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Reincarnation: The Answer of Faith | Christoph Schönborn | An excerpt from
From Death to Life: The Christian Journey
At the Fourth World Congress for Natural Medicine, held at Geneva in 1980, Dr.
Nowrocki, psychotherapist at the University of Frankfurt, presented his
experiences with patients whom he had "led back" to the moment of
their birth; indeed, he lets them reexperience their time in the womb, the
moment of their conception, and even the death that separated them from their
earlier life, many deaths, many births, many earlier lives.  One can read in
Denise Desjardins how such experiments are carried out and how psychic traumas
appear to find their explanation and even their resolution along the path of
such "leadings back".  More and more therapists employ this
method. Are we heading toward a "scientific" proof of reincarnation?
Some people  assert this, relying on experiences that "allow us to
suppose the presence of repeated lives on earth".  The adjective
scientific, which this literature is quick to employ, lends the accounts credit
a priori, but there is insufficient examination of whether one can truly speak
of "scientific proofs" in such cases.
Let us take as an example the celebrated "case of Bridey Murphy". An
American, Ruth Simmons, reveals in a state of hypnosis many factors from an
earlier life that she spent in the nineteenth century in Ireland under the name
of Bridey Murphy. Investigations carried out at the relevant places show that
numerous individual details, which Mrs. Simmons could not know in her present
life, are correct.  Even if we presuppose that the investigations were not
manipulated, one must however make a methodological observation: even if the
facts of the matter prove to be correct, their interpretation remains
subjective. One must distinguish between the circumstances of the experience
and their interpretation. This distinction is often forgotten in the discussion
of the "earlier lives". Naturally, it is not a question of denying
genuine experiences. If a person asserts that she sees herself in a scenery of
the nineteenth century, if she is able to give a detailed description of a
particular place and a particular landscape, and it is shown that these
descriptions are correct, then one can only note these events with scrupulous
care. But one moves onto another level when one attempts to interpret them.
As we have noted above, it is not sufficient simply to register accounts of
experiences, if one wishes to formulate an explanatory theory. The experiences
must be given a place in a broader framework. But an explanatory theory is
never simply the outcome of the. Greatest possible number of experiential data.
Rather, one must confront the data with general principles that themselves do not derive from experience but precede and
illuminate it. The doctrine of
reincarnation is such an
explanatory theory, presupposing general principles in
the light of which one interprets certain experiences. In
this sense, there can never at any time exist a strictly
scientific proof of reincarnation--or of the
nonexistence of reincarnation. The theory of reincarnation is
derived in reality from a philosophical or religious prior
understanding of the nature of man, of his origin, and of the destiny
determined for him. If one shares this
view of man, one will interpret
particular experiences as
"proofs" of one's convictions. If one does not share it,
one will derive other explanations from these experiences. The "case of
Bridey Murphy", for example, could be interpreted as a parapsychical
People at earlier periods would perhaps have thought of a
"private revelation" or of the working of demons.
Every Fourth European Believes in Reincarnation
If then there exist no scientific proofs for or against reincarnation, must we
content ourselves with purely
subjective or even arbitrary judgments?
There do exist arguments pro and contra, but these lie on
the philosophical or theological
level. The argumentation that I propose is primarily theological. But before
we speak of the theological reasons for the rejection
of reincarnation by the Christian Faith, we must point out
some historical connections.
According to a survey of the Gallup's American Institute of Public Opinion,
 roughly one European in four
believes in reincarnation. How are we to explain this success of a theory that is so alien to the Christian
tradition? One cannot provide any "monocausal" explanation of this,
but let us indicate one significant point. It
is in the period of the Enlightenment that reincarnationist views arise in
modern Europe. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing published in 1780 his famous work Die
Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts. Full of
sees the history of mankind as an irresistible ascent to the light of the
spirit. In the last sections, he expresses
the hypothesis that this ascent
could take place in a succession of ever more spiritualized lives on earth.
idea conquers others: Goethe and the Romantics take it up anew.  Darwin's
theory of evolution strengthens in
many people the conviction of universal
Kardec (1804-69), one of the great propagandists of
spiritualism and the idea
of reincarnation, had the following significant words inscribed on his
Paris: "To be born, to die, to be reborn, and to make
continual progress: that is
the law." 
