On Concupiscence, Part II

How, finally, does the Catholic teaching on concupiscence highlight the remaining goodness of human nature? Because the Catholic Church affirms that the intellect can still know truth and the will still inclines toward the good. In short, concupiscence does not destroy the fundamental inclinations to know truth and will the good. These inclinations remain. They are the basis making God’s invitation to conversion intelligible. For instance, man can discover the truth of things. He can engage in scientific inquiry and experiment. He can collect data, sift the data. He can draw inferences, lay down hypotheses. As Vatican I teaches, in Dei Filius, man can even discover the truth of God’s existence through his knowledge of this world of change, chance, and striving. This discovery can go hand in hand with a reflection on himself. Man can reflect on himself, asking, “Who am I?” and “Where did I come from?” and, most pertinently, “Where am I going?” Thus can emerge incipiently religious questions: What ought I to do with my life?

No man who doesn’t ask these questions is yet a man! We must face these questions as the primary ones in our lives. Pascal was right to lambast those who refuse to ask these questions as fools. They are like men who put boards over their faces, and walk around here or there, on the edge of a sheer cliff to a bottomless pit. Oh the caviar is nice. The view is nice. The clothes feel good. What an Olympics! Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow…. Since these are foolish pursuits if not nestled in the context of the greater questions of life, the Bible charges, “The fool said in his heart, there is no God.” Note: The fool. The evidence of God is obvious to one whose mind is not foolish nor heart hardened. Read Wis 11 and Rom 1. This evidence can be read by the 5 year old and by the 40 year old. This evidence is manifold. And the failure to draw the correct conclusion is not simply an intellectual error but implicates the erring person in guilt. See John Henry Newman, Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent: We are accountable for our every last act of reasoning!

To what shall we turn our minds? How shall we see the evidence? What first principles shall we set forth, and why? What projects shall we set out for ourselves, and why? These questions involve free choices. And free choices involve ethics. This is not to say that only one option is the only option. It is to say that in the very framing of our options and pursuing them, we are exercising moral agency. Thus, good men may disagree, and yet they are good only if they rightly exercised their agency. That is, their purposes and viewpoints – colored by their previous actions, which establish habits of mind – are moral stakes coloring any options. Thus, a bad man may agree with a good man about how to set up the laboratory.

But good or bad, both men have an inclination to know the truth. And it is against that that the man who fusses with the data so as to obtain an outcome can be accused of a violation of human reason! Both men have an inclination to good. And it is against that backdrop that the one who chooses what he knows to be a violation of right reason can be accused of a violation of natural law!

The condition for the possibility of sin is that the good can be done and the evil avoided. Thus, the Catholic teaching that concupiscence is but an habitual inclination harmonizes with the Catholic teaching on sin. Concupiscence does not so dominate the mind that only evil can be chosen. A man can choose what is not evil: He can build a house, reach out to a peer and pursue legitimate activities (bowling, bridge), etc. Therefore, not his every free act is a sin.

This position contrast with Luther’s teaching that a man sins in his every last work, even in the “good” ones he does in the power of grace

“Whoever does less than he ought, sins. But every righteous person in doing good does less than he ought. Well, then, I shall prove the minor premise in the following way: Whoever does not do good out of complete and perfect love of God does less than he ought. But every righteous man is that kind of a person. I shall prove the major premise through the commandment: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul, and all your might’ etc. [Deut. 6:5], of which the Lord says in Matt. 5 [:18], ‘Not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.’ Therefore we must love God with all our might, or we sin. But the minor premise, that we do not love him with all our might, has been proven above, for the unwillingness in the flesh and in the members hinders this perfection so that not all members or powers love God. This unwillingness resists the inner will which loves God.” (Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputations, Explanation to Thesis 6 (LW 31:61–62.)

Again: “To deny that man sins even when doing good; that venial sin is pardonable, not according to its nature, but by the mercy of God; or that sin remains in the child after baptism; that is equivalent to crushing Paul and Christ under foot.” Martin Luther, The Leipzig Debate, 2nd Thesis (LW 31:317).

In sum, Luther teaches that the gravest sin a man has is the very root power of his free action. This power is so bent against God as to do, vis-a-vis God, all evil. We can control only our free actions and so cannot directly act on this agent of sin. Thus, we are most culpable for that about which we can do least. Think here of a man with libidinous tendencies, or worse, of a man with an unnatural sexual inclination. Such are gravely culpable, in Luther’s eyes, for these tendencies, even if they have not freely performed actions that exacerbate these tendencies. The Catholic teaching is that concupiscence, qua such (not qua exacerbated), is not a sin.

The Catholic focus is on what you do freely with that tendency, which itself is found in a broader tendency toward the good. Do you allow your evil tendency to dominate? Do you succumb? And thus exacerbate it? Or do you manfully strive to combat it, to achieve virtue? This is what the Catholic priest – in the sacrament of Reconciliation – wants to know. Did you fornicate, because you so desired? Did you commit unnatural sex with someone? Or did you decide to go play tennis, take a walk, do some homework, read a good book, walk away? In the former case, you committed grave sin against Almighty God, a sin which deserves of its nature the eternal fires of everlasting hell. In the latter case, you crushed the head of the Devil who was lying in wait to destroy your soul. In either case, tomorrow awaits. God’s grace beckons each of us to repent and believe.

Now, and this addition is CRUCIAL: Without that grace, none of us can repent and believe! Although a man without grace can avoid each mortal sin – otherwise it would not be a sin – yet none of us can love God intimately or believe in him as revealer (have faith) unless his grace touches our hearts, heals us, and brings us to these actions. Our job: To welcome his action in our lives and cooperate. Life is not just about science, or random good deeds paid forward. No, life is about discipleship of Christ. About entering the One True Church he established, the Catholic Church. This is life, and life in abundance.

Let us enter Life this Lent.