Firstly, the Catholic Church has never believed in reincarnation. To claim that the Catholic Church ever held such a false teaching is to completely misunderstand the fundamentals of the Catholic Faith regarding sin, death, judgment, and the justice of God. Hebrews 9:27 reads “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.“
The source for most, if not all, of the claims made about reincarnation's supposedly being taught by the Catholic Church stem from the heretical writings of Origen (c. 185-254). While Origen was orthodox in the early part of his career, he was subsequently strongly influenced by pagan philosophy, having studied under the philosopher Ammonius Saccas, who founded the school of Neoplatonism. Origen succeeded Clement as head of the Catechetical school of Alexandria, (a fact which indicates his great learning, and indeed Origen was one of the most learned men of his day), but he was removed from his post and banished from his city of residence because of his controversial teachings.
While the Second Council of Constantinople (553 A.D.)was concerned with an episode in history known as the Three Chapters, which had nothing whatsoever to do with reincarnation, it did, apparently, refer to Origenism in one of its anathemas, in reference to certain writings in which Origen supported heretical doctrines such as the pre-existence of the soul and the final salvation of all men (the „apocatastasis“).
A Synod in Constantinople in 543 also dealt with the question of Origenism.
This does not mean, however, that the Church accepted Origen's controversial views before this time. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Ludwig Ott's "Fundamental of Catholic Dogma" (TAN Books and Publishers, Rockford, IL. 1974.) page 99 has the following information:
"Pre-existentianism, which was proposed by Plato, and which in the early Christian era was accepted by Origen and individual members of his disciples (Didymus of Alexandria, Evagrius Ponticus, Nemesius of Emesa), as well as by the Priscillianists, teaches that souls exist even before their connection with the bodies—according to Plato and Origen, from all eternity—and are exiled in bodies, as a punishment for moral defect. This doctrine was rejected by a Synod at Constantinople (543) against the Origenists, and by a Synod at Braga (561) against the Priscillianists... The Fathers, with very few exceptions, are opponents of the doctrine of pre-existence upheld by Origen."
(Note also from the above that there is a difference between pre-existence and reincanation. Pre-existence, which means the soul exists before the body, does not presuppose a number of rebirths. But it still is of course erroneous. The Catholic Church teaches that the soul is created at the moment of conception. Not any earlier, not any later.)
St. Jerome was the most vocal opponent of Origenism, though in his condemnation he seems to have been, at least in part, ill-informed. The reason for this is as follows. Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria, in 399 banished the monks of the Nitrian desert on the charge of reading heretical works by Origen (this however, was merely a pretext of Theophilus to capture a fugitive priest, Isidore, who had fled from Theophilus earlier; in fact, Theophilus was once a supporter of Origen). It was Theophilus who wrote to the then Pope, Anastasius, and secured in obtaining a papal restriction on the use of his books. Hence Jerome’s strong refutation of Origen’s works.
Having said that, there were indeed several aspects to Origen's writing which were heretical, and so Jerome was correct in taking him to task. For example, he (Origen) taught, along with the pre-existence of souls, a pre-corporeal fall through sin, with resulting "exile" in bodies, instead of the teaching on the Adamic origin of Original Sin;(see the quote from Ott, above) he also denied that hell was etenal and instead asserted that fallen people, and even the fallen angels, would one day be saved (the "apocatastasis"). This erroneous view (which he had picked up from Ammonius Saccas of the Neoplatonic School) was really only an application of the Platonic belief that all punishment is designed to improve the punished party („make him a better person“, so to speak). These teachings were refuted by many of the Church Fathers, Along with the already-mentioned St. Jerome, other Church Fathers such as St. Augustine of Hippo, even writers as early as St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Justin Martyr, refuted these teachings.
So in conclusion, it is certainly not true that the Catholic Church before, during or after the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 taught or believed the doctrine of reincarnation. While it could be argued that Origen's teachings (which, in any case, delat with pre-exitence, not reincarnation) went a long time before being officially condemned, nevertheless they were never embraced by the Church at any time, and in any case were condemned by the Church Fathers of the time. So it cannot be argued with any validity whatsoever that the doctrine of reincarnation ever had a place in Church teaching, because it most certainly hadn’t.
Finally, some useful quotes from the arly Church Fathers (including Origen) against reincarnation can be found at Catholic Answers: Reincarnation
© Copyright Sean Hyland 2001
Refutation of the New Age Movement