Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Remedy for Concupiscence

One of the traditional reasons for marriage that Catholics talk about is as a "remedy for concupiscence", drawing I take it on Paul's observations that it's best to be celibate, but it is better to marry than to burn.

The way many people take this is to say that some people simply aren't suited to not have sex, and thus marriage gives them an area in which they are entitled to have sex.

This ends up being problematic in many ways. It can lead to one spouse claiming a 'spousal right' to have sex even if the other doesn't want to. It can also lead to married people claiming that if they need to avoid pregnancy, they should have a right to use artificial birth control despite Catholic teaching to the contrary, because clearly marriage involves a right and need to have sex.

I'm wondering if one of the ways that marriage is a "remedy for concupiscence" is that marriage takes what might otherwise be a raw desire for sex as sensation or fantasy, and instead ties it to another person who needs to be treated well and loved. In this sense, part of the "remedy for concupiscence" is realizing that sexual desire can't be morally satisfied in the abstract, it must be dealt with in the context of a specific other person who also has emotional and physical needs and vulnerabilities. In some sense, when single, the sexual drive is about "I want sex" whereas if you're living marriage virtuously sex must be thought of not just in terms of "what do I want" or "what does my spouse want" but "how do I treat my spouse lovingly?"


Brandon said...

That would make sense; 'remedy' in moral theology has most often meant actions that counter those tendencies that tend to create vices. So in Chaucer's Parson's Tale, the remedy for pride consists of acts of humility. Concupiscence is more basic than a vice, since vices are the kinds of things that spring from it, so one would expect 'remedy for concupiscence' to indicate that marriage is a powerful counter to our entire sinful tendency in these matters, rather than the sort of concession to that tendency that people often make it sound like. And as all remedies against vices have some connection, direct or indirect, to love of God and love of neighbor, one would expect a remedy for concupiscence to have at least some connection to them as well.

August said...

Before the nutcases took over, to deny your spouse was a mortal sin.

Darwin said...


It would be easier to understand your statement if you'd back it up with some quotes or citations of what you consider to be clear teachings from the pre-nutcase era.

Here's what I would say: Spouses do enter into a set of mutual obligations including sexual obligations to one another when they make their marriage vows. This means that it is wrong for one spouse to deny the other for selfish reasons. However, spouses also have a clear moral obligation to love and care for each other. This means that spouses also have an obligation not to demand of the other things which would cause harm or unhappiness.

Each spouse must treat the other with the highest regard for the other's good. This mean's that neither can expect to enforce some "right" upon the other without regard for the other's good. Each spouse must consider the desires and needs of the other as well as his/her own.

August said...

If it is wrong to deny, then it is wrong to be quiet about it to avoid this 'unhappiness.' Because then the person denied is allowing the denier to persist in this 'wrongness'.

I don't think the word 'right' is particularly helpful.

Jenny said...

Let's say August's wife gave birth this morning. Is she sinning when she denies him this evening? Why or why not?

Anonymous said...

I think Darwin is on the right track here.

Brandon's comment is a good one, but the comparison to, say, acts of humility as a remedy for pride raises the question: why is a vow of celibacy, which certainly commits one to act against concupiscent desires, never described as a "remedy for concupiscence"?

One of the weirder features of Catholic philosophical lexicon is that "concupiscence" seems to have two meanings. It sometimes refers to desires of the sensible appetites, i. e. to an intrinsically good and necessary thing. More often it refers in particular to desires of the sensible appetites that are contrary to reason. I'd love to know the history behind this. It's as bizarre as if a language had the same word for "food" and "rotten food" or a group of speakers repurposed their general word for sexual intercourse to mean fornication, although come to think of it I guess vernacular English has done something similar with the word "politics."

This linguistic conflation can't help but be associated with some fuzzy thinking on the matter, which is compounded by the double meaning of remedy. A remedy for your kidneys makes your kidneys healthy, but a remedy for a staff infection destroys a staff infection.

