Concupiscence is natural, not due to original sin

Anthony Zimmerman
God did not vitiate our bodies because of original sin. Zimmerman Library
Reproduced with Permission

The concept that concupiscence is a result of original sin is not likely to be a part of the deposit of Faith that the Church received from the Apostles. Saint Irenaeus (d. 207), an early witness to the Tradition, who knew Saint Polycarp, who know St. John the Apostle, did not teach that Adam's body was changed by the sin to become suddenly subject to concupiscence. Quite to the contrary, he assumed that Adam grew up from childhood like every normal person, and that the sin was for him a learning experience. He appears to know naught about a lack of concupiscence in Adam before the sin. His extensive treatment of Adam in his writings, together with an absence of any teaching that concupiscence came as a result of original sin, is a practically certain indication that there was and is no Apostolic Tradition that concupiscence is not natural, and that it was inflicted on man as a punishment for original sin.

It was Saint Augustine (d. 430) who made the connection some 200 years after Irenaeus. Martin Luther picked it up from Augustine in an exaggerated form. The Council of Trent discussed whether there is a connection, but the discussion ended inconclusively. It stated indeed that concupiscence "is from sin and inclines to sin" (Canon 5), without defining that it began with original sin. Trent also declared that:

This holy Synod confesses and perceives that there remains in the baptized concupiscence or desire (fomitem); although this is left to be wrestled with, it cannot harm those who do not consent but manfully resist by the grace of Jesus Christ (Canon 5)1.

During the discussion at a general session of the Council of Trent, on May 31, 1546, Armacanus made an intervention declaring that concupiscence is indeed a "punishment" for original sin.2 Having said that, the Fathers nevertheless did not include his opinion in the final definitions. Other Fathers asked why concupiscence, if it was a punishment for original sin, was not taken away when the sin was forgiven through Baptism. The question was not answered. On the following June 1st Canarus argued that concupiscence is obviously a part of human nature, not something sinful:

"Original sin, in its actuality, is forgiven through Baptism.... All sin is taken away through Baptism... Concupiscence remains as something that a man constituted in pure nature would also have. Therefore it is not sin, since what which is natural is not sin."3

The protocol does not record a response to this significant intervention. The Canarus statement was a direct contradiction of Saint Augustine's claim that concupiscence began with original sin. Until today, Augustine's teaching is still a general household belief.

Augustine: concupiscence began with original sin

The classic passage in which Saint Augustine banners his claim that Adam was punished with concupiscence immediately after original sin is found in his book The City of God, Book 13, Chapter 13:

For, as soon as our first parents had transgressed the commandment, divine grace forsook them, and they were confounded at their own wickedness, and therefore they took fig leaves (which were possibly the first that came to hand in their troubled state of mind) and covered their shame; for though their members remained the same, they had shame now where they had none before. They experienced a new motion of their flesh, which had become disobedient to them, in strict retribution of their own disobedience to God. For the soul, reveling in its own liberty, and scorning to serve God, was itself deprived of the command it had formerly maintained over the body. And because it had willfully deserted its superior Lord, it no longer held its own inferior servant; neither could it hold the flesh subject, as it would always have been able to do had it remained itself subject to God. Then began the flesh to lust against the Spirit (Gal 5,17), in which strife we are born, deriving from the first transgression a seed of death, and bearing in our members, and in our vitiated nature, the contest or even victory of the flesh.4

Augustine explains and defends this concept through successive chapters of City of God, Book 13. He next asks how children might have been conceived in paradise if Adam had not sinned. He responds in Book 14, chapter 16, that this could have been achieved without sexual gratification:

Although, therefore, lust may have many objects, yet when no object is specified, the word lust usually suggests to the mind the lustful excitement of the organs of generation. And this lust not only takes possession of the whole body and outward members, but also makes itself felt within, and moves the whole man with a passion in which mental emotion is mingled with bodily appetite, so that the pleasure which results is the greatest of all bodily pleasures. So possessing indeed is this pleasure, that at the moment of time in which it is consummated, all mental activity is suspended. What friend of wisdom and holy joys, who being married, but knowing, as the apostle says, "how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor, not in the disease of desire, as the Gentiles who know not God," would not prefer if this were possible, to beget children without this lust so that in this function of begetting offspring the members created for this purpose should not be stimulated by the heat of lust, but should be actuated by his volition, in the same way as his other members serve him for their respective ends?

