Friday, February 03, 2017 - Updated: 7:00 am
QUESTION: I got into a discussion with friends about reincarnation. Where is the Catholic Church on this?
ANSWER: The word reincarnation describes a number of theories about the afterlife. One view holds that after death our souls pass into the bodies of other human beings. Another view contends that all living beings are part of a continual cycle of rebirth and that the condition of our present life has been determined by our actions in the one immediately preceding it. Some contend that what life form we have (i.e. plant, animal, human) is also related to our performance in the preceding life.
Within these theories various ultimate ends are possible. A soul may be part of a never-ending cycle without any ultimate goal. Or it is possible that our ultimate goal is assured, and although we might endure a series of purifications it is simply a matter of time before we achieve perfection.
A theologian named Origen was accused of holding beliefs similar to a few of those cited above. Some of his writings were condemned at the Second Council of Constantinople (553 A.D.). However, no clear record of Origen’s precise position remains, and the council’s teaching on the subject was very limited.
In general, reincarnation seems opposed to Christian faith because as Christians we believe in the unique creation of each individual soul as well as the particular (personal) judgment at the end of our lives. Some understandings of reincarnation seem opposed to the fundamental doctrine of God’s justice and the rewarding of good and punishing evil. Some reincarnation beliefs also seem opposed to the personal responsibility we have to cooperate with God’s grace in this life. Some views of reincarnation also diminish the importance of free will and place us almost helplessly in an endless cycle of events.
Having said this about reincarnation, some people are nonetheless intrigued by the experiences of individuals who seem to have “memories” of a “former” life. However, I do not believe that we need to accept reincarnation as the only way to explain that.
I once heard of a great symphony conductor who was given a piece of music with which he was unfamiliar. He conducted the music and felt a tremendous sense of peace in doing so. Many people said that the symphony had never sounded better. Sometime later, the conductor related the experience to his mother and she told him the music he played was her favorite piece and that, as a cellist for a symphony, she had played the piece many times while pregnant with him.
I believe that there are many ways in which we become aware of things in our lives. We might also learn a great deal more about collective memory in individuals from particular towns or regions. There is much more we need to learn about how knowledge from experience is somehow transmitted through generations.
All of this points to the fact that, although reincarnation might be a fascinating explanation for some human experiences, it is not the only way to understand them. Given the content of our faith, we need to look beyond reincarnation for answers.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.