Reincarnation seems to seduce more and more of our contemporaries. It exerts a real force of seduction on Western mentalities. After a general presentation in the first article, this second article takes up the faith’s view on this belief.
The system of thought we are analyzing claims to govern man's destiny, his eternal happiness, and the means to achieve it. Now, this question is of primary interest to the doctrine of the Church which, as the guardian of revelation, teaches us the truths necessary for salvation.
The first duty of the Christian is therefore to question the Church about this new theory. This confrontation is all the more timely as there are many who claim to be able to make metempsychosis coexist with the Catholic Faith.
A New System
We know that the teaching of truth in the Church is essentially Tradition. It is not about inventing new doctrines or being original, it is about faithfully transmitting the revelation of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The strength of this doctrine lies precisely in that it can rely on the very authority of God. The example comes from on high since Our Lord Himself said that He took from another what He delivered to his disciples: “The words that I speak to you, I speak not of myself. But the Father who abideth in me, he doth the works.” (Jn 14:10) [see also: Jn 5:19; 7:16; 8:126.96.36.199; 12:49]
The apostles followed the example of the divine Master. “I have transmitted what I have received,” says St. Paul, who also warns the inhabitants of Galatia: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema. As we said before, so now I say again: If any one preach to you a gospel, besides that which you have received, let him be anathema.”(Gal 1:8-9)
The teaching of St. Vincent de Lérins (d. 450) also conveys the thought of the whole Church:
“ ‘Keep the deposit’ (Tm 6:20). What is ‘The deposit’? That which has been entrusted to you, not that which you have yourself devised: a matter not of wit, but of learning; not of private adoption, but of public tradition; a matter brought to you, not put forth by you, wherein you are bound to be not an author but a keeper, … Keep the deposit. Preserve the talent of Catholic Faith inviolate, unadulterated. That which has been entrusted to you, let it continue in your possession, let it be handed on by you. You have received gold; give gold in turn. Do not substitute one thing for another. Do not for gold impudently substitute lead or brass. Give real gold, not counterfeit.” (from the Commonitorium, ch. 2)
Now, this is a feature common to all the versions of metempsychosis that we have encountered: they are developed outside of authentic revelation, we find no trace of them in Sacred Scripture or in Tradition. This character of novelty is in itself enough to disqualify them with the first Catholic glance.
In the entire history of the Church, only one renowned doctor adopted the thesis of reincarnation, Origen (185-254). He believed he had found in it the means to combine the Platonic doctrine of the preexistence of souls with the Catholic faith. Yet he does so with circumspection and in the research mode. But, although he had some disciples, he is by no means a tradition in the Church.
Origen was vigorously criticized by many doctors (St. Peter of Alexandria, St. Methodius of Olympus, St. Gregory of Nyssa) and his doctrine was condemned in a council in 402. St. Augustine sums up everyone's thoughts: “And I can not sufficiently express my astonishment, that a man so erudite and well versed in ecclesiastical literature, should not have observed, in the first place, how opposed this is to the meaning of this authoritative Scripture.” (City of God, Bk. 11, ch. 23)
If the Catholic sense cannot accept the thesis of reincarnation because of its novelty, it radically rejects it on reading the documents of the magisterium. It is because this thesis is not only foreign to Tradition, but it is also explicitly condemned by the Church.
Catholic Documentation of February 18, 1962 (no. 1370, col. 248) published the results of the work of the Theological Preparatory Commission for the Second Vatican Council. The chapter on modern errors contains a paragraph on reincarnation.
“Very closely related to spiritualism is the theory of reincarnation, in which is revived some ancient beliefs from paganism about metempsychosis. It was explicitly condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople, in 553. The Second Council of Lyon, in 1274, and the Council of Florence, in 1439, indirectly condemned the theory of the passage of the soul from one human body to another, in affirming that the final judgment takes place immediately after death.”
“But error, like a weed, grows back again with slight variations intended to make it new and therefore more easily acceptable; it just changes its name. The vigilance of the Church does not allow itself to be deceived and reincarnation, presented under the false scientific appearances of theosophy, was also condemned by the Holy Office in 1919.” (Cf. note below.)
The Second Council of Constantinople expresses itself thus: “If anyone says or thinks that the souls of men preexist, in the sense that they were previously spirits and holy powers who, weary of the contemplation of God, would have turned to a lower state; that, for this reason, the love of God would have cooled in them, which made them be called ‘souls’ in Greek, and that they would have been sent into bodies for their chastisement, let him be anathema.”
These authoritative judgments by the Church prompt us to continue our investigation by attempting to lay bare the various points of conflict between metempsychosis and Catholic dogma. We will see that this theory alone contradicts many of the articles of the faith.
Note. The Preparatory Theological Commission for the Council was formed in 1960 at the request of Pope John XXIII and placed under the authority of Cardinal Ottaviani. For two years, it provided an intense work which enabled it to present very good quality schemas to the
Council. The preciseness of the terms, the numerous references to the magisterium, and the zeal against errors contrast with the novelties and ambiguities of the conciliar decrees. From the very first meeting of the Council, in fact, the whole of the work of the Preparatory Theological Commission was rejected en bloc by the illegal maneuvers of Cardinal Liénart and the progressive cardinals. The text we are quoting is not part of the official magisterium, but it expresses the thought of the Church of all times and suffices to show what a Catholic council could have been in the 20th century.
Fr. Jean-Dominique, OP
To be continued…