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The Flesh and the Spirit Print E-mail
By Donald DeMarco   
Thursday, 19 January 2012

There are three debilitating effects of Original Sin: a darkening of the intellect, a weakening of the will, and a diminished unity of body and soul. Galatians 5:16-17 speaks to the third effect of Original Sin: “But I say: Walk in the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the laws of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, so that you do not do what you would.”

In itself, that might suggest to some that the spirit and the flesh are essentially antagonistic or irreconcilable. That was the Manichaean view: the body and soul are created by different supernatural entities who are at cross-purposes.

If true, we would experience a relentless struggle between these two radically incompatible forces.

Further along in Galatians, we get a clearer picture of the lusts of the flesh: “immorality, uncleanness, licentiousness, idolatry, witchcrafts, enmities, contentions, jealousies, anger, quarrels, factions, parties, envies, murders, drunkenness, carousings, and suchlike.”

A formidable list of iniquities and it carries a heavy price: “I have warned you, that they who do such things will not attain the kingdom of God.” On the other hand, the fruit of the Spirit is a host of moral virtues: “charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, modesty, continence.”

The flesh is, in the Christian view, good – created by the same God who created the spirit (or soul). Things go wrong when the “flesh lusts against the Spirit.” But the flesh need not lust, it can, through virtue and grace, be an integrated part of the whole person, as Pope John Paul II explained in Theology of the Body

“Lusting” here signifies a kind of rebellion against the unity of one's personality. It leads to dissolution of personality. Jacques Maritain, one of the great modern Catholic philosophers, helps us to understand this point by contrasting the spirituality of personality with material individuality that, by its own gravitational pull, seeks itself at the cost of the unity of the person. The actions of the human being, he writes, can follow either the slope of personality or the slope of individuality:  

If the development of the human being follows the direction of material individuality, he will be carried in the direction of the “hateful ego,” [Pascal] whose law is to snatch, to absorb for oneself. In this case, personality as such will tend to adulterate, to dissolve. If, on the contrary, the development follows the direction of spiritual personality, then it will be in the direction of the generous self of saints and heroes that man will be carried. Man will really be a person, insofar as the life of spirit and of freedom will dominate in him that of passion and the senses. 

Maritain speaks further of “self-mastery for the purpose of self-giving.” In the modern world, we find many images of a radically disunited human being with little or no hope of achieving that mastery of spirit over the lusts of the flesh that leads to an integrated personality. In Freud, for example, the Id (or instinctive drive) is radically opposed to the Super-ego (restraint imposed by society). The two can never form a unified personality.

             Sigmund Freud, left, and Jacques Maritain

It’s hardly a surprise that Freud regards religion as a neurosis. Freud does not think personal unity possible, and he does not believe in virtue or grace. Therefore, he views religion as attempting the impossible, and turning its subjects into neurotics. In Civilization and Its Discontents he observes: 

Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures. . . . There are perhaps three such measures: powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; substitutive satisfactions, which diminish it; and intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it. Something of this kind is indispensable.

Freud does not advise seeking personal unity through virtue or strength of character; he condones escape through drugs: “We owe to such media not only the immediate yield of pleasure, but also a greatly desired degree of independence from the external world.”

In The Mind of the Moralist, Philip Rieff argues that Sigmund Freud has no message for the modern world in the sense of “something positive and constructive to offer. . . .None of the consolations of philosophy or the hopes of religion are to be found in Freud.” Maritain agrees, commenting: “The whole of Freudian philosophy rests upon the prejudice of a radical denial of spirituality and freedom.”

“Religious man was born to be saved,” writes Rieff in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, “psychological man is born to be pleased.” Freud and all who give primacy to pleasure over spiritual wholeness, go against the warning St. Paul gives us in Galatians 5.

It has been said that Freud is the “champion of the second best.” But that “second best” is at a great distance from the best. Christ advises what is best, the attainment, through virtue and grace, of an integrated personality. The pleasure seekers advise what people may initially perceive to be freedom: But this is a bogus freedom that leads directly to the destruction of personality.

True freedom is the freedom that allows a person to be whole, to be unified so that the inclinations of the flesh are fully harmonized with the dictates of reason and the spirit.

Donald DeMarco, PhD is a Senior Fellow of HLI America, an Initiative of Human Life International. He is Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. His recent writings may be found at HLI America's Truth and Charity Forum. This is Prof. DeMarco's first contribution to The Catholic Thing.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (5)Add Comment
written by Dave, January 19, 2012
What a fantastic debut! Professor DeMarco, we look forward to many more of your columns. Thanks so much.
written by Christine, January 19, 2012
Love this article. Hope he writes many more like this one!
written by BradW, January 19, 2012
Come unto me, all ye labouring and burdened ones, and I will give you rest
written by Loyolakiper, January 19, 2012
I think Dr. DeMarco does not have a clear understanding of the soul-spirit distinction when he says:

"The flesh is, in the Christian view, good – created by the same God who created the spirit (or soul)."

The spirit is not equal to the soul as he suggests here which is why the Faith describes humans as having a "spiritual soul" which distinguishes it from an say an animal's soul.

In Catholic theology, as described by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa the souls is simply the life giving principle in any living entity, be it a vegetable, animal, or human. What distinguishes a human's soul is the fact that it is spiritual. The faculties of the spiritual aspect of our soul are will and intellect. It is these things that make us "in the image and likeness of God."

Man possess a "soul" similar to that of the plant world (vegitative) and the animal wold (animative)when we act as this way or that. This is why we say that we are not like tha animals in that we can practice self-control over our sexual faculties - we are not driven by lust or instinct...

In this reguard we can say that there is a struggle between the flesh and the spirit, if we put what St. Paul is saying into its proper context. When the Apostle says: "But I say: Walk in the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the laws of the flesh." He is using the term "flesh" to describe the bestial faculties of the soul which are as he describes: "immorality, uncleanness, licentiousness, idolatry, witchcrafts, enmities, contentions, jealousies, anger, quarrels, factions, parties, envies, murders, drunkenness, carousings, and suchlike." Notice that these characteristics do not find a place within the scope of the spirit's faculties that we possess, which as I mentioned are will and intellect!

Read and understood in this light it is easy to understand what St. Paul means when he says: "My spirit is willing, but my flesh is so weak." Or even better, when Our Blessed Mother proclaims: "My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour." Whithout the proper distinction made, the Mary's words are redundant and unnecessary.

written by Sara Beth Baker, January 19, 2012

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