32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 20:27-38
Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, came forward and put this question to Jesus…
“On no point does the Christian faith encounter more opposition than on the resurrection of the body”
So writes St. Augustine (cf. En. In Ps. 88,5), and the point is re-affirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 996) – “It is very commonly accepted that the life of the human person continues in a spiritual fashion after death. But how can we believe that this body, so clearly mortal, could rise to everlasting life?”
First, we must consider whether the body which is raised is identical with the mortal body we now possess. We will not delve into the very important and interesting theological speculation regarding the qualities of the risen body, but will simply consider the identity of the resurrected body – that it is the very same body as was separated from the soul in death.
Second, we will consider the most popular objection against the resurrection of the body – whether a cannibal will be resurrect in his own body. The question of cannibalism gathers several issues together: First, how can both the cannibal and his victim rise, since the cannibal has consumed the other’s flesh? Second, what if a bear eats a man and then a man eats that bear? Third, what about organ donors? Fourth, what about children who die when only just barely conceived, how will they have enough matter for a resurrected body? Many many other questions besides are answered in the course of discussing the more basic question of cannibalism and the resurrection – we will even see what happens to all our excess fingernail and hair clippings!
Our material bodies will be reunited to our immaterial souls
“We believe in the true resurrection of this flesh that we now possess” (Council of Lyons II: DS 854). Based on many Scriptural texts, the Church affirms that this very body, which dies, will one day be raised up. In the resurrection, we will not be given a different body; the same body will be returned, but it will be renewed and transformed.
The body will change, but it will still remain itself. In every true change, something remains and something changes – thus, when a piece of metal is melted, many of its properties are changed, but there is an underlying identity which remains; hence we can say that the metal is heated (it does not cease to be what it is when it is heated). Consider a different example – when a piece of wood is burnt to ashes, many of its properties are changes, and even its underlying identity is changed; it is no longer a piece of wood, but is now only ash. In this second case, what remains is only the matter; not the identity of the object itself. Finally, another example – when God creates a soul there is no true change; for there was nothing before, nothing old remains, but a whole new thing is created (likewise, if an animal soul goes out of existence, there is no change; it simply ceases to be).
In the general resurrection, our bodies will be changed and transformed; but they will still be ours and they will still be bodies – which means that they will still be physical and material, though also glorified and “spiritual”. The human body will never be a pure spirit! The human body will, necessarily, remain a body; which means it will not be a spirit or a soul, but will be material/physical.
Moreover, it will not be that our souls will be united to bodies newly created; the resurrection is just that, REsurrection! The souls is REunited to the body – which means it is not a new/different body, but the very same body to which it had once been united and which was once alive. It will be this very flesh which is raised up – “In my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes; I, and not another.” (Job 19:26-27) For more on the Scriptural witness to the general resurrection, see Msgr. Pope’s post -- http://blog.adw.org/2010/11/what-will-our-resurrected-bodies-be-like/.
Consider the words of a young St. Thomas, “It is necessary for the selfsame man to rise again; and this is effected by the selfsame soul being united to the selfsame body. For otherwise there would be no resurrection properly speaking, if the same man were not reformed. Hence to maintain that he who rises again is not the selfsame man is heretical, since it is contrary to the truth of Scripture which proclaims the resurrection.” (ST Supplement, q.79, a.2)
The cannibal objection
The objection of cannibalism is properly dealt with in the context of another objection – that it would seem impossible that every part of a man’s body should be resurrected (since this would necessitate that all his excess hair and fingernails, which he had cut away over the years, would be restored):
“If, furthermore, a man’s identical body is restored to life, by equal reasoning whatever was in the man’s body ought to be returned to the same man. But on this something extremely unseemly follows—not only by reason of the beard and the nails and the hair which are openly removed by daily trimming, but also by reason of other parts of the body which are covertly resolved by the action of the natural heat—and if these all are restored to the man rising again, an unseemly enormity will rise with him. It seems, then, that man will not rise after death.”
Now consider the objection regarding cannibalism: “There is more. It happens, occasionally, that some men feed on human flesh, and they are nourished on this nutriment only, and those so nourished generate sons. Therefore, the same flesh is found in many men. But it is not possible that it should rise in many. And the resurrection does not seem otherwise to be universal and entire if there is not restored to every man what he has had here.” (both objections are taken from Summa Contra Gentiles IV, 80)
St. Thomas gives a brilliantly simple answer to the first objection – “What is no obstacle to a man’s numerical unity while he continues to live, manifestly cannot be an obstacle to the unity of the one who rises” (SCG 81). In other words, if loosing hair and fingernails while on earth does not make us stop being who we are, it is clear that we do not need to have all that hair and those fingernail clippings back in the resurrection! St. Thomas’ genius, especially in his most speculative moments, is in his practicality.
