On Wednesday, 17 December, the Holy Father gave the following talk in the course of the weekly audience in the Paul VI Hall.
"The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh". Today we wish to study further these words of St Paul in the letter to the Galatians (5:17), with which we ended our reflections last week on the subject of the correct meaning of purity. Paul has in mind the tension existing within man, precisely in his "heart". It is not a question here only of the body (matter) and of the spirit (the soul), as of two essentially different anthropological elements which constitute from the "beginning" the very essence of man. But that disposition of forces formed in man with original sin, in which every "historical" man participates, is presupposed. In this disposition, formed within man, the body opposes the spirit and easily prevails over it (1). The Pauline terminology, however, means something more: here the prevalence of the "flesh" seems almost to coincide with what, according to Johannine terminology, is the threefold lust "of the world". The "flesh", in the language of St Paul's letters (2), indicates not only the "exterior" man, but also the man who is "interiorly" subjected to the "world" (3), closed, in a way, in the area of those values that belong only to the world and of those ends that it is capable of imposing on man: values, therefore, to which man as "flesh" is sensitive. Thus Paul's language seems to link up with the essential contents of John, and the language of both denotes what is defined by various terms of modern ethics and anthropology, such as, for example: "humanistic autarky", "secularism" or also, in a general sense, "sensualism". The man who lives "according to the flesh" is the man ready only for what is "of the world": he is the man of the "senses", the man of the threefold lust. His actions confirm this, as we shall say shortly.
What the Spirit wants
2. This man lives almost at the opposite pole as compared with what "the Spirit wants". The Spirit of God wants a different reality from the one desired by the flesh; he aspires to a different reality from the one to which the flesh aspires, and that already within man, already at the interior source of man's aspirations and actions—"to prevent you from doing what you would" (Gal 5:17).
Paul expresses that in an even more explicit way, writing elsewhere of the evil he does, though he does not want to do so, and of the impossibility—or rather the limited possibility—of carrying out the good he "wants" (cf. Rom 7:19). Without going into the problems of a detailed exegesis of this text, it could be said that the tension between the "flesh" and the "spirit" is, first, immanent, even if it is not reduced to this level. It is manifested in his heart as a "fight" between good and evil. That desire, of which Christ speaks in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Mt 5:27-28), although it is an "interior" act, is certainly— according to Pauline language—a manifestation of life "according to the flesh". At the same time, that desire enables us to see how, within man, life "according to the flesh" is opposed to life "according to the Spirit", and how the latter, in man's present state, in view of his hereditary sinfulness, is constantly exposed to the weakness and insufficiency of the former, to which it often yields, if it is not strengthened interiorly to do precisely what "the Spirit wants". We can deduce from this that Paul's words, which deal with life "according to the flesh" and "according to the Spirit", are at the same time a synthesis and a programme; and it is necessary to understand them in this key.
St Paul explains this opposition
3. We find the same opposition of life "according to the flesh" and life "according to the Spirit" in the Letter to the Romans. Here too (as moreover in the Letter to the Galatians) it is placed in the context of Pauline doctrine on justification by means of faith, that is, by means of the power of Christ himself operating within man by means of the Holy Spirit. In this context Paul takes that opposition to its extreme consequences when he writes: "Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness" (Rom 8:5-10).
Final victory over sin and death
4. The horizons that Paul delineates in this text can clearly be seen: he goes back to the "beginning"— that is, in this case, to the first sin from which life "according to the flesh" originated and which created in man the heritage of a predisposition to live only such a life, together with the legacy of death. At the same time Paul anticipates the final victory over sin and over death, of which the resurrection of Christ is a sign and announcement: "He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you" (Rom 8:11). And in this eschatological perspective, St Paul stresses justification in Christ, already intended for "historical" man, for every man of "yesterday, today and tomorrow" in the history of the world and also in the history of salvation: a justification which is essential for interior man, and is destined precisely for that "heart" to which Christ appealed, when speaking of "purity" and "impurity" in the moral sense. This "justification'' by faith is not just a dimension of the divine plan of man's salvation and sanctification, but is, according to St Paul, a real power that operates in man and is revealed and asserts itself in his actions.
