From the classical Latin concupiscere, meaning to long much for a thing, to be desirous of, to covet, to aspire to, to strive after. This article indicates the doctrinal sources on the subject of concupiscence, discusses the various senses of the word, explains in some detail its technical sense, and finally, treats in brief fashion the views of St. Augustine.
Sources. There are three declarations of the Church that must be mainly attended to: (1) the Decree on Original Sin of the Council of Trent, session 5, June 17, 1546 (see H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [32d ed. Freiburg 1963] 1515–16); (2) the condemnation of the errors of Baius in St. Pius V's Ex omnibus afflictionibus, Oct. 1, 1567 (propositions 26, 74–75; Denzinger, 1974–75); (3) the condemnation of the errors of the Synod of Pistoia in Pius VI's Auctorem fidei, Aug. 28, 1794 (see Denzinger, 2614). Another major source is the scriptural material furnished by Genesis ch. 2 and 3, and Romans ch. 6, 7, 8, especially 7.14–25 (cf. Gal 5.16–25). Finally, there are certain very pertinent portions of the writings of St. Augustine. Concerning these last, see below and bibliography.
Senses of the Word. In current English usage, the word "concupiscence" sometimes has an unfortunate ring. According to Webster's Third New International Dictionary, it means "strong or ardent desire: a: a longing of the soul for what will give it delight or for what is agreeable especially to the senses—used chiefly by Scholastic philosophers b: sexual desire: lust." The Oxford English Dictionary says that concupiscence means "especially libidinous desire, sexual appetite, lust." This usage might shelter under the patronage of Augustine, who often speaks of concupiscence as an evil and sometimes as "bestial desire" (C. Julian 4. 16.82).
There are three gradings of the theological concept of concupiscence. In its broadest sense, it comprises the whole sweep and range of appetite, or desire (stressing its activity as against the relative passivity of knowledge), both sensory and spiritual, both faculty as well as its acts—and these latter whether deliberate or spontaneous. It includes not only the seeking of a good but also the rejecting of what is judged to be harmful.
In the next and narrower sense, concupiscence, while it can still be either sensory or spiritual, is nevertheless tied by a twofold restriction: first insofar as it is limited to the act of desire; second, insofar as this is in deliberate. This unfree act belongs to the mechanism or raw material of man's deliberate choosing. The personal decision, in order to come to birth, must be heralded not only by an act of knowing, but also by some automatic, vital reaction of the appetitive faculty, some spontaneous stretching out toward, or turning away from, an object held in the gaze of the mind. The indeliberate act of desire, springing from the very dynamism of man's nature, gives to the will the object about which it deliberates and decides. Every human being (therefore Christ in His human nature, Our Lady, Adam prior to his fall) must have concupiscence in this sense; absence of it would spell paralysis of the will.
Finally, in its third and technical sense (which alone is the concern of the rest of this article), concupiscence again is involved in the indeliberate act of desire but only and precisely insofar as this is pitted against the free decision, hindering and hampering it, wrestling with and diverting it. In this technical sense, then, concupiscence acts three ways. (1) It forestalls the free decision; already before any choice is finally made, concupiscence is present threatening liberty of action. (2) In the very process of one's choosing, concupiscence is at work as a countertension. (3) Even when vanquished, it still asserts itself and is not totally submissive.
The salient feature of concupiscence in this technical sense lies in the tenacity, persistence, and obduracy with which it withstands the free decision. This latter, be it noted, seeks to shape and stamp one's whole being, to affect one through and through, to seize on one and commit one in one's entirety, to possess and master one as wholly as it can. When man chooses, he aims at throwing into that choice everything that is in him, even his blind, spontaneous elements. He strives to articulate himself in his choice, to make it express and advertise him and all that he wants to be and stand for. He endeavors to impregnate with his freely selected convictions even the darkest recesses of his being. And he encounters the defiance of concupiscence.
Technical Sense. Through a series of affirmations and elaborations of them, it may be possible to elucidate the purport of concupiscence in its technical sense.