So a remedy for concupiscence could sensibly mean something that destroys disordered sensible desires (second sense of both words), or that makes sensible desires healthy again (first sense of both words). The mistake comes when sexual desire itself is thought of as something to be "remedied" in the sense of elimination. We observe that when we gratify the desire it leaves us alone for a little while, so we just need a way to get laid fairly regularly without God getting upset so that we can have a clear head the rest of the time. Marriage becomes like a supervised injection site for heroin addicts.

But there is something crazy about the idea that the main purpose of fulfilling a natural desire is just to get rid of the desire. It would be nature doing something in vain. Instead a better view comes from recognizing that sexual desire is good and natural to us, in which case it is not surprising that developing the habit of following the desire virtuously tends to reduce its disordered manifestations. By way of a classic, limping analogy, people who habitually indulge in junk food and people who consistently have too little to eat both tend to have unhealthy appetites for food, and getting in the habit of eating healthfully, adequately, and in moderation causes those disordered appetites to diminish.

Darwin said...


That's a very good distinction about the different ways that "remedy" is used.

It strikes me that perhaps an additional element of difficulty here is that within the Christian tradition there's a tendency (perhaps no longer, but certainly until the last hundred years or so) to see the best course as to be to conquer sexual desire entirely.

The second best option is then to train sexual desire in virtue, and marriage is the proper context for this. However, this isn't in the supervised doses of heroine sense, as you point out, but rather in that the moral rules that apply to marriage (fidelity, openness to children, love of the other which of course means wanting the best for the other rather than using the other) are designed to train sexual desire to a virtuous course.

Brandon said...


I don't think there's an obvious reason in which celibacy would be a remedy for concupiscence, though; in whatever sense it is used, concupiscence is a kind of desire or craving, and the mere vow not to marry doesn't do much about that. Even if one included continence in celibacy, as we often do, remedies are not generally mere abstentions in moral theology, but positive acts. Humility as a remedy for pride is not merely refraining from prideful things; it is going out of one's way to do humble things. That's the only way you can actually treat pride -- mere restraint from proud acts is not enough. This would make sense in the case of marriage: marriage involves actively subordinating craving to love. I'm not sure there's any obvious equivalent for vows of celibacy in general.

One could perhaps regard active ascetic discipline as a remedy for concupiscence; I seem to remember St. Jerome somewhere remarking that studying Hebrew was a treatment for concupiscence as a comment on its difficulty and the discipline required; he's using it as a figure of speech, but nature of the figure suggests that he at least conceived of ascetic discipline as some kind of treatment of concupiscence, although I don't know of any other cases. But it's notably the case that nobody thinks of remedy as the primary function of marriage -- it only ever comes up when looking at the functions of marriage in general -- and the primary reason the functions of marriage was an important topic was that it is a topic tied to the question of whether and in what way marriage was a sacrament. And, of course, marriage would be far and away more common and accessible than the life of a celibate ascetic.

I very much agree with the substance of your comment, though; I'm just not sure, with regard to the set-up, (1) that a vow of celibacy would be a parallel to begin with and (2) even it if it were, that it would be all that surprising that the notion of remedy is more front and center with marriage.

Agnes said...

"marriage gives them an area in which they are entitled to have sex."

I think any sort of being entitled to get whatever we want is contrary to Christian teaching, so any interpretation that leads up to this, at least at that point becomes faulty. We are not entitled to have sex, to have kids, to live in comfort etc.
Besides, isn't it another sort of objectivization of the other person if one marries to satisfy lust/to gain rights to the other's body (instead of to become one with the person and live a life together because we love each other)?

Billy Jack said...

(I was anonymous earlier, not sure why the name didn't show up)


Thanks for the response, your thoughts are perceptive about the question of what would constitute a positive act against lust.

Banshee said...

The original Latin meaning of "concupiscentia" is just "longing, desire."

So obviously it can mean "good desire" or "bad desire," just as there is good fervor and evil jealousy (same word, "zelus", for zeal or jealousy), good pride and evil pride, and so on.