Victory Over Vice

shutterstock_46447603When discussing how to properly understand John Paul II’s Catechesis on Human Love (especially the part on a Theology of the Body), how one understands concupiscence is always a point of contention.  The contention comes primarily from how we are able to understand the concept of a “victory over concupiscence.”*  Such a victory, however it is defined, is real and tangible.

For various reasons, individuals and groups throughout history (whether they be Manicheans, some Protestant sects, Jansenists, etc) have denied such a victory is even possible, and the Catholic Church has rightly condemned them as heretics because of it.  If there can be no victory over concupiscence, then the call to holiness the Gospel imposes upon the Christian is pointless, since it would be impossible to progress in holiness if concupiscence was all-powerful.

Thankfully, we can sketch a clear picture about what “victory over concupiscence” is.  We can sketch that from looking at the works of Blessed John Paul II (his Wednesday audiences and otherwise), as well as the works of some of his largest influences:  Sts. Thomas Aquinas and John of the Cross.  Most importantly, we can sketch what “victory over concupiscence” is not.

First and foremost, a victory over concupiscence is not a return to original innocence that we had before sin.  Sometimes people are careless in their words, and they seem to imply that a victory over concupiscence means we can return to the innocence of our first parents, who were naked without shame.   (Genesis 2:25)  Blessed John Paul forcefully rejects this idea, stating that man has left behind original innocence “irrevocably.”  (General Audience 12/3/1980)  Something has fundamentally changed in man, and if we were able to return to that original state through our own actions, there would be no need of Christ’s death on the cross.  This is Pelegianism, and it is just as relevant to our discussions here as other heresies like Jansenism which viewed concupiscence as so powerful that man could not cultivate virtue.

Another sense in which victory over concupiscence must be rejected is the way in which some will say that we can reach a point where concupiscence no longer becomes a problem, since the saving power of the Cross can and does overcome all things, including sin.  In this sense, limiting the victory over concupiscence is to limit the power of the Cross of Christ.  According to John Paul, concupiscence “habitually threatens” the truth of our bodies (that we were called for communion with God), and that because of sin, the heart has become a battlefield between love and lust.  (General Audience 7/23/1980)  The Holy Father does not speak in such absolute terms of all or nothing.  Rather, he correctly points out that the more lust dominates, the less the truth of love shines forth and vice versa.  As discussed elsewhere, the final victory of that battle does not occur until we are in heaven.  Now that we have defined what this victory is not, let us define what it is.

First and foremost, John Paul II defines this victory as a “mature purity” which allows man to keep his own body with holiness and reverence.  This “mature purity” does not just satisfy the heart’s desire; man becomes the master of his own desires.  Christ directs man towards this path, and one accomplishes this journey through living their life as a gift for others. (General Audience 4/1/81)  This victory is further defined in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor; John Paul II states that Christ’s redemption gives us the power to be “set free from the domination of concupiscence.”  Unfortunately, this victory is tempered by the fact that man still sins because he has not trusted sufficiently in Christ.  (VS 103)  This calls to mind the exhortation of the Blessed Apostle Peter, who reminded Christians that they were purged from their old sins.  (2 Peter 1:9)  Yet Sacred Scripture also tells us that even though we are purged from those old sins, we still return to them even though we don’t want to (Romans 7:15), and that this fault is not Christ’s fault, but ours.  (2 Tim 2:11-13)

As a result of this inordinate desire, St. Thomas teaches us that concupiscence must be “curbed” and disciplined through chastity.   According to St. Basil the Great (Letter to Urbicius), the way to carry out chastity is through continence, or the right ordering of all desires and passions.  As Basil puts it in a truly lovely passage we will return to later, we are to desire to be like God who “desires nothing but has all things in Himself.”

A final voice to consider when discussing victory over concupiscence is that of the “mystical doctor” St. John of the Cross, known as one of (if not the) the greatest of the spiritual masters in Western Catholicism.  He wrote lovely poetry about how the soul journeys from our fallen nature to the perfection that comes from “final glory” in Christ Jesus in the Resurrection.  In Spiritual Canticle of the Soul, the mystical doctor speaks of those truly holy souls who have progressed in sanctity to the point that evil becomes foreign to them, even if they still sin. (Stanza XXV paragraph 14)

While we may not reach this height of perfection on earth (John of the Cross is clear that few do, even if we are all called to it), there is a lot we can garner from this passage and apply it to John Paul’s message.  Victory over concupiscence occurs when we begin to become strangers to concupiscence.  We still see sin around us, and we will even still sin, but we become less and less attached to sin, and are influenced and tempted less and less by concupiscence.

