I have noticed this word ‘concupiscence’ a lot while studying Catholic Theology. It seems to significantly change what ‘Original Sin’ means, making a Catholic meaning of ‘Original Sin’ very different from the Protestant meaning. It appears to be a key word because the Catholic Church actually condemned the Protestant view during the reformation as being heretical. A lot of it seems to boil down to the word ‘concupiscence’.

I have not encountered the word a lot in Protestant theology but it is coming up left, right and center, as I study Catholic Theology.

Why is the word ‘concupiscence’ so important in understanding the difference between a Catholic view and a Protestant view of ‘Original Sin’?

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    I don't this is a deserved answer so it is a comment, I think it all comes down to Catholic believe that humanity's original nature is not the cause of evil and cannot be evil since it remains a natural creation of God. Concupiscence is the "selfish human desire for an object, person or experience." The Catholic Church does not consider it a sin since it is not evil. In the Catholic Church, one is guilty of a sin ONLY if it is voluntary. Many Protestants take concupiscence as a sin, Original Sin, as the corruption of humans nature. – Andrew Apr 16 '13 at 19:02
  • @Drew your comment makes a great beginning to a sound answer. People should read it as a good introduction. – Mike Apr 17 '13 at 5:08

Concupiscence differs between Catholics and Protestants primarily in the terminology and interpretation.

Essentially, to remember it, you have to know Latin. Think of "con" as with, cupire (or cupiere, my spelling may be bad) is the meaning of want, just think of Cupid and you'll have no problem with this, and scence is the state.

So basically Concupiscence is "the state of wanting sin" (I've never seen the cup- verb used without some negative implications, though Cicrero's rants about Catiline probably don't do any favors to his opponent anyway), and the core difference in the theology of concupiscence revolves around original sin in most cases (or so it seems, again, Protestants vary widely, so I speak from a specific background rather than categorically for the whole). Wikipedia is really a great source of information on this debate, but to sum it up:

Catholicism (at least at the time) teaches that the original nature of man is good. Protestantism teaches that the original nature of man is evil.

For Catholicism, because human nature is good, even though humans are not corrupted by sin they only fall into sin when they commit an action, rather than thinking selfishly. For Protestantism, the focus on the inherent evil in mankind means that even contemplation of actions that are selfish and self-serving, rather than Christ-centered and selfless (to a reasonable extent), is in and of itself wrong, even if the act is not committed. because it is a manifestation of the evil within the nature of a person.

Protestants believe that concupiscence can never truly be eliminated, but sanctifying grace can play a role in turning it around. Catholicism does not consider selfishness in and of itself wrong, it is the action that makes up the sin, not the thought.

Part of the reason you don't see much on concupiscence in Protestant traditions is that many Protestants consider it itself to be a sin; from my enrollment in the Nazarene church and a nondenominational Protestant church, I can tell you that at least in the more "conservative" groups it is definitely considered a sin, and even in some of the more mainstream ones as well (for instance, a passage is often cited where Jesus compares looking after a woman and lusting in one's heart to adultery, which is the background for the Protestant theology on the matter).

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    "Protestantism teaches that the original nature of man is evil." Really? That sounds more Manichean or Albigensian. – Geremia Sep 24 '19 at 23:45

If you want to understand Catholic teaching you really ought to consult the Catechism. After all, authentic teachings are always going to be more accurate than what you have 'heard'.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches that Adam and Eve were constituted in an original "state of holiness and justice" (CCC 375, 376 398), free from concupiscence (CCC 377). The preternatural state enjoyed by Adam and Eve afforded endowments with many prerogatives which, while pertaining to the natural order, were not due to human nature as such. Principal among these were a high degree of infused knowledge, bodily immortality and freedom from pain, and immunity from evil impulses or inclinations. In other words, the lower or animal nature in man was perfectly subject to the control of reason, the will (subject to GOD,) and most importantly, GOD. Besides this, the Catholic Church teaches that our first parents were also endowed with sanctifying grace by which they were elevated to the supernatural order.[1] By sinning, however, Adam lost this original "state," not only for himself but for all human beings (CCC 416).

