Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Concupiscence, Catholic Teaching On; and Christopher West

In light of recent controversy over the content and style of the public presentations by Catholic lay evangelist, Christopher West, I would like to offer a brief primer on the teaching of the Catholic Church on "concupiscence."

Why am I concerned to address this topic? It is because I am sure that some Catholics can be easily mislead, even if unintentionally, into thinking that something is wrong with them spiritually if they still experience temptations (one type of which stems from concupiscence). This is a mistake that can be harmful and a serious obstacle to spiritual progress. Growth in sanctity can most definitely happen even as temptations to commit sin are still experienced in a person's soul. Temptation is always cause for sober concern, but, with God's help, should never be a cause for panic or despair.

First, some background items. What is concupiscence? Simply put, it is the inclination to sin. Why do we have it? We have concupiscence because of original sin (the fall of Adam and Eve). Concupiscence is not equivalent to original sin, it is a consequence of it. And so it is not a result of our own personal, individual sins--it resides in us at birth because of the wounds inflicted upon human nature by original sin and passed down to all via generation. And this is very important: concupiscence is not itself the same thing as personal sin; to undergo an inclination toward a sinful act is not yet in itself the same thing as committing a sin.

So concupiscence is neither original sin nor personal sin--nor is it a result of personal sin. It is, however, a result of original sin. It is a tendency--a propensity--a leaning toward, sin.

The glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) defines concupiscence as follows:

human appetites or desires which remain disordered due to the temporal consequences of original sin, which remain even after Baptism, and which produce an inclination to sin.
Why mention this in relation to the teaching of Christopher West? Some intelligent and educated Catholics criticize West's approach for coming across as downplaying the reality and significance of concupiscence. To some, West almost seems to suggest that not only sin, but concupiscence itself, can be overcome in this life, thus restoring man to a subjective state of original innocence, as before the fall.

I have heard West speak in person and listened to a few of his audio recordings, but I am by no means expert in all things West. I do not know whether Christopher West personally believes that concupiscence can be eliminated in this life, but I think it is true that some of his language, presentation style and emphases can together be interpreted as teaching this or something similar. And to the degree that this is the case, this is a problem. (I want to acknowledge as others have that there is no doubt much good has been and continues to be done by West. However, even one who has done much good can still make mistakes and thus be subject to sincere and charitable criticism.)

Here is what the Catholic Church teaches officially about concupiscence. . .

[Council of Trent] The holy Council, however, professes and thinks that concupiscence or the inclination to sin remains in the baptised. Since it is left for us to wrestle with, it cannot harm those who do not consent but vigorously resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ. Rather, "one who strives lawfully will be crowned." Of this concupiscence which the apostle occasionally calls "sin" the holy Council declares: The Catholic Church has never understood that it is called sin because it would be sin in the true and proper sense in those who have been reborn, but because it comes from sin and inclines to sin. If anyone thinks the contrary, anathema sit. [Decree on original sin, no. 5; the year 1546]

And further, the following is a condemned proposition (i.e. the Church formally declares this to be wrong):

[Condemned Propositions of Michael de Bay]
The integrity at the beginning of creation was not a gratuitous exaltation of human nature but its natural condition.
[Bull Ex Omnibus Afflictionibus; Pius V, 1567]

Note: this proposition is wrong. This deceptively small item is quite significant in itself. Why? Because it indicates that what the Catholic theological tradition refers to as 'integrity' (the perfect control of the emotions and passions by reason [note: this is not the same as the absence of emotions and passions, but, rather the harmony of these with all that pertains to knowledge and reason]), while part of mankind's original state, was not strictly speaking natural to man even before the fall. I'll repeat this another way because of its importance: integrity--the fully harmonious and agreeable relationship between emotion and reason which Adam and Eve originally possessed but then lost for themselves and for their progeny because of their sin--was itself a gift from God that stretched beyond and perfected what human nature was capable of on its own without His assistance.

Catholic theology delineates three states or categories of gifts and attributes that mankind originally possessed as first created by God (i.e. man's condition before sin entered the world). These are three: 1. nature, 2. preternature, and 3. supernature. These roughly can be thought of as 1. the state of created human beings according to all the powers and conditions inherent to their own essence as human beings, apart from any special help from God beyond what He built into human nature itself; 2. human nature with some added assistance from God to "stretch" it beyond what it could do on its own, but in a way that is nicely harmonious with and complementary to its own merely natural powers (preternature completes or perfects nature); 3. human nature plus special help from God enabling it to do things or to exist in ways completely above and unlike what human nature itself could ever attain to in any way by itself.

