Late one night, when St. Augustine was a youth, he and his buddies, “a group of bad youngsters,” stripped a pear tree of its fruit. They ate some of it but threw most of it to the pigs. The young Augustine didn’t steal the pears because he was hungry, or even because he desired them. He stole for the thrill of stealing. “Foul was the evil,” he said, “and I loved it” (Confessions, 2).
I had a similar experience when I was a boy: I tried to steal a toy gun even though I had $20 in my pocket—which at the time I considered a small fortune. A friend and I wandered around the toy department with a forced casualness. Our awkward movements caught the attention of a security guard, who caught us with our pockets full of loot. We didn’t steal because we couldn’t afford the toys nor because we really wanted them. We did it for the thrill. We wanted to do something evil.
If someone had asked me if I wanted to commit a sin, I would have said no. But the truth was that I was overpowered by the desire to do something wrong. The word for that is concupiscence.
When desire to do something wrong springs up within us—often without our consent—we have an opportunity to either give in or build virtue by reigning in the flesh with the will. The desire to commit a sin is not sinful in itself. The sin comes when we give our consent to the evil desire. Just as Adam and Eve didn’t sin until they chose the forbidden fruit, so with us, our temptations themselves are not sinful. This point is often misunderstood and is a major difference between Catholic and Protestant theology.
We Are Not Dung
Most Protestants consider concupiscence itself to be sinful. Martin Luther was tormented for many years by his inability to overcome his fallen nature. He found peace only in the thought that man is depraved and simply can’t avoid sin. He and other Protestant Reformers were convinced that even our good works are nothing but sin.
This doctrine is known as total depravity and is accepted by many Protestants. In this view human nature is steeped in sin, and man’s only hope for salvation is confessing his faith and believing in the Lord as his Savior. With faith, the “cloak of righteousness” covers over the filth of whatever sins may have corrupted the soul. It is oft-repeated (albeit unverified) that Luther said Jesus covers up our sinfulness as snow covers a dunghill.
This is a far cry from the Catholic understanding of forgiveness, in which Jesus wipes the sin away completely through the sacrament of confession.
Similarly, Luther’s teachings—which greatly influenced the Reformers and modern-day Protestants—skewed the traditional understanding of the relationship between faith and works:
- “It does not matter what people do; it only matters what they believe. . . . God does not need our actions” (Luther’s Works, Erlangen, vol. 29, p. 126).
- “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but have stronger faith and rejoice in Christ, who is the victor of sin, death, and the world. Do not for a moment imagine that this life is the abiding place of justice: Sin must be committed. . . . Sin cannot tear you away from him, even though you commit adultery a hundred times a day and commit as many murders” (A Letter from Luther to Melancthon, n. 99, August 1, 1521).
Luther’s words are shocking for Catholics, as they undermine our understanding of free will. Gerard Wegemer, a professor of English at the University of Dallas and a prominent scholar of St. Thomas More, points out the dangers of such a position. Wegemer describes More’s reaction to the works and teachings of the