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Round Table: Do Animals Have Souls?

In Genesis 1, God creates the animals of the sea and sky on the fifth day and subsequently creates land animals on the sixth. On this same day God also forms a certain kind of land animal in God’s own image and likeness—humankind (Gen 1:26-27). As with the animals of land, sea, and sky, humans are told to “be fruitful and multiply,” but then receive a unique set of instructions from God: “Fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen 1:28). Only humans are given this special role of “ruling.” Furthermore, while all of God’s creation is called “good,” only humans are explicitly made in God’s image and likeness. Genesis 2:7 develops this idea further by suggesting that Adam is animated with the very life of God breathed into his nostrils. Even a casual reader must recognize that humans are portrayed as both animals within God’s creation and as God’s special agents in the rulership and flourishing of creation.

This observation raises several important theological questions regarding the relationship between Homo sapiens and the rest of the animal kingdom. To what degree are animals and humans similar? How are they different? Are humans “unique” within creation? And, most fascinatingly: “Do animals have souls?”

In the spirit of Christian charity, we have asked our regular authors and contributors to weigh in on this question from their own personal perspectives and from the standpoint of their Christian traditions. 

John Ehrett, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod

This side of eternity, I doubt we can truly know—as a matter of either reason or revelation whether animals have souls. But, for the time being, count me with those who are “guardedly optimistic,” at least in some cases.

 In this context, I understand “soul” to mean not merely consciousness or sentience, but capacity to respond to the transcendent love of God—to sense, however inchoately, the goodness of God’s sacramental presence in the natural order, and to be in some sort of reciprocal relationship with Him that may persist beyond death.  I draw this distinction because many theologians (including Thomas Aquinas) have acknowledged that animals do have souls—in the sense of consciousnesses—but contended that those souls are instantly annihilated upon death because they are not “seat[s] of intelligence or reason.”

Yet I find it difficult to observe flourishing animals for very long—particularly “higher” species such as dolphins, elephants, and gorillas—without noting the joy in being that they appear to experience, as well as the sophistication of their interactions with their surroundings. That sense is reinforced by Job 12:7–10, which poetically suggests that even “brute creatures” can sense the love of their Creator: “Ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this” And other Christian authors have shared these intuitions: in the pages of The New Atlantis, Caitrin Keiper lays out a powerful argument that elephants, at least, likely possess something like souls, and Matthew Scully builds out similar themes in his book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.

None of this is to say that human beings do not uniquely reflect the “image of God”: Jesus Christ came as a man, not an elephant. But to my mind, affirming the distinctive glory of human beings need not entail that other creatures are incapable of, in limited fashion, responding with joy to the presence of their Lord and, at the end of time, experiencing a kind of rest in Him.

Luke Townsend, Roman Catholic

My response comes from the perspective of the Roman Catholic and Thomist Traditions. First, I must define what a soul is and establish that souls actually exist. Thomas Aquinas’s definition of a soul draws from, and would be approved by, the majority of the Western Philosophical and Christian Traditions throughout history. Thomas states, “[a] soul is…the first principle of life of those things which live” (Summa theologiae, p. I, q. 75, a. 1, res.). In other words, Thomas understands a soul to be whatever ultimately causes something to be alive, a kind of life principle, or as he later says, the act or functioning of a body. On these terms, a soul logically must exist because there has to be a first principle that explains the difference between a living body and a dead body. This first principle cannot itself be a body; it must be immaterial, because if it were a body, it could not be the first principle of bodies, since we would then need a principle to explain the life of that body.

Already, one can answer whether animals have souls. The Catholic and Thomistic traditions unequivocally say yes, that all living things, including animals and plants, have souls because living things must have a principle of life. This answer leaves, next, the question of distinction. If animals and humans both have souls, are humans mere animals, or is there some real categorical difference reflective of the imago dei mentioned in Genesis? The Catholic Tradition comes down on the side of difference, and it believes this difference lies in the kind of soul that humans possess. Unlike animals, humans have a subsistent intellectual soul.  

Animal souls account for animal life, and thus for the movement and functioning of animals. Humans share many of these functions. Living human bodies can move, take nourishment, reproduce, heal, etc. However, humans also possess functions that animals do not have. Humans can understand ideas, abstract from their sense perceptions, communicate using complicated systems of signification, and are self-aware. Humans do not just have physical and animal life. Humans have mental and intellectual life. This life requires a different kind of immaterial first principle, one capable of causing intellectual functions. The human soul must be intellectual.  

Additionally, because intellectual functions are entirely immaterial and immaterial functions require immaterial principles, human intellectual functions must be per se operations of the human soul, which means that the soul itself performs these functions separate from the body. If the human soul has operations that do not depend on the physical body, then these operations must continue in the absence of a body, i.e. even after a human body dies. Following this logic, Catholics hold that humans have a subsistent intellectual soul, which is responsible for our intellectual abilities and continues to exist after bodily death. Therefore, from the Catholic perspective, all living things have souls, but, as Genesis implies, humans have souls that are categorically distinct and greater.

Jarrett Dickey, House Church

As to the primary question for this roundtable, I have no fully-considered theological opinion regarding whether or not animals have souls. Regular readers of CP will have gathered my personal interest in nature and, in particular, birds. In spite of the countless hours I spend observing birds and other wildlife, I am inclined to think that animals do not have souls, at least not in the sense that humans do. One seemingly unique trait of humans is the universal sense of an immaterial self and the peculiar fascination with the afterlife. However, I feel compelled to offer just a few additional remarks on the topic.

As an editor of these roundtables, I have the privilege of reading other responses before crafting my own. The field biologist in me finds two of the above arguments scientifically curious, even if they appear to make theological or philosophical sense. Separating animals into so-called “higher” and “lower” categories, with birds most likely getting the short end of the stick, seems an arbitrary judgment. Naturally, zoo-goers are drawn to the wonder of the “higher” animals such as gorillas and elephants, and it is hard not to marvel at their human-like qualities. However, those who take the time to study “lower” animals such as birds, reptiles, or amphibians are amazed by the wonderful complexity of their existence.

Furthermore, I find it very difficult to believe that humans alone possess the capacity for intellectual life. While they have not received the press of primates, crows and jays are birds that are known for their high levels of intelligence. Furthermore, if the communication of ideas and information is a hallmark of intellect, then the chickadees in my yard are certainly amongst our wisest sages. Their “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call is an alarm call that communicates information about the threat level of the surrounding environment. Not only do other chickadees listen to this information, but other species are known for flocking near chickadees so they can benefit from their sentinel role.

Whether or not animals have souls that endure into God’s kingdom, I am inclined to believe that animals will have a place in God’s new heavens and new earth. Psalm 84 speaks of the sparrows and swallows that made a home in the temple in Jerusalem. Certain species of swallows, notably the barn swallow, are almost entirely dependent on human structures for building their nests. If God’s earthly temple created space for the birds, I like to imagine that God’s tabernacle in Revelation 21 will also have space for both animals and humans to dwell eternally in the presence of God.

How lovely is your dwelling place,

    O Lord of hosts!

My soul longs, indeed it faints

    for the courts of the Lord;

my heart and my flesh sing for joy

    to the living God.

Even the sparrow finds a home,

    and the swallow a nest for herself,

    where she may lay her young,

at your altars, O Lord of hosts,

    my King and my God.

Happy are those who live in your house,

    ever singing your praise. (Ps 84:1-4)

Benjamin Cabe, Eastern Orthodox

The word for soul in Greek (ψυχή, psyche) has an interesting history in literature and philosophy. In the Ancient Greek world, it was used synonymously with “life in the body.” To lose or risk one’s soul in Homeric literature (c. 1200–800 BC), for instance, would be to lose or risk one’s life [1]. Between 800 and 600 BC philosophers began to apply attributes such as courage to the soul—and gradually a moral quality as well [2]. Around the same time, linguistic developments made possible a distinction missing from the ancient understanding of the human being: a distinction between the body and the soul [3].

This evolution of thought allowed Plato (c. 428–347 BC) to develop his own philosophy: souls are immortal, souls pre-exist the body, the body is the prison of the soul, and so on. Not long after Plato, Aristotle (c. 384–322 BC) would make a further distinction between three kinds of life or three kinds of souls: the nutritive soul (one’s growth and nutrition), the sensible soul (autonomy in movement and perception), and the rational soul (one’s capacity to think rationally and reflect). Plants, animals, and human beings share the first category, animals and humans the second, but the third belongs to humans alone.

Old Testament usages of the word soul (Greek Septuagint: ψυχή; Hebrew: nephesh) generally resemble the simplicity of the homeric understanding: soul = life [4]. The mystery of the human being, we must remember, was not fully revealed until the Incarnation of Christ. New Testament usage of soul would be more informed than that of the Old Testament but would remain somewhat flexible, as writers used various words to describe the reality of the inner man (2 Corinthians 4:16, etc.). The Church Fathers, most specifically the Neptic Fathers, would go on to clarify much of the New Testament terminology. The point is that we should not be reticent to acknowledge the development of thought surrounding the soul even within the biblical canon. 

Thus, when we read in Genesis 9:4 that the souls of animals are in the blood, we should not be confused to think that animals have souls in the same sense that humans do. Animals have life and instincts but they are not made in the image and likeness of God. Man rules because he unites the spiritual and physical realm in his person; he bridges the gap between the material creation (the cosmos) and the intelligible creation (the angels) which situates him as the priest of creation—as the one who unites all of creation in himself and offers it back up to God as anaphora.

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We invite your participation in charitable discussion of these viewpoints—and others—in the comments section.

Image by Gary Bendig



Round Table discussions offer insights into important issues from numerous Conciliar Post authors. Authors focus on a specific question or topic and respond with concise and precise summaries of their perspective, allowing readers to engage multiple viewpoints within the scope of one article.

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