Animals Have Souls, But They Can’t Receive Grace. Here’s Why. (Potency and Act, Part 3)

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April 11, 2014 by lucieromarin

One way to move beyond woe is to think about things other than woe – so, today, not a post about burnout or grief, but about philosophy. In this post, I mentioned that there are different kinds of potency. One of those kinds, known as ‘obediential potency,’ explains why animals can’t receive sanctifying grace, and, thus, can’t go to Heaven.

First, we have to understand the difference between a soul and a spirit.

The soul is the principle of life in a body. (‘Principle’ is defined as ‘that wherefrom another proceeds’ i.e. ‘something that another thing comes out of’.) If there is life in something, that life is coming from the thing’s soul.

This means that any living body has a soul. A living plant has a body and a soul; a living animal has a body and a soul; a living man has a body and a soul. The differences between plants, animals, and men are differences between the powers of their respective souls.

A spirit is that which can be and do without a body. Unlike a soul, which is mortal, and (in the case of plants and animals) dies with the body, a spirit is necessarily immortal. (Yes, really. This is kind of a separate topic, but, in brief, death consists of a separation of parts. But a spirit, precisely because it’s immaterial, has no parts. So it can’t die, though it could, in theory, be annihilated all at once if God chose to do that, which He doesn’t).

Man has a spiritual soul. Aha! Here’s the thing. We sit right in the middle of the hierarchy of creation. The human soul (that which gives life to the body) can also be and do without the body.

Okay, now that that’s all clear, the next thing to understand is what grace is.

Grace is a created participation in the Divine Life. What does this actually mean? It’s a direct intervention from God, by which something which does not naturally share in His Divinity (i.e. anything other than Him!) is elevated beyond its natural state, in order to share in that Divinity. In other words, there are some things that just go with being human. Loving things just goes with being human. Having free will just goes with being human. Needing to eat just goes with being human. Having the Blessed Trinity living in your soul, and performing works which merit eternal life, do not just go with being human. These latter things are God scooping you up and putting you somewhere you could never get by yourself. You could teach yourself to read. You could not make yourself share in the secret life of the Trinity.

Grace is necessary for the Beatific Vision. You cannot look at a picture if you have no eyeballs. You cannot see the Divine Persons in operation without a created participation in Divine Life in your soul – something like being given a new set of eyes.

So, anything that is not God needs His grace in order to share in His life. But He doesn’t give that grace to everything that isn’t Him. He only gives it to angels and men, not to plants and animals. Why?

The most important thing to realise is that it’s not that plants and animals are refused grace because God is whimsically mean. It’s also not that we say they don’t go to heaven because we are elitist specie-ists who hate rainforests. Plants and animals don’t receive grace, because they can’t receive it.

How is this possible? If grace doesn’t naturally go with anything, what is there in man that makes it possible for God to add grace to us?

It’s obediential potency. Remember that potency is a thing’s capacity for movement from one ‘destination’ (i.e. act) to another. Thus, I, who am currently at Destination Sitting Down have within me potential standing up and potential lying down. Comfortably-Warm Lucy is also potentially-chilly Lucy; if I throw off the blankets, I will soon find myself at Destination Cold, and will only be potentially comfortably warm.

Every potency is the capacity for some movement or action or change. But I’ve already said that I could never raise myself to the Divine Life. I just don’t have, in my natural state, the possibility of that kind of movement or action or change. Not withstanding the fact that I can co-operate with grace once I’ve got it, the first grace is something entirely and wholly received.

Obediential potency is a non-repugnance to being received.  What does that mean? Okay, bearing in mind that all analogies limp at some point, this is the best I can do: Think of two sealed cylinders standing on a table. Someone pours a jug of water over them. One of the cylinders turns out to be completely smooth, and the water just splashes off it. The other cylinder turns out to be unexpectedly porous, so the water goes in and fills the cylinder. Now, there’s nothing about the cylinder that demands that someone pour water over it; it’s just that its design includes a non-repugnance to the receiving of water.

Obediential potency is that kind of porousness in the spiritual soul that means that grace, poured over us, isn’t just going to bounce off (unless we reject it, of course.) The sensitive soul of the animal and the vegetative soul of the plant are like sealed cylinders; they don’t have the porousness that would let the grace in.

You can, at this point, already start teasing out the explanations for yourself, seeing where some of that porousness might be. For example, how could a wholly mortal soul, which dies with the body, be elevated to a participation in an wholly immortal life? If God wanted a carrot to go to Heaven, He’d have to start by giving the carrot a spiritual soul, at which point it would no longer be a carrot, but a man, albeit a man trapped in the body of a root vegetable and with no mouth with which to tell people not to turn him into a salad. And that, as you can see, is actually kind of a horror story.

Similarly, if God wanted the carrot to receive grace, it would have to be able to respond to grace; it would have to be able to choose virtue and reject vice, which would mean understanding which was which. Thus, it would have to have an intellect and free will – which leads us right back to the nightmare of the thinking lunch. It occurs to me, now, too, that if God were to give everything an intellect and will (which are the powers proper to a spirit), thus turning all of living creation into man, then all food would be cannibalism, which is sinful. So that would be pretty tricky.

And this, of course, is why they don’t eat talking animals in Narnia.

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