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Reincarnation and Human Dignity (Part I of III)

December 30, 2013 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, New Age, Reincarnation

Dear Father John, I know that the Church rejects the doctrine of reincarnation, but sometimes I think that reincarnation seems to be a much more merciful approach than just having one chance to live well and go to heaven or to live badly and go to hell. I mean, so many human beings have had to live in such miserable conditions throughout the thousands and thousands of years of human existence. Wouldn’t it make sense to give them a second and a third chance to get it right, by reincarnating them in better conditions, more favorable situations? Is it possible that we start as “baby souls” and live different lifetimes and different incarnations in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? The more we are willing to endure, suffer and sacrifice, the more Christ-like we become and the better our chances of a blissful eternity. Wouldn’t this explain the “old souls” of the world, victim souls (like Little Audrey Santo) and the heroic saints? It sounds like Heaven would be a WEE bit better populated if the system worked this way.

You have weaved so many different and profound themes worthy of discussion and reflection into this question that I am afraid only a good bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, then another in Theology, would completely satisfy you. Therefore, I don’t think I will try to chase down all the strands. Rather, I will try to tackle the main one or two, or at least what I interpret as the main one or two.

The Saints’ “Standard of Living”
First, it seems that underneath your question is an unspoken presupposition. You seem to be equating a fulfilled and meaningful life with a fully civilized life, as free as possible from suffering, and characterized by material sufficiency and visible achievements or visible creativity of some kind. It’s certainly understandable to see things that way. Our human dignity is such that its fullest expression would always include reaching our maximum potential in every area. But on an individual basis, in a fallen world, God has revealed to us a different standard of fulfillment and meaning. Jesus himself, and the Blessed Virgin Mary (the two highest examples of a fulfilled and meaningful life) were actually poor, lived in a materially primitive society, suffered terribly, received minimal education, didn’t travel the world and experience the delights of modernity, and yet achieved their purpose in life to the full. Likewise, many canonized saints lived lives marked by horrible suffering and injustice, in times and places extremely primitive materially (think of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, for example), and never experienced the vast delights of culture and civilization that today’s six-year-old can access through an iPad. And yet, they reached spiritual maturity in this life, and eternal happiness in heaven.

God’s “Standard of Living”
So what is the standard of a fulfilled and meaningful life, if not material and visible glory? Jesus expressed it in a condensed form in the Beatitudes, in Matthew Chapter 5: “Blessed are the poor in spirit… those who mourn… the meek… the pure in heart… those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… the merciful… the peacemakers… and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness…” These are linked to moral and spiritual qualities. Many times, the interior dispositions they correspond to are completely invisible to the outside world. And they can be completely (or mostly) absent in a life that seems to “have everything” from an external point of view.

I am reminded of Queen Elizabeth I of England’s dying words. The Queen who launched the British Empire, made England into the dominant world power, and defeated the famous Spanish Armada, died after reigning for almost fifty years. Her dying words, after days of sleeplessness and seemingly haunted panic, were, “All my possessions for a moment of time!” On the outside, in the eyes of the world, she lacked absolutely nothing. But on the inside, as the end approached, she felt a terrible emptiness, an emptiness that she longed to have more time to try and fill.

In our second post, we will look at the essential core of meaning of our human life, where we will ultimately find fulfillment and how time is on our side. In part III, we will examine why pagan religions often adopted various forms of reincarnational doctrines and how reincarnation subtly denies and obliterates our capacity to love, thus denying our human dignity.


Art: ”The Ladder of Divine Ascent” or ”The Ladder of Paradise'‘ icon described by John Climacus, Monastery of St Catherine, Mount Sinai, PD-US-old-100, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • patricia

    Great post Father we are all trying to strive or should strive to holiness in which is our identified dignity made in the image and likeness of God. Merry Christmas blessed and Holy and Happy New Year blessed and healthy one too. God Bless Always!!!

  • Yule

    Nice post. I am waiting for part II and III. I have the same sentiments with the person asking the question. My mom is Catholic and my father was born Catholic but my father was more interested on reading about Eastern religion. I read those books too thus somewhat tainted my view regarding the belief of afterlife..

    Regarding your answer’s first sentence,
    “You have weaved so many different and profound themes worthy of discussion and reflection into this question that I am afraid only a good bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, then another in Theology, would completely satisfy you,”
    I dunno why you stated as such. It seems like you mean that only those who took those degrees can have such full knowledge regarding the matter. Can you suggest for us books to read regarding it and why you have answered such way.

    I know friends who entered Catholic seminaries and graduated with honors in Philosophy yet they end up joining Theosophical Society, interested about H. P. Blavatsky, Krishnamurti and other Esoteric/Eastern Philosophies. I even ‘unfriended” them in Facebook as I was expecting that their Catholic seminary training was a great help to them and curious to know what’s on their mind and their beliefs, but was just alarmed why their Facebook posts are more into Eastern mysticism.

    I am took up Engineering course so really don’t read much books about books on our religion. I only read few but those books don’t delve much about life after this.

    Thank you for sharing.

  • Yule

    The phrase I keep on saying to myself so that I won’t be thinking about reincarnation though it’s a bit childish is this:

    Living here on earth over and over again is boring.

  • Salvatore Buttaci

    What then was the response to the reincarnation question?

    • LizEst

      Fr. Bartunek develops his answer in three parts. Watch for Parts II and III in the weeks to come. God bless you, Salvatore.

      The short answer is that this life we are in is our only life in this world. Our death here is our entry into eternal life, where we will, hopefully, join the angels and the saints in joyfully praising God forever.

      • Salvatore Buttaci

        Though raised a Roman Catholic, I strayed from the faith in my 20’s and did not truly return to it, thanks to my mother’s prayers, years and years later. During my absence I searched for truth in all the wrong places, including Eastern religions that taught that reincarnation was truth. They offered stories of people who remembered past lives, but the nagging thought in my head was this: Wasn’t the soul unique to each person? Whose soul is it if a person transfers his soul from death to new life over and over again? I believe we have one life to do what Christ commands us so that this one life’s soul can be judged on its own merits by a merciful God who invites us all to repent, sin no more, and become part of His kingdom.

  • Mary G

    I thought the first section on the Saints satisfied the question perfectly to me, anyway. If Reincarnation worked, we would not need the suffering , death and Resurrection of Jesus. But our Faith teaches a different Way: JESUS.

    Little Audrey is a perfect example of ONE life lived perfectly united to the suffering Christ for the salvation of mankind. It says nothing about reincarnation. and “old souls”?? What are they, but gifted and wise persons. Why do you think it means that they may have “lived many lives before this one”. If your theory were true, wouldn’t there be many many of thousands of “old souls” walking the earth today? The idea of “old souls” is really superstition.

    God’s mercy is so close to our hearts, yet, so far above our capability to understand, that we should not even try to think of it in human terms. yes, we think it is unfair that God only gives us one chance, but we are not God and cannot fathom the depths of His Plan.

    Prayer and meditation on the Gospels and writing of The Saints would quell your curiosity about reincarnation completely…at least it should!

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