The Theology of the Body and the Healing of Concupiscence

Cormac Burke FAITH Magazine July – August 2012

Mgr Burke continues to throw much needed light upon the 20th century's fine tuning of our understanding of the ends of marriage. Here he draws out how marriage can be a "yes" to the healing of concupiscence without the latter being an intrinsic "end" of the sacramental union. As such his reflections would seem to help the vigorous Theology of the Body debate 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). Mgr Burke lectures at Strathmore University, Nairobi, Kenya.

Rediscovering Conjugal Love as it was 'In the Beginning'

The constant reference point for married life and vocation which Pope John Paul presented throughout his 1979-1984 catechesis was "marriage constituted in the beginning, in the state of original innocence, in the context of the sacrament of creation" (Theology of the Body, 338). That original human state was marked by a perfect harmony, within each one, of body and spirit. "This harmony, that is precisely purity of heart, enabled man and woman in the state of original innocence to experience simply... the uniting power of their bodies, which was, so to speak, the unsuspected substratum of their personal union or communio personarum" (ib. 204).

That original harmony was short-lived, however; man sinned and it was broken. With the sin of Adam and Eve concupiscence or lust made appearance. It became present in their marriage (and is present in every subsequent marriage), posing a threat to married love and happiness.

In his catechesis, John Paul II examined the discordant impact of lust in spousal relations (ib. 111-168). Its fundamental effect is a loss or a limitation of the full freedom of love. "Concupiscence entails the loss of the interior freedom of the gift. The nuptial meaning of the human body is connected precisely with this freedom. Man can become a gift - that is, the man and the woman can exist in the relationship of mutual self-giving - if each of them controls himself. Manifested as a 'coercion sui generis of the body', concupiscence reduces self-control and places an interior limit on it. For that reason, it makes the interior freedom of giving in a certain sense impossible... By itself, it does not unite, but appropriates. The relationship of the gift is changed into therelationship of appropriation" (ib. 127).

Insatiable desire, appropriation instead of communion, taking instead of giving, possessive self-love overshadowing donative love toward the other... all are major disruptions which concupiscence now inflicts on the lost harmony of the marital sexual relationship.

Is it possible for men and women to return to that original harmony and respect, or are they lost forever? They are not irreparably lost, for they can be recovered - in hope and struggle. In the human person there always remains, however unconsciously, a longing for the respect inherent in a pure love - also because of what John Paul II terms "the continuity and unity between the hereditary state of man's sin and his original innocence", which remains a key to "the redemption of the body" (ib. 34-35). But the recovery and maintenance of what can be repossessed of that original harmony is possible only through constant effort and with the help of prayer and grace.

Sexual Shame

A particularly striking part of John Paul II's analysis is the place he gives to sexual shame in the work of recovering that harmony. He places shame among the "fundamental anthropological experiences" (cf. TB, 52). In the present human condition, a certain instinct of shame acts as a guarantor of the mutual respect that is a sine qua non condition of true love between the sexes. The deeper and truer the love between a man and a woman, and especially between husband and wife, the more they will be prompted to pay heed to shame, and to seek to understand it and respond adequately to it. The consequence is a naturally modest behaviour between them.

In this sense each married couple should turn to the Bible seeking the lessons of the divine narrative: not just imagining how the relationship of Adam and Eve must have been before the Fall, but learning from their reactions afterwards - reactions that show a desire to preserve, in new and troublesome circumstances, the purity of that original attraction which they alone had experienced and which they could still recall.

Before the Fall, Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed. As John Paul puts it, "the man of original innocence, male and female, did not even feel that discord in the body" (ib. 204). After the Fall is when shame appeared as a response to lust, as a sort of protection against the threat which lust now offered to the simple joy and appreciation they had experienced in each other's sexuality "in the beginning". The importance of this sense of shame is powerfully brought out in the papal catechesis.

