The Theology of the Body and Concupiscence

Cormac Burke Faith Magazine March – April 2012

Mgr Burke, with customary clarity, offers a key to understanding 20th century developments in Church teaching on marriage. Concerning the formal "ends" of marriage, he argues that the traditional inclusion of "remedy of concupiscence" was a misemphasis. He shows how this "end" has been superseded by the "unitive" end, while still recognising the need for desire in marriage to be constantly purified. In doing so, he offers a way forward for the 2009 debate between David Schindler and Christopher West over the place of concupiscence in Pope John Paul IIs Theology of the Body[2], as described in our May 2010 issue.

This piece is a developed extract of a much longer paper published in The Thomist six years ago (Issue 70, 481-536)[1]. We hope to publish a further, shorter extract, on the role of generosity, in a future issue. Mgr Burke is a former Judge of the Roman Rota, the High Court of the Church, and now lectures at Strathmore University, Nairobi, Kenya. His best-known books are Covenanted Happiness and Man and Values, both published by Scepter Press. His website is:


Since 1983 the Church's magisterium has expressed the ends of marriage as two: procreation, and the good of the spouses. Much has been written about this, especially as to the omission of the former, hierarchical concept: primary and secondary ends. My own analysis is that the Church, rather than any hierarchy of ends, now wishes to emphasise their intimate connection and interdependence, especially so as to help overcome the modern mindset that marriage can be truly fruitful and "fulfilling" independently of the children who may be born of and nourish any genuine conjugal love. Here I wish simply to draw conclusions from the apparent disappearance of the former two "secondary ends", the mutuum adiutorium and the remedium concupiscentiae.

There is general agreement that the concept of "mutual help" has been absorbed into the "good of the spouses". What then about the "remedy of concupiscence" which was formerly indicated as the other secondary end? My feeling is that it is dead and gone: buried. And I welcome its demise. Let me explain why.

Two things should be borne in mind. The first is that sexual concupiscence or lust is not the same as simple sexual attraction, or indeed as the desire for marital intercourse and the pleasure that accompanies it. Lust or carnal concupiscence is the disordered element that in our present state tends to accompany marital intercourse, threatening love with self-centered possessiveness. On that supposition, my main point is that the use (however longstanding) of the term remedium concupiscentiae to signify an end of marriage has had a profoundly negative effect on married life, inasmuch as it suggests that lust is "remedied" or at least "legitimised" by marriage; in the sense either of automatically disappearing once one marries, or else of no longer being a self-centeredelement hostile to the growth of married love. To my mind the faulty reasoning behind this has been a major block to understanding how love in marriage stands in need of constant purification if it is to achieve its human fullness and its supernatural goal of merging into love for God.

Transition: From Marriage Affected by Concupiscence, to Concupiscence "Remedied" by Marriage

While the expression "remedium concupiscentiae" is at times to be found in St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas, it was not used by them in the sense that it later acquired. St. Thomas, discussing the issue of whether marriage confers grace, takes up and answers a proposed objection - that insofar as marriage tends to increase concupiscence, it cannot be a vehicle of grace. He turns the objection around and says that grace is in fact conferred in marriage precisely to be a remedy against concupiscence, so as to curb it at its root. i.e. its self-absorbed tendency (IV Sent., d. 26 q. 2 a. 3, ad 4). Clearly, to curb or repress concupiscence is not quite the same as to "remedy" it.

But this idea of St. Thomas that marriage is a remedy against concupiscence, "remedium contra concupiscentiam", inasmuch as it gives grace to fight it, imperceptibly but quickly in subsequent authors gave way to the idea that marriage is simply in itself and without further qualification a remedy of concupiscence; and is in fact aimed at this as one of its purposes.

The difference between these two phrases - "remedy of concupiscence" and "remedy against concupiscence" -may seem slight. Yet in practical usage the result has been enormous. When marriage is said to give graces to fight against lust it emerges in its sacramental nobility, for lust is always an enemy of love. But if marriage is held to be directed to "remedy" lust, in the precise sense of giving lust a legitimate outlet, then the whole concept of marriage is degraded.

That one of the ends of marriage is to remedy concupiscence has been the teaching of virtually all moral theologians, right down to the late 20th century, without this teaching being subjected to any true critical analysis. I have given a full list of authors elsewhere. Here let us quote the Patron of moral theologians, St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787), who teaches, "The accidental intrinsic ends of marriage are two: the procreation of offspring, and the remedy of concupiscence" (Theologiae Moral is, lib. 6, 881).

