Thursday, June 4, 2009

Christopher West on Concupiscence, II

Update: For more and very interesting discussion about Christopher West's talk on Wednesday evening, June 3, check out a new blog, The Linde, over at The Personalist Project. The first speaker of the evening, Dr. Michael Healy, offered a very good commentary on West's talk.

Last night here in West Chester, PA, I attended a talk sponsored by The Personalist Project at which Christopher West spoke. He was the second of two speakers. The first was a former professor of mine at Franciscan University, Dr. Michael Healy. He gave an excellent address on human sexuality according to the thought of Dietrich von Hildebrand.

After this, Christopher West spoke. I thought it was a good talk. After he spoke there was time for Q & A. I asked him a question to clarify what his thoughts are on concupiscence. West answered in such a way as to satisfy me that he does not hold that grace wipes out concupiscence (which would be contrary to the teaching of the Church). In fact, in the course of his talk, he stated that in this life we are never free of the pull of concupiscence.

And so, on the specific topic of concupiscence, I do not think there is a problem with what West personally believes.

During the evening I think I gained an insight into why he can sometimes be taken as teaching problematic things in regard to concupiscence. Just after West stated that in this life we are never free of the pull of concupiscence (which correctly represents Church teaching), he said (and I think the quote is accurate as I took notes), "Christ has set us free from the domination of concupiscence." (emphasis mine) . . . I will come back to this in a moment.

The larger subject of West's talk last night was an overview of the three-stage journey of the human soul on the path to sanctity--a classic theme of Catholic spiritual theology. He spoke about this in the context of his efforts to promote the Theology of the Body because he wanted to emphasize that both John Paul II and Dietrich von Hildebrand had this in common: a firm belief that purity--real purity--is indeed possible (with grace) in this life. How? By staying the course on the lifelong threefold journey to holiness described by spiritual writers as the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways. With the ongoing help of grace and our personal cooperation, we truly can be transformed and made pure. This is indeed a wonderfully Catholic understanding and I agree with it fully. This beautiful truth about the interplay of grace and nature in this life--that genuine, personal transformation that makes one holy is possible in this life--is one of those pearls of Christian wisdom that only the Catholic Church seems to have held onto with a full and constant embrace since our savior's return to heaven.

So, why does West's teaching sometimes spur controversy among Catholics on this specific subject of concupiscence? This sometime-misunderstanding I think is rooted in a misreading of what West means when he says things like, "Christ has set us free from the domination of concupiscence."

There is a very significant difference between being freed from concupiscence outright (which West affirmed last night he does not hold as possible in this life), and being freed from the domination of concupiscence. Being freed from being dominated (i.e. easily overwhelmed and overpowered in such a way that one does not seem able to stop temptation from leading quickly into sin) by concupiscence is very much something any Catholic should ardently desire. We should see this as truly possible through an ongoing process of growth in holiness as we walk with Christ in this life. This is the sort of thing--being freed from enslavement to concupiscence--that the journey of the spiritual life through the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways is supposed to bring about in us.

I think it is very possible that when Christopher West claims (correctly) that we can--by the interplay of grace with human freedom--be freed in this life from being dominated by temptations to sin, some people hear this as no different from saying that we can be freed from temptation itself. But West (as I heard him last night) is not saying this. He is saying that there is real hope in the power of grace--if we are open to it and accept the crosses that may come with it--to remove the bondage of being unable to resist the pull of concupiscence toward committing sin. We will never be free in this life from concupiscence itself. But, we can become pure, so that when an enticement to sexual sin arises within us we are not thrown into a frenzy and dominated by it. It is there, but it can no longer have its way. Rather, we can allow it to pass by, not giving it permission to take control of our heart and our will. The temptation of concupiscence whispers to us, "go down this path," but, by grace, we firmly, confidently, peacefully, say in return, "my Savior's Passion has given me the power to say no; I will not go down this path."

Before being made pure--acquiring the virtue of chastity--a person may be in the grip of sin, controlled and easily overpowered by lust when it comes knocking on the door of his soul. But after a long (and always ongoing) process of sanctification, at some point eventually the same person is no longer overpowered by lust, though he is tempted by it for the duration of his life.

As I put my question to West I acknowledged that there is a difference between concupiscence itself (the pull toward sin), and vice. All Christians are called to the hope that Christ's grace can over time and with much prayer gradually strip away our vices (sinful habits). Christopher agreed with this.

This, I believe, is a very sound Catholic understanding of life. To be gradually freed from enslavement to sinful patterns that have become rooted in our lives is a great thing and possible in this life and to be hoped for as we put our trust in Christ. This is true even as we realize that inclinations to sin will still bite at us throughout our life. And at least according to last night's event, I believe it is what Christopher West believes and teaches as well. There may be other critiques of his work that hit their mark. But, as far as concupiscence is concerned, I am satisfied for myself that there are no serious problems with Christopher West.

A concluding remark. West is passionate about his ministry, has a passionate rhetorical style, and strives to speak in a way that is accessible to the average person. I suspect that there may be times in the midst of an exuberant presentation when he is not as clear as perhaps he could be on the important distinction noted above between concupiscence itself--which remains even as grace increases--and the domination of concupiscence over a person--which is rooted out as grace transforms us. The "new man" in Christ is still tempted, but no longer in such a way that he cannot do other than to defile his soul by giving in to sin. He is no longer helpless against temptations. If West ever seems to be unclear or fuzzy on this, please ask him in charity to simply clarify. I think you will find as I did last night that he fully accepts the doctrine of the Church in regard to concupiscence.

A hearty thanks to Jules and Katie van Schaijik for putting together last night's fruitful evening with professor Healy and Christopher West.


  1. Thank you for your clear summary of Wednesday's presentation! I've been filled with curiosity, especially since you posted your interest in clarifying concupiscence on Tuesday. What a blessing to have the opportunity for dialogue. I'm glad you asked that question and got the response you did. It confirms my own experience of Christopher and the great love and reverence I've seen him pouring out of the people he has been serving lately. I'm feeling so grateful to the van Schaijiks for giving this opportunity for understanding each other. Hooray! Now I can carry on my visit home with my curiosity assuaged!

  2. Hi Scott,
    I was sitting near you during this presentation and I think you neatly bookended Christopher's comments that we tragically mistake continence for virtue when you added that we sometimes equally tragically mistake vice for concupiscence.

    I have been thinking about this since and I just wanted to thank you for such a nice clarification which belies a lot of thought (it is easy to be learned and explain things in a complicated way, much harder to be more learned and explain them simply!). I think discerning where concupiscence ends and sheer vice begins is something we out to do a lot more of if we are serious about growth in virtue.



Thank you for civil and well-considered comments!