At death, are we still persons? Some argue that St. Thomas would say NO.

December 16, 2014   |   by admin

I heard yesterday of a current debate taking place within Thomist circles about what St. Thomas held regarding the corruption of the human person at death.  For those who think St. Thomas was a corruptionist, it goes something like this, a human person, essentially, is a composition of body and soul. And hence, when we die, the body decomposes, and thus the person ceases to be a human person until the resurrection.  This does not mean that the soul dies. It continues on for this group, but the soul is only a part of the person, and is inadequate alone to constitute the being that continues after death as a human person.  Another group of Thomists hold that the person stays intact and that what is central to the human person is the soul.  The corruptionists counter that if the human person is centrally located in the soul, then one is tending toward a kind of dualism.

I suppose in this discussion, it partially depends on what is meant by person and soul.  I will need to read a bit more about this. No solutions to the problem at this point, except I will put together a few notes on what I think Lonergan might say.

1. Lonergan does have some notes on this in his writings. For example, in Insight, Lonergan discusses the possibility of continued existence after disembodiment when he turns to the question about whether the central form of the human being is material or spiritual in chapter 16 — section 4.3 on the unity of man–toward the end of this section. He argues that this form is spiritual because a spiritual central form can unite what is spiritual (intrinsically independent of the empirical residue) and the material (intrinsically dependent on the empirical residue), but a material form could not unite both.  This spiritual central form is what makes the separation of the soul and the body possible at death, while the unity-identity-whole of the subject remains in tact.  He then goes on to speculate how the person could continue given the extrinsic dependence that cognition and volition has upon the sensate, which is material, and thus presumably is lost at death.

2. Lonergan does not define person in Insight, but he does in other places.  In his christiological and Trinitarian writings, he repeats St. Thomas, the person is a distinct subsistent in an intellectual nature.  Nature here would then be understood to refer to the “kind” of thing that something is.  In the case of the human person, we are a rational beings that are realized through a conversion to the image/phantasm that allows for the emergence of the higher operations of consciousness.  These spiritual operations, in the human being, are naturally realized within the material, and thus have a very real extrinsic dependence upon the empirical residue.  Extrinsic is used to say that intrinsically there is a liberty in the transcendental notions (also known as the light of understanding, being, the good, or the Agent Intellect) from that empirical residue, which is why the human person can abstract from that residue and discover patterns, and verify those patterns, and make decisions in relationship to those abstractions.  Thus, human nature, in its concrete natural state is a unity in a couple of ways — first through the central potency, form, and act which is a spiritual  unity of something that is both spiritual and material — the concrete living human subject.  Second, the spiritual operations of the human subject arise via the transcendental notions of intelligibility, being, and goodness, and these arise through a conversion to the phantasm, evidence gathered from data, and these then manifested to the intention of the good.  Hence, the central unity is of body and spirit, and the operations of the spirit do need the body.  This is the concrete nature of the human subject.

3. The question then becomes whether the fundamental meaning of the person remains after death and before resurrection. I would say yes (this is not to say that St. Thomas would say yes, but more that Lonergan would say yes), because the meaning of person is still relevant even for the disembodied soul.  St. Thomas’ definition refers to a distinct subsistent with a rational/intellectual nature.  Even though the disembodied soul of a human being is incomplete in its natural creation, it still possesses a rational intellect.  Furthermore, this creature still remains distinct from other creatures, and from other human beings.  It still possess a central form that is in act.  That form is essentially spiritual, and it is rational.  It would be constituted by the transcendental notions of intelligibility, being, and the good. It would still possess a capacity for self-transcendence, which in the saints would be exercised quite regularly as they pray for us on earth.  When one asks “what” is this creature, one must say it is rational, and thus its nature is still a rationale “whatness” (again, even if incomplete in its natural ability to exercise that nature because now “phantasms” and the other material elements needed to realize spiritual operations is absent).

4. A comment on St. Thomas’ definition of person.  The definition works for God, angels, and the human beings.  The mode of person in each is different of course, which is why it is an analogical definition.  As analogical, I would tend to say that the same definition is used, precisely the same, in each of these three different modes of beings.  However, the mode is different. So, if the same definition is used, then distinct, subsistent, intellectual/rational, and nature all mean the same.  Since the disagreement that started this blog does not seem to regard the first three (distinct, subsistent, and intellectual) then it must reside in the last.  Does the complete nature in how the being naturally exists need to be intact in order for the definition to be fulfilled..??  If so, then the human person is corrupted at death.  If the “nature” refers more to the kind of being that continues to exist however, then the human person remains intact in the disembodied state.  Notice here that the debate then, is not about realities, but about the meaning of terms.  Does one want to attach personhood to a full “nature” or to something that is of an “intellectual kind.”  If the latter, then disembodied human beings are persons.  If the former, then they are not.  But still, even if not, they are rational beings, subsistent, distinct.  They can rationally converse. They can pray for us.  We can ask them to pray for us.  That is significant even if we do not want to call these creatures persons, because they are still distinct subsistents that are rational.

Just some thoughts.  As I read more about the debate, maybe I will have more to say.  It seems important because it fits into a larger context about clarifications regarding the human person and hominization. The solution to this impacts a number of other topics (eg. death, the infusion of the soul, etc.).