We know from the basics of our Catholic faith that man is a creature composed of body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God. During life on this earth body and soul are so interdependent, that one of them cannot function without the other. Without the soul, the body is a corpse. Without the body, the soul cannot function, for all that the soul knows on the natural level comes through the senses of the body. The body is not merely an instrument of the soul, for both were made for each other and each is incomplete without the other. Together they make a single living person.
The soul can and does operate without the body after the death of the body, and it will continue to do so until the general resurrection at the end of the world, when the body will be brought back by the power of God and reunited with the soul. However, it is the body, the living body animated by the soul, on which we will be mainly focusing our attention, examining how its actions and reactions have an impact on the activity of the soul and its spiritual growth.
The soul and its condition is more important than that of the body, since our eternal welfare will depend on the state of the soul at the moment of death; yet, the person that I am must act and operate in and through this body that is mine. This body can be an instrument of spiritual growth, or an impediment of spiritual growth, depending on whether or not it is under the control of reason enlightened by faith.
We are made to Godís image by reason of the soul, a spiritual being having the powers of reason and free will, along with the capacity of loving in a way far superior to brute animals. The soul has the capacity of being elevated by grace to a supernatural level, receiving an infused knowledge and love that is a sharing in the very life of God. However, as we will see, the growth of that supernatural life of grace, or the lack of it, will depend on the extent that the body is the servant of the soul, and not its master.
Consequently, we will not be considering the body as the scientist would examining its wonderful composition, nor as the physician concerned about its health, but as the theologian seeing the body in its relation to the Christian life.
Philosophers tell us that the soul, when it comes from God, is like a "clean slate," with no impressions whatever, no knowledge of any kind. Little by little, however, it begins to receive impressions through the five senses of the body. In the beginning its knowledge is purely on the sense level. After some maturing of the body, from these sense impressions the soul can abstract ideas. (We have dealt with this process more in detail in a previous issue on "Our Eternal Reward," Vol. 42, n.6). Gradually the growing person begins to know in a way proper to man. Since the soul is so dependent on the body in its attainment of knowledge, it will be helpful to understand how the body and its reactions can have a decided influence on the choice of the will, and therefore, on Christian behavior.
It is a fact of experience that the more the bodily appetites and desires are indulged and gratified, the less the soul is disposed for spiritual endeavor. Body and soul are meant to work in harmony, but that harmony will be the fruit only of a well-disciplined life. Before the fall of our first parents that harmony existed. Man enjoyed a perfect balance of his powers and faculties, the body being a perfect partner and docile instrument of the soul. But after the fall, the balance of manís nature was upset. Where before the fall manís lower nature (the appetites and inclinations of the body) was perfectly subject to his higher nature (the dictates of reason and the command of the will), after the fall manís lower nature rebelled against the limitations set by reason, and demanded and often attained satisfactions contrary to the law of God. In that historic fall our human nature lost a precious gift, resulting in the conflict we all experience within us in our efforts to live the Christian life. Of this conflict St. Paul testifies: "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." (Gal. 5:7)
In this present life, the body must be properly cared for and properly nourished in order that it be an aid to the soul in its activity. However, it also must be restrained when it becomes a hindrance to that activity. Not infrequently proper care of the body will require denying the body what it seeks. As long as the soul is the master and the body is the servant (as God and nature intends), a man will lead a peaceful and fruitful life. All too often today, however, the body is the master and the soul the servant, with the result that man is neither at peace within himself, nor with his neighbor, nor with his God. In other words, the body is meant to be an instrument of spiritual growth, and it will be for the true Christian; but it can be an impediment to that growth in the measure that a worldly spirit rules oneís life.
We, at times, can act and think like two different persons. In our moments of right thinking we can clearly see that something should be done or not done. It might be a matter of over-eating, or watching too much television, or the wrong kind of programs, or the wrong company, or abuses of alcohol or drugs, etc. However, when one is exposed to the actual situation, the actual temptation, his thinking changes considerably. The satisfaction not only seems legitimate, but in a sense needful at the moment. And the greater the attraction to this particular satisfaction, the easier it is to justify it. St. Thomas Aquinas explains why this is so:
The same truth was expressed by another Doctor of the Church, St. Catherine of Siena:
This explains how the clear knowledge and conviction that we have at other times, can be completely overshadowed by the sense impression or emotion that overwhelms us when the object or temptation is present, and we are confronted with the decision to do or not to do, to indulge or not to indulge. This conflict between what a true conscience says, and what the body wants (i.e. the blinding influence of our bodily emotions on our judgment) is one of the consequences of original sin. It has, as we have pointed out, robbed us of the balance between body and soul, that is, of the docile submission our lower nature (body appetites and their demands) to our higher nature (intellect and will), obscuring the light of reason as to true good, and weakening the will as to the choosing of it. St. Paul complained of this inner conflict: "I am delighted with the law of God according to the inner man, but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner to the law of sin that is in my members." (Rom. 7:22) That is why so often the appetites of the body rule the day, instead of the light of reason enlightened by faith.