On the one hand, "if the man and the woman cease to be a disinterested gift for each other, as they were in the mystery of creation, then they recognise that 'they are naked' (cf. Gn 3). Then the shame of that nakedness, which they had not felt in the state of original innocence, will spring up in their hearts... Only the nakedness that makes woman an object for man, or vice versa, is a source of shame. The fact that they were not ashamed means that the woman was not an "object" for the man nor he for her" (TB 74-75). The reaction of shame before the other, of wife before husband or vice versa, betrays an awareness that the urge to bodily intercourse is not of the same human quality as the desire for the communion of persons, and cannot give this desire full effect.

On the other hand, while shame "reveals the moment of lust, at the same time it can protect from [its] consequences... It can even be said that man and woman, through shame, almost remain in the state of original innocence. They continually become aware of the nuptial meaning of the body and aim at preserving it from lust" (ib. 122).

The desire to preserve respect for the loved one is inherent in every genuine love. So in John Paul's analysis, the sense of shame becomes not only a guardian of mutual respect between husband and wife, but also a starting point for the recreation of a new spousal harmony between body and soul, between desire and respect, achieved on the basis of united purpose aided by prayer and grace. The Pope does not suggest that this "re-creation" is in any way easy; it obviously is not. But his message for married people is that it should be attempted; their mutual love should see its need: and the sacramental graces of their marriage along with their personal prayer are the powerful means they have to achieve it.

The Purification of Conjugal Love: Self-control and Gratitude Versus Excessive Sensuality

This is the proper sense of chastity in marriage: the redirecting and the refinement of sensual appetite so that it is at the service of love and expresses it, and the refusal to take advantage of the married relationship just for egoistic satisfaction. In a real sense, the task facing married couples is purification of sensual appetite, so that its satisfaction is sought not mainly for concupiscent self-centeredness but as an accompaniment to the donation of self that must underlie every true conjugal union. One can say that this task engages them in a constant humanising of their marital love, facilitating the growth of mutual appreciation of each other as persons.

True conjugal love is evidently characterised more by caring for and giving to the other than by wanting and taking for oneself. It is the classical distinction between amor amicitiae and amor concupiscentiae. Where the love of concupiscence dominates, the lover has not really come out of himself or overcome self-centredness, and so gives himself at most only in part: "in the love of concupiscence, the lover, in wanting the good he desires, properly speaking loves himself" (Aquinas, l-ll, q. 27, a. 3). The dominance of pleasure-seeking in marital intercourse means that there is too much taking of the body and not enough giving to the person; and to the extent of that imbalance the true conjugal communion of persons is not realised.

In an age like ours, the difference between lust, sexual desire and conjugal love has become progressively obscured. If, in consequence, many married couples do not understand or recognise the dangers of concupiscence, and so do not endeavour to contain or purify it, it can dominate their relationship, undermining mutual respect and their very capacity to see marriage essentially as giving and not just as possessing, much less as simply enjoying, appropriating and exploiting.

There is an inescapable task here facing all married couples who in some way wish to maintain or restore the loving harmony of noble spousal relationship. We spoke above of how abstinence or renunciation, as a governing principle of religious life, was often presented also to married couples wishing to grow spiritually, with the implicit or explicit invitation to apply it to their conjugal intercourse.

We must add here that while renunciation is certainly a main gospel theme, it is not the only or even the dominant one. Purification, above all of one's inner intention and heart, is even more fundamental to the achievement of the ultimate Christian goal: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Mt 5:8); "we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure" (1 Jn 3: 2-3). These verses are of universal application.

Marital intercourse is purified when the urge for self-satisfaction plays a lesser part in it, intercourse being rather sought, lived, and felt as participation and particularly as other-centred donative love. Possession and pleasure will then be the consequence of generous self-giving. As John Paul II says, "a noble gratification, for example, is one thing, while sexual desire is another. When sexual desire is linked with a noble gratification, it differs from desire pure and simple... It is precisely at the price of self-control that man reaches that deeper and more mature spontaneity with which his heart, mastering his instincts, rediscovers the spiritual beauty of the sign constituted by the human body in its masculinity and femininity" (TB, 173).