Partial and Adequate Presentations. One must distinguish between a partial and an adequate presentation of concupiscence. Preachers, ascetical writers, and spiritual directors are rightly concerned only with a pastoral approach to concupiscence. Their purpose is to put people on their guard against falling into its snares by self-indulgence, especially fleshly. Hence they underscore its dangers, vilifying it as unbridled passion and rebel desire. Given their scope, their one-sided picture of concupiscence is, in itself, legitimate. Furthermore it is authorized by Scripture and tradition. It must be stressed, however, that this is only a limited account of concupiscence; it neither is, nor should it claim to be, complete and well-rounded.
Human Phenomenon. Concupiscence is a characteristically human phenomenon. It is found neither in the angels, above man, nor in the animals, below man. The angel is a pure spirit, owning a nature of unruffled harmony, jangled by no inner tension or clash. Its personal decision, therefore, achieves what every personal decision innately gropes after: that the whole nature should, so to speak, be poured into and shaped by, this decision, nothing at all withstanding or escaping its molding. There is, consequently, a lofty irrevocability about the election of an angel; if he sins, his sin is a sin of strength, not of weakness; his self-commitment is so lucidly entire and entirely lucid as to preclude the bare possibility of any retraction.
The complex organism of the brute beast likewise exhibits a wonderful harmony. Instinct gives coherence to its behavior. Nothing it does is excessive, nothing unreasonable, because it has no dictate of reason to violate. Nothing it does is blameworthy, for such an epithet is emptied of meaning when applied to the blind functioning of a nature coerced by its instinct.
Man is a creature apart; in his nature there is no nicely balanced harmony, but a raw and radical dualism of flesh and spirit. Never is he perfectly at ease within himself, never serenely integrated, never wielding "solely sovereign sway and masterdom."
Concupiscence is not, therefore, as some are inclined to suppose, man's egoism and pride at war with his yearning towards God. Lucifer and his followers fell victims to such self-assertiveness, which cannot, then, figure as an exclusively human weakness.
Natural to Man. That concupiscence is natural to man is deducible, first of all, with certitude from the teaching of the Church that Adam's immunity from concupiscence was a gratuitous, unowed endowment and, second, with probability from the fact that man is at once flesh and spirit. The angel lacks concupiscence because he is sheer spirit; the beast, because it is in nowise spirit. One has no more right to label concupiscence bestial than angelic. It is simply human. And since it is native to man, he would have it were he to be created in some other, purely natural, order.
Operative in the Whole. Concupiscence should not be classed as an exclusively sensory event. Man is a composite being whose coefficients of flesh and spirit both condition him continuously and all-pervasively (as psychosomatic medicine keeps one aware). No human action can be exclusively sensory or exclusively spiritual. Man's knowledge of the most crassly material object is partly spiritual, piercing down to its essence; his knowledge of the purely spiritual is partly sensory (when he studies the nature of God or of an isosceles triangle, his imagination inveterately provides him with a picture of perhaps an old gentleman or a diagram traced in red chalk). Likewise his spiritual desires are shaded with sensory; his sensory, with spiritual. The most physical of human acts (e.g., sexual intercourse, a woman suckling her baby, a laborer devouring a meal) are, because they are shot through with the spiritual, essentially different from parallel actions in other mammals. Just as the water of a lake, no matter how vast and meandering, no matter how cut by headlands or studded with islands, seeks its own level—so man: in all he does, there is the inflow and interplay of both flesh and spirit. Hence concupiscence cannot be exclusively sensory. It is as much at work in the temptation to disbelieve an article of faith (where the object is purely spiritual) as in a solicitation to lust.
It is misleading to make concupiscence exactly coincidental with sexual desire. The unruly movements of sex do, of course, thrust before man concupiscence in its most humiliating and seductive dress. It is thus that Genesis adumbrates that immunity from concupiscence with which the first parents were endowed and which they forfeited by sin. Gn 2.25: Adam and Eve are naked and unashamed; Gn 3.7: they are naked but now ashamed— solely as the outcome of sin. The shame or modesty here referred to is not the acquired or infused virtue of that name, which resides in the spiritual region of man. Rather it is something instinctive, an element in his sensory mechanism, a check on the sex instinct causing distress or fear; it is universal among adults, growing alongside the sex instinct, with whose exercise it is linked. Clothing, though not identical with modesty, is its individuation. Everything in Genesis ch. 2 and 3 shows man's first parents as responsible adults. If, then, they were naked but unabashed, this was not due to the immaturity of childhood, but to the privilege of integrity, of which they were deprived through their own grievous fault.
