When I was younger, I remember confessing my temptations to a priest. He swiftly admonished my ignorance on the situation. “Being tempted to sin is not a sin,” he told me, “but rather succumbing to the temptation by acting upon it. Think about it: Jesus would have been guilty of committing a sin when He was tempted in the desert (Luke 4: 1-13). And we know that He was like us in all things but sin (Hebrews 4:15). This infers that Jesus was also absent of Adam’s original sin, the result of which was defective concupiscence, or the disposition towards sin.” What a relief! Catholic teachings always have a nuanced philosophical underlying explanation, and this priest’s clarification was no exception.
Considering my errors in the light of Christ’s own life, I realized the terms “concupiscence” and “temptation” functioned as synonyms within my vocabulary. Nevertheless, the theological relationship between the two words still triggers an interesting thought experiment. If concupiscence is the tainted inclination towards what is sinful, then what is temptation? Jesus was tempted to sin. Is temptation not also a sort of inclination itself? Or maybe one is conditional on the other’s existence? What exactly are the differences between concupiscence and temptation and why should we care?
To be clear, concupiscence is a layered theological term. It is commonly misunderstood that concupiscence itself is the direct result of the original sin of Adam. If read incorrectly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s definition of concupiscence might lead one to ignore a key component of fully understanding the term. It states:
Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin—an inclination to evil that is called “concupiscence.” Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back toward God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle. (CCC, 405)
We are inclined to sin, but the inclination to sin is only one part of concupiscence. I have heard many people say that concupiscence itself is a stamp of original sin, but St. Thomas Aquinas would disagree. In the Summa, he describes concupiscence as a neutral—if not positive—faculty of the human being. He states:
…concupiscence is a craving for that which is pleasant… [It] seems to be the craving for [perceptible goods], since it belongs to the united soul and body, as implied by the Latin word “concupiscentia.” Therefore, properly speaking, concupiscence is the sensitive appetite, and in the concupiscible faculty, which takes its name from it. (ST, I-II, Q. 30, Art 1-4)
The predisposition for craving “that which is pleasant” is itself an impartial component of the human person. For example: I crave the pleasant feeling I receive from playing basketball. This craving according to St. Thomas Aquinas is a sensitive appetite that stems from my concupiscible faculty. However, playing basketball is neither essentially good nor evil without intention. Hence, if I chose to play basketball instead of fulfilling my Sunday obligation to attend mass, the result differs. The corruption dwelling within my concupiscible faculty has led me to make a decision which is evil and, as we will see in a moment, contrary to right reason. The original sin has corrupted my human appetite to desire the evil act. If the original sin were not present, committing evil in any way would be unthinkable, at least not without outside forces to manipulate. The Catechism’s glossary defines temptation as “An attraction, either from outside oneself or within, to act contrary to right reason and the commandments of God…” (CCC, Glossary Definition)
Temptation is the desire to deviate from the path of “right reason” by influencing the concupiscible faculty towards evil, often cloaking it as a good. In other words, it would be against “right reason” to play basketball on Sunday instead of going to mass because the sin would ultimately affect my soul negatively, despite whatever “pleasure” I may obtain. It can be argued that Adam and Eve were once like Jesus in the sense that they lacked corrupted concupiscence. But our original parents did not resist the outside attraction of being like God, and thus ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The effects of the original sin have resounded throughout human history in the form of corrupted concupiscible faculties. This essentially means that falling into temptation has become a much easier process than it otherwise would have been. It follows that corrupted concupiscence is caused by sin—particularly, yet not exclusive to, the original sin—which is necessarily conditional on the existence of temptation, but the concupiscible faculty itself exists separate from temptation.
I must admit that while researching the distinctions between these two terms, I got lost in the woods of complicated terminology a few times. St. Thomas Aquinas had a gift of abstracting the already abstract into further abstraction. Meanwhile, the unfamiliar reader pulls his or her hair out of their head. Personally, I find analogies much more accommodating in illustrating complex teachings. The following paragraphs attempt to do just that.
