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The Flesh and the Spirit


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.

Jacques Maritain

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.

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.

"Religious man was born to be saved," writes Rieff in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, "psychological man is born to be pleased."

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. "The Flesh and the Spirit." The Catholic Thing (January 19, 2012).

Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to:

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The Author

Heart-of-VirtueMany Faces of VirtueDonald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. Donald DeMarco continues to work as a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.  DeMarco is the author of twenty books, including How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going MadPoetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.

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