Does God Directly Create the Human Soul? Part I/3

Whether in debates about evolution or  about pro-life issues, the language of the “direct” creation of the human soul often pops up.  Yet this language is very philosophically problematic.  The purpose of the next three posts will be first, to lay out the dilemma, second, to present theologian Karl Rahner’s solution, and third, to present theologian Piet Schoonenberg’s solution.

I have often heard this language of “direct” creation used in the context of arguments about evolution.  In his 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences on Evolution, John Paul II explains:

Pius XII underlined the essential point: if the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God (“animas enim a Deo immediate creari catholica fides non retimere iubet”). (Humani Generis)

I have also frequently heard this language used throughout my lifelong involvement in the pro-life moment.  Many find the rhetoric of “direct” creation of the human soul to be vital to the argument and, like the language of “innocence,” it has sometimes created dilemmas when applied to other situations.  For example, in instances of self-defense, the moral innocence of the aggressor — whether of an insane person or an unborn child — has no meaning whatsoever.  Likewise, the language of direct creation of the soul, while it can appear to be helpful for speaking about the dignity and distinction of the human being in relation to the rest creation, also serves to problematize the relation of God to his creation, of the human soul to evolution, and even the nature of the transmission of original sin.

Thomas Aquinas describes God’s relation as primary cause to secondary causes by explaining that he “upholds causes in their causing.”  In other words, God is not a cause among or like other causes.  I usually described this relationship to my students by using the inadequate image of an author’s relationship to her book.  Her causality is not the same as the causality of the characters among themselves.  She does not step in and change characters as the story goes along once she has finished writing it.  The author “caused” the book, but Frodo could never recognize that causality without some heavy duty thinking, nor does it affect his causal interactions with Gandalf except as “upholding” them.

Of course, my students immediately wanted to bring up the Incarnation: a special case indeed. But one of the intelligent one’s immediately also latched onto the language of “direct” creation of the human soul and asked how that language also did not make God a cause among other causes in the world.  It was a good question, and has led me to think that we should drop this language altogether since it is neither fitting for our description of God nor of the natural process of evolution.  I think we can continue to argue lucidly and compellingly for the dignity of the human person without needing to bring in the language of “direct creation.”

12 Responses to Does God Directly Create the Human Soul? Part I/3

  1. willbearak says:

    Reserve comments till yu post rest of conversation, but I and students of theology/philosophy believe you’ve bitten off a chunk of religious discussion, kinda like “Made in Image and likeness of God” or was Jesus in suspended animation or realy dead dead. Just had a case of young child lying dead in casket for three days, and suddenly her arm moves, rushed back to hospital and survives today. We here are all awaiting your concluding articles.

  2. infanted says:

    I don’t think that the reason we speak of direct creation is to uphold the dignity of the human person. Since the two adults only contribute material, from whence does the soul come?

  3. Richard says:

    I’m very interested in this series, but why two theologians of questionable orthodoxy?

    • Because they’re the only one’s I’ve seen write on the question.

      • David says:

        The answer to “immediate” creation is, I think the same as the “immediate” answer to prayer:

        O God, blow clouds to Ethiopia
        That rain might end its child-devouring drought;
        O Lord, blow clouds away from Gloucestershire
        So Dursley’s cricket match is not in doubt.

        Are trivial prayers more likely to be heard
        Than ones which would affect a nation’s fate?
        If God exists do you think that he’s stirred
        To puff at clouds and change the weather’s state?

        Your prayer, you silly man, was heard all right
        And answered too, before you came to be
        He knew both nation’s and each person’s plight
        In his unchanging creativity.

        Omniscient and omnipotent God of love
        Have heard our prayers so that the right clouds move.

        • Bob C says:

          Lovely poem David…

          I saw it written somewhere that a retiring minister summarized God’s answer to prayer in one of 3 ways:

          Not Yet
          I Have Something More Wonderful in Store for You

          The nuns at Notre Dame put it more succinctly: God hears every prayer, sometimes the answer is No.


          Bob C

  4. Erin says:

    A question from a literature student, if I may 🙂 You use the metaphor of an author’s relationship to her book after she has finished writing it. How would that change (or would it, even) the argument if the metaphor was made in connection with an author still in the process of writing the book?

  5. Bob C says:

    I wonder if Daniel Harrington SJ’s work on personhood beginning at conception would be helpful in this conversation…also there is a Youtube debate with Richard Dawkins, Rowan Williams, Anthony Kenny: “Human Beings & Ultimate Origin” from Oxford (here: which touches on different ways of looking at the same subject matter…

  6. Bob C says:

    Perhaps not at the level of scholarship you are talking about, but Fr. Bill O’Malley SJ – Sermons Unsuited for Sheep – touched on this topic and animates the conversation for me…preaching on Jn 3:14-21…

    ….”He came to share “eternal life,” to assure us that death is not an end but a transition, into an endless life what we carry already inside ourselves when we accept his gift. We are here to manifest–in the freedom and joy of our lives–that we have an energizing understanding of life that we’re more than willing to share. His message—our message—is not about the darkness of sin but about the liberating energy of light, the fire of Pentecost, the exhilaration of the Spirit of God within each of us. It’s that same Spirit that brooded over the chaos at creation, the purposeful surge of intelligence that choreographed the dance of the cosmos, the spark that ignited the flush of self-replication when sluggish matter began to grow, the gush within vegetative life when it could suddenly feel and sense danger and move beyond brute submission. Then a quantum leap into self-awareness, the ability to discern good and evil. Finally, in the fullness of time, the Son of God entered our limitations to show us how to accept and evolve the gift of divine life within us.”


  7. It is nearly a year now since Part 1/3. When can we expect Part 2?

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