One could note in passing that if pleasure is received with gratitude - to God, to one's spouse - this is already a significant step towards purifying it of self-centredness, for gratitude is always a coming out of self and an affirmation of the other. On the other hand, if the seeking of pleasure is mainly self-centred, it may give momentary satisfaction but not real peace, the peace that arises from the experience of true donative union.

Sensitive married couples who sincerely love each other are readily aware of this self-absorbed drive which takes from the perfection of their physical conjugal union. They sense the need to temper or purify the force drawing them together, so that they can be united in true mutual giving - not in mere simultaneous taking. Their heart calls for this; insofar as they are mainly yielding to lust, a sense of cheating and of being cheated will always remain. John Paul II captures this situation well: "I would say that lust is a deception of the human heart in the perennial call of man and woman to communion by means of mutual giving" (TB, 148).

Chastity Gives Freedom to Conjugal Love

"You were called to freedom, brethren. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another" (Gal 5:13). John Paul comments on this passage of St Paul: "Anyone who lives in this way according to the flesh, that is, who submits... to the three forms of lust, especially to the lust of the flesh, ceases to be capable of that freedom for which 'Christ set us free'. He also ceases to be suitable for the real gift of himself, which is the fruit and expression of this freedom. Moreover, he ceases to be capable of that gift which is organically connected with the nuptial meaning of the human body" (TB, 197-198).

St Augustine too invokes Gal 5:17, particularly in relation to chastity: "Listen well to these words, all you faithful who are fighting. I speak to those who struggle. Only those who struggle will understand the truth of what I say. I will not be understood by whoever does not struggle... What does the chaste person wish? That no force should arise in his body resisting chastity. He would like to experience peace, but does not have it yet" (Sermo 128).

Augustine's words are directed to the married as much as to the unmarried. Both, he is convinced, will understand the truth he expresses if they are prepared to fight the constant warfare of Christian life. The Church has not changed her doctrine about this fight. The Second Vatican Council teaches: "A monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole history of man. The battle was joined from the very origins of the world and will continue until the last day, as the Lord has attested. Caught in this conflict, man is obliged to wrestle constantly if he is to cling to what is good, nor can he achieve his own integrity without great efforts and the help of God's grace" (Gaudium et spes 37).

The "Remedy" of Concupiscence: Chastity

"The problem for [sexual] ethics is how to use sex without treating the person as an object for use" (Karol Wojtyla: Love and Responsibility, 1993, p. 60). This is a perceptive observation which brings a properly human focus to bear on the question of the pleasure of marital intercourse. Pleasure should not be sought just for its own sake, since self-seeking (and "other-using") will then tend to dominate. But pleasure can and should come, as an important concomitant of the union achieved.

This, in the truest sense, is what is implied in the remedying of concupiscence. It is a challenge to love and a work of chastity. Concupiscence is an effect of original sin. What stems from sin can only be remedied by virtue. So it is not marriage itself but marital chastity that remedies concupiscence.

The goal cannot be not to feel pleasure or not to be drawn by it (both pertain to the instinct of conjugality), but not to be dominated by its quest (which is the very instinct of lust). St Augustine points out the alternatives: "Whoever does not want to serve lust must necessarily fight against it; whoever neglects to fight it, must necessarily serve it. One of these alternatives is burdensome but praiseworthy, the other is debasing and miserable" (Contra Julianum, 5:62).

Marital intercourse is indeed a unique way of giving physical expression to married love, but it is not the only way. There are moments in married life (sickness, for instance, or periods just before and after childbirth) when love will not seek intercourse but will still express itself in many other ways, also on the physical level. It is commonplace among marriage counsellors or psychologists to assign as much or even more importance to these "lesser" physical expressions of affection and love as may be attached to the frequency of marital intercourse itself. Pope John Paul does not pass over this point.