This view has been prevalent in moral theology and indeed in pastoral work for well-nigh 600 years. Insofar as it sought justification it was in the phrase - "it is better to marry than to burn" (melius est nubere quam uri) - used by St. Paul in 1 Cor 7:7-9. In the whole pauline passage, these last words seem clearly addressed to particular persons: not to the unmarried generally, but to those among them who lack sexual self-control. Nevertheless a whole tradition of moral theology took these words out of their limited scriptural context, and used them to sustain a broad and generalised doctrine with a twofold implication: marriage is for those who lack self-control; hence self-control in marriage, at least in the spouses' sexual relations, is not of special importance.

It is hard to say which of these two propositions is more harmful. The former underpinned the millenial mindset which regarded marriage as a sort of second-class Christian option. The latter was arguably the strongest obstacle to the development of a properly conjugal spirituality; i.e. an ascetical approach for married persons powerful and deep enough to help them seek perfection within - and not despite - the conditions peculiar to their proper way of life.

Over the centuries and up to our times the Church has unquestionably suffered from a disregard of and neglect towards the spiritual possibilities of marriage. The scant number of married persons among declared saints reflected or perhaps provoked the widespread idea that "getting married" was the normal alternative to "having a vocation". Marriage was not for those who were called; it was rather for the disadvantaged.

Not only that, the main handicap (lack of self-control) which those who chose to marry apparently suffered from was considered, if not automatically remedied by the act of marrying, to be in any case no longer of great account. It was not that to marry stopped the "burning" of lust or concupiscence, but that once married one could yield unconcernedly to this "burning", whose satisfaction is legitimised by marrying. In this view, conjugal relations, justified by being oriented to procreation, were exempt from any further moral or ascetical issue of control or purification. Lust, having been "remedied", is no longer a troublesome force for married people, nor need one consider it as a source of imperfection, or an enemy to the growth of their married love and their sanctification beforeGod.

In practice, the idea that marriage was the remedium concupiscentiae seemed to suggest to many - ordinary people and pastors - that concupiscence in marriage could be given way to quite freely. The only requirement laid down for the satisfaction of sexual desire in marriage was respect for the procreative orientation of the conjugal act. If that condition was fulfilled, neither morality nor spirituality had further guidelines to offer.

It seems to me that the moral evaluation of concupiscence remained stuck in this standpoint: the indulgence of sexual concupiscence, being always seriously sinful outside marriage, has only one proper and licit place where it can be given free rein, and that is marriage. In other words, marriage legitimises sexual concupiscence or lust. This is the understanding of the remedium concupiscentiae which has established itself among Catholic theologians and moralists - to the point of being considered well-nigh axiomatic.

The 20th Century

During the previous century, signs appeared of a desire to renew theological and ascetical reflection on marriage. There arose a new (and perhaps not sufficiently qualified) emphasis on the dignity of the physical sexual relationship in marriage - but without any attempt to examine the problems posed by the continuing presence of carnal concupiscence.

By contrast, late 20th-century magisterium offers startlingly new perspectives on this whole issue. A lengthy (1979-1984) weekly catechesis on "Human love in the Divine Plan" opened the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. It offered an extraordinarily profound view of the purpose and dignity of human sexuality and the conjugal union. It also dwelt on the presence and dangers of lust within marriage.

In July 1982, treating of both virginal celibacy and marriage as "gifts of God", John Paul II took up the difficult passage we have just mentioned, in St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians: "It is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of the danger of incontinence, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband... To unmarried persons and to widows I say, It is good for them to remain as I am. But if they cannot live in continence, let them marry. It is better to marry than to burn." The Pope posed the question: "Does the Apostle perhaps look upon marriage exclusively from the viewpoint of a remedy for concupiscence, as used to be said in traditional theological language? The statements mentioned... would seem to verify this. However, right next to thestatements quoted, we read a passage in the seventh chapter of First Corinthians that leads us to see differently Paul's teaching as a whole: 'I wish that all were as I myself am, [he repeats his favorite argument for abstaining from marriage] - but each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind, and one of another' (1 Cor 7:7). Therefore even those who choose marriage and live in it receive a gift from God, his own gift, that is, the grace proper to this choice, to this way of living, to this state. The gift received by persons who live in marriage is different from the one received by persons who live in virginity and choose continence for the sake of the kingdom of God. All the same, it is a true gift from God, one's own gift, intended for concrete persons. It is specific,that is, suited to their vocation in life. We can therefore say that while the Apostle, in his characterisation of marriage on the human side... strongly emphasises the reason concerning concupiscence of the flesh, at the same time, with no less strength of conviction, he stresses also its sacramental and charismatic character. With the same clarity with which he sees man's situation in relation to concupiscence of the flesh, he sees also the action of grace in every person - in one who lives in marriage no less than in one who willingly chooses continence" (TB, 295).

