The mechanic at the repair shop explained to the frustrated vehicle owner that the wheels of his car were out of alignment. 

The mechanic asked if the driver had recently driven through a pothole or perhaps had hit a curb. He explained that this could be sufficient to have forced the wheels out of alignment. All the driver knew was that it took a lot of work to drive straight down the highway with the car constantly pulling off center. Without constant attention and constant adjustment of the steering wheel, the car tended to drift off the road. “One big pothole can do that,” the mechanic informed the puzzled driver, “and after that, it’s almost impossible to go straight without constant correction.”

What’s true for an automobile is, in this sense, also true of the human soul.

Theologians have long attempted to explain humanity’s tendency to veer off course: one big sin (that of our first parents in the garden) and it’s almost impossible to go straight without constant correction. Keeping in mind that the New Testament word for sin is hamartia, a Greek word that literally means to miss the mark or to veer off course, we might say that after original sin it’s nearly impossible to stay on the “straight and narrow.”

Theologians call this tendency to sin “concupiscence.” The word concupiscence is defined as a strong desire, a tendency or attraction, usually arising from lust or sensual desires. It is, morally speaking, the tendency to go off course.

Concupiscence is understood as an effect of original sin that remains after baptism. The waters of baptism cleanse us of original sin itself, but concupiscence remains as a lingering effect. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “certain temporal consequences of sin remain in the baptized, such as suffering, illness, death … as well as an inclination to sin that Tradition calls concupiscence” (No. 1264, emphasis in original).

To use another analogy, medical research cautions that a severe sunburn early in life will render a person more susceptible to dangerous skin cancer throughout life. That early sunburn may heal fairly quickly, but its effects last through life, increasing vulnerability to cancer. Precautions must be taken to shield the skin from the damaging effects of the sun’s radiation, since there is a greater susceptibility to skin damage after that major sunburn.

Original Sin

Original sin — passed down through the generations of humanity — brought to our first parents the alienation from paradise, and with it all the effects of mortality: pain, illness, suffering, aging, death and decay.

Original sin caused a rupture, or break, in the harmony between body and soul that was part of God’s creation of man. In the original innocence of our first parents, there was perfect harmony: harmony with God, harmony with the surrounding world, harmony with one’s self. The decision to break away from God’s will also broke the original harmony in creation, and there has been tension ever since.

The first 11 chapters of the Book of Genesis reveal the growth of tension and discord: starting with the perfect harmony of the garden, through the first sin, then the sin of brother against brother, and it ends with the tower of Babel — a point in human history where no two persons could understand each other.

In the original innocence of our human nature, there was perfect harmony between body and soul. Since death entered the world as a consequence of sin, the separation of the soul from the body at death is a consequence of original sin. We profess our belief in the resurrection of the body, at which time soul and body will be restored to the perfect harmony that existed before original sin. Concupiscence is a symptom of the disharmony between soul and body, since the body and its appetites, or desires, wants to pull us a certain way, and the soul wants to cling to the higher things of God and grace.

In heaven, the harmony between body and soul will be restored, as will the harmony with God and the world around us. Sin will be no more.

The Sacrament of Baptism washes away original sin, yet there remain the effects of original sin. One of them is an innate tendency to be vulnerable to temptation, to be inclined to sin, to be predisposed to desires that do no honor to the grace of God.

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) taught that concupiscence “comes from sin and induces to sin.” Yet, concupiscence is not itself sin. Concupiscence makes us vulnerable to sin, but susceptibility to temptation is not sin. How we act in response to the temptation determines the rightness or wrongness — the sin. With constant attention, or more accurately with the acceptance of God’s constant outpouring of grace, the human person can be unaffected by this tendency to drift off course.

A driver who is attentive to the path ahead can constantly adjust for a misalignment in the car’s front end, keeping the car moving toward the goal of the driver. Indeed, the Council of Trent noted that concupiscence “cannot harm those who do not consent but manfully resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ” (Catechism, No. 1264). It is prevenient grace that precedes our thoughts and actions, waiting for us when we are tempted by concupiscence to go off course. By availing ourselves of that grace, we are enabled by God to resist the tendency to sin and instead to stay on the morally proper course.

How Do We Respond?

The story is told of the priest who asked a man in the confessional, “My son, do you entertain evil thoughts?” The penitent quickly responded, “Oh no, Father, they entertain me!” It is concupiscence that makes our minds more vulnerable to thoughts that incline us to sin and to sinful actions, but neither concupiscence nor those thoughts are sinful in themselves. The morality is determined by what we do in response: to beg God’s grace to turn away from thoughts of sin is meritorious, but to offer no resistance and give in to immoral or disordered acts is the very definition of sin itself. Concupiscence corrupts the will to the point that we are tempted to conclude that something less than God will ultimately satisfy.

St. Thomas Aquinas taught clearly that concupiscence is a consequence of original sin. Once human beings made the decision to be unbound from the will of God, the harmony within human nature also became unbound.

Desires and appetites were no longer in harmony with the intellect or reason, and the two — desire and reason — fought against one another.

St. Paul understood this, and described it in his Letter to the Romans: “I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (7:23). As a result, St. Paul could write, “I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Rom 7:19). Even Jesus observed concupiscence in action when He said, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41; see also Mk 14:38).

The prophets of the Old Testament understood this interior tension. Jeremiah asked the piercing question, “More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). Jeremiah understood human nature and spoke often of the stubbornness of their evil hearts (see 3:17 and many other passages), “evil thoughts” (4:14, RSV), and humanity’s “stubborn and rebellious heart” (5:23, RSV).

The psalms of David offer lament for sins committed as well as penetrating insight into the lived dichotomy between weakness and grace, the lusts of the flesh and the longing for holiness. “Sin directs the heart of the wicked man; his eyes are closed to the fear of God” (Ps 36:2). In a plaintive cry for God’s mercy, the psalmist acknowledges the dueling desires within him, and acknowledges, “I have been mortally afflicted since youth” (Ps 88:16).

Staying on Course

From the earliest reflection on life lived in relationship to God — the Book of Genesis — to the present day, the tension between good and evil is well-known. Whether presented as a life or death struggle in the psalms, or a comedic conversation with an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, it is innately understood that we all experience concupiscence on a daily basis.

Have you noticed that the temptation to eat meat seems to be the strongest on a Friday in Lent?

That’s concupiscence at work, the body at war against the soul, each pulling in a different direction. Whether we entertain evil thoughts or they entertain us, that’s also concupiscence at work: the desires of the flesh are not in harmony with the desires of the soul.

While we cannot vanquish concupiscence in this life, we can open our lives to the grace of God that provides the strength to resist the weakness of our fallen nature.

Despite the choice of our first parents to “throw off the yoke of God’s will,” as St. Thomas Aquinas described it, we can today choose to take upon ourselves a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light (see Mt 11:30). The grace of God that goes before us and anticipates our weakness — prevenient grace — is ours if we but open ourselves to it when concupiscence tempts us off course.

Modern highways help drivers stay on course with painted lines and with a rumble strip when they veer out of the lane. In the moral life, prevenient grace and our free will to do what is right perform for us the same function, and if we veer off course, the rumble of conscience will gently prod us back. TCA 

Msgr. William King is vicar general for the diocese of Harrisburg, Pa. He holds a licentiate in canon law from The Catholic University of America and a doctorate in canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.