The concept of the "Vanishing Soul" in Francis of Assisi's time and in the context of the church today

Diskussionsbeitrag / Streitschrift, 2017

8 Seiten


“Vanishing Soul”: A Franciscan Response Arokiam John, OFM

Francis of Assisi viewed the human person always in relation to the Triune God. From his Writings, we come to know that he considered the human person as an Image of the Son of God [1], a view in a stark contrast to many contemporary moderate and absolute dualistic views. These perspectives, borrowing from the pagan sources, held to the belief of the human person as a so-called “Vanishing Body”[2]. As in Francis’ time, today there are different views of the human person which treat body and soul separately and/ or as one and the same reality, thus paving the way for the monistic concept of the human person and the acceptance of the theory of the so called “Vanishing Soul”. Today, the approaches of neuroscience and physicalists challenge the traditional religious and Christian way of understanding and speaking of the soul and consider them in general as promoters and supporters of dualistic views of what human person is. To our pleasant surprise a section of science and theology has already contributed to the discussion about the hot topic called “Vanishing Soul” thus checking purely reductionist, materialistic and spiritualistic views of the human person. The recent issue of ESSSAT (European Society for the study of Science and Theology) carries an article on this subject of “Vanishing Soul” and presents “some of the various approaches in neuroscience and other disciplines with regard to the concept of soul and the mind-body interaction, and how they challenge the tradition of so called ‘soul qualities’”.[3] In this write-up, my intention is neither to give an argument for the existence of the soul nor to explain the concept of soul by the physicalists and neuroscientists. Rather, our aim is two-fold: on the one hand, pointing out the existing divergent views of the human person in Francis’ time, based on his Writings to present his view of the human person and on the other, to explore its relevance, giving a Franciscan response to the discussion about the “Vanishing Soul” in the context of the Church of our time.

Major divergence from the Biblical understanding of Human person at the time of Francis

During Francis’ time, Catholic thought was dominated by Augustine’s philosophy and theology. Moreover, the whole of European civilization was influenced by the great classical philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle whose views of the human person were more dualistic than holistic. This has had consequences in the Christian thinking, understanding and expressions about the human person. The image of God or imago Dei is central to the biblical understanding of the human person. However, it is not always represented in the best tradition of the biblical revelation in the tradition of the Church. In the last decade of our present century, this truth is recognized by the International Theological Commission in its reflection as follows:

Patristic and medieval theology diverged at certain points from biblical anthropology, and developed it at other points. The majority of the representatives of the tradition, for example, did not fully embrace the biblical vision which identified the image with the totality of the human person. A significant development of the biblical account was the distinction between image and likeness, introduced by St. Irenaeus, according to which “image” denotes an ontological participation (methexis) and “likeness” (mimêsis) a moral transformation…According to Tertullian, God created the human person in his image and gave him the breath of life as his likeness. While the image can never be destroyed, the likeness can be lost by sin…St. Augustine did not take up this distinction, but presented a more personalistic, psychological and existential account of the imago Dei. For him, the image of God in the human person has a Trinitarian structure, reflecting either the tripartite structure of the human soul (spirit, self-consciousness, and love) or the threefold aspects of the psyche (memory, intelligence, and will).[4]

The above observation acknowledges some dualistic and marginal differences in the interpretation of the imago Dei in the Patristic and Medieval theology. The Magisterium of the Church has always avoided an absolute dualism. Hence biblical scholars, Christian philosophers and theologians of Francis’ time joined with the Magisterium to oppose those views of the human person that completely diverged from the Biblical anthropology and Christology. This was an alarming threat faced by the Church from some of the popular Movements of the 13th Century, so much so, that Pope Innocent III believed there was a real danger of its collapse before heresies.[5] The movements such as Catharists, Waldensians and others disregarded the Roman Catholic Church and preached their own version of the Gospel and views of the human person which were considered as heretical. However, they regarded themselves as an alternative within the Catholic Church and were creating their own autonomous institutions and theories about God, human person and creation. Catharism was the most dangerous heresy and promoted dualism at the time of Francis. In fact, an adherent of Catharsism, namely, Cathar makes an appearance in the hagiography of Francis written by the very first hagiographer of the saint, namely, Thomas of Celano.[6] The Cathars claimed themselves to be belonging to a Gospel-inspired movement. However, «the basis of Catharism was a non-Christian dualism deriving ultimately from Gnosticism».[7] They used myths to explain the creation of the human person. Depending upon their views of the human person in relation to the Creator, Cathars are classified into two types. They are: moderate dualists and absolute dualists. They both believed that Satan had stolen the human soul from the heaven and put it in a body. For them, matter is evil. Therefore, we could say that they promoted the theory of “Vanishing Body” in opposition to today’s scientific theory of the “Vanishing Soul”. They held that the human person can free his soul from Satan’s rule by receiving spiritual baptism called consolamentum. Eating meat is discouraged as an animal may have an imprisoned angel or a human soul. Christ is considered as an “Angel, man, or God… sent to lead the fallen angels (the Cathars) back to heaven”. Finally, endorsement of the “Vanishing Body” or their cosmological and anthropological dualism of body and soul led them to reject sexuality and procreation, to take up extreme asceticism, and even voluntary suicide to attain sanctity or the liberation of the soul.

