will continue to exist even when those conditions make human life impossible in its earthly stage. On the other hand, because in this life the moral path of people does not always find the right reward. Moreover, because it is not logical that God should place in man a longing for happiness and infinity that cannot be satisfied later on. And all this becomes particularly strong when it is realised that the human soul must be created by God and could therefore only cease to exist if God were to annihilate it, which seems inconsistent with the divine plan.

The human soul, created directly by God

The Church also affirms that the human soul is immediately created by God. Pope Pius XII, in connection with the application of evolutionary theories to man, warned that the body could come from other organisms, and pointed out that, on the other hand, "the Catholic faith obliges us to maintain that souls are created immediately by God "* (24). In the Creed of the People of God, formulated by Pope Paul VI, we read: "We believe in one God (...) and also creator, in each man, of the spiritual and immortal soul"* (25).

With this doctrine, the Magisterium of the Church, over the centuries, has overcome various errors, such as Priscillianism, traducianism and emanationism. The Priscillians, following Origen, affirmed that souls had a previous existence and that, as a consequence of some sin, they had been cast into earthly existence*(26). The traducianists, wishing to explain the transmission of original sin, affirmed that the human soul is engendered by the parents*(27). According to the emanationists, the human soul is a part of God* (28).

In our time, there is sometimes talk of an emergence of human characteristics, which would come from final, from subject. But the spiritual dimensions cannot be reduced to a result of forces and processes Materials, because they are on a higher level than the material. In this line, Pope John Paul II, recalling the teaching of Pius XII on evolution, affirms: "The doctrine of faith invariably affirms that the spiritual soul of man is created directly by God (...). The human soul, on which man's humanity depends at final , being spiritual, cannot emerge from subject"* (29).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: "With his openness to truth and beauty, with his sense of the moral good, with his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his aspiration to the infinite and to happiness, man asks himself about the existence of God. In these openings, he perceives signs of his spiritual soul. The "seed of eternity which he carries within him, being irreducible to the single subject" (Second Vatican Council, Const. Gaudium et Spes, 18, 1; cf. 14, 2), his soul, can have its origin only in God "* (30). And, referring to the teachings of the Lateran Council V, of Pius XII and of Paul VI, he adds: "The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is directly created by God (cfr. Humani generis, 1950: DS 3896; Paul VI, Credo of the People of God, 8) - it is not 'produced' by the fathers - and that it is immortal (cf. Lateran Council V, 1513: DS 1440): it does not perish when it is separated from the body at death, and will be united again to the body at the final resurrection "* (31).

The immediate creation of the human soul does not mean that other realities are removed from divine action, nor does it mean a change on the part of God, who is immutable. Divine action extends to everything created, but in the case of the human soul, the effect of divine action possesses a mode of being that transcends the realm of material nature. And this way of being, spirituality, is what is most characteristic of man: what makes him a person, capable of love and happiness, a sharer in the divine nature, an unrepeatable and irreplaceable subject who is the direct object of divine love.

Human spirituality and the Christian life

The Church's teaching on the human soul is not merely theoretical; it has important implications for many aspects of Christian life.

For example, the moral life would be meaningless if freedom, which presupposes spirituality, were not admitted. In fact, some doctrinal and practical confusions stem from this basis: spirituality is denied, the person is reduced to the conditioning factors Materials (genetic characteristics, instinctive impulses, physical conditions of life), and it is denied that there is real freedom; consequently, Christianity would be reduced to the struggle for goals that may be legitimate, but that refer only to earthly life. The struggle to attain virtue and avoid sin would be meaningless, or at best, the notions of virtue and sin would have to be reinterpreted, altering the whole moral teaching of the Church.

If the immortality of the soul were not admitted, the intermediate eschatology, that is, the state of the souls after death and before the final resurrection, would not make sense either. However, the Church has solemnly defined that the destiny of the soul is decided immediately after death, going to heaven or hell, or, as the case may be, going to heaven after the necessary purification. Neither would the prayers of the Church's liturgy that refer to this intermediate eschatology, nor the intercession of the saints (nor, therefore, the beatifications and canonisations) make any sense.

If the doctrine about the soul is altered, the doctrine about Jesus Christ, who took body and soul, descended into hell after his death, rose again on the third day, and is really present in the Holy Eucharist also with his human soul, would also be altered.

Materialism, theoretical and practical, is one of the main sources of confusion in our time. For this reason, it is particularly important to deepen our understanding of the Church's teaching on human spirituality.


  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 342.
  2. Ibid., n. 343.
  3. Ibid., n. 358.
  4. John Paul II, General Audience, L'uomo immagine di Dio, 6.XII.1978: Insegnamenti, I (1978), p. 286.
  5. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 355.
  6.  Ibid., n. 356.
  7. Ibid., n. 357.
  8.  John Paul II, General Audience, L'uomo, immagine di Dio, è un essere spirituale e corporale, 16.IV.1986: Insegnamenti, IX, 1 (1986), p. 1039.
  9.  Ibid., pp. 1039-1040.
  10. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 364.
  11. Ibid., n. 363.
  12. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter Recentiores Episcoporum Synodi, on certain questions concerning eschatology, 17.V.1979: AAS 71 (1979), pp. 939-943.
  13. Second Vatican Council, Const. Gaudium et spes, n. 14.
  14. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 365.
  15. John Paul II, general audience, 16.IV.1986: Insegnamenti, IX, 1 (1986), p. 1038.
  16. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 355.
  17. Ibid., n. 362.
  18. Second Vatican Council, Const. Gaudium et Spes, n. 14.
  19. John Paul II, General Audience, L'uomo immagine di Dio, 6.XII.1978: Insegnamenti, I (1978), p. 286.
  20. Second Vatican Council, Const. Gaudium et Spes, n. 14.
  21. John Paul II, General Audience, L'uomo, immagine di Dio, è un essere spirituale e corporale, 16.IV.1986: Insegnamenti, IX, 1 (1986), p. 1041.
  22. Cf. for example: Lateran Council V, Bull Apostolici Regiminis, 19.XII.1513: DS 1440; Pius XII, Litt, encyclical Humani generis, 12 August 1950, n. 29: DS 3896; AAS 42 (1950) p. 596. Humani generis, 12 August 1950, n. 29: DS 3896; AAS, 42 (1950), p. 575.
  23. Second Vatican Council, Const. Gaudium et Spes, n. 14.
  24. Pius XII, Litt. enc. Humani generis, 12 August 1950, n. 29: DS 3896; AAS, 42 (1950), p. 575.
  25. Paul VI, Solemn Profession of Faith, 30.VI.1968, n. 8. This text, after "immortal", refers to the Lateran Ecumenical Council V and to the encyclical Humani generis.
  26. Cf. Conc. Bracarense I, year 561: DS 455-456.
  27. Cf. St. Anastasius II, Epist. Bonum atque iucundum ad episcopos Galliae, year 498: DS 360-361.
  28. Conc. of Toledo, year 400: Dz 31; St. Leo IX, epist. Congratulamur vehementer to Peter, bishop of Antioch, 13.IV.1053: DS 685.
  29. John Paul II, General Audience, L'uomo, immagine di Dio, è un essere spirituale e corporale, 16.IV.1986: Insegnamenti, IX, 1 (1986), p. 1041.
  30. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 33.
  31.  Ibid., n. 366.