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In its widest acceptation, concupiscence is any yearning of the soul for good; in its strict and specific acceptation, a desire of the lower appetite contrary to reason. To understand how the sensuous and the rational appetite can be opposed, it should be borne in mind that their natural objects are altogether different. The object of the former is the gratification of the senses; the object of the latter is the good of the entire human nature and consists in the subordination of reason to God, its supreme good and ultimate end. But the lower appetite is of itself unrestrained, so as to pursue sensuous gratifications independently of the understanding and without regard to the good of the higher faculties. Hence desires contrary to the real good and order of reason may, and often do, rise in it, previous to the attention of the mind, and once risen, dispose the bodily organs to the pursuit and solicit the will to consent, while they more or less hinder reason from considering their lawfulness or unlawfulness. This is concupiscence in its strict and specific sense. As long, however, as deliberation is not completely impeded, the rational will is able to resist such desires and withhold consent, though it be not capable of crushing the effects they produce in the body, and though its freedom and dominion be to some extent diminished. If, in fact, the will resists, a struggle ensues, the sensuous appetite rebelliously demanding its gratification, reason, on the contrary, clinging to its own spiritual interests and asserting it control. "The flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh."
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From the explanation given, it is plain that the opposition between appetite and reason is natural in man, and that, though it be an imperfection, it is not a corruption of human nature. Nor have the inordinate desires (actual concupiscence) or the proneness to them (habitual concupiscence) the nature of sin ; for sin, being the free and deliberate transgression of the law of God, can be only in the rational will; though it be true that they are temptations to sin, becoming the stronger and the more frequent the oftener they have been indulged. As thus far considered they are only sinful objects and antecedent causes of sinful transgressions; they contract the malice of sin only when consent is given by the will; not as though their nature were changed, but because they are adopted and completed by the will and so share its malice. Hence the distinction of concupiscence antecedent and concupiscence consequent to the consent of the will; the latter is sinful, the former is not. The first parents were free from concupiscence, so that their sensuous appetite was perfectly subject to reason ; and this freedom they were to transmit to posterity provided they observed the commandment of God. A short but important statement of the Catholic doctrine on this point may be quoted from Peter the Deacon, a Greek, who was sent to Rome to bear witness to the Faith of the East: "Our belief is that Adam came from the hands of his Creator good and free from the assaults of the flesh" (Lib. de Incarn., c. vi). In our first parents, however, this complete dominion of reason over appetite was no natural perfection or acquirement, but a preternatural gift of God, that is, a gift not due to human nature ; no was it, on the other hand, the essence of their original justice, which consisted in sanctifying grace ; it was but a complement added to the latter by the Divine bounty. By the sin of Adam freedom from concupiscence was forfeited not only for himself, but also for all his posterity with the exception of the Blessed Virgin by special privilege. Human nature was deprived of both its preternatural and supernatural gifts and graces, the lower appetite began to lust against the spirit, and evil habits, contracted by personal sins, wrought disorder in the body, obscured the mind, and weakened the power of the will, without, however, destroying its freedom. Hence that lamentable condition of which St. Paul complains when he writes:
Christ by His death redeemed mankind from sin and its bondage. In baptism the guilt of original sin is wiped out and the soul is cleansed and justified again by the infusion of sanctifying grace. But freedom from concupiscence is not restored to man, any more than immortality ; abundant grace, however, is given him, by which he may obtain the victory over rebellious sense and deserve life everlasting.
The Reformers of the sixteenth century, especially Luther, proposed new views respecting concupiscence. They adopted as fundamental to their theology the following propositions:
- Original justice with all its gifts and graces was due to man as an integral part of his nature ;
- concupiscence is of itself sinful, and being the sinful corruption of human nature caused by Adam's transgression and inherited by all his descendants, is the very essence of original sin ;
- baptism, since it does not extinguish concupiscence, does not really remit the guilt of original sin, but only effects that it is no longer imputed to man and no longer draws down condemnation on him. This position is held also by the Anglican Church in its Thirty-nine Articles and its Book of Common Prayer.
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