Does the spirit give life to the body? What about head transplants? Please expound upon the theology of the body

I’m thinking it was the March 18th episode wherein Fr. Tad Pacholczyk was dismissive of ideas contrary to brain-death as constitutive of death. I.e. a caller mentioned another theologian’s critique of organ harvesting as decisively killing the person, and Fr. Pacholczyk basically waved it aside without much discussion, just restating that when the brain died the person was dead. This thread is in response to that question, together with this article, “Terminally ill man set to be first to undergo the world’s first full head transplant”.

I searched the forums and found another user raising the same question, with whom I’m inclined to agree, from what Catholic Answers has presented, together with my reading of Saint Thomas Aquinas or Frank Sheed (or both). Basically, if the spirit gives life to the body, then the spirit must also be responsible for keeping every part of the body alive, right? Looking at the cellular level, it appears we die piecemeal, that the soul loses its influence over the body piecemeal rather than all at once. There’s also the question of cancer, how cancerous tissue grows. It would seem that either God or the person’s spirit is responsible for causing cancer to grow, even contrary to the person’s will! This seems absurd, but perhaps asking three questions in one thread is too much.

My questions here are: How can we understand a successful head transplant? Doesn’t the theology of the body say that’s the human person is one unity of body and spirit? In other words, that you are your body just as much as you are your spirit? What then does that imply about a successful head transplant operation? Must the church conclude that it is a new person, even if they claim to have the memories from the previous body? Must the church conclude that the brain is the seat of the soul, and that although the spirit gives life to the body, it does so while residing in the brain? But in what sense can we properly say that the spirit resides in the brain, when the spirit is immaterial? I thought that one could not claim that spirits occupy any volume of matter because they are immaterial! (I think this was from Frank Sheed, from an article Catholic Answers hosted on their old site.) Going a step further, what if one transplants one’s brain into a body of the opposite sex? How does the theology of the body account for the human’s life after this operation, should it be successful?

So does the spirit give life to the body piecemeal, so that harvesting organs even after brain death essentially means ripping the organ away from the influence of the spirit that is slowly departing? (Is this moral?) Does one’s spirit give life to cancer within one’s own body, even against one’s will? Is the spirit properly seated in the brain, such that one could be transported into a donor’s body via head transplant? Would the procedure be moral? Would it be immoral if the donor’s body was the opposite sex?

Oh. My. Gosh.

I’m really left speechless honesty and I’m sorry I don’t have an answer to your question. Just replying to stay in the conversation. Wow…

Because neither the headless body, nor the bodiless head, can hold life (= soul) on their own; if a head transplant were to succeed, methinks the idea of “soul” would need to be rethought.

The mind would of course be that of the head, and mind is an output of the soul, but a head alone does not hold soul.


It’s the ship of Theseus paradox!

As far as I can tell, the soul is limited by the mind. Once you decapitate the original person, his soul moves on. I don’t think there’s a coming back from that one. :o But the soul of person with the head may remain with him, if this is all truly possible.

For the OP, interesting reading:

The soul generates the mind, and that requires the head.

In head transplanting, the body comes from someone whose head is irreversibly gone (massive brain injury etc.). That person’s soul is gone.

The question would be however, would the other person’s detached head hold the soul long enough to be rebodied?


A head transplant is a misleading and confusing term: The *head *will get another *body, *not the other way around. It is a body transplant.

Theoretically, Mr Spirinodov will get a new body, and will be himself with a different body. The person whose body will be used will have already died; thus, the body’s soul will have already departed. Mr Spirinodov’ head will govern the body as if it were his own, and his head will retain its soul, if all goes according to plan.

I don’t really know what you are asking in terms of Fr Pacholczyk’s comment.

What head transplants would those be?

It’s currently only theoretical.

But surgeons now say that a living head can be detached from his/her dying body, attached to the headless neck of a brain-dead, but otherwise sound body, and fully reassembled at the neck, the mind in the head continuing to live life in a new body.

While this is billed as a head transplant, the “person” is really the mind, in the head, so it’s the body that gets transplanted.

Although it’s just hype at present, there’s one patient, in Russia, waiting for this procedure to replace his dying body.


