04. Views of Some Fathers
The foregoing doctrive in answer to the question “What are angels?” is not strictly a matter of faith. It has not been defined. Yet is is certain, and a contrary opinion would surely be rash, in view of the unanimity of Catholic theologians and the plain teaching of the Lateran Council. Nevertheless, certain Fathers of the Church have held a different view, or have at least expressed themselves abiguously, or have hesitated to pronouce an opinion on the subject.
The hesitancy of some, or even the positive divergence of opinion on their part would not, of course, be conclusive against the spirituality of the angels. To offset their authority we have that of others who are quite explicit in denying that the angels have bodies; as Saint John Damascene, who affirms that the angels are intelligent substances without matter or body. The most then that can be deduced from the Fathers is that the question is one that must be decided by other arguments.
It may be said, however, that at least some of those who dissent from what is now the accepted teaching of the Church, are in all likelihood not employing terms in the usual sense, or are speaking metaphorically. Thus, when they speak of the angels as corporeal, the word has, not its obvious meaning, but signifies “limited in point of space,” or “lacking absolute simplicity.” And when they apply the terms fire, ether, and the like, it is only to express in a graphic way certain attributes of the angels to which the qualities of these material substances bear a special resemblance.
Or again, it may be that some who seem to disagree with the view now universally held in the Church, are to be understood not as ascribing to the angels a body as part of their nature, but as referring to a body momentarily assumed, or, in the case of the wicked angels, permanently assigned to them as an instrument of suffering.
But however we may explain the opinions of certain of the Fathers, there is no doubt that in Holy Scripture the angels are often called spirits without any qualifying word; nor is there anywhere question of the souls of angels. Yet had they a body (whether like ours or of a more subtle, ethereal kind) combined in unity of nature with a spiritual substance, the latter would be the soul or vital principle of the compound, and we should expect to find it spoken of as such. If this is not the case, and if on the contrary the human soul is never described by the word spirit without further qualification, the inference seems obvious that the angels are pure spirits – that is, spirits not naturally capable of union with a body.
The Council of Lateran, to which we have already referred, has this plain testimony, where it defines that God,
“by His almighty power brought both creations out of nothing, that of spirit, and that of bodies; that is to say, that of angels and that of the world, and then that of man, as akin to both, being composed of spirit and of body.”
Here the antithesis between body and spirit excludes the idea of the angels having like man a composite nature. He is made up of body and soul, but they are pure spirits. No wonder that with so clear a pronouncement to guide them, Catholic theologians are unanimous in maintaining the spirituality of the angels.