When I originally pitched my contributions on the Theology of the Body to Catholic Exchange , I did so from the assertion that a lot of what passed for John Paul II’s Catechesis on Human Love had little to do with the teaching of the Catholic Church and the traditions of our fathers.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the teaching about concupiscence and how it relates to a proper theology of the body. When Dr. David Schindler, Dawn Eden, Christopher West, Janet Smith, Alice Von Hildebrand and various other names clashed over how to properly present a theology of the body, I believe the real debate centered on understanding concupiscence. Instead of trying to hash out who was right and wrong, I’d like to present what the Catechism teaches about concupiscence, and then see what we can learn from John Paul II’s Wednesday audiences about the subject.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2515), concupiscence is defined as “the movement of the sensitive appetite contrary to the operation of human reason.” The Catechism notes that while this movement itself is not sinful, it stems from the sin of our first parents, and “inclines man to commit sins.” The Catechism also notes that even after baptism, Christians must still struggle against this inclination and that with God’s grace we can prevail.
This victory ultimately happens once we reach heaven, where “nothing impure can enter.” (Rev 21:27) While final victory is impossible until that point, Christians are able to obtain smaller victories through prayer, fasting, good works, the sacraments, and many other things as we slowly but surely bring ourselves back into what we were originally called for. (1 Cor 9:27)
How can John Paul II’s Wednesday audiences help us to understand this teaching better? According to the Holy Father, mankind was created as a gift to Jesus Christ. In our creation as male and female, we ourselves were meant to be a gift which is a visible sign of that invisible calling. The sin of Adam was a rebellion against that calling because rather than act as a gift, man acted to fulfill his own desires. Rather than receive truth from God, they looked to grasp for themselves the knowledge of good and evil. Rather than living a life of obedience culminating in the satisfaction of their every desire in Heaven, Adam chose “to become like God” by his own power, and looked for satisfaction here and now. Just as man inherits certain genetic traits from their ancestors, this spiritual trait of rebellion was transmitted down throughout the ages, from the “stiff necked people” in the Old Testament to us sinners today.
In acting contrary to our reason, John Paul II outlines several difficulties concupiscence introduces to the world:
- Concupiscence leads to lust. (General Audience 05/28/1980 paragraph 5.) The inclination feels so natural towards sin that even the slightest attempt to deny it inflames our passions.
- Whereas before concupiscence male and female felt themselves called to communion (with all the sacrifice such a communion requires), after concupiscence we have a very strong tendency to simply look upon another as an object of attraction to be grasped and manipulated. (General Audience 7/23/1980 paragraph 1.)
- The truth of our bodies (and all of our existence) is “habitually threatened” by concupiscence, and always will be so long as we walk this earth. (7/23/80 paragraph 3.)
To the extent that concupiscence dominates our lives, we cannot live as we were meant to live. In order to do so, we must control those passions and inclinations. (7/23/80 paragraph 6.)
What practical information can we get from this understanding of concupiscence?
- Don’t be surprised or scared by it. Some of the greatest problems we face in regards to how we view the body comes from an innate fear of concupiscence that gives way to despair. The Church battled Jansenism for several centuries, and many still struggle precisely due to this kind of despair and hopelessness over concupiscence.
- While we shouldn’t have an innate fear, we shouldn’t get comfortable with it either. Concupiscence inflicts real damage on every aspect of our existence, and to wave it off as something that can be easily combated is to invite catastrophe spiritually.
- The only way out is through self-control.
- Self-control is incredibly hard due to how natural concupiscence is. As a result, the only way we can overcome it is through encountering the Father through Jesus Christ. The cross is God’s definitive rebuttal to concupiscence.
There is a lot of misunderstanding about concupiscence in today’s Church, and this leads to most of the controversy surrounding John Paul’s Wednesday audiences. These will be themes that we discuss in future articles.