Works of the flesh
5. Here again are the words of the Letter to the Galatians: "Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like..." (5:19-21). "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control..." (5:22-23). In the Pauline doctrine, life "according to the flesh" is opposed to life "according to the Spirit" not only within man, in his "heart", but, as can be seen, it finds an ample and differentiated field to express itself in works. Paul speaks, on the one hand, of the "works" which spring from the "flesh"—it could be said: from the works in which the man who lives "according to the flesh" is manifested—and, on the other hand, he speaks of the "fruit of the Spirit", that is of the actions (4), of the ways of behaving, of the virtues, in which the man who lives "according to the Spirit" is manifested. While in the first case we are dealing with man abandoned to the threefold lust, of which John says that it is "of the world", in the second case we have before us what we have already previously called the ethos of Redemption. Only now are we able to clarify fully the nature and structure of that ethos. It is expressed and affirmed through what in man, in all his "operating", in actions and in behaviour, is the fruit of dominion over threefold lust: of the flesh, of the eyes, and of the pride of life (of all that the human heart can rightly be accused of, and of which man and his interiority can continually be "suspected").
Fruit of the Spirit
6. If mastery in the sphere of ethos is manifested and realized as "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control"—as we read in the Letter to the Galatians—then behind each of these realizations, these ways of behaving, these moral virtues, there is a specific choice, that is, an effort of the will, the fruit of the human spirit permeated by the Spirit of God, which is manifested in choosing good. Speaking with the language of Paul: "The desires of the Spirit are against the flesh" (Gal 5:17) and in these "desires" the Spirit shows himself to be stronger than the "flesh" and the desires brought forth by threefold lust. In this struggle between good and evil, man proves himself stronger, thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit, who, operating within man's spirit, causes his desires to bear fruit in good. These, therefore, are not only—and not so much— "works" of man, as "fruit", that is, the effect of the action of the "Spirit" in man. And therefore Paul speaks of the fruit of the "Spirit", intending this word with a capital letter.
Without penetrating into the structures of human interiority by means of the subtle differentiations furnished to us by systematic theology (especially from Thomas Aquinas), we limit ourselves to a summary exposition of the biblical doctrine, which enables us to understand, in an essential and sufficient way, the distinction and the opposition of the "flesh" and the "Spirit".
We have pointed out that among the fruits of the Spirit, the Apostle also puts "self-control". This must not be forgotten, because in our further reflections we will take up this subject again to deal with it in a more detailed way.
1) "Paul never, like the Greeks, identified 'sinful flesh' with the physical body...
Flesh, then, in Paul is not to be identified with sex or with the physical body. It is closer to the Hebrew thought of the physical personality—the self including physical and psychical elements as vehicle of the outward life and the lower levels of experience.
It is man in his humanness with all the limitations, moral weakness, vulnerability, creatureliness and mortality, which being human implies...
Man is vulnerable both to evil and to God; he is a vehicle, a channel, a dwelling-place, a temple, a battlefield (Paul uses each metaphor) for good and evil.
Which shall possess, indwell, master him—whether sin, evil, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience, or Christ, the Holy Spirit, faith, grace—it is for each man to choose.
That he can so choose, brings to view the other side of Paul’s conception of human nature, man's conscience and the human spirit (R.E.O. White, Biblical Ethics, Exeter 1979, Paternoster Press, pp. 135-138).
2) The interpretation of the Greek word sarx "flesh" in Paul's letters depends on the context of the letter. In the Letter to the Galatians, for example, at least two distinct meanings of sarx can be specified.
Writing to the Galatians, Paul was fighting two dangers which threatened the young Christian community.
On the one hand, converts from Judaism were trying to convince converts from paganism to accept circumcision, which was obligatory in Judaism. Paul reproaches them with "wanting to make a good showing in the flesh" that is, of restoring hope in the circumcision of the flesh. So "flesh" in this context (Gal 3:1-5, 12; 6:12-18) means "circumcision", as the symbol of a new submission to the laws of Judaism.
The second danger in the young Galatian Church came from the influence of the "Pneumatics" who understood the work of the Holy Spirit as the divinization of man rather than as a power operating in an ethical sense. That led them to underestimate moral principles. Writing to them, Paul calls "flesh" everything that brings man closer to the object of his lust and entices him with the tempting promise of a life that is apparently fuller (cf. Gal 5:13; 6:10).