Not Exclusively a Proneness to Evil. Because natural to man, concupiscence cannot be adequately represented as exclusively a proneness to evil or a thwarting of right reason. The all-wise and holy God could not create man with an inborn drive diametrically counter to his last end. Moreover, a characteristic of concupiscence is its spontaneity, which is ambivalent. Concupiscence defies and challenges a wicked, as much as a good, purpose. It is as much in evidence at one's blush because one has lied, as in the promptings of lust.
Metonymy. In both Scripture (especially Romans ch. 6, 7, 8) and tradition (especially Augustine), concupiscence is called sin. This must not give one the wrong impression that it is sin strictly and formally so-called. A sort of metonymy is at work for which three reasons can be alleged; concupiscence is (1) the fruit, (2) the punishment, and (3) the seed of sin. This last reason relates to personal sin; the first two, to original sin, and they apply equally to death. For whatever might be held about human death in a state of pure nature, in the present, supernatural order, it is both the result and punishment of original sin. Unlike concupiscence, however, death does not incline to frequent sins of weakness. Though it may be the result, it is scarcely the cause of sin. Neither death nor concupiscence can be accurately described as moral evil—for such a qualification belongs only to deliberate choices. Nevertheless it would be rash to infer that death and concupiscence are equally amoral. For, in a way that death does not, concupiscence trenches on the field of morality, seeing that it can incline to evil and persist against the dictate of right reason.
Relation to Willfulness. Concupiscence is certainly not the root of all sin, nor is it the cause of the worst sins. The proof of this twin statement lies in the devil's sin and in that of the first parents: despite their immunity from concupiscence, they sinned. Indeed it was precisely this immunity that enabled them to climb to the very acme of calculated malice. Where there is concupiscence, there is no total self-commitment, and consequently, no "perfect" sin.
Other Elements. Likewise, concupiscence is certainly not the sole source of temptation and tendency to sin. The option of the angels against God involved some sort of temptation, at least in the sense of an encounter with the dilemma: either to let God be God, accepting one's very being from His hands; or to aspire to God-head, repudiating one's radical dependence on Him. Genesis makes it plain that Adam and Eve, while endowed with integrity, were liable to temptation.
Compensating Aspects. Concupiscence is not without its compensations. (1) It cannot hurt man unless he decides to be in league with it. It cannot force his will, and available are God's multiple helps. (2) It provides an incentive to progress in the spiritual life. The merits of holy Christians arise, under God, from the steadfastness with which they overcome the obstacles arising from concupiscence. Always there, it constitutes a constant challenge to asceticism, prayer, and the frequentation of the Sacraments. (3) Even when a man has a mind to sin mortally, concupiscence implies a twin advantage. On the one hand, its stubborn resistance diminishes the malice of a wicked resolve. (It may be mentioned, incidentally, that, obsessed with the risks of concupiscence, one over-looks those of integrity. This latter gift was granted to Adam so that he might dedicate himself utterly to God; but it was bivalent, and there lay its risk. For when Adam used it to sin, he was able to commit a sin of surpassing heinousness.) On the other hand, by hindering the evil decision's seizing on and stamping the whole man with malice, it furnishes the psychological basis for a retraction of the will. There is no basis for repentance in the sinful angel, whose apostasy is voiced in his whole being. A change of heart was, however, feasible in Adam's case, because integrity in him was a sheerly gratuitous gift, lost, therefore, in the very flush of sin. (4) It is because of concupiscence that, quite often, transgressions of gravely binding commandments are in reality only venially sinful. Concupiscence saves man from a full-blooded consent. Such venial sins of weakness are unthinkable in an angel or Adam before his fall. Without concupiscence, one consents fully or not at all. (5) Concupiscence, finally, belongs to the complex state of restoration in Christ and the Church. This is so much more wonderful (cf. mirabilius reformasti of the Offertory at the Mass) than the state of original justice that the liturgy can acclaim Adam's sin as fortunate: felix culpa. To counterpoise his dualism, Adam received integrity as a lump gift, i.e., intended to be permanent and conferring complete self-dominion. Christians do not have one gift once and for all; it comes in installments. It is found especially in the daily Eucharist. Whereas Adam was given something, they are given somebody, Christ Himself.
