There is a common cliché in evangelization that we must reach out to “the wounded”, those outside the Church, those affected by sin in traumatic ways, etc. While we should do this, I think we would do well to remember one important fact: we, each and every one of us, belong to “the wounded.” To understand this, we must understand the reality of a word seldom used today in the Church: concupiscence. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines concupiscence in the following manner:
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 towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle. (Paragraph 405)
As a result of the sin of Adam, human nature changed. Sin is something that comes pretty easy to us. While the explanations for this are varied, the reality is undeniable: this inclination leaves a wound that remains with us. However, this is not the end of the story.
As the Catechism reminds us, there are things which turn us toward God. While the sacrament of baptism is the primary means of doing this, one can see God’s call in many things of creation. John Paul II made a couple year’s worth of general audiences out of the fact that we can see God’s call towards Him stamped within the very reality of the human body. This calling inevitably conflicts with the reality of concupiscence. At this point the struggle for holiness begins.
This is where the importance of the sacraments come in. As anyone who took Catholicism 101 can tell you, sacraments impart what is called sanctifying grace to the Christian. The Catechism defines sanctifying grace as an “habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love.” (Paragraph 2000)
The only way we can be enabled to live with God is if that inclination to sin is dealt with. That is the purpose of the sacraments. Sometimes this is explicitly mentioned, such as when the sacrament of Holy Matrimony is called a “remedy of concupiscence.” Yet all the sacraments, to one degree or another, accomplish this.
Now when this reality is considered, one question naturally arises. If the sacraments are how concupiscence is healed, why is it that we still are inclined to sin even after receiving the sacraments? The Catechism again provides us an insightful answer in paragraph 2002. They state that God’s free initiative demands man’s free response. One iota of grace from the sacraments, in theory, would be enough to completely cure man from all concupiscence.
Yet human experience teaches us that we seldom, if ever do something “perfectly.” This is why frequenting the sacraments must be habitual. Every time we receive one of the sacraments, concupiscence is weakened and we become less and less attached to sin. Provided we use our gifts properly, we can even replace that attachment to sin with a greater and greater attachment to God. That makes the sacraments even more efficacious, and the cycle repeats itself with every reception.
Why is this a necessary mindset? When we are focusing on “the wounded”, one could say that we are “the righteous.” We are the “already converted” who really have no need of sacraments. When we stop to think about it, this is how the lives of Catholics are lived out in today’s age. Our parishes seldom offer the sacrament of confession. A respectable Catholics news organization can run an article viewing confession and other “pious activities” a waste of time. One of the Churches biggest evangelists can write best-selling books on how to overcome our wounds due to sin without even mentioning the Sacrament of Confession. Countless irreverent communions occur, and the amount of Catholics getting married in the Church is a record low, you get the picture.
Emphasizing the reality of concupiscence changes this picture. Instead of those already converted, we need conversion just like the so-called wounded. We are being conformed to the Image of the Son just as they are. The only difference is we are a bit further along, and can serve as a powerful example, because we walked the same road they did. We are still walking it.
This can be a challenging message for today’s Catholics, even those who are perfectly orthodox. It isn’t easy to recognize how disposed to sin we are, and it certainly isn’t sexy to describe advancing in holiness in such incremental and small terms. Some popular Catholic evangelists even describe such an approach as the antithesis of the meaning of life. Yet I would counter that it is a far humbler and more realistic assessment of our condition. Holiness is a difficult thing, and a lifelong process. The sacraments make this a goal we can achieve, and we should spend as much of our time as possible encouraging this mindset.