Augustine reasoned that the sex drive ought to remain under the control of reason, and that its spontaneous impulse was a spiritual disorder since it practically eclipsed reason. St. Thomas would not quite agree to this. He observed that it is a choice of reason whether to initiate sexual action, and is therefore under control of reason in this manner. He also reasoned that, though the immoderate passion of the sex drive is punishment for original sin, sexual pleasure would have been present in paradise also, but that concupiscence would linger less in the pleasure.5 The English Province, Benziger Bros., New York, 1948. I,98,2.

Brain structures do not admit motor control of the emotions

Augustine's concept of motor control over the emotions is not compatible with the biology of the brain as we know it today. We invoke the help of specialists to provide information about brain structures and the neural substratum that processes the emotions.6

The brain is divided into three functional units that operate in a biological inter-dependence:

The stembrain controls basic life functions such as breathing, heart beat, endocrine output, body temperature, and general metabolism. It continues to operate when we are unconscious.

The midbrain is the biological agency of our emotions (read concupiscence). Its neurons process the activities that we consciously perceive as love, joy, tenderness, hatred, sadness, envy, pride, ambition.

The neocortex or forebrain is distinctly human, a species-specific development beyond that of non-human animals. It capacitates humans for rational and linguistic operations. Geographic areas of the neocortex are mapped for their specific functions, such as abstraction and speech, for motor control of foot, body, hand, face, eye, and areas which process vision, hearing and other functions. Yet none of these neocortex areas operates as an isolated performer. Area operations are in vital connection with the entire brain.

The thinking forebrain as a whole operates in biological conjunction with the emotive midbrain, as well as with the basic life ganglia of the stembrain. It cannot operate by itself, without the combined assistance of the midbrain as a working partner that provides awareness or consciousness, and of the stembrain that supplies integrated life functions. The entire brain family must operate as a unit if the forebrain is to think and to perform voluntary action.

But the midbrain is different insofar as it can emote without need of the forebrain. However, it cannot operate without assistance from the stembrain.

The stembrain is different again. It can operate without help from either the midbrain or forebrain. We have, therefore, three brain compartments, the rational forebrain, the emotive midbrain, and the vital stembrain.7

The Sex Drive, Gateway to All Emotions

Geneticist Jerome Lejeune observed that the sex drive ganglia are in the gateway between the forebrain and the midbrain. Saint Augustine was particularly insistent that this drive was under motor control before the sin but not after. He reasoned that in paradise the genital functions were under motor control, like hands and feet, and lacked sexual "lust".8 Lejeune notes that the forebrain projection of the genital organs is at the upper extremity of the Rolando fissure in the interhemispheric surface, very close to the midbrain. It is therefore the one and only cortical representation to be in contact with the limbic locale of emotions. It follows that we are so constituted that whatever concerns genital activity involves also moral activity, neurologically speaking. This points to the impossibility of mastering emotional behavior if we do not first master conscious and deliberate genital behavior.9

Professor Lejeune here makes the significant observation that voluntary sexual discipline is the gateway through which we must pass to take control of emotional life. The very important conclusion follows that one who governs his sexual appetite reasonably well is thereby in the key position to control all the emotions. Adolescents who surrender their neo-cortical freedom by yielding to sexual abandon, thereby stunt growth toward emotional maturity.

Augustinian "motor control of emotions" not possible

Augustine spoke of an alleged ability of innocent Adam to control the emotions by voluntary fiat, Whether to bring them into operation or to call them to a halt. That concept translated into brain functions would indicate that in Adam the forebrain was able to override the midbrain. But that is not the way our brain functions today.

Today the emotive midbrain operates antecedently to the forebrain. It capacitates the forebrain by initiating awareness in the forebrain of midbrain activities. Unless the midbrain takes an initiative, the forebrain is practically paralyzed. Only after the midbrain capacitates the forebrain for action can this forebrain begin to influence the midbrain. Once capacitated, the forebrain can to some extent inhibit activities of the midbrain, and can divert attention away from its exciting object to thus shut down the midbrain's heated activities indirectly. The higher cortex, the seat of reason and will, is more effective in inhibiting the free flow of the emotional functions than in initiating them, explains Timothy Gannon, following Paul Maclean:

The cortical centers are much more effective in inhibiting the free flow of these functions than in initiating them... It is as if the commands of reason are too harsh and too abstract to be translated directly into behavior.10

The degree of autonomy exercised by the stembrain over the ongoing functions of life, such as heart beat and regulation of the blood sugar, makes direct control of its functions by the cortex impossible. Were the forebrain able to control the stembrain, mistakes made by forebrain calculations might prove to be fatal. The stembrain controls the endocrine glands, keeps the blood sugar in balance, distributes energy to the cells, and regulates body temperature without need of conscious direction by the forebrain. This allows the forebrain to engage in intellectual activities without need of overseeing the supporting vital functions.