He claimed that when the brain died, the person died, and it was our technology that was keeping the organs alive. My questions are:
*]Isn’t it the soul that gives life to the body, not “technology”? Isn’t Fr. Pacholczyk wrong to say it is technology rather than the person’s soul that gives life to the organs?
*]Therefore, doesn’t organ harvesting result in forcing one soul to ‘swap’ “organ-influence” with another soul? (I.e., dying person X keeps the organ alive until it becomes a part of person Y, at which time person X ceases to give life to it and person Y begins giving life to it.)
*]Therefore, doesn’t organ harvesting expedite death since it removes organs from the dying person’s influence? (i.e. causing them to stop giving life to the organ once it becomes part of another person)
*]If organ harvesting hastens one’s death, then when is it illegitimate to hasten one’s death? (For example, we say suicide is wrong, but refusing expensive health care is not.)
My answers to these questions would be:
*]Yes. Yes.
*]It’s only illegitimate to hasten one’s death through organ harvesting if that person refused consent, or if brain death hasn’t yet occurred. (I would even go so far as to argue that once brain death has occurred, explicit consent is not necessary if there is reasonable need for the organs, as long as the person didn’t refuse consent.)

Soul does not “give life to the body”, it **is **the life of the body.

Technology does not give life to the body, but it can compensate for failing or inadequate organs to allow the body to hold life beyond the point that body would otherwise fail. This can be as extreme as an iron lung, or as simple as an oxygen mask (oxygen requires technology to produce) to inflate inadequate but working lungs.

The body as a whole holds life; organs do not. Blood, after all, is an organ, but when one receives a transfusion, one does not receive soul.

But the brain is a special case, because it alone holds the unique product of the human soul, the rational mind.

So although beheaded bodies and bodiless heads normally die at once, if the process can be halted long enough to “neck” the head to the new body, it is theoretically conceivable that life could continue.


Yeah, that’s what I was trying to say. In response to your question, I suppose at some point maaaaybe it could be possible, but sadly this guy in Russia is very likely going to die. I don’t think we’re anywhere near the level of technology that would be needed to keep him alive throughout the process.

Or, he’d live, but as a total quadriplegic (even without a working neck), as there’d be no way to reattach the spinal cord or cervical nerves. He’d be worse than before.


What surgeons now say that? Can we get a list of the names names of these surgeons?

Do a Google search for “head transplant Russia.”

I didn’t keep those names in my mind, as I, for one, believe that those believing this doable are all wet; especially as science has yet to transplant a lower limb, never mind a body!

But the hype is all in place, to the extent that a dying Russian with intact mind has placed himself on the “waiting list.”


What you are saying is difficult for me to understand. For example, “The body as a whole holds life; organs do not.” The body is nothing but the sum of its parts. I don’t understand what you mean by “holds life”, nor when you say (A+B+C) does so but A, B, and C separately do not. Something is either alive or dead. We do speak of organs dying. We even speak of individual cells that comprise the organ as alive or dead. (This also relates to my earlier question about cancer, which I haven’t pursued since the OP.)

*]What do you mean by “holds life” as opposed to being alive? Please clarify the soul’s relationship with the body – cite sources if you can.
*]Please clarify what you mean about individual organs versus the body as a whole. (And if this Russian guy’s head is being transferred, does his head become his body after it is severed?)

Every cell in our bodies, including our hair roots or skin below the surface level of the epidermis, is alive. But they cannot hold life without the rest of the body. Skin cells that grind off the body, ie from a scuffed knee, do not remain alive. Whereas the body can hold life on its own, given food energy, breath and hydration, until the brain or internal organs break down.

The presence of active life and mind makes the human body more than the sum of parts.

For soul and body, see Thomas Aquinas, Augustine or the New Testament.

The head would not “become the body” if successfully transplanted. Heads do not hold life as such. It would simply be kept from dying until once again on a body. That is, provided this procedure would work at all.


Science seems to contradict your philosophy, GE: If a limb becomes severed, the cells therein continue living until oxygen becomes depleted and they die at various rates according to metabolism. The reverse is likewise true, as demonstrated by Aron Ralston: A body part still connected to the body will die even while connected to the body if it is deprived of oxygen. (Ralston pinned a rock against his arm, trapping him in a canyon and cutting off his blood supply to the rest of the extremity.) Of course, tissue dying while still a part of the body is also the principle behind radiation therapy for cancer: Radiation is used to destroy cells’ DNA so that they are unable to complete mitosis, at which point they die during division – so the tissue dies even while it is part of the body.

And, finally, some cells don’t even need a body to live: Consider HeLa cancer cells, which divide indefinitely as long as a suitable environment is supplied. (Henrietta Lacks had cervical cancer, from which these cells were taken.)

So it seems that you are thinking in terms of ‘the whole’ body, whereas life occurs on a cellular level, cells living and dying sometimes independently of what other parts of the body are doing.

Not sure how to answer you question but I just want to say that the idea of a head transplant is the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard of.

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