A distinction must be drawn between the matter which is accidental and that which is essential – according to modern science, we might say that no particular piece of matter is essential to a given human being; it could always be swapped out with other matter. And yet, the unity of the individual is maintained by virtue (primarily) of the unity of the soul, and also by the congruity of the process by which the matter is changed and transferred within the individual. Hence, it will be enough for God to give us back some of the hair that we had while on earth; he does not need to give back all of the matter that was once our hair…that would be ridiculous!
The solution of St. Thomas
When St. Thomas comes to the case of the cannibal, he refers back to the question of hair and fingernails – relying again on the distinction between that which is essential and that which is accidental.
“It is not necessary, as has just been shown, that whatever has been in man materially rise in him; further, if something is lacking, it can be supplied by the power of God. Therefore, the flesh consumed will rise in him in whom it was first perfected by the rational soul” (SCG 81). Thus, St. Thomas maintains that the cannibal’s victim will rise with his own flesh and the cannibal will rise with the flesh of other things he has eaten – since, through a lifetime, we obviously eat a lot more than our body weight! Moreover, even if there were a cannibal who only ate human flesh, from the time of his birth, God could supply the matter needed for his resurrection – even then, the men eaten would have plenty of other matter which had gone through them in years before their death, and that matter could be used for their resurrection.
The point here is this – many fools today think that they are very clever in objecting to the reality of the resurrection by appealing to this silly “problem” of the cannibal; but St. Thomas solved this question 800 years ago. The answer, which is so basic and straightforward, proves just how foolish the objection is in the first place.
From the Summa Contra Gentiles, chapter 81
 The fourth objection [regarding excess hair and fingernails], also, fails to remove the unity of the one who rises. For what is no obstacle to a man’s numerical unity while he continues to live manifestly cannot be an obstacle to the unity of one who rises. But in the body of man, so long as he is alive, it is not with respect to matter that he has the same parts, but with respect to his species. In respect to matter, of course, the parts are in flux, but this is not an obstacle to his being numerically one from the beginning of his life to the end of it. An example of this can be taken from fire: While it continues to bum, it is called numerically one because its species persists, yet wood is consumed and -new wood is applied. It is also like this in the human body, for the form and species of its single parts remain continuously through a whole life; the matter of the parts is not only resolved by the action of the natural heat, but is replenished anew by nourishment. Man is not, therefore, numerically different according to his different ages, although not everything which is in him materially in one state is also there in another. In this way, then, this is not a requirement of man’s arising with numerical identity: that he should assume again whatever has been in him during the whole time of his life; but he need assume from that matter only what suffices to complete the quantity due, and that especially must be resumed which was more perfectly consistent with the form and species of humanity. But, if something was wanting to the fulfillment of the quantity due, either because one was overtaken by death before nature could bring him to the quantity due or because mutilation perhaps deprived him of so-me member, the divine power will supply this from another source. This, however, will be no obstacle to the unity of the body of the one rising, for even the work of nature adds to what a boy has from some other source to bring him to his perfect quantity. And this addition does not make him numerically other, for the man is the same in number whether he is boy or adult.
 From this it is clear, also, that there is no obstacle to faith in the resurrection—even in the fact that some men eat human flesh, as the fifth objection was maintaining. For it is not necessary, as has just been shown, that whatever has been in man materially rise in him; further, if something is lacking, it can be supplied by the power of God. Therefore, the flesh consumed will rise in him in whom it was first perfected by the rational soul. But in the second man, if he ate not only human flesh, but other food as well, only that will rise in him which came to him materially from the other food, and which will be necessary to restore the quantity due his body. But if he ate human flesh only, what rises in him will be that which he drew from those who generated him, and what is wanting will be supplied by the Creator’s omnipotence. But let it be that the parents, too, have eaten only human flesh, and that as a result their seed—which is the superfluity of nourishment—has been generated from the flesh of others; the seed, indeed, will rise in him who was generated from the seed, and in its place there will be supplied in him whose flesh was eaten something from another source. For in the resurrection this situation will obtain: If something was materially present in many men, it will rise in him to whose perfection it belonged more intimately. Accordingly, if something was in one man as the radical seed from which he was generated, and in another as the superfluity of nourishment, it will rise in him who was generated therefrom as from seed. If something was in one as pertinent to the perfection of the individual, but in another as assigned to the perfection of the species, it will rise in him to whom it belonged as perfection of the individual. Accordingly, seed will arise in the begotten, not in his generator; the rib of Adam will arise in Eve, not in Adam in whom it was present as in a principle of nature. But, if something was in both in the same degree of perfection, it will rise in him in whom it was the first time.