Between the life functions controlled by the stembrain, and the thinking functions seated in the cortex, is the midbrain area which processes emotions. It is to this area that our attention is drawn in our discourse about concupiscence. If today our neocortex cannot exercise complete motor control over the neurological activity of the limbic midbrain, nor of the brainstem, then how did Adam do so unless his brain was structured differently than ours is? That is, unless his forebrain could override the midbrain and stembrain.

Adam, a miracle man, or semi-angel?

If Adam had our three-compartment brain, but could draw directly on spiritual powers to activate or deactivate the limbic midbrain and the stembrain, he would be a "miracle man" with mind control over biology. He could at will simply by-pass normal biological processes by means of powers of the spirit. We might call it "mind-over-matter" or angelic powers.

The alternative that Adam might have been able to deploy biological functions at the behest of the forebrain is not within the realm of biological possibility. It would mean that Adam could govern his emotions with instant motor control. His neocortex would then use neurological pathways to overrule the limbic system. If Adam could do that, then he would likewise need to consciously take over the functions of the stembrain, such as regulation of the heartbeat, of endocrine production, temperature control, blood sugar adjustments. That would necessitate an entire restructuring of all other bodily functions. Adam, then, would be so busy regulating his basic vital systems that he might be able to do little else. Even so, it wouldn't function. The body system is too complicated to be governed by forebrain calculations. Such an Adam would be a piece of biological junk.

Our bodies can function because the limbic midbrain mediates to make the neocortex aware. The neocortex responds through the biologically established mediation of the limbic system and the stembrain. This adapts the commands of the neocortex to the biological capacities of the body's organs. Gannon writes:

And this is precisely how we experience emotions; as an awareness intervening between the clear dictates of reason and the appetites controlled by lower centers... To speak of sexual functions as if they could be turned on or off by a simple directive of reason ... is a grave error.... The whole triune brain functions as a unit with the three levels completely integrated...

As the feelings and emotions arise in consciousness they bring with them an awareness of the self, the awareness of how we feel about the activity in question, and an incipient movement toward or away from it. This pattern of the manner in which the brain functions also goes a long way in helping us to accept the paradox ... that it is the feelings and emotions that make the brain work, rather than the other way around.11

Emotions cannot function in the brain alone but are in vital dependence upon the physical teamwork of the entire body. Thus the emotion of anger, agitating the nerves in the midbrain, stimulates the stembrain to send a message to the adrenal glands to produce and pour into the blood stream a series of hormonal stimuli which are targeted for the receptors in different organs of the body. Anger is not a mere "tempest in a teapot" of the brain, but involves myriads of supporting systems and operations in the body. To support the anger and to make it physically effective, the body ups the tempo of the heartbeat, increases the concentration of sugar in the blood to fuel the muscle fibers, tenses the muscles, increases alertness of eyes and ears, flushes the face, perhaps erects hairs in their follicles and flashes lightning from the eyes.

To do battle when angry, the blood sugar is consumed at a higher rate than when the body is at emotional rest. The level of sugar in the blood is critical to total bodily health. We pay a great price if the sugar level gets even slightly off balance:

Sugar is one of the body's energy producing substances and we must have just the right amount, no more and no less. We walk a biological tightrope between coma [insufficient sugar] and convulsion [excess of sugar], the possible results of relatively light changes in blood-sugar levels.12

If Adam had been capable of giving direct orders to his body to be angry, or to stop anger instantly, he would likely have made impossible demands upon his biological system. Our system functions best when the commands of the neocortex are filtered through and seconded by the limbic midbrain, which in turn excites the reactions in the stembrain, which then makes the body cooperate in accordance with the orders of the remote "commander in chief." As a result, the passions may appear to be "stubborn" or irrationally persistent. But we should recognize that there is a biological reason for this "irrational persistence." Complex and time-consuming biological processes necessarily result in measured responses to the passions. A response cannot be instant, but only within the limitations and parameters of biological responses. The "biological flywheel" can speed up only gradually, and it slows up at its own pace. Direct orders to do otherwise issued by the forebrain could wreck the system and could easily be fatal if the system would try to obey a usurping forebrain "dictator."

