GENERAL AUDIENCE OF WEDNESDAY, 17 DECEMBER 1980
On Wednesday, 17 December, the Holy Father gave the following talk
in the course of the weekly audience in the Paul VI Hall.
1. "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 Galatians (5:17), with which we ended our reflections
last week on 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 essence of man. But it presupposes that disposition of
forces formed in man with original sin, in which every historical man
participates. 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 the threefold lust "of the world," according to Johannine
terminology. In the language of St. Paul's letters,(2) the flesh indicates
not only the "exterior" man, but also the man who is "interiorly"
subjected to the "world."(3) He is 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 with the essential contents of John. The language of both denotes
what is defined by various terms of modern ethics and anthropology, such
as humanistic autarchy, secularism or also, in a general sense, sensualism.
The man who lives according to the flesh is 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 reality different from the one which
the flesh aspires to, 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. Elsewhere he writes
of the evil he did, though he did not want to do it, and of the
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 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 spoke 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. We see 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 program. 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 Romans. Here too, as in Galatians, it is placed
in the context of the Pauline doctrine on justification by means of faith,
that is, by the power of Christ himself operating within man by 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. 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. Anyone 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. It 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 death. The resurrection of
Christ is a sign and announcement of this: "He who raised Christ Jesus
from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit
who dwells in you" (Rom 8:11). In this eschatological perspective, St.
Paul stresses justification in Christ. This is 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. This
justification is essential for the interior man. It 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 for our salvation and sanctification, but
according to St. Paul, is 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 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. This is 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 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. He also 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.
In the first case we are dealing with man abandoned to the threefold lust,
which John said is "of the world." In the second case we have before us
what we have already 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 behavior, is the fruit of dominion over the 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 which man and his interiority can
continually be suspected of).
If mastery in the sphere of ethos is manifested and realized as "love,
joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness,
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). In these desires
the Spirit shows himself to be stronger than the flesh and the desires
brought forth by the 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. Therefore, these are not only—and
not so much—"works"
of man, as "fruit," that is, the effect of the action of the Spirit in
man. Therefore Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit, intending this word
with a capital letter.
Without penetrating 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. This enables us to understand, in an essential and
sufficient way, the distinction and the opposition of the flesh and the
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
1) "Paul never, like the Greeks, identified 'sinful flesh' with the
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 vehicles 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
morality, 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 works 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: Paternoster Press,
1979], pp. 135-138).
2) The interpretation of the Greek word sarx (flesh) in Paul's
letters depends on the context of the letter. In 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 center 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: Herder, 1974), 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: Brill, 1971], pp. 95-106).
3) In his letters Paul stresses 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 (cf. Rom 1:24-27), the operation of social and economic life
(cf. Rom 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" (Rom 1:32).
From the moment that, through one man, sin came into the world (cf. Rom
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). 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"
(Rom 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 the threefold lust is manifested
(cf. 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 (cf. 1 Jn 5:4). The world, in fact, passes away with its
lust, and he who does the will of God lives forever (cf. 1 Jn 2:17).
(Cf. P. Grelot, "Monde," Dictionnaire de Spiritualité,
et mystique, doctrine et histoire, fascicules 68-69, Beauchesne, p.
1628ff. Furthermore, J. Mateos J. Barreto, Vocabulario teologico del
Evangelio de Juan [Madrid: Edic. Cristianidad, 1980], pp. 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, "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 especially stressed the
self-sufficiency or autarchy 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
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
fulfillment of the Christian's life.
Cf. H. Schlier, "Der Brief an die Galater," Meyer's Kommentar (Göttingen:
Vandenhoeck-Ruprecht, 1971-5), pp. 255-264; O. Bauernfeind, "Arete,"
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 1, ed. G. Kittel, G.
Bromley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978-9), p. 460; W. Tatarkiewicz,
Historia Filozofii (Warszawa: PWN, 1970), p. 121; E. Kamlah, "Die Form
der katalogischen Paränese
im Neuen Testament," Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen
Testament, 7 (Tübingen:
Mhr, 1964), p. 14.