According to Catholic theology man has not lost his natural faculties: by the sin of Adam he has been deprived only of the Divine gifts to which his nature had no strict right: the complete mastery of his passions, exemption from death, sanctifying grace, and the vision of God in the next life. The Creator, whose gifts were not due to the human race, had the right to bestow them on such conditions as He wished and to make their conservation depend on the fidelity of the head of the family. A prince can confer a hereditary dignity on condition that the recipient remains loyal, and that, in case of his rebelling, this dignity shall be taken from him and, in consequence, from his descendants. It is not, however, intelligible that the prince, on account of a fault committed by a father, should order the hands and feet of all the descendants of the guilty man to be cut off immediately after their birth.[2]

As a result of original sin, according to Catholics, human nature has not been totally corrupted (as opposed to the teaching of Luther and Calvin); rather, human nature has only been weakened and wounded, subject to ignorance, suffering, the domination of death, and the inclination to sin and evil (CCC 405, 418). This inclination toward sin and evil is called "concupiscence" (CCC 405, 418). Baptism, Catholics believe, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God. The inclination toward sin and evil persists, however, and he must continue to struggle against concupiscence (CCC 2520).

Source: Wikipedia entry on Concupiscence - Catholic teaching section.


¹ Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Terrestrial Paradise

² Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Original Sin

  • You have explained the Catholic view exactly as I understand it. +1 for that. My question is actually not what is the Catholic view but why is the word as you explained it 'concupiscence' key in separating a Catholic view from a Protestant one. Mind you. I guess you have partly explained it in your analogy of the Prince cutting off limbs of Adam's descendants but that is not theology proper. but at least I can see that is what Calvinism seems to you as you view it from a far distance. still worth a +1. – Mike Sep 27 '13 at 12:53

The Fifth Session of the Council of Trent (On Original Sin), June 1546, condemned the Protestant views of original sin while elucidating the Catholic doctrine. Its fifth anathematization mentions concupiscence:

  1. If anyone denies that by the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ which is conferred in baptism, the guilt of original sin is remitted, or says that the whole of that which belongs to the essence of sin is not taken away, but says that it is only canceled or not imputed, let him be anathema.

    this holy council perceives and confesses that in the one baptized there remains concupiscence or an inclination [fomitem*] to sin, which, since it is left for us to wrestle with, cannot injure those who do not acquiesce but resist manfully by the grace of Jesus Christ; indeed, he who shall have striven lawfully shall be crowned [2 Tim 2:5]. This concupiscence, which the Apostle sometimes calls sin [Rom. 6:12; 7:8], the holy council declares the Catholic Church has never understood to be called sin in the sense that it is truly and properly sin in those born again, but in the sense that it is of sin and inclines to sin. But if anyone is of the contrary opinion, let him be anathema.

    English transl. source

*lit. "kindling-wood" or "tinder"


The significant difference comes when you include gnomic disposition developed from Greek theology. St. Maximos the Confessor expanded concupiscence to be a property of our human personhood. It's a desire of will. Apart from grace this desire is predisposed away from God. This disposition of will missed the mark (in Hebrew hamartia). This is why St. James said once the desire is conceived it will give birth to sin. In itself not sinful. You can view gnomic/concupiscence as a vector. It missed the mark and point to something else other than to please God. Grace is like magnet it aligns our desire to the target. This is why according to St. Thomas Aquinas, grace perfected nature. Grace transformed our dispositional desire towards what pleases God. This is an indispensable soteriological concept for Catholic and Orthodox. Some Eastern Orthodox might argue that Maximos' gnomic disposition is entirely different than Augustine's concupiscence. But in Eastern rites Catholicism, we see these as two distinguishable explanations describing the same underlying soteriological concept.

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