Imagine a wide, swiftly-moving river. At one visible end of the river, a waterfall crashes downward. The distance of the fall is uncertain, and the bottom cannot be seen. Now imagine a man in the same river paddling upstream in a boat. He is paddling in the opposite direction of the waterfall. The distance to the source of the river which he travels is also uncertain. The man in the boat must continue to paddle to avoid falling. From time to time, he witnesses others drowning in the water and throws life preservers to save them, although sometimes they do not grab on. Plagued by exhaustion, the man stops paddling from time to time for rest. At times, he feels as if paddling is useless. He does not know how long it will take to arrive at the source of the river. It could take months. Years even. The enticement to stop paddling follows when the knowledge of the duration of the journey is uncertain.
Some believe nothing can be done to escape the pull of the waterfall. If we cannot see the destination, then how do we know it actually exists? And if the destination does not exist, why paddle at all? Why even have a boat for that matter? The upstream struggle is grueling and only delays the eternal inevitability of the nothingness that patiently awaits us all. The water of the river is indifferent to humans. It bears no prejudice, and will rage forward with or without wading participants. And once the waterfall takes us, we will be forgotten. Our memory will wash away as surely as the rocks on the shoreline.
The analogy? The water of the river is our disposition: the concupiscible faculty itself. The current leading to the waterfall represents our damaged concupiscible inclinations. Paddling represents the execution of moral responsibilities demanded by the commandments, the works of mercy, the beatitudes, and the natural law itself. It exemplifies our duty to perpetuate objective morality and build a strong moral fabric within family and society. We evangelize the truth of Christ when we throw life-preservers to outsiders. Once the fatigue from paddling sets in, the desire to discontinue occurs. This desire goes against “right reason” when considering its detrimental consequences. Tumbling over the falls is necessarily conditional on not paddling. This desire to stop paddling represents temptation. Additionally, the pace at which one paddles is equally as important. Muscle exhaustion caused by paddling too fast is common among the first fervor of converts to the faith. Paddling too slowly will still cause one to fall, and this we often see by lukewarm Catholics. And so the analogy goes.
As Catholics, we have the gift of dodging the hopelessness of indifferent waters. Instead of fighting to keep our heads above water as the nihilists and non-believers do, we focus on getting to our final resting point. We conserve energy with the boats given to us by Him; Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium are His life vessels. The perseverance we experience is God’s gift of faith. We battle to keep that faith alive against all odds, and we believe that paddling has a purpose.
Many non-boat dwellers suggest our boat is a vain source of comfort. They suggest our destination is merely a fantasy to distract us from the reality that all of us will eventually go over the waterfall. But leading a life of objective morality is difficult and provides less consolation than perhaps we would like. Praying and undertaking works of mercy can be very laborious. The temptation to rest will never disappear, and will only increase once we reach those moments in our lives containing shallow rock-infested water: the suffering guaranteed to us by birth. The uncomfortable process of obtaining virtue severs friendships and creates disorder among family members. What must be understood is that having a boat does not make the journey easy; it just means it will be possible. Without a doubt, we Christians will stop paddling several times throughout the course of our lives.
The relationship between concupiscence and temptation is an upstream battle against inner corruption and outside forces. Our eternal destiny depends on persisting through the struggle. This description of our shared voyage can seem bleak, but there is reason to rejoice here. Millions of people around the world are on the same journey, and Jesus and His mother are with us every step of the way. Any Christian focused on getting to heaven fights their flawed inclinations every day. Most importantly, as we move forward with this endeavor, our paddling muscles will get stronger, and the journey will get easier. For my scrupulous brothers and sisters, do not deceive yourself into thinking being tempted is sinful. Stopping ourselves from giving in to temptation is just another way for us to become more like Christ. We are in good company.