Sarx, therefore, "makes a good showing" of the "Law" as well as of its infraction, and in both cases promises what it cannot fulfill.
Paul distinguishes explicitly between the object of the action and sarx. The centre of the decision is not in the "flesh": "Walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh" (Gal 5:16).
Man falls into the slavery of the flesh when he trusts in the "flesh" and in what it promises (in the sense of the "Law" or of infraction of the law). (Cf. F. Mussner, Der Galaterbrief, Herders Theolog. Kommentar zum NT, IX, Freiburg 1974, Herder, p. 367; R. Jewett, Paul's Anthropological Terms, A Study of Their Use in Conflict Settings, Arbeiten zur Geschichte des antiken Judentums und des Urchistentums, X, Leiden 1971—Brill—p. 95-106).
3) Paul stresses in his letters the dramatic character of what is going on in the world. Since men, through their fault, have forgotten God, "therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity" (Rom 1:24), from which there also comes all moral disorder which distorts both sexual life (ib. 1:24-27) and the operation of social and economic life (ib. 1:29-32) and even cultural life; in fact, "though they know God's decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them" (ib. 1:32).
From the moment that, through one man, sin came into the world (ib. 5:12), "the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ" (2 Cor 4:4); and therefore too "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth" (Rom 1:1).
Therefore "the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God... because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God" (ib. 8:19-21), that liberty for which "Christ has set us free" (Gal 5:1).
The concept of "world" in St John has various meanings: in his first Letter, the world is the place in which threefold lust is manifested (1 Jn 2:15-16) and in which the false prophets and adversaries of Christ try to seduce the faithful; but Christians defeat the world thanks to their faith (ib. 5:4); the world, in fact, passes away with its lust, and he who does the will of God lives for ever (cf. ib. 2:17).
(Cf. P. Grelot, "Monde", in: Dictionnaire de Spiritualit¾, Asc¾tique et mystique, doctrine et histoire, fascicules 68-69), Beauchesne, p. 1628 ff. Furthermore; J. Mateos J. Barreto, Vocabulario teologico del Evangelio de Juan, Madrid 1980, Edic. Cristiandad, p. 211-215).
4) Exegetes point out that, although for Paul the concept of "fruit" is sometimes applied also to the "works of the flesh" (e.g., Rom 6:21; 7:5), yet "the fruit of the Spirit" is never called "work".
For Paul, in fact, "works" are the specific acts of man (or that in which Israel lays hope, without a reason), for which he will be answerable before God.
Paul also avoids the term "virtue", arete; it is found only once, in a very general sense, in Phil 4:8. In the Greek world this word had a too anthropocentric meaning; the Stoics particularly stressed the self-sufficiency or autarky of virtue.
On the other hand the term "fruit of the Spirit" emphasizes God's action in man. This "fruit" grows in him like the gift of a life whose only Author is God; man can, at most, promote suitable conditions, in order that the fruit may grow and ripen.
The fruit of the Spirit, in the singular form, corresponds in some way to the "justice" of the Old Testament, which embraces the whole of life in conformity with God's will; it also corresponds, in a certain sense, to the "virtue" of the Stoics, which was indivisible. We see this, for example, in Eph 5:9-11: "The fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true... Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness...."
However "the fruit of the Spirit" is different both from "justice" and from "virtue", because (in all its manifestations and differentiations which are seen in the lists of virtues) it contains the effect of the action of the Spirit, which, in the Church, is the foundation and fulfilment of the Christian's life.
Cf. H. Schlier, Der Brief an die Galater, Meyer's Kommentar GØttingen 1971 (5) Vandenhoeck-Ruprecht, pp. 255?264; O. Bauernfeind, arete in: Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. G. Kittel G. Bromley, vol. 1, Grand Rapids 1978(9), Eerdmans, p. 460; W. Tatarkiewicz, Historia Filozofii, t.l. Warszawa 1970, PWN p. 121; E. Kamlah, Die Form der katalogischen Parnese im Neuen Testament, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 7, Tòbingen 1964, Mhr, p. 14).
L'Osservatore Romano December 29, 1980