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A Publication of


From The Ark, No 186 Winter 2000

Do Animals Have Souls?
By Deborah Jones

'Only humans matter: they have souls. Animals don't.' This has been said, millions of times. People often use it as a mantra, not because they are necessarily helping to alleviate human suffering, but to justify their lack of concern and compassion for the suffering of animals. Of course humans matter - but so do animals: and animals have souls too.

Catholic teaching has never actually denied this, following St Thomas Aquinas in this as in most things, although it has not yet developed a fully positive understanding of the place of animals within the order of salvation. This is a subject being grasped by some of the best theologians of our time, as they realise that this lack of understanding results in an untypically muddled response from the Catholic Church over an important contemporary issue - that of animal welfare.

The first thing to unravel from the various strands of tradition is the meaning of the word 'soul'. It is not really helpful to talk of people or animals 'having' souls - as you might 'have' a wristwatch or brown eyes or curly hair. Body and soul are not simply two factors existing alongside or in each other, but form an indivisible whole. A person, or an animal, is wholly body and wholly soul and both are at all times the whole being. In other words we do not only 'have' a body, or 'have' a soul - we are both body and soul. The Hebrew language does not talk of the two as separate entities, as we shall see in the Scriptures. Pagan Greek and Roman philosophers, whose thinking played such a leading role in influencing Christian theologians through the ages, did make the separation between spirit and matter, placing reason and soul in the higher, spiritual sphere, and according body and matter a much lower status. We shall see how this came to effect the way in which animals, and the rest of the nonhuman creation, came to be viewed.

Living souls

In the beginning of our Scriptures, we see God creating 'every living creature' (Genesis 1:21, 24). The Hebrew words (transliterated) are 'chay' (living) and 'nephesh' (soul). 'Nephesh' is mentioned over 400 times in the Old Testament signifying soul. The words 'chay nephesh' are used from chapter one, verse 20, when the waters are filled with living creatures. The close translation from Hebrew is: 'And God said: Let the waters swarm [with] the swarmers [having] a soul of life …' and in the next verse: 'And God created the great sea animals, and all that creeps, [having] a living soul …' (The words in square brackets are not used in Hebrew, but are understood.) In verse 30, God provides food - purely vegetarian - to every living thing, in which, the Hebrew adds, '[is] a living soul'. There is a definite separation here between 'every green plant', which of course are living things, and every creature possessed of a 'living soul'. In chapter two, the second, and older Creation account, the first human being was created from dust, then God 'blew into his nostrils [the] breath of life and man became a living soul', a 'chay nephesh'. Here we have the real sense of 'nephesh', or soul, as a being animated by the breath of life. This reminds us of the glorious invocation of psalm 150, where 'everything that breathes' is to praise the Lord.

Pope John Paul II: 'animals possess a soul'

When Pope John Paul II declared in a public audience in 1990 that 'also the animals possess a soul and men must love and feel solidarity with our smaller brethren' some people must have thought this was a new teaching, unaware of the Holy Father's scholarly familiarity with the authentic Hebrew texts. When he went on to state that all animals are 'fruit of the creative action of the Holy Spirit and merit respect' and that they are 'as near to God as men are', animal lovers in the audience were ecstatic! The Pope mentions the special relationship of mankind with God as being created in His image and likeness. 'However,' he goes on 'other texts state that animals have the breath of life and were given it by God. In this respect, man, created by the hand of God, is identical with all other living creatures. And so in Psalm 104 there is no distinction between man and beasts when it reads, addressing God: " … Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth." The existence therefore,' the Holy Father reminds us, 'of all living creatures depends on the living spirit/breath of God that not only creates but also sustains and renews the face of the earth.'

This discourse caused a stir around the world, and was especially encouraging to Catholic animal welfare groups which had begun to despair that anything 'animal friendly' would ever be heard in Rome. The then professor of theology and dogma at the University of Urbino, Carlo Molari, called it 'very important and significant. It is a "sign of the times" because it demonstrates the Church's desire and deep concern to clarify present confused thinking and attitudes towards the animal kingdom. There should be no need, but the Pontiff, in reiterating that animals came into being because of the direct action of the "breath" of God, wanted to say that also these creatures, as well as man, are possessed of the divine spark of life and that living quality that is the soul. And are therefore not inferior beings or only of a purely material reality.'

The image of God

In the ten years that have passed, not a great deal has changed in church-goers' understanding of the souls of animals. Could that be because so little is ever taught or preached or prayed about them and their undoubted suffering at human hands? More is known about mankind being 'made in the image of God' and about having 'dominion' over the natural world. That is too often used as justification for treating the world as one great natural resource for human benefit, and all the other creatures in it as designed for mankind alone.

But what did 'image' really mean? Statues, or images, were and are used to represent kings and rulers. Think of the number of statues of Queen Victoria there are scattered around the former Empire. Human beings are living statues, living representatives - in much the same way as ambassadors represent the head of state of the country they come from. We human beings are to represent the rule of God in the created world, using delegated powers to see that the world continues to function and flourish in the way the Creator intended. To be shepherd-kings, not 'as those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them', but as 'slave of all' (Mark 10: 42-45). St Francis came close to this model in treating all other created beings as 'brothers and sisters', rather than as most people do today, as disposable things whose only value is in their usefulness to us.

We have elevated the human being beyond all other creatures until he has even taken the place of God. Secular rationalism would do away with the concept of soul altogether. The French philosopher, Descartes (1596-1650), divided the human person into the 'thinking part' res cogitans and the body res extensa. He saw the body as a machine, which had to be governed by the self-awareness of human rational thought. He dropped the word for soul 'anima' and replaced it with the word for mind 'mens' What animals lacked, so he said, was the human rational thought, therefore their status was purely that of machines - and machines cannot feel. The screams emitted by tortured animals were no more, he said, than the squeaking of mechanical parts and of no consequence. That attitude to some extent still exists, even though scientists are now discovering that even relatively simple life forms are capable of feeling pain and stress.

The Age of Reason was typified by Descartes and by Kant, who wrote that 'So far as animals are concerned we have no direct moral duties; animals are not self-conscious and are there merely as a means to an end. That end is man.' For them might have been written those chapters in Job in which God asks: 'Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?' (chapters 38 and 39). However, they had been influenced more by Aristotle and the Stoics than by Scripture. These ancients held that animals, while possessing 'animal souls' (as distinct from 'vegetable souls') lacked reason, and demonstrated their lack of reason by lack of speech. They were not to know of the complex communication abilities of many of the primates, dolphins, whales, etc. What is worse is that they considered that lack of speech gives us the right to exploit them! Stoics also thought that animals cannot learn by experience - but then, they never watched 'One Man and his Dog'!

What is definitive in Christian understanding of animals in the order of salvation, is that, with the incarnation of Christ, with God taking flesh, there is a new connection between all that shares the matter of flesh, of bodies: as the Holy Father said, a 'solidarity' between us and our brothers and sisters, the other 'living souls', the animals.

Return to The Ark No. 186

For questions, comments and submissions, please contact:
Deborah Jones at The Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare

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