This is where the sacraments play such an important role.  Through the sacraments we encounter Jesus Christ in a very special and intimate way.  As our faith increases from those sacraments, we become more and more “conformed to the image of his Son.”  (Romans 8:29)   Most importantly, we are reminded that the true victory over concupiscence comes from the cross.  It is up to us to take this victory and apply it to our own hearts, the true battlefield between love and lust.

*Note:  Depending on the translation, the phrase is either “victory over concupiscence” or “victory over lust.”  We will use the former terminology, but the argument remains the same no matter which term is used.

image: St George Victorious/Shutterstock

Kevin Tierney


Kevin Tierney is the Associate Editor of the Learn and Live the Faith Section at Catholic Lane. He and his family live in Brighton, MI. Connect with him via FB  or on twitter @CatholicSmark.

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  • ***”While we may not reach this height of perfection on earth (John of the Cross is clear that few do, even if we are all called to it), there is a lot we can garner from this passage and apply it to John Paul’s message.”***
    A couple things worth pointing out, I think: the “spiritual life” or “way of perfection” is, according to LaGrange et al., basically our “universal call to holiness” (as expressed via Vatican II)–the idea that this call to union and communion with God is an invitation for all to say yes to.
    Also, for those who are actually *striving* to move through the “purgative way” to the “illuminative way” (striving to move from the “active” purification of the senses to the “passive” purification of the senses), it appears that St. John of the Cross actually concludes (In “Dark Night” ch 8. according to LaGrange’s footnote) that “the passive purification of the senses is common. It occurs in the greater number of beginners.” It is what LaGrange goes on to call the “threshold of the mystical life.” (“Christian Perfection and Contemplation,” Garrigou-LaGrange, p. 7).
    So I would more readily conclude that St. John of the Cross would think it would be “common” for those pursuing intimate union with God to reach a “mature purity.” There seems good reason to hope for reaching that “threshold of the mystical life”. Indeed, without such a mature purity, accomplished via both active and passive purification of the senses, no further progress in the spiritual life would seem possible….

  • And considering I nowhere said otherwise….

    What I said was that few reach the “height” of perfection St. John of the Cross talks about in The Dark Night of the Soul and Spiritual canticle in its fullest sense. The purgative way, as you well know, isn’t just related to the senses, but also to the spirit as well. This part is crystal clear right in the Intro of the Dark Night, as well as in the Spiritual Canticle Stanza XXIX, para 5, as well as Stanza XXXVI, para 14.

    “Mature Purity”, that is, continence (keeping ones body with holiness and reverence), is not optional for the Christian. We may never do it perfectly (we don’t do anything perfectly!) but this kind of stuff is mandatory in the spiritual battle we are called to wage within ourselves. Which is actually next topic. The imporatnce of the war being waged within the heart.

    This isn’t really a zero sum game where one either does it perfectly or not at all.

  • Good to be in agreement on this point. Just wanted to emphasize JPII’s optimism on attaining “mature purity” as a victory over concupiscence, which echoes the attainable victory over concupiscence that is the active and passive night of the senses spoken of by John of the Cross as “common” among the “beginners”.

  • No. This is something I will also be getting to in probably two columns from now. When one reaches “Mature purity”, custody of the eyes takes on a whole new meaning. It isn’t done away with, if anything, our “mature purity” is itself purified by grace. Then, we are no longer practicing “custody of the eyes” merely as a way of avoiding vice, but we are practicing custody of the eyes so we only focus on what is right, true, and beautiful.

    Looking on a naked person implies communion. (Outside of cases of necessity, and even then John Paul II talks about the dangers of objectifying someone, even when required such as in medical emergency.) Not just a physical communion, but a spiritual communion. It implies self-donation, not just in the physical sense, but in the spiritual as well. To look upon someone not your spouse naked (again, barring reason of necessity such as in medical emergencies, certain artistic renditions, etc) implies a communion that is not there, and is absent from self-donation, and instead turns to objectifying, using, etc. Is it “possible” to look upon someone naked not your spouse without lust? Yes. Does that mean there aren’t a billion other reasons you still shouldn’t? Those reasons are real.

    This is why the interior life is so important, and why, for all the talk about the importance of the externals when it comes to the body, the Holy Father spent the majority of his audiences stressing the importance of the interior life, of the constant need to wage battle against our hearts (that is, our fallen nature), etc. But again, I won’t want to write the whole column in a combox.