Here are examples to help clarify:

nature: digestion; sight; movement; language ability

(nature completed): integrity (absence of concupiscence); freedom from suffering; immortality
(effects of losing, see CCC 400)

: sanctifying grace (the life of God present in the human soul making man friends with God and able to live with Him in eternal life); miraculous healing
(effects of losing, see Gn 2:17; Rom 6:23; CCC 399)

With this in mind, here is a quote from the Catechism that talks about the effects of original sin:

[Original sin] is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin--an inclination to evil that is called "concupiscence." Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ's grace, erases original sin and turns a man back toward God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle. [CCC 405]

The significant point here in all this, in the context of some confusion over what Christopher West really says and means, is this: concupiscence, not in itself the same as sin, is a result of the loss of the preternatural gifts (see above)--not a result of the loss of supernatural gifts. This loss is a consequence of original sin. Sanctifying grace (regained by Baptism and then strengthened by prayer, the sacraments, and charity) restores the loss of the supernatural gift of God's life to man's soul. However, sanctifying grace does not restore the preternatural gifts. Man still suffers. He still dies a physical death. And, he is tempted to sin because of concupiscence.

It is a mistake to think that sanctifying grace--which increases in the soul as a person grows in holiness--removes concupiscence. It does not. It restores that divine life to the soul which makes it possible for the human person to live in heaven. But temptation, in this life, will remain as a trial and a test--just as physical death and suffering remain. Even the most holy saint will still die, still suffer, and still be tempted. His temptation, however, need not lead to sin. Sanctifying grace helps the child of God to better deal with the temptations of concupiscence so that they no longer lead him into sin, though temptations still occur.

For more detail on this, see my further comments on Dawn Eden's blog here, here, and here.

And I will close this post with a final quote from the Catechism:

Nevertheless the new life received in Christian initiation has not abolished the frailty and weakness of human nature, nor the inclination to sin that tradition calls concupiscence, which remains in the baptized such that with the help of the grace of Christ they may prove themselves in the struggle of Christian life. This is the struggle of conversion directed toward holiness and eternal life to which the Lord never ceases to call us.
[CCC 1426]


  1. Scotto, very clear and lucid explanation of what belongs to nature, what is preternature, and supernatural.

    One question I would like to raise and exlpore is how far is human nature perfectible on earth. I know we can agree that grace builds on nature.

    I believe that Bishop Fulton Sheen said in his book "It Takes Three to Get Married" that one can advance in chastity so that temptation is as little as brushing off a fly (very loose paraphrase).

    It was stated by Fr. Garrigou-Langrange that even in the Unitive Way that the saints still practice everything that pertained to their earlier stages of development in the spiritual life in the purgative and illuminative way.

    I would hold that concupiscence (which John Paul II says must be described of a 'lack of') is very diminished to someone in the Unitive way and by degrees for those who advance in spiritual growth.

    I think what I'm saying is in agreement with your very lucid statements and adds to them the principal point that we can diminish the effects of concupiscence with a growth in the virtue of chastity.

  2. I think I agree with what you say here, Chris.

    Perhaps growth in sanctity enables one to handle temptation in such a way that it is not so much that temptation itself is less, but the ability to handle it without throwing one's spiritual center into a tizzy is greater. The overall effect is to make it seem as though temptation is less. But in reality, when supernatural and natural virtue is greater, this in turn makes the effect of temptation on the soul less powerful.

    I think a physical analogy applies. Imagine myself in a state of physical weakness (hard to imagine, but try!). And then, imagine me tying to walk across a footbridge against a 50mph headwind. It would be very tough. Then, imagine that I am super strong physically. Put me on the same bridge against a headwind of the same power. I will be able to make progress against the wind more easily. The wind would seem less consequential to me even though it were actually the same. It would be me that were stronger, rather than the wind weaker.

    If you want to read more musing on this, Chris, please follow the links in the above post to comments I made on Dawn Eden's blog. In these, I bring up the notion that as a person increases in sanctity the type of particular temptations that assail a person can shift as well.

  3. And just to be clear, and I'm sure you agree, Chris, is that temptation is never removed from a saint's life. In fact it may be greater as the devil and his henchmen try to attack their strongest enemies. It is the ability to deal with temptation in a spiritually fruitful way that grows as sanctity grows, thus making temptation less subjectively harrowing.

    And thanks for the positive feedback!

  4. Oops. I didn't venture to answer this question, "How far is human nature perfectible on earth?"

    I would say, tentatively, that there is no upper limit to how far human nature is perfectible in this life. I say this with a firm understanding that no one can reach full perfection in this life. But, it seems to me, until the last moment of one's dying breath, one can still make more progress on the road toward it. As improper as this may seem at first, the greatest Saints could have been even more saintly had they lived longer or had they cooperated with grace even more fully.

    This seems to me one of the consequences of the infinite supply of grace. Though we are finite vessels into which grace is poured, the size of our vessels can be expanded throughout the course of our lives.


Thank you for civil and well-considered comments!