One might say: "My soul, not my body, rules my life, because I follow my conscience; and my conscience allows me to indulge in this or that satisfaction." We have dealt with conscience at length in previous issues (Vol. 39. n 3, n. 4). We will only say now that conscience is a true guide only when its dictates are in line with Gods revealed word as handed down by the Church. In the measure that oneís conscience puts up little objection when inordinate desires and appetites of the body are satisfied, in that measure conscience is distorted, and is leading one astray.
Because man is composed of body and soul, he has two sets of appetites:
However, as we have seen, St. Thomas Aquinas points out that the movement of the passions can be so intense (e.g. anger, envy, hatred, lust, etc.) that it can gravely obscure the light of reason, or even suppress it altogether (I II,77,2; II II,55,8,ad 1). In such cases the will chooses not the true good which the light of reason proposes, but the apparent good which the body appetites are demanding, and which could be against the law of God.
The basic reason why this happens is the unity of the soulís powers. All the powers of the soul - those that are purely spiritual (intellect and will), and those that operate in and through the body (e.g. sense appetites) are all rooted in one and the same source. And all energy is weakened when it is divided. This is especially true of the powers of the soul. In the operations of the soul, a certain attention is requisite, so that if oneís attention is closely fixed on one thing, less attention is given to another. In this way, when the movement of the body appetites is intensified with regard to any passion whatever, the light of reason is obscured and the freedom of the will is lessened or altogether impeded.
This is because the appetites of the body clamor loudly for attention, since they are directed at visible, pleasurable and attractive things that appeal to the senses, and can be had at once. In support of this the imagination, an internal sense rooted in the body, keeps before the mind images of the pleasurable things the body desires. In contrast with this, the objectives of the higher faculties of the soul - such as growth in virtue and salvation, although more important, are less obvious and more distant as regards attainment, and consequently are easily obscured. Because of this, those who experience strong emotional reactions, says St. Thomas,
Now, the obvious question that comes to mind is this: If reason can be gravely obscured, or even entirely suppressed under the influence of passion, is one morally responsible for actions performed under the influence of passion?
There are, deep in human nature, strong desires for satisfactions of the body, such as the satisfactions of food, of drink, of rest, of sexual activity, etc. These desires have been planted in human nature by the Creator, and are necessary for the welfare of the individual and of the human race. It would be wrong, therefore, to think of these innate desires or inclinations as evil, just because they often lead man to sin by seeking their satisfaction excessively, or when not lawful. The disorders or unbalance between body and soul are manís doing, not Godís. Our first parents started it all, and we can enlarge on that disorder by repeated failures which increase the difficulty by forming habits in regard to those satisfactions.
The loss of the harmony or balance between body and soul, of which we have been speaking, is called "concupiscence," or an "inclination to evil." Concupiscence is not something sinful, as some of the founders of Protestantism claimed. Rather, as the Council of Trent pointed out, it is a "tendency to sin," which "has no power to injure those who do not consent and who, by the grace of Jesus Christ, manfully resist." The human nature of Christ had the same emotional reactions as we have, but not the concupiscence. He was angry when He drove the money changers from the temple. He was saddened unto tears at the death of Lazarus.
In themselves, the passions are neither morally good nor evil, because (in general) they are independent of reason and will, and are the movements of the sense appetites. Yet, as St. Augustine comments, they are "evil if our love is evil; good if our love is good."
That an act be morally good or evil, both of the main powers of the soul (the intellectís judgment of reason and the free exercise of the will) must enter in. That is, the action must be performed knowingly and willingly. Yet, as we have seen, passion tends to obscure the power of reason and can even eliminate it entirely, so that the responsibility and guilt can be diminished. So we ask again, does this mean that actions performed under the influence of passion always lessen the guilt or sinfulness of the action? To answer that, theologians make a distinction between passion which comes before the act of the will, and passion which follows it:
Antecedent passion: when the flare up of passion occurs before the act of the will moral guilt or responsibility is diminished. For example:
Consequent passion: when the emotional reaction follows the act of the will, so that it is either directly or indirectly voluntary, the moral responsibility and guilt is not lessened. For example:
We have touched on just a few of the problems that all of us have to contend with in striving to live our Christian vocation. The Christian life, in a sense, is a striving to restore the order lost by our first parents, that is, to bring our body with its unruly tendencies to be a faithful servant of the soul, and to bring to the soul to be a faithful and obedient servant of God. That, of course, implies a lifelong struggle against the selfish tendencies of our fallen nature, and the constant assistance of divine grace sought through persevering prayer and faithful reception of the Sacraments. We have dealt with this counter-attack in some detail in a previous issue in an article entitled "Freeing the Heart" (Vol. 42, n 2.). Copies of that issue are still available.
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