03. What the Angels Are
When we say that the angels are pure spirits, we know, of course, what we mean to assert, but we do not always grasp (perhaps it would be more correct to say, we do not always fully realize) what the expression implies. Our knowledge is all received through the senses, and what we know positively, and without the help of negations, is some material, sensible object, having sensible qualities such as size, shape and color; or it is some abstract notion of the mind, such as being, substance, cause and the like, which does not of itself either imply or exclude the limitations of matter.
To know anything that is positively immaterial and not a mere abstraction, we must have recourse to negation. The word immaterial itself is evidence of this. We must make use of such elements of thought as our experience supplies, and deny, at the same time, certain imperfections which are inherent in all material things. Thus a pure spirit is one that has no body, that was never intended for union with the body, that was never intended for union with the body, that has no aptitude for such union – that is, such union as would make of the two, one compound substance.
We try to make more clear our description of a pure spirit by noting that it is a substance which is not matter, which does not, in its operations, depend upon matter and which, furthermore, in its qualities and attributes is superior to material substances.
When we assert that a spirit is not matter, that is not enough to lift it up above the order of material things. Material things have a substantial form that is not of itself, matter; still less it eh vital principle of plants and animals in itself, matter. But these substantial forms are undoubtedly material in the sense that they are dependent upon matter for all their operations.
When we speak of spirit, or spiritual substance, we mean something that in itself is not matter; and also (at least in its higher operations) is independent of matter. That is to say, it is independent of any material organ as co-principle of its acts. And if there is question of a pure spirit, the latter has no operations in which a bodily organ has or can have part.
It is, then, in this particular sense that we use the word pure when we speak of the angels as pure spirits. There is no question here of moral purity. The human soul is not a pure spirit, but is by nature, wedded to the body; and yet the human soul may be endowed with the most perfect moral purity, as is the case, for instance, with our Immaculate Mother, or with the souls of the saints in general. On the contrary, the demons are pure spirits in the sense in which we are using the term now, and yet we all know how hideous they are from the moral point of view.
In our next chapter we shall consider Catholic teaching concerning the nature of angels, in relation to the sources of religious truth and especially with respect to the attitude of the Fathers of the Church.