Does the brain control the soul?

Q:I am having a problem with the concept of angels. I just completed a 36-hour course, "Understanding the Brain," at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. The brain is an interesting organ of the body. It controls everything in the body. Vision and sound are constructs of the brain. Intelligence is a construct of the brain. Emotions and feeling are formulated in the brain, as well as love and compassion. Memory, with all of its visions, thoughts and smells, is recorded in the brain. The heart does not have any of these attributes. It is just an organ that pumps blood.

In an ACH article, the author (not Fr. Saunders) wrote that angels have intelligence. They can hear our prayers. They can move from place to place. If I am correct, they are supposed to be spirits. How can they have all the attributes of hearing, seeing, talking and intelligence if they have no brain? - A reader via email

A: In addressing this complicated question, we must first admit a major problem: Generally speaking today, science, including medicine, is taught from a purely physical perspective without any reference to God, the supernatural or the spiritual. However, Catholic theology does not divorce God from His creation, the supernatural from the natural, the spiritual from the physical; rather, God is the Creator, and all creation is under His loving providence.

So, let's proceed to the first issue: angels. Angels are pure spirits. They are completely spiritual beings. They are endowed with intellect and free will. As their name denotes, angels are messengers of God. Angels appear throughout sacred Scripture, and we believe that each of us has a guardian angel. Sadly, science would not entertain the idea of angels. After all, what would be their physical evidence of existence that could be analyzed?

The understanding of the human person faces a similar problem with science today. The human person is not just an evolutionary mass of functioning cells. We believe that each person is made in God's image and likeness (Gen 1) and is specifically willed by Him. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "Being in the image of God, the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer Him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead" (No. 357). This dignity has even greater value through Jesus, true God who became also true man, elevating our human nature to a greater dignity than shared by Adam and Eve.

A person is more than a body. Each person is endowed with a body (the physical being) and a soul. Each soul is immortal and created by God. To the best of our knowledge, God infuses that soul at conception. The soul is the life-principle and substantial form of the body; therefore, the soul animates the physical body, and together they constitute a living, human body. Unlike a bodily organ, the soul is present in its entirety in the body and in every part of the body. While bodily organs have specific functions, the soul is present throughout the body but does not perform the same operations in every part of the body. In particular, the soul has the faculties of intellect (with its operations called reason) and free will.

Pause here and consider that a person not only can process and understand sensory information, he also may contemplate moral principles and eternal truths, and thereby make choices. At death, the soul separates from the body, and the person faces judgment; however, at the end of time, as we profess in the Creed, the soul will be reunited to the "spiritualized" body at the resurrection of the dead. Here again, albeit a brief presentation, science sadly would not entertain the idea of a soul. After all, what would be its physical evidence of existence that could be analyzed?

But then, in accord with the question posed, is the brain really the center of control? The brain is not the soul, and the soul is more than the operations of the brain.

Ever since my days at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg in the late 1970s, I have been fascinated by reports of "out of body" or "near death" experiences. Most recently, the book and movie, "Heaven is for Real," described such the experience of a 4-year-old boy named Colton, whose father was a Protestant minister. After surviving complications from a ruptured appendix, Colton started telling his father about heaven and what he had seen: he met his deceased grandfather whom he had never met; he met his sister who had died before birth (about whom he had never known); he met Jesus (and described His wounds); he saw the Father, Son and Holy Spirit on thrones; he saw St. Michael the Archangel, St. Gabriel, St. John the Baptist; and he saw our Blessed Mother (whom he said either stands beside Jesus or kneels before the Father's throne, and said, "She loves Him like a mom"). A brain without any external sense stimuli could not have known these things, but a soul could.

Another interesting story involves Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, who described his near death experience in his book, Proof of Heaven. He was a firm believer in the science of the brain and an atheist who did not take into consideration the soul. Suffering from bacterial meningitis, which caused a week-long coma during which he should have died, he went on a Dantesque journey through heaven, hell and purgatory (although he does not use these terms). He, too, met a sister whom he had never known existed. In the end, he came to the realization there is a soul and a heaven.

Although a brief answer to a complex question, the simple conclusion is that a person is more than a physical body governed by brain operations. A person has been given the gift of a soul. And yes, there are angels, these pure spirits who assist us. How sad it would be to close our minds and constrict ourselves to the confines of this time, space, and physical being where our only hope is the grave.

Questions may be sent to Fr. Saunders, pastor of Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls, at or Our Lady of Hope Church, 46639 Algonkian Pkwy., Potomac Falls, VA 20165.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015