Concupiscence Is Not a Sin

A reader wrote in to ask what I think about this story, where a young boy underwent monstrous “reparative therapy” because he exhibited feminine behavior, only to end up killing himself at 38.

As you may have gathered, I think it monstrous. This will no doubt confuse people who have noted that I think homosexual acts to be sinful and believe much homosexual agitprop to be militant, intolerant, and totalitarian in intent.

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So why do I think this particular “therapy” monstrous? For the same reason I oppose totalitarian attempts and acts of violence calculated to force me to approve of homosexual acts: because I believe in human freedom and dignity.

Here’s the thing: Grace builds on and cooperates with nature. Some males, beginning at a very young age, behave in feminine ways. Who knows why. But whatever the origin, such behavior does not necessarily signify a homosexual orientation, much less homosexual acts — which are the only thing that the Church reckons as sinful.

But this “therapy” began with the assumption of absolute contempt for the victim — a five-year-old boy. It saw his nature (whatever that might have been) as an enemy to be destroyed, not as it is for all of us: a gift of God damaged by the effects of the Fall and intended for glory. It’s a deeply Calvinist take on nature. The goal was to beat a presumed homosexuality out of the poor kid, rather than find out who the poor kid was. Small wonder he eventually committed suicide.

Christ does not redeem us from the effects of the Fall by brutalizing us. My take on homosexuality (to which I feel no temptation) is the same as my take on gluttony (a temptation with which I have struggled all my life). Both are disordered appetites that we may, but do not have to, express in actions. Depending on where we are in the cultural spectrum, we will tend to be excusing or merciless.

On the cultural Left, homosexuality, both in temptation and act, is relentlessly excused, while gluttony is vilified as disgusting and immoral. Indeed, even people (such as those struggling with hypothyroidism) who are overweight through no fault of their own tend to get written off as pigs in that milieu.

Meanwhile, on the cultural Right, gluttony is a peccadillo, while even the whiff of homosexual orientation is treated as contemptible. What few tend to do is treat disordered appetites as disordered appetites or distinguish between temptation and act, concupiscence and sin. Indeed, many Christians no longer even know what concupiscence is. So: a brief refresher.


Baptism removes original sin and confers the life of the Trinity. But it is grace, not magic. And because of this, the Church teaches that the effects of original sin remain, much as we can still have a “trick knee” after the knee surgery is finished and healed. Baptism gives us the life of grace to strengthen us. But precisely why we need strength is that we are still left to struggle with the darkened mind, weakened will, and disordered appetites — in a word, concupiscence — that result from original sin.

The reason this matters is that concupiscence is not, in itself, sinful. It is merely the “tinder for sin.” So what? Well, if you believe that sin is the reality of who we are — in short, if you subscribe to some sort of half-baked notion of Total Depravity — and you believe that virtue is the mask, then every temptation will be seen not as a moral battlefield upon which we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, with the help of a loving Father, but as further proof of what scum you are. If you believe that every time you are tempted, God is standing there saying, “And you call yourself a Christian! If you really loved me, you wouldn’t feel tempted! This just shows what you really are!” you are going to react differently than you would to a God who is rooting for you, interceding for you, and supplying you with grace to help you in your hour of trial.

If every temptation is seen as further proof of “what you really are,” then every repentance will be dismissed as one more phony attempt to deny who you “really are.” If every temptation is seen as the field of battle upon which you are being given the chance to join with Christ in the great struggle for holiness, then you will see your struggles in a very different light.

Understanding concupiscence makes the difference between seeing God as a Father who is pleased with the heroism of his Spirit-filled children or as an impatient, exasperated Critic who never has a good word to say to losers like us.

If we do not grasp the Church’s teaching on concupiscence, there are two equal and opposite errors into which we can fall when dealing with disordered appetites. We can pretend the appetite is not disordered and demand everybody else pretend that a disordered appetite is a “gift from God.” This is what I object to in much homosex agitprop: It aims to force people not merely to bear with a sinner in his weakness, but to celebrate the sin and muzzle those who will not comply with the lie.