Duality. Once again one notices how concupiscence is pervasively dual in aspect: it is both sensory and spiritual; for both good and ill; if it explains many sins of weakness, it also explains why many sins either stop short of being mortal, or, if mortal, are not irremediably so. It further explains why the most abandoned sinners surprise one occasionally with some instinctive good deed. On the other hand, even in those indwelt by the Holy Ghost, even in the heroically holy and in the mystics, concupiscence stays on. Consequently, they never succeed in concentrating everything within them under their personal orientation to Christ. Something escapes, some small, peripheral element. Hence they must lament those daily, semideliberate venial sins that the Council of Trent, session 6, Jan. 13, 1547, assigns even to the holiest (Decree on Justification 11; Denzinger, 1537). Even the Apostles, even after their unforgettable personal experiences during the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Our Lord, even after Pentecost, when they were transformed by the Holy Ghost and confirmed in grace, still had to, and in fact did, describe themselves as sinners (1 Jn 1.8–10; Jas 3.2).
St. Augustine (354–430). Perhaps no Christian writer at all, certainly none of comparable intellectual caliber, authority, and influence, has dealt with concupiscence at such length and so frequently as St. Augustine. Hence, he deserves special attention. Repeatedly and acutely he commented upon the relevant passages in Genesis and Romans; his attitude has commanded that of most Western thinkers, whether medieval or modern. Among these must be included especially St. Thomas Aquinas. By more than 1,000 years Augustine anticipated the Catholic rebuttals of Luther's error that concupiscence is formally original sin. His very phrases on concupiscence are echoed by, and enshrined in, the Decree on Original Sin issued by the Council of Trent.
Augustine's doctrine of concupiscence, however, is not free from difficulty—as is evident in that both M. baius and C. jansen have (wrongly) attributed to him their own blunders (see C. Boyer). Hence the Church, while honoring him as it has honored few of its Doctors, places express reservations on his handling of deeper and more thorny questions (Denzinger, 249; Portalié, A Guide to… St. Augustine, 323–326).
The main objections against Augustine's position are four. (1) He seems to identify concupiscence with fleshly desire in general and with lust in particular. (2) He seems to regard it as evil and nothing but evil, persisting as evil even after baptism and in wedlock. (3) He seems to undermine the dignity of Christian wedlock, because, while on the one hand marriage (in his theory) cloaks concupiscence with respectability, it is itself degraded by its traffic with what he continues to castigate as evil. (4) He exaggerates the role of concupiscence in the transmission of original sin, giving the impression that the two are one and the same reality.
In Augustine's vast prolixity on concupiscence, there undoubtedly occur some unfortunate emphases. Nevertheless many difficulties yield before growing familiarity with his whole thought. Thus he expressly recognizes that Paul's idea of "flesh" and "walking" or "living according to the flesh" takes in more than body and bodily sin (cf. Gal 5.19–20). It is the great error of Platonists and Manichees to debit all man's wickedness against the body (Civ. 14.1–6). And although monotonously vociferating against concupiscence as an evil, Augustine refused to call it a formal sin. Here is the formula of his predilection: "the justified man is without all sin, though not without all evil [omni peccato caret, non omni malo ] " C. Julian 6.16.49. For a just assessment of Augustine's theory, one must set it in its historical context of the Pelagian heresy. This proclaimed that all is well with man, that concupiscence is in every sense innocent, that it has no connection with original sin, which, moreover, is not a transmitted race-sin but the purely private misdemeanor of a forebear who disedified his posterity by shabby behavior. Against such falsehoods Augustine eloquently protests that concupiscence is the fruit and seed of sin, that it is morally imputable to men through their solidarity with the head of the human race, Adam, in whom they lost integrity. So much for the actual state of mankind, at any rate. He admits that, absolutely speaking, God could create man with concupiscence (Retract. 1.9.6) and that integrity is a grace (C. Julian. 4.16.82). As a sample both of Augustine's basic soundness and at the same time of his tendency to mislead the unwary through his one-sidedness, the reader should ponder the last dozen lines or so, n. 71 in Book 1, of his Incomplete Work against Julian.
See Also: augustine, st.; augustinianism, theological school of; grace and nature; integrity, gift of.
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[j. p. kenny]