  • *** Is it “possible” to look upon someone naked not your spouse without lust? Yes.***
    Not only is it “possible”–it’s “required” for purity of heart. It’s *necessary* that we be able “see rightly” in this regard if ever we are to pass through the active and passive purgation of the senses and toward the deeper “illuminative way” of the spiritual life.
    Of course, I’ve *never* heard or seen *any* TOB presenter suggest that looking at the nakedness of others is something to be actively sought out by *anyone*. I’ve only seen the acknowledgement that when one faces an encounter of either immodesty or the nakedness of another, our call to purity of heart goes well beyond merely “looking away”–the call is to have the capacity to “see rightly” under any and all such circumstances.

  • Are you aware of any female TOB writers who say that “Mature purity” is being able to look upon a naked man not their husband and not feel any incitement towards lust?

  • Not sure what you are asking, honestly, as I’ve already said I’m not aware of *any* TOB presenter encouraging their listeners to go out and find naked people to look at. I *am* sure that the graces given to those who experience real purity of heart are such that the pure of heart can see the bodies of other persons “rightly” and in accord with the dignity of the human person….

  • You say that “mature purity” is:

    *** Is it “possible” to look upon someone naked not your spouse without lust? Yes.***
    Not only is it “possible”–it’s “required” for purity of heart.

    Do you know of any female presenters who state that what is required for purity of heart is to be able to look upon a naked man not your spouse without lust?

  • Not sure what the gender-related question has to do with.
    As to purity of heart, the stirrings of lust can be felt *regardless* of whether the object of that lust is of the same gender or not as one lusting. That’s not really the point, actually.
    The point is the meaning of “purity of heart” (or “mature purity” if you prefer): one who is pure of heart does not look at the human body reductively as an object to be lusted after, male *or* female….rather, the pure of heart will “see rightly”–will see the dignity of the human *person* at all times, even in circumstances in which the body is exposed beyond the usual norms dictated by modesty.

  • The “straw man” is somewhere above–the insinuation that anyone is really out there encouraging other people to find other naked people to look at….
    Were it not for that, no reminder of the mandatory nature of being able to “see rightly” would be necessary, I think.
    ****Let’s say you see somebody dressed immodestly. Is it possible to look upon someone with lust? Yes. Should you still focus your look on them? No. You shouldn’t “focus” your look on anyone not your spouse. Really, the way you look at a girlfriend and spouse is different.****
    Where does the phrase “focus your look” come from, and what do you think it means?
    I’m sure we agree there are multiple layers to peel back on this particular question, but the baseline is that purity of heart lets us see *creation* rightly, because, unless this happens, the pure of heart cannot “see God.” Whenever and wherever the pure of heart encounters the human person, the call is to see the *person*–whether it is one’s spouse, whether clothed or not, the fundamental call is the same. The “gaze” upon the spouse puts us in the realm of authentic eros and intimacy, but it, too, is a “gaze” that *can* tempt to lust as well, for one who is not pure of heart.
    You would agree, I’m sure, that “custody of the eyes” would require us to “look away” from even our *spouse* if seeing our spouse’s nakedness is a temptation to lust?
    If so, then again the “baseline” for the interior struggle for purity of heart (as opposed to other considerations involving the “intimate sphere” and nakedness pertaining to spouses) is firstly involved with the capacity to see nakedness “rightly” and not reductively, whenever we encounter it–*including* when we encounter it with our spouses, and including when we encounter it in a seductive and often-naked world and culture….

  • Lee

    I am amazed that there is not one female who wanted to share any thoughts about this issue which involves all human beings. We all understand and we all strive to live with pure hearts in our daily routines.We know we were given free will and it is our decision to use it with a mature mind and heart.If one fails, keep in mind that God is always ready to listen.

  • I’m honestly not that amazed. How many women want to be involved in discussions where men say it is okay to look at them naked, provided the men “don’t lust” and “see the body truthfully.” There’s a reason I’m not spending much time on it: its a very disrespectful way to talk about the issue, and not surprisingly you hear this talk mostly from men.

    Women (and most men) read JPII and find “wow a theology of the gift is amazing.”

    Certain mostly male readers see it and go “he said naked.”

    JPII never once connected “mature purity” to nudity and the link between purity of heart and how one perceives nudity isn’t the keygrma some are making it to be.

    To be simple: nudity implies communion. Communion implies marriage. Marriage impies babies. Thats about 5% of the Wednesday audiences and leave it to middle aged American males to focus on it.