With finely drawn distinctions, he differentiates "sexual excitement" from "sexual emotion" in man-woman relationships, and comments: "Excitement seeks above all to be expressed in the form of sensual and corporeal pleasure. That is, it tends toward the conjugal act... On the other hand, emotion ... even if in its emotive content it is conditioned by the femininity or masculinity of the 'other', does not perse tend toward the conjugal act. But it limits itself to other manifestations of affection, which express the spousal meaning of the body, and which nevertheless do not include its (potentially) procreative meaning" (TB, 413).

Men and women, married or single, who wish to grow in mutual love, cannot adapt themselves passively to the prevalent modern lifestyle which, especially as reflected in the media, is permeated with "sexual excitement" and forms a constant stimulus to it. Purity of heart, sight and thought is essential if they are to keep sexual excitement within limits where it is at the service of sexual emotion and of genuine inter-sexual love. Their own intimate consciousness of the real nature of love will be the best incentive to help them keep firmly clear of all those external stimuli which necessarily subject a person more and more to the absorbing power of lust, and so lessen his or her capacity for a true, freely given and faithful love.

Chastity is for the Strong; as is Growth in Love

Among the deceptions of marriage is the experience that what should so uniquely unite can separate; it can be filled with tensions and disappointment rather than harmony and peace.

The tensions come from the divisive force of concupiscence which can only be overcome and purified through a love that is truly donative rather than possessive. "It is often thought that continence causes inner tensions which man must free himself from. [But rather] continence, understood integrally, is the only way to free man from such tensions" (TB, 411). In fact, the chastity proper to marriage unites, reduces tensions, increases respect and deepens spousal love, so leading this love to its human perfection and preparing the spouses themselves for a love that is infinite and eternal. "The way to attain this goal", Pope Benedict XVI insists, "is not simply by submitting to instinct. Purification and growth in maturity are called for; and these also pass through the path ofrenunciation. Far from rejecting or 'poisoning' eros, they heal it and restore its true grandeur" (Deus Caritas est, 5).

"True conjugal love... is also a difficult love" (TB, 290). Of course: for love of another is always a battle against self-love. That division of the heart between self and spouse must be overcome: conjugal love gives unity to each heart and unites the two hearts in one love. Carnal concupiscence is not the only expression of self-love; but, since it so pervasively affects the most significant bodily expression of conjugal love, its tendency to dominate must be specially resisted; otherwise love may not survive this battle. "The heart has become a battlefield between love and lust. The more lust dominates the heart, the less the heart experiences the nuptial meaning of the body. It becomes less sensitive to the gift of the person, which expresses that meaning in the mutualrelations of man and woman" (TS 126).

John Paul II is sure of the fundamental optimism and attraction of the understanding of married sexuality he outlines. His anthropological analysis becomes moral teaching that is imbued with human appeal. "Does not man feel, at the same time as lust, a deep need to preserve the dignity of the mutual relations, which find their expression in the body, thanks to his masculinity and femininity? Does he not feel the need to impregnate them with everything that is noble and beautiful? Does he not feel the need to confer on them the supreme value which is love?" (ib. 167-168).

Those who love readily understand the human value and attraction of pure, chaste and disinterested love. But to feel the human attraction is not enough. In the Christian view, chastity remains a gift of God, one that is only achieved through prayer. "Since I knew I could not otherwise be continent unless God granted it to me (and this too was a point of wisdom, to know whose the gift is), I went to the Lord and besought him" (Wis 8:21, Vulgate). St Augustine insists that this virtue is a gift of God; an idea that he stresses elsewhere with special reference to marriage: "The very fact that conjugal chastity has such power shows that it is a great gift of God" (Contra Julianum, 3:43). It is indeed a gift of God; but a gift he gives when asked for it.

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