Or we can err by going all Calvinist and identifying nature as essentially sinful — as though sin constitutes our humanity and redemption consists of smashing and annihilating our human nature. This was the approach taken in the “Sissy Boy” therapy, and it is just as contrary to Catholic faith as the embrace and affirmation of homosex as a virtue.

Not being homosexual myself, I don’t presume to say how homosexuals should cooperate with grace in order to confront this disordered appetite. For that, I would talk to a same-sex-attracted person who is a devout and holy Catholic. They do exist, after all. Personally, I suspect there is no one-size-fits-all way to cooperate with grace in redeeming our disordered sexual appetites (and everyone, not just homosexuals, has disordered sexual appetites). That’s because, being a glutton, I know there is no one-size-fits-all remedy for disordered appetites of the stomach. One thing I do know is that disordered appetites are not intended by God to define us, nor are they a license for me to demand that everybody in the room celebrate gluttony as a gift of God (except in satire).


Not being a therapist or a spiritual director, nor spectacularly successful at the long, slow slog of taming disordered appetites myself, I will not presume to hand out free advice to people grappling with temptations that I have never felt. I will simply conclude by remarking that my own experience with disordered appetite has taught me three things.

First, neither concupiscence nor sin is a “gift of God.” They are things that the gift of God (grace) is ordered to help us overcome and triumph over. Therefore, while concupiscence is not sin and sin is not unforgiveable, we cannot deal with it by pretending it is a “gift” or demanding that everybody affirm us in our okayness and pretending that our disordered appetites are peachy. They aren’t. They are disordered. I don’t need somebody to offer me a donut in order to make me feel better about my gluttony. I need them to support me as I try to eat less and move more. It seems to me that somebody struggling with other disordered appetites needs much the same combination of support and moral firmness.

Second, you’d be surprised how often people inclined to harshness toward human weakness tell themselves that their brutality is “tough love.” It’s one thing when somebody is trying to make ridiculous justifications for sin and even attempting to threaten those who rightly maintain that sins are sins. Christians have an obligation to defend the truth about the Church’s moral teaching even when they are unpopular. Sometimes we have to say hard things and even to offer rebuke to intransigent sinners. But many is the time that Christians indulge the sins of anger or violence against innocents or penitents while congratulating themselves on their “courage” or, in a tedious and overworked strategy, comparing themselves to Jesus versus the moneychangers. Indeed, I have little doubt that the architects of the Sissy Boy Experiment perpetually congratulated themselves on their “tough love.”

Certainly, I have had any number of Christians write me and say things like, “Hey fatso! Gluttony is a sin! Why don’t you lose some weight, piggy? You’re disgusting.” Such folk may lie to themselves that they are “rebuking” in Christian love, but, of course, they are simply speaking in malice by stabbing a penitent in the rawest spot of his conflicted heart. They mean to be cruel. They are the reason so many people struggling with concupiscence give up and embrace their sin — or suicide. After all, if even penitence is rewarded by Christians with a vicious kick in the teeth, then why believe in all that mercy stuff Christians go on about?

Nonetheless, bad and abusive Christians are not a reason to give up on the grace of God. They are not the voice of God, merely sinful people living out the consequences of sin through their big mouths. The truth is, we are created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ. Because of this, the deepest truth about us is not our weakness, concupiscence, or sin, but Jesus Christ. He is even the truth about big-mouthed and abusive people who kick the penitent when they are down. When we are tempted or sin, we are not stripping off the mask and revealing the awful truth about who we really are. We are putting on the mask and obscuring the truth about who we really are. It doesn’t matter how often the accuser lies and tells us that our disordered appetites or sins constitute the truth about us. The accuser is a liar and the father of lies. Don’t listen to him. Listen to God, who loves you, delights in you, gives grace and mercy in your weakness, and wills your happiness.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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