The least that can be said from a reading of this passage is that John Paul II, while not explicitly rejecting the concept of remedium concupiscentiae, suggests that "traditional theological language" on the matter has remained one-sided precisely because of a failure to weigh the sacramental implications of marriage.

Some months later in 1982, the Pope's catechesis turned more directly to the sacramentality of marriage. Once again he showed clear reserve regarding the concept of marriage as a remedy for concupiscence, and insisted rather that the sacramental grace of marriage enables the spouses to dominate concupiscence and purify it of its dominant self-seeking. "These statements of St. Paul [quoted above] have given rise to the opinion that marriage constitutes a specific remedy for concupiscence. However, as we have already observed, St. Paul teaches explicitly that marriage has a corresponding special 'gift', and that in the mystery of redemption marriage is given to a man and a woman as a grace" (TB 348).

Within this mystery of redemption, as the Pope sees it, the sacramental graces of marriage, sustaining conjugal chastity, have a special effect in achieving the redemption of the body through the overcoming of concupiscence. "As a sacrament of the Church, marriage... [is] a word of the Spirit which exhorts man and woman to model their whole life together by drawing power from the mystery of the 'redemption of the body'. In this way they are called to chastity as to a state of life 'according to the Spirit' which is proper to them (cf. Rom 8:4-5; Gal 5:25). The redemption of the body also signifies in this case that hope which, in the dimension of marriage, can be defined as the hope of daily life, the hope of temporal life. On the basis of such a hope the concupiscence of the flesh as thesource of the tendency toward an egoistic gratification is dominated" ... [Spouses] "are also in their turn called, through the sacrament, to a life according to the Spirit. This corresponds to the gift received in the sacrament. In virtue of that gift, by leading a life according to the Spirit, the spouses are capable of rediscovering the particular gratification of which they have become sharers. As much as concupiscence darkens the horizon of the inward vision and deprives the heart of the clarity of desires and aspirations, so much does "life according to the Spirit" (that is, the grace of the sacrament of marriage) permit man and woman to find again the true liberty of the gift, united to the awareness of the spousal meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity" (TB,348-349).

This dense passage teaches in summary that through the specific grace of matrimony, spouses can purify the conjugal act of the grasping and self-centered spirit inherent in concupiscence, and so recapture the truly donative experience and pleasure of marital intercourse. This marks a step forward of extraordinary significance in magisterial teaching.

The magisterium of these last decades continues to present new stances and insights on our topic. They show that while the Church is expressing a deepened appreciation of the dignity of sexual intercourse in marriage - as an act of love-union and mutual self-giving - it has not weakened its teaching that our whole nature, and sexual desire in particular, were seriously affected by the Fall.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that as a result of original sin, an operative evil is to be found in human nature - not least in the sexual attraction between man and woman, also inside marriage. In a section entitled "Marriage under the regime of sin", it insists, "Every man experiences evil around him and within himself. This experience makes itself felt in the relationships between man and woman. Their union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation" (no. 1606). "According to faith the disorder we notice so painfully does not stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of their relations, but from sin. As a break with God, the first sin had for itsfirst consequence the rupture of the original communion between man and woman. Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations; their mutual attraction, the Creator's own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust..." (no. 1607).

A relationship of lust! Strong words indeed, to describe a distortion that tends to affect relations between the sexes from adolescence to old age - even, as the context makes clear, in inter-spousal relations. As is evident, the Catechism gives no support to the idea that concupiscence is in some way "remedied" - in the sense of being eliminated or reduced to non-importance - by the simple fact of getting married; just the contrary.

