What does St. Paul mean by “the flesh”?

Photography © by Andy Coan

Spirituality is really about the soul and the things of the soul.  The body and its needs do not matter.  In fact, the body is the soul’s prison.  Salvation is really the liberation of the soul from the dead weight of the body.  So in this life, physical desires are to be resisted, even extinguished, if possible.  That’s what Catholic spirituality is all about, right?

Not quite.  That sort of spirituality has been promoted over the centuries by a number of different movements, Gnostic, Manichaean, Albigensian, who all have one thing in common – they’ve been condemned by the Catholic Church as dangerous heresies.  In contrast to these heresies, the Catholic Church follows Genesis 1 when it insists that the material world and the human body are masterpieces of God’s loving creativity.   The body is not a machine that the soul can trade in for another when it wears out.  In fact, that is why re-incarnation can’t be right.  No, the body is integral to who we are.  We are enfleshed spirits.  Jesus did not come to “save souls” but to save human beings.  He fed the bodies of the hungry and healed the bodies of the sick even as he forgave their sins and taught them sublime spiritual truths.  In fact we believe not just in the immortality of the soul but in the resurrection of the body.

So the desires of the body – for food, drink, sleep, and sexual union – are fundamentally good, not bad.  One of Blessed John Paul II’s first tasks after being elected as Supreme teacher of the Catholic Church was to elaborate his “theology of the body.”

So what does St. Paul mean in this Sunday’s second reading when he says that the spirit and the flesh are directly opposed (Gal 5:13-18)?

Good question.  When Paul is condemning “the flesh,” he is not talking about the human body, created by God.  Rather, he is using “flesh” as a code word for the distortion that original sin introduced into human nature.  “The flesh” twists and misdirects natural desires so as to make them destructive and degrading.  Lust is a good example.  It is not another name for sexual desire.  It is what “the flesh” does to sexual desire, making it an instrument of self-gratification and exploitation, rather than committed love and the miracle of new life, as intended by God.  Pride is not the drive for greatness and excellence.  Such drive naturally arises from our being made in the image and likeness of God.  No pride is what “the flesh” does to this natural drive, causing it to refuse submission to legitimate authority, even God, exalting itself at the expense of others and seeking to dominate and belittle others.

Before the coming of the Spirit, the flesh tyrannized human beings from within.  The Law of Moses, aka the Ten Commandments, tell us that we should not act on these distorted desires.  But our willpower is too weak on its own to win battle after battle.  Left to willpower alone, we are bound to lose, and lose big!  Even David, the greatest of Israel’s kings, yielded to lust and then tried to cover up his adultery with murder.

God’s solution is radical.  When we are joined to Jesus through faith and baptism, we are filled with the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit begins the healing of our wounded human nature from within with the goal of transforming every aspect of our lives.   The word “virtue,” in fact, means power or strength, and the Spirit brings with him “virtues” that empower us to triumph in our struggle against “the flesh.”  Yes, “the flesh” is still there, even after we are justified through faith in Christ and cleansed in the sacrament of baptism.  But its back is broken.  It no longer can tyrannize us . . . unless we choose to let it.  We now have the freedom and power to ignore its tugs towards sin, which should become weaker and weaker as we grow in holiness.  Chastity is the virtue, given by the Spirit, which empowers us to sanctify sexual desire by making it an instrument of love and life.  Humility is the virtue that enables the drive for greatness to respect the sovereignty of God and the dignity of fellow-human beings.

So the Christian life is not about being a slave to outward rules and to repressing natural human desires.  It is about inner empowerment to become truly great, truly human, and truly free.

Editors Note: Reflection on the Mass readings for the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) – First Kings 19:16-21; Psalms 16:1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11; Galatians 5:1, 13-18; Luke 9:51-62. This series for reflections on the coming Sunday Readings usually appears each Wednesday.


Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 1.800.803.0118. This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor and is reproduced here by permission of the author.


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About the Author

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 1.800.803.0118.

Raised in Italian/Irish neighborhood in Providence, RI, Marcellino D’Ambrosio never thought about being anything else but Catholic. But like other Catholic teens, his faith was the last place he looked for fulfillment. Following in the footsteps of his parents, both professional performers in their single years, Marcellino set his sights on stardom, playing bass guitar in several popular rock bands by the time he was 16. At that time he encountered a group of Catholics whose Christian life was an exciting adventure, an adventure worth living for. So he laid his bass guitar aside and embarked on a road that led to a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Catholic University of America. His doctoral dissertation, written under the direction of the renowned Jesuit theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles, focused on one of the theological lights of the Second Vatican Council, Henri Cardinal de Lubac, and his recovery of biblical interpretation of the early Church fathers.

His writing has been published in the international journal Communio, Abingdon’s Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, the Tablet, Catholic Digest, Our Sunday Visitor, and Catholic News Service’s syndicated column "Faith Alive." His popular book, Exploring the Catholic Church and video course by the same name (known as Touching Jesus through the Church in the USA) have been used in hundreds of parishes all throughout the English speaking world. The Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions about the Passion of the Christ, of which he is co-author and co-editor, may prove to be the fastest-selling Catholic book of all time with over a million copies sold in less than three months.

Dr. D’Ambrosio, the father of five and a business owner, brings to his teaching a practical, down-to-earth perspective that makes his words easy to understand and put into practice. Audio and video recordings of his popular teaching are internationally distributed. He often appears on the international Eternal Word Television Network is regularly heard on the nationally syndicated radio show "Catholic Answers Live." Dr. D'Ambrosio has been a guest on Geraldo Rivera, At Large on FoxNews Channel, the Bill O'Reilly radio show and Radio America's news program Dateline: Washington.

In 2001 Dr. D’Ambrosio left his position at the University of Dallas to develop the work of Crossroads Productions, the apostolate of Catholic renewal and evangelization that he co-founded twenty years ago, and to more directly oversee the growth of Wellness Opportunities Group a company dedicated to helping people improve the quality of their lives physically, mentally, and financially. He, his wife Susan, and their five children, reside just outside of San Antonio, TX.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you so much for the wonderful article. I was trying to get a clear understanding of what flesh meant.
    This gave me so much to ponder.

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