This "Westernized" view of reincarnation is obviously
very different from that of the Eastern religions, with
their cyclic view of time, which is unacquainted with the
idea of a universal progress. Reincarnation as the path of
onward progress? This idea could develop
only in the soil of the Christian culture of the West, with
its concept of a "salvation history" that makes its way to-
ward the kingdom of God. This means that the idea of
itself undergone a profound change.
For the religions of the East, reincarnation was and is a
situation of wretchedness, which one must try to escape
if possible: but in the West, under the influence of the
idea of progress, it becomes indeed a kind of path of salvation.
While the East sees the wheel of rebirth as a situation of painful bondage,
reincarnation becomes in the
West the path of progressive self-realization.
Why has Christianity always rejected the idea of reincarnation? As far as I
know, the Church has never
formally condemned the doctrine of
because she might regard it as a doctrine that could be
compatible with the Christian
faith, but on the contrary because reincarnation so obviously
the very principles of this faith that a condemnation
has never seemed necessary.  But which principles are
these? Let us now conclude by setting them out
"But Christ Is the End" (Hölderlin)
For Christianity, man is a creature. This means first that
he is willed by God in his entire reality,
in his soul but
also in his body. The body is not the prison of the soul
but is likewise created. Indeed, it is destined for an eternal life through
the "resurrection of the flesh"-an idea
that is totally alien to the hellenistic world.
provoked shouts of laughter when he began to speak of
this on the Areopagus (Acts 17:32). If man-with body
and soul-is a creature, then this means that he is willed
by God as this particular man, as a person, with a
unique origin and a unique life
that is destined to be
fulfilled in eternal life. Judaism too believes all this (at
least in its dominant tradition).
Christianity has an additional element that is decisive.
In my view, it is above all this
specific element that forbids it to make any compromise with the reincarnationistic
teachings: Jesus Christ himself. The Christian Faith
looks on him as the
incarnate God, as the Word of God
become flesh. But he has arisen in this
flesh and has ascended to heaven, where he sits "at the right hand
the Father" in this flesh, and he will "come again
glory" in this eternally living, glorified flesh. Thus
understands that the whole hope of Christianity is directed to a goal
that is like that of its Founder. One
cannot picture this ultimate destiny as a return into
other bodies and other lives on earth. This life here is
already fellowship with
Christ, a fellowship that unites
in one "single body" the adherents of this path and
makes them "members of Christ"; and when this life
ends, there is no other destiny for the one who has
lived in fellowship with the
body of Christ than the full
unfolding of this fellowship in the
"resurrection of the
This, sketched in a few words, is the fundamental experience of
Christianity. Reincarnation is not rejected
for the sake of some abstract doctrines or because of a die-hard holding
fast to traditional dogmas. The fact that
the Christian Faith has no place
for the doctrine of reincarnation is a direct consequence of this fundamental experience,
which Paul recapitulates in the famous sentence, "For me, life is Christ
and death a gain" (Phil
1:21). Life is Christ. To die means to live in the truest sense, to live
with Christ, to live as he lives: in this
glorified flesh that he received from the Virgin Mary
through the working of the Holy Spirit, in which he
"sits at the right hand of the Father", in which he will
again in glory.
Reincarnation has no place in Christianity because
life in Christ is already its ultimate goal. "But Christ is
the end", says Hölderlin in the late hymn Der
Einzige. What more could one seek, when one has found him?
Have we not found everything
in him? In him there is
no place for the endless search, from life to life, for a
distant, unattainable goal, for a perfection that is not to
be reached in aeons. The
end has come to us; it is already present (cf. 1 Cor 10:11). Man's long search
an end. What we could not find through endless re-
births has been given to us. "For we did not seek: we
were sought." 
