When 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