    That said I’m really done discussing that aspect

  • ****JPII never once connected “mature purity” to nudity and the link between purity of heart and how one perceives nudity isn’t the keygrma some are making it to be.****
    But it is “kerygmatic” in a sense. Might be helpful to recount JPII’s words from TOB 19:1-2:
    “…Only the nakedness that turns the woman into an ‘object’ for the man, or vice versa, is a source of shame. The fact that ‘they did not feel shame’ means that the woman was not an ‘object’ for the man, nor he for her. Inner innocence as ‘purity of heart’ made it impossible for one to be reduced by the other to the level of a mere object….
    “After original sin, man and woman were to lose the grace of original innocence. The discovery of the spousal meaning of the body was to cease being for them a simple reality of revelation and of grace. Yet, this meaning was to remain as a task given to man by the ethos of the gift….And even through the veil of shame, man was continually to discover himself in it as the guardian of the mystery of the subject, that is, of the freedom of the gift, in order to defend this freedom from any reduction to the position of a mere object.”
    So, within the “veil of shame,” so to speak, remains the “task given to man by the ethos of the gift” which JPII says is “inscribed in the depth of the human heart as a distant echo, as it were, of original innocence.”
    Somewhere, somehow, we are all called to live in that “tension” that exists between the “veil of shame” and the “purity of heart” we are still called to, which distantly echoes the original innocence, in which, even in nakedness, Adam and Eve could see the other without reducing the other to mere object….

  • David–I would urge you to read my comments more carefully. If you are curious about what *I* think that I think, just ask and I’ll tell you. As it is, what I have said below is simple enough, although perhaps the phrasing is susceptible to misunderstanding. What is the “it” I am asserting is “required”? Well it’s obviously *not* “required” to go around looking at naked people. I say precisely that it’s *not* required–and not *recommended*–below, in fact, don’t I?
    Rather the “it” that is “required” is the “it” that I also say is *necessary*–the capacity to “see rightly.”
    Not only is it “possible” to see a naked person without lusting, the capacity to see rightly (including saying no to lust regarding what is seen) is required and necessary for real purity of heart.
    And why are you suggesting my comments here have anything to do with West, when all I’ve done here is outline the views clearly expressed by Blessed John Paul II in his TOB corpus?
    If you’ve read the original, then you know that Blessed JPII affirms both the possibility–and necessity–of being able to see rightly. Stay tuned, I may have more to say on this in future.
    God bless,
    Deacon JR

  • David


    Let’s ask the question: can sexual temptation be completely extinguished in this life, if even for one person at some point, through holiness/”mature purity” or whatever you want to call it? Please answer directly, yes or no, as I know you will try to avoid doing so. There is no grey area there- either it can or cannot be completely extinguished, such that concupiscence is completely overcome, and one no longer experiences lust/disordered inclinations in response to something.

  • The question must be answered with greater clarity, based on what I *think* are the conflated “meanings” you are associating with the way it is phrased.
    Straightforwardly–*temptation* to sin can never be completely extinguished in this life. So in that sense, the answer is “no.”
    BUT, grace is the remedy for concupiscence, and grace permits us to *respond* to such a temptation in a way that allows us to be victorious over the “disordered desire” as it presents itself. To grow in virtue in this sense is to be liberated from the domination of concupiscence and to thus be able to “see rightly” the difference between the temptation of disordered desire and the “perennial attraction”(as JPII says) that we could call an “authentic eros.”
    So, in addition to the “no” above, the answer remains “yes”–a person can achieve in this life the purity of heart that allows them victory over concupiscence despite its constant temptations….see the difference?

  • laurettas

    An interesting twist this conversation has taken! I will take up the challenge of replying as a woman.

    First of all, I don’t understand why all the emphasis on lust when encountering nakedness. Most people’s lust is triggered in the every day encounters of life when people are in various levels of dress. I have had men manifest lust for me when I was quite fully, modestly clothed. Lust has little to do with those around you and much to do with what is in one’s heart.

    Can one overcome lust to the point where it is a non-issue? Yes, I have for many years–or do you think lust applies only to men? Believe me, it does not. But for some people, including me, lust is not a major issue. Not everyone has the same proclivities to sin. I have never had a problem with excessive drinking or drugs, but many, many people do. Now food, that is another issue. I struggle with that one.

    Now on to lust when encountering nakedness. What about within marriage? If nakedness is the situation in which lust is impossible to contain, how can one ever be married? John Paul II said that if one lusts after one’s spouse, he/she is still committing adultery in the heart. If one does not become master of oneself to the degree that lust is a seldom-encountered foe, then one is incapable of having a Christian marriage and the spouse will become an object of use, the antithesis of love according to John Paul II.