You Only Die Twice: Augustine, Aquinas, the Council of Vienne, and Death by the Brain Criterion

Nicholas Tonti-Filippini

“The Church holds that death can be diagnosed on the basis of evidence that shows a complete loss of brain function, but may not be diagnosed if there is still some function of the brain.”

There are some who take what might be called a “two deaths view” or “mentalist view” about death. This is a view that distinguishes between death of the person and death of the body. It is a view defended by Robert Veatch,1 who argues in effect that when a human being ceases to be able to function at those higher levels of activity that we consider to distinguish human or even sentient life, then the person has died even if the body continues to function. Peter Singer takes a slightly different but related view when he says that we should be able to take organs from those who are still alive but have lost the capacity for consciousness.2 Veatch and Singer agree in that they argue that survival of the body without consciousness does not mean the status of a person. Among theologians, there are those such as Kevin O’Rourke,3 who have argued that because those who are in a state of post-coma unresponsiveness or so-called “vegetative state” are “unable to have a friendship with God,” they can have nutrition and hydration withdrawn. The position is not explicitly that those in an unresponsive state are dead, but the implication is that maintaining their life is not a benefit. O’Rourke has not suggested that those who are permanently unconscious can be used as organ donors, but given that he thinks that maintaining their lives is not a benefit, the question is not irrelevant.

The positions adopted by Veatch, Singer, and perhaps O’Rourke would seem to imply that there may in fact be two deaths: the death of the person, when consciousness is permanently lost, and the death of the body, when biological life ceases. The debate over whether there is more than one death is not new. The discussion today in some ways mirrors an age-old debate:

  • St. Augustine (influenced by Plato) thought that there were many souls for different functions of the body and that there were two deaths: of body and of person.
  • St. Thomas Aquinas (influenced by Aristotle) thought that the human being had only one soul and therefore only one death.

For Augustine, to be alive is to have a soul, and death involves a process leading to the absence of the soul.4 For Augustine, therefore, not only do human beings have souls, but so do plants and other animals.5 Augustine’s view is not unlike what one finds, for example, in Plato6 or Aristotle7 where different levels of soul are discussed in terms of ascending degrees of complexity in their capacities, e.g., souls capable only of reproduction and nutrition, or of sensation and locomotion as well, or finally, of rational thinking.

St. Augustine taught that when “the brain by which the body is governed fails,” the soul separates from the body: Thus, “when the functions of the brain which are, so to speak, at the service of the soul, cease completely because of some defect or perturbation—since the messengers of the sensations and the agents of movement no longer act—it is as if the soul was no longer present and was not [in the body], and it has gone away.”8

What Augustine seems to have meant is that the person as we know him has died when the functions of the brain that are at the service of the soul cease completely. That is to say, he thought that bodily life may continue even though the soul has departed. The departure of the immortal soul is what the Church then and now understands to be the death of the person even though he or she will be resurrected. Death of the person, of course, does not mean death of the immortal soul, but its separation from the body.


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