God has found man: "For it was not
the sheep that sought the shepherd, or the drachma the
housewife (Lk 15:4-9). He himself bent down
and found his image; he himself went into the place
where the sheep had wandered astray. He lifted it up
and put an end to the wandering." 
After this return home, there is no more wandering.
Will the father send the prodigal son away, now that
has returned home? And how could there be a "tomorrow" after
the words "Today you will be with me in paradise", spoken to the
robber on his right side by the
Lord when he is raised up on the Cross-a "tomorrow"
that would lead him back into a foreign place? The
same Jesus said: "When I am lifted up from the earth, I
draw all men to myself" (Jn 12:32), and: "I shall
certainly not turn away the one who comes to me" (Jn
6:37). After this great reunion there is nothing more to
be sought, for what we find here infinitely surpasses all
that we had sought and waited for (cf. 1 Cor
 "Journal de Genève",
June 2, 1980, p. 13.
 La mémoire des vies antérieures (Paris, 1980).
 Thus the famous and very cautious book by Dr. Ian
Stevenson, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. Characteristically, the title of the German
translation changes the "suggestive" into "proofs": Reinkarnation.
Der Mensch im Wandel von Tod und Wiedergeburt. 20 uberzeugende und wissenschafihich
bewiesene Fälle (Freiburg, 1976).
 I mention two further examples from this large body of
literature: Joan Grant and D. Kelsey, Nos vies anterierures (Paris, 1978); M. Bernstien, Protokoll
einer Wiedergeburt. Der Bericht über die wissenbschaftlich untersuchtde
Rückführung in ein früheres Leben(Berne,
1973) (translated from English).
 Cf. Bernstein, Protokoll.
 Cf. J. Stoetzel, Les a1eurs du temps présent: une
enquéte (Paris: PUF,1983).
 Cf. E. Bock, Wiederholte Erdenleben. Die Wiederverkörperungsidee
in der deutschen Geistesgeschichte (Stuttgart, 1967) (very well documented
and written from an anthroposophist standpoint).
 Quoted from B. Kloppenburg, La reencarnación (Bogota, 5979), 11.
This book gives a good overview of the great
success of the reincarnationist views in Latin America.
 The Second Vatican Council speaks in Lumen gentium, no. 48, in
order to reject the idea of reincarnation, of "the single
course of our
 Nicolas Cabasilas, Das Buds yam Leben in Christus, trans. G. Hoch, 2nd ed. (Einsiedeln, 1981), 23 (= Christliche
Meister, vol. 14).
 G. Adler, Wiedergeboren nach dem Tode? Die Idee der
Reinkarnarion (Frankfurt, 1977), offers an introductory presentation from
the Christian standpoint. H. U. von Balthasar,
"Seelenwanderung", in idem, Homo creatus est (Einsiedeln, 1986), 103-20 (= Skizzen zur
Theologie, vol. v), offers a very rich and
amply documented theological evaluation.
Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, O.P., (born 1945) the Archbishop of Vienna, Austria, is a highly regarded
author, teacher, and theologian. He was a student of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and with him was
co-editor of the monumental Catechism of the Catholic Church. He studied theology and philosophy in
Bornheim-Walberberg, Vienna, and Paris. He was ordained a Dominican priest by Cardinal Franz König in December
1970 in Vienna, and later studied in Regensburg. From 1975 he was professor at Freiburg im Uechtland.
In 1980, he became a member of the international theological commission of the Holy See, and in 1987 he
became editorial secretary for the Catechism. He speaks six languages and has written numerous books.
Books by Cardinal Schönborn published in English by Ignatius Press:
Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (co-author with Cardinal Ratzinger)
God's Human Face: The Christ Icon
Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church, vol 1
Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church, vol 2
Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church, vol 3
Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church, vol 4
Loving the Church: Retreat to John Paul II and the Papal Household
My Jesus: En countering Christ In The Gospel
Other excerpts from books by Cardinal Schönborn:
The Church Is the Goal of All Things | From
Loving the Church
Encountering Christ in the Gospel | From
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