With deliberate directness, the Catechism puts forward ideas not likely to gain easy acceptance among our contemporaries. Some may take them as showing that the Church is still imbued with Augustinian pessimism about sexuality. That must be firmly contested: what is being taught here is not pessimism but realism. In pointing to real difficulties that accompany and can threaten sexual love, these texts call Christians to deeper reflection on ways of solving these dangers, so that love itself can grow.


Lust; Normal Sexual Desire; Conjugal Desire

The modern difficulty in understanding the Church's teaching on married sexuality stems in large part from a failure to distinguish between lust and what is (or should be) normal sexual desire, i.e. between assertive and unregulated sexual desire, bent foremost on physical self-satisfaction, and simple sexual attraction, which can include a desire for union and is characterised by respect and regulated by love. The two are not to be equated. Pope John Paul II insists on the distinction: "the perennial call... and, in a certain sense, the perennial mutual attraction on man's part to femininity and on woman's part to masculinity, is an indirect invitation of the body. But it is not lust in the sense of the word in Matthew 5:27-28" (TB, 148).

Lust or sexual concupiscence is a disorder and hence always an evil. Sexual desire (just as sexual pleasure) is not an evil but a good, provided it is directed and subordinated to conjugal love and made a proper part of it. Sexual desire is part of conjugal love; concupiscence, though present also in marriage, is not. Hence their moral evaluation is totally different.

Sexual Concupiscence

The Christian idea of sexual concupiscence can only be understood in the light of the Fall. Christians hold that the original state of man and woman vis-a-vis each other was one of joyous harmony: particularly in relation to their reciprocal sexuality with its potential for mutual appreciation and enrichment, and for unitive and fruitful love. The mutual attraction between man and woman naturally has its physical aspect and this too, as the Catechism says, is part of "the Creator's own gift" (no. 1607).

Sin wrecked this easy and harmonious peace of the man-woman relationship. After the Fall, says the Catechism, "the harmony in which they [Adam and Eve] had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul's spiritual faculties over the body is shattered" (400); and, it adds, this disorder can extend to the marital relationship itself: "the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination" (ib.; cf. 409).

Normal Sexual Attraction

Sexual concupiscence cannot be equated simply with physical sexual attraction or even with a desire for genital union. The romantic or idealistic love between a teenage boy and girl (frequently still to be found even in our modern sensualised world) may also be accompanied by a desire to show bodily affection - a desire filled with a tenderness and respect that operate as a curb, not only on lust if it seeks to assert itself, but also on bodily expressions of love which would not be true to the real existential relationship between the couple. This is part of the chastity natural to incipient adolescent sexuality. Its power should not be underestimated: natures fresh to sexuality can have a purer sense of the mystery of the body and a spontaneous understanding of the true relationship ofbodily actions to human love.

Sexual Attraction (Desire), and Conjugal Attraction

The sexes naturally experience an attraction to each other that does not always take the form of a physical desire. Ability to appreciate and admire well-developed masculine or feminine characteristics is a sign of growing human maturity. In time, more particularised one-to-one relationships develop between young men and women, in response to what could be called the "conjugal instinct" or attraction. In its essence this "instinct" is more spiritual than physical; in the Christian understanding it corresponds to the natural desire for forming an exclusive life-long partnership with a spouse. As two persons prepare for marriage, this same conjugal instinct inspires them to avoid any physical relations which would express a permanent union that they have not yet mutually ratified. This isthe human and anthropological sense of premarital chastity. Once they are married, then their physical conjugal union becomes the conjugal act which, when realised in a human way, gives true and unique expression to their spousal relationship. In participating in it in its full significance, they express their marital chastity.

When Love and Lust Collide

We mentioned above the pure air of first adolescent love. Unfortunately sexual attraction finds it more and more difficult to keep breathing that air. Love needs to be very strong indeed if it is to remain pure, generous in gift and not grasping in possession - even when, ultimately, it has the right to possess. This applies to the whole of premarital friendship between the sexes, to courtship, and to marriage itself.

Normal friendship between a teenage boy and girl can only be sincere and grow if they are on guard against lust. When the attraction between a boy and girl or a young man and woman takes the form of a more particularised love, then it is even more important to keep love free from lust. Clarity of mind and firmness of purpose are needed to achieve this. If love is sincere, there is little difficulty in noting the issues or differences that may arise; on the one hand the indiscriminate instinct of lust with its promptings to seek satisfaction with the first appealing person available; on the other, the particularised human instinct (the conjugal instinct already present) urging a young person to keep the gift of sexuality for one; and to respect that "one" when found but withoutthere yet being a mutual conjugal commitment. No one will say that this instinct of respect is easy to follow; but if true love is there, the instinct too will be there.