Francis’ view of the human person: Imago Dei and Imago Christi -- Francis’ response to the most divergent views of the human person of his time Francis’ approach to the heretical and absolute dualistic Catharists who favored belief of “Vanishing Body” was two-fold: Biblical and Christian in the best tradition of the Catholic Church. He uses the religious vocabulary of the Medieval Church which is mediated by the liturgy and recognizes dualities that distinguishes God and Creation, good and evil and biblical Imago Dei when speaking of human body and soul (anthropological dualities).[8] Francis’ biblical and Christian view of human is seen in all his Writings to a varying degree. His most striking attitude in the face of heresy and absolute dualism is gratitude to God for Himself and thanking Him for His creation, spiritual and corporal and for having created humans in His Image. In Francis’ own words: «All powerful, most holy, Almighty and supreme God, Holy and just Father, Lord King of heaven and earth we thank You for Yourself through Your holy will and through Your only Son with the Holy Spirit You have created all things spiritual and corporal and after making us in Your in Your own image and likeness, You placed us in paradise ».[9] It is clear here that he affirms the traditional and biblical view of the human person as Imago Dei (imaginem et similitudinem tuam). His approach also moves towards fuller interpretation of the Scriptures when he draws attention to Imaginem dilecti Filii sui which is similar to the Latin expression Imago Christi. He says: «We thank You for as through Your Son You created us, so through Your holy love with which You loved us You brought about His birth as true God and true by the glorious, ever-virgin, most blessed, holy Mary and You willed to redeem us captives through His cross and blood and death».[10] In the biblical tradition, he invites us to see our origin with Christ, as he admonishes his friars: «Consider, O human being, in what great excellence the Lord God has placed you, for He created and formed you to the image of His beloved Son according to the body and to His likeness according to the Spirit».[11]


[1] Cfr. Francis of Assisi, The Admonitions, no. 5. 1, in Francis of Assisi: early documents, vol. I, edited by R. J. Armstrong, J. A. W. Hellmann, W. J. Short, New York, 1999, p. 131. (The English translation of the writings of Francis and the Franciscan sources will be as given in this volume. Abbreviations will be as given in this volume. Hereafter the volumes in this series will be cited as FA:ED I, II or III, followed by page number).

[2] In this article the phrase «Vanishing Body» is used to characterize the Cartharists’ heretical way of speaking of the human persons as spiritual ‘souls’ and denying the goodness of material reality (body) which also comes from God.

[3] N. George, ‘ Vanishing soul’: a non-reductive physicalists response, in ESSSAT News & Reviews, 27:1 (2017) p. 8.

[4] INTERNATIONAL THEOLOGICAL COMMISSION, Communion and stewardship: human persons created in the Image of God, no. 15, The Holy See, Internet (03.05.2017):

[5] Cfr. C. Adreson, Franciscan reform of the Church, in Go Rebuild my house: franciscans and the Church today, edited by E. Saggali, New York, 2004, p 46-47.

[6] Cfr. 2C 78-79; FA:ED II, 298-299.

[7] Cfr. Y. Dossal, Cathari, in New catholic encyclopedia, vol. III, Washington - New York, 1967, p. 247.

[8] In his Writings, Francis not only uses the term “body” or “soul” alone to speak of the human person, but he applied as many as nine times, the words body and soul together to mean human person as a creature composed of the flesh. He utilizes the words soul, heart, mind, and body together three times (ER 23, 8; I LtF 1-2; PrOF 5). It is important to note that Francis has used the term “Heart” as the many as forty two times in his writings. His understanding of “Heart” is more than a mere physiological organ of the human person. Its structure or function is important to understand Francis’ concept of the whole person. According to him, the human person adores and Beholds the Lord God with a pure heart and soul (Adm 16, 2). Francis distinguishes the function of the heart from that of the mind (LtOrd 7).

[9] ER 23, 1; FA:ED I, 81-82.

[10] ER 23, 3; FA:ED I, 82.

[11] Cfr. Adm 5, 1; FA:ED I, 131.

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The concept of the "Vanishing Soul" in Francis of Assisi's time and in the context of the church today
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vanishing, soul, francis, assisi, truine god, vanishing soul, Human person, anthropology, franciscan anthropology, Medieval man, Body in Middle ages, Soul in Middle ages, Neuroscience and soul
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Arokiam John (Autor:in), 2017, The concept of the "Vanishing Soul" in Francis of Assisi's time and in the context of the church today, München, GRIN Verlag,


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