Questions and answers

Doctrinal Commission – International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services

Year 2017


This question gives us an excellent opportunity to think about what Scripture and Tradition reveal about the nature of the human person.

First, we have to understand that there is no contradiction between saying the human person is “body, soul and spirit” (see 1 Th 5:23) and the human person is “body and soul” (see Mt 10:28). Both of these are biblical ways of describing the human person.

Second, it is important to recognize that these terms describe not so much “parts” as dimensions of the human being. Body and soul express the fact that the human person is both corporeal and spiritual. Sometimes, the Bible uses just the word “soul” to express the whole person, especially in his interiority: “My soul pants after you, God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps 42:1–2). Conversely, sometimes the Bible uses “flesh” to express the whole person, especially when emphasizing human weakness and fragility. “What can flesh do to me?” (Ps 56:4) “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades…surely the people is grass” (Is 40:6–7).

On other occasions, the sacred authors emphasize the distinction between “body” and “soul.” The body is the exterior, physical dimension of the person, that by which we are present in the world and able to relate to others. The soul is the inner dimension of the person, the vital or animating principle that makes a person alive. Nonetheless, this distinction does not imply that body and soul are two separate parts, or that the soul merely lives in the body.

The Catechism explains:

Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition, he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him, they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason, man may not despise his bodily life. Rather, he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honour because God has created it and will raise it up on the last day.

Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity…The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature (CCC 363–364).

The profound unity of soul and body helps us to understand the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. Our salvation in Christ is not just a matter of the soul going to heaven. To be saved is to be saved as a whole human person, soul and body. Therefore, we profess in the creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” On the last day, God will raise up the righteous, body and soul, to live with him forever (CCC 990).

What, then, is the distinction between “soul” and “spirit” in the threefold nomenclature “spirit, soul and body”? St. Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “May your whole spirit, soul and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thes 5:23). The human spirit is the capacity of the human person to relate to God, to be moved from within by the Holy Spirit. It is the highest point of the soul.

St. Paul helps us understand the threefold distinction in 1 Cor 2:13–3:3, where he describes three kinds of people: spiritual people (pneumatikoi), merely natural people (psychikoi, literally, “soulish”), and fleshly or carnal people (sarkikoi). Spiritual people are those who live under the influence of the Holy Spirit. They are “led by the Spirit” (Rom 8:14).

Merely natural people live by their own wisdom, their own resources, and their own efforts. They do not understand or appreciate the ways of God. Finally, carnal people are dominated by the selfish drives of the fallen nature, including jealousy, lust, anger, and pride. Paul uses this threefold categorization as an appeal to maturity, calling all believers to become spiritual by yielding to the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.

The Church teaches that the distinction between soul and spirit “does not introduce a duality into the soul.” Rather, “spirit signifies that from creation man was ordered to a supernatural end and that his soul can gratuitously be raised beyond all it deserves to communion with God” (CCC 367). This truth encourages us to be continuously open to the Holy Spirit, whose activity within us leads to communion with God and spiritual joy.

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