We pass on to the case where man and woman are united in marriage, which is the fullest setting for human love. It is in marriage that the collision of love and lust can be most dramatic, with so much depending on its outcome. We recall the title - "Marriage under the regime of sin" - under which the Catechism insists that the harmony and ease of the original communion between man and woman have been ruptured by a "disorder [that] we notice so painfully": the disorder of concupiscence which takes over when mutual sexual attraction, instead of being filled with respect and love, is "changed into a relationship of domination and lust" (1607).

Contemporary magisterium insists time and again that each human being must be treated as a person and never as a thing. This is a rule for all human relationships, but for none so much as marriage. True married love prompts each spouse to relate to the other as a person, never as a mere object to be used for his or her own physical satisfaction. Carnal concupiscence on the other hand, also present in marriage, tends in its self-centered forcefulness to disturb the loving relationship which should exist between husband and wife, and so can easily prevent marital sexuality from being completely at the service of love. Concupiscence wants to have and use the other person. Possession and satisfaction, not gift and union, are its concern. "In itself, concupiscence is not capable of promotingunion as the communion of persons. By itself, it does not unite, but appropriates. The relationship of the gift is changed into the relationship of appropriation" (TB, 127).

Self-Centeredness, the Enemy of Conjugal Love

If self-seeking predominates in sexual relations, then intercourse, even marital intercourse, is not mainly an expression of love. The natural satisfaction of the sexual urge is legitimate within marriage; but even there it may carry with it a degree of self-seeking that is contrary to love - hindering it rather than expressing or increasing it. "Disinterested giving is excluded from selfish enjoyment" (TB, 130).

Lust is one of the most radically self-centered appetites. As such it seeks its satisfaction in a joining of bodies that in fact causes a separation of persons, because those who are carried away by it in their mutual relations are afterwards left more separated from one another than before.

As a result of the Fall, says John Paul II, bodily sexuality "was suddenly felt and understood as an element of mutual confrontation of persons... as if the personal profile of masculinity and femininity, which before had highlighted the meaning of the body for a full communion of persons, had made way only for the sensation of sexuality with regard to the other human being. It is as if sexuality became an obstacle in the personal relationship of man and woman" (TB, 118-119).

Concupiscence has brought about "a violation, a fundamental loss, of the original community-communion of persons. The latter should have made man and woman mutually happy by the pursuit of a simple and pure union in humanity, by a reciprocal offering of themselves... After breaking the original covenant with God, the man and the woman found themselves more divided. Instead of being united, they were even opposed because of their masculinity and femininity"... [They] "are no longer called only to union and unity, but are also threatened by the insatiability of that union and unity" (TB, 120).

The presence of lust or concupiscence within marriage itself is undeniable. And at this stage in our study, far from being able to confirm that marriage offers a remedy for concupiscence, we realise that lust, inasmuch as it introduces an anti-love element into the sexual relationship, poses a threat to marriage and particularly to married love itself. How then, within a truly Christian understanding of marriage as a call of love and as a vocation to sanctity, should married persons treat the presence of concupiscence - that self-absorbed element present in their intimate union?


Up to now, spouses who really sought to live their conjugal relationship as God wished, to sanctify themselves in and through their marriage, received little orientation from the teaching of the Church, aside from the idea that a certain abstinence is a recommendable means not just of family planning but of positive growth in married sanctity. Abstinence in this view often seemed to be presented as the ideal, or at least as the main, means to union with God and the sanctification of one's life. One senses here an underlying presumption that marital intercourse is something so "anti-spiritual" that spouses would do better and grow more in love for God by abstaining from it than by engaging in it. This presumption should be firmly resisted.

If marriage is in itself a divine way of holiness, then all of its natural elements, including of course intimate conjugal relations, are a matter of sanctification. Certainly these relations must be marked by temperance; yet total abstinence from such relations cannot be proposed as an ideal or ascetical goal for spouses. Total abstinence as a means to counter the problem of lust is not a practical proposal for married people; and yet lust has to be countered.

Faith Magazine

March - April 2012