Questions of Faith
Many Eastern religions hold to the doctrine of reincarnation – from Latin literally meaning ‘entering the flesh again’ – proponents of this idea hold that living organisms like human beings repeatedly take on a new physical form after death. In some traditions, a human can be reborn as an animal or even a vegetable.
Buddhists, for example, believe in a cycle of rebirth known as Samsara – with one’s future life depending on the karma (deeds or actions) they have accumulated in their current life.
There have been some Christian sects that supported reincarnation; the Cathars believed that they would constantly be reborn until they attained salvation.
For the most part, however, the concept of reincarnation is rejected by mainstream Christian thought. Some scholars have suggested that the Church writer Origen espoused this doctrine, but the textual evidence for this claim is non-existent. Rather, the early Church fathers were strongly opposed to this teaching.
St Ambrose of Milan wrote in the 4th Century: “It is a cause for wonder that though they [the heathen]…say that souls pass and migrate into other bodies…but let those who have not been taught doubt [the resurrection]. For us who have read the law, the prophets, the apostles, and the Gospel, it is not lawful to doubt.”
Instead of reincarnation, the Church teaches that at the moment of death the immortal soul separates from the body. Every person also receives a particular judgement of Heaven, Hell or purgatory, and the soul is reunited with its body.
A 2018 Pew Research Poll revealed that 36% of US Catholics believe in reincarnation, despite the fact that Church is completely opposed to it.
Given that Christians believe that after death our bodies become transfigured just like Jesus’ did following the resurrection (LK 24:13-35), Catholics might be tempted to conflate this teaching as some form of reincarnation. Our souls become incarnate in a new bodily form, which is tenuously similar. However, this comparison is confusing, convoluted and inaccurate.
Instead of reincarnation, the Church teaches that at the moment of death the immortal soul separates from the body”
While reincarnation requires that an essence or soul is continually reborn into a new physical form, Catholics hold that we only have one life and that after death there is a continuity between our body on earth and the body we have in the afterlife.
While these religions place no importance or value on the body, Catholics believe in the bodily resurrection. We aren’t minds behind a machine, we are our bodies; without them, we are literally nobody. It isn’t accidental that we have the bodies that we have; our bodies make us who we are. For Catholics then, it doesn’t make sense to say that we will be reincarnated into a new physical organism.
Catholics needn’t worry about being reborn as an insect, shark or carrot after death – but keep sole focus on entering Heaven.