The body must provide the biological basis for any and every action which is tinged with emotion. It supports anger with a modification of the organism which equips it for a battle, or for defeat in helpless frustration. The entire body needs to be adjusted to perform a sexual episode, to generate a spasm of envy, to knot the body in hate, to expand the emotion of love. If Adam would suddenly stop the emotion during mid-performance, there would be no combustion of the abnormal amount of blood sugar, the heightened tension of the muscles would remain unrelaxed, the body would go into convulsions, perhaps into shock and a life-threatening situation. He would poison his systems with uncombusted deposits.

Even sleeping and awakening might be complicated in the Augustinian system. If one would command the body to sleep, there would be no automatic way to wake up again because the commanding function would be asleep.

Contrary to a popular misunderstanding that the passions are in disorder as a result of original sin, we ought to recognize the marvelous ingenuity of our harmonious bodily system. The emotions and the vital functions empower the thinking person to be aware of what he is doing, and to make free decisions.

Human nature before and after original sin

Theologian Canon Herve treated extensively about the condition of Adam before and after original sin. He studied Church Councils, the Fathers, and theologians, and offered his findings In Volume II, pp 415 ff., of his four volume Latin text "Manuale Theologiae Dogmaticae."13 His text was used for many years in Catholic seminaries. He finds that there is no proof in the sources of revelation that the natural powers of will and intellect were diminished by original sin. The sources indicate that Adam lost supernatural gifts by his sin, but do not teach that he suffered direct loss to his natural faculties.

Theologians agree, states Herve, that the loss of the supernatural gifts made a great difference in man. They mention four wounds: ignorance, malice, weakness, and concupiscence. Some theologians discuss whether this wounding of nature occurred only by reason of the loss of the gratuitous gifts, or whether there was also a weakening of the natural powers; in other words, whether the state of man's nature is intrinsically weaker after the fall than it would have been in the state of pure nature.14

Herve mentions several theologians who actually hold that our natural faculties were weakened intrinsically by the fall, making them less inclined toward what is good, and more inclined toward what is evil. He names others that deny that any change took place in the natural faculties, either intrinsically or extrinsically. Herve agrees with a third wording, namely that there was a change, but that it was extrinsic and not intrinsic to our human nature.

The extrinsic difference is the historical fact that man was stripped of grace and gifts that he once had. In historical chronology. He was once in possession of gifts beyond those of his natural faculties, but now he is stripped of them - spoliatus. If grace had never been given to man, he would be merely naked - nudus. Except for this history, the nature of man is unchanged before and after the fall.15

Herve then observes that even without grace, man can know God as his Creator and his purpose of life. His will remains free, and he can perform naturally good works. He maintains with certainty that the natural faculties of man remain intact after original sin, without having suffered intrinsical harm. He also considers it unrealistic to conclude that one act of Adam would cause a habit of sin in himself such as would wound nature; much less would it induce an evil habit in the natures of his offspring. And he finds it repugnant to hold that God, who is all good and holy, would infuse into the soul of man any kind of positive inclination toward evil; or that He would purposely and directly lessen the natural powers of man to do good. Finally (ibid, 418) he invokes the authority of Thomas who asserts that if any person suffers some detriment in regard to nature, this appears to be not possible except by reason of a personal fault (cf. De Malo 5,2).

The book Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, by Dr. Ludwig Ott, translated from the German original, contains essentially the same teaching as that of Herve. He holds that the wounding of nature is not a diminution of gifts that belong to man in his natural state, but a loss of gifts over and above those of nature:

There is a controversy as to whether the wounding of nature consists exclusively in the lost of the praeternatural gifts, or whether human nature in addition is intrinsically weakened in an accidental manner. The former view, which is that adopted by St. Thomas and by most theologians, conceives the wounding of nature as relative only, i.e. by comparison with its primitive condition, while the latter view conceives it as absolute and visualizes it as a worsening in comparison with the pure state of nature... The former view is to be preferred... However, it must be admitted that fallen human nature, in consequence of individual and social aberrations, has declined below the state of pure nature.16

We presume that Dr. Ott refers in this last sentence to the unregenerated world, not to the people who have been baptized and live in the state of sanctifying grace.

We ourselves can observe that our natures are truly wonderful. Our brains, for example, are equipped with those 100 billion coordinating neurons that enable us to focus and rest our spiritual thoughts on the bracing and helpful props of phantasms, all arranged by God as a magnificent living computer. Should we then find it reasonable that God would put a virus into that computer because Adam sinned? Or that because of Adam, God would now paralyze the free will? We find that to be absurd. Surely God wants us to reach heaven. Why, then, should He put brakes on our natural faculties because Adam sinned, and so render our quest to reach heaven more difficult? God is for us, not against us.

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