Over the past several decades, the Catholic Church has been very stern in its warning with regard to “New Age” ideas and concepts. One such concept, although not necessarily “new” is the idea of reincarnation. Reincarnation is the idea that once a person has completed their journey on earth and dies, they are reborn with the same soul, but in a new body. This concept is usually seen as another opportunity to grow as an individual, to correct mistakes that were made in a “past life,” and to make one’s self worthy of heaven by trial and error, essentially.
Although there are many variations of the idea of reincarnation, the principal remains the same: You live, you die, repeat. It’s more of a cycle than a way of life and death, never ending, never really remembering (although some claim to remember their past lives), and never really growing in your spirit.
The claim is that as you live your “lives,” you are able to develop, to grow, to become a better….whatever you are, until you can reach a certain level of enlightenment. Some don’t have an end at all. According to some Hindu schools of thought, even if you die and go to heaven, you will eventually die and come back to earth as another creature (i.e., a human, a bird, a worm, etc.). For many of these ideologies, the human soul bears no value higher than that of any other creatures.
So, why are we talking about reincarnation on a Catholic blog? Well, because it has come to my attention that there are Catholics who believe in reincarnation. In fact, according to Pewforum.org, 25% of white Catholics believe in reincarnation! Yeah, you read that right. Assuming there are about 69.5 million Catholics in the U.S., and about 60% of them are white (as Wikipedia states), there are around 10,425,000 Catholics in the United States alone who believe in some capacity that reincarnation exists. Is your mind blown? Mine was.
Where do we even begin with the problems that this implies? How can so many Catholics be so wrong on something so obviously problematic? I think there are a few reasons.
First, there are a lot of regrets that we tend to hold in our hearts as humans. Sometimes, we find it hard to accept that the lives that we have lived can’t be undone. Whether we believe that we have failed our loved ones, or if we simply wish we’d have been more successful in life, or perhaps we regret some of the relationships we had (or didn’t have), there is a sense of comfort in believing there could be another chance to make good decisions. I get that. I’ve certainly made decisions in my life, and didn’t make others, that would have dramatically changed the outcome of my life. But the fact is that my decisions have been made, and the outcomes have already been set in motion.
To say, “oh, well. I’ll have another chance to do it right in another life,” is a cop-out. When people face hard truths, it’s easy to find a way to ignore their problems by suggesting we have unlimited lives instead of making changes to their actual lives in order to live the way they ought to live. As if our lives are some sort of video game, where we can simply "restart."
The Catholic Church has not shied away from the problem of reincarnation. In fact, the Church has attacked this notion head-on. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
“Death is the end of man's earthly pilgrimage, of the time of grace and mercy which God offers him so as to work out his earthly life in keeping with the divine plan, and to decide his ultimate destiny. When "the single course of our earthly life" is completed, we shall not return to other earthly lives: ‘It is appointed for men to die once.’ There is no ‘reincarnation’ after death” (CCC 1013, emphasis added)
To reinforce the claim, in case the Church isn’t clear enough on this issue, Sacred Scripture affirms that, “…it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27, emphasis added).
So here is the bigger question. What makes this idea of reincarnation more appealing than the teachings of death that our Catholic faith holds? Nothing. At the end of the day, the problem isn’t that reincarnation is a nice thought (it’s not), the problem involves the poorly-formed understanding of Church teaching, which is exponentially more beautiful and more hopeful than anything eastern religion could hope to achieve.
For the most part, reincarnation maintains that we constantly live, constantly die, constantly fail to achieve the ultimate goal of eternal salvation. There is no sense of completion, there is no sense of victory or triumph over evil (or imperfections), and there is no satisfaction. This idea seems to hold it’s believer hostage, always fighting this circular argument that we must rise and fall all the time in order to somehow perfect ourselves.
The truth is, the Catholic Church provides a much more satisfactory, much more fulfilling take on this ultimate goal. The Church has taught for two millennia that we are destined for greatness. In Sacred Scripture, we read: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11, emphasis added).
The intent of our all-good and wonderful God is not, and never is, to keep us waiting, to give us the runaround, to pull our leg. Along with the belief in reincarnation, we also must assume that God’s promises are empty; that somehow not all of us were meant for something greater. Even worse, it implies that God did not create us for our own purpose, but rather, that we’ve all been made to be a part of some social project.
If we are going to believe that God created every person for many lives, where exactly would you draw the line? At what point would God finally say, “Ok, that’s enough. You’re perfect enough for heaven.” It simply doesn’t jive. More than that, it is insulting to the person we have been made to be. Can you imagine a God who makes mistakes? The implication with reincarnation is that we have not been made good enough to make the best of the lives we are given; therefore, God must not have made us well. Surely nobody needs reminding that Sacred Scripture says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6). How dare we assume that the soul God has afforded us is equal to that of any animal? How dare we assume that our souls are interchangeable with those of lesser creatures?
Still, the argument could be made that we are only reincarnated as other humans; but how well does that resolve? I would say not very well at all. One of the most important teachings of the Catholic Church, and for the majority of other Christians for that matter, is the teaching of a “new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1-4). The Catechism describes it as, “the heavenly Jerusalem,” where “God will have his dwelling among men (CCC 1044). The Catholic Church believes firmly and without reservation that all humans will be reunited with their bodies on the last day:
"The holy Roman Church firmly believes and confesses that on the Day of Judgment all men will appear in their own bodies before Christ's tribunal to render an account of their own deeds" (Council of Lyons II :DS 859; cf. DS 1549) (CCC 1059, emphasis added).
"We believe that the souls of all who die in Christ's grace…are the People of God beyond death. On the day of resurrection, death will be definitively conquered, when these souls will be reunited with their bodies" (Paul VI, CPG § 28) (CCC 1052, emphasis added).
The concept of reincarnation is incredibly detrimental to the Christian life. It reduces the value of our salvation and takes away from the splendor that we will enjoy when we are finally with God after death. It undermines the very ancient and very dogmatic teaching that we will reunite with our bodies, and it insults the integrity of God's creation since it suggests that man and beast are somehow equals. Most of all, a belief in reincarnation is dangerous because it puts us at unnecessary risk for hell. It causes us to regard death in a flippant, careless manner, and ultimately gives us no reason to seek a pious life. This is contrary to the Catholic way.
Instead of worrying about second, third or even millionth chances at a better life, it seems fitting to instead maintain our hope in a God who will forgive us two, three or even a million times. My hope is that we all pray for those fellow Catholics who have fallen into this dangerous cycle of New-Age thought, and that they may remember the faith that has given us a second chance in the form of the Sacraments. God the Father in Heaven loves us with such a love, that even our past can’t keep us from him if we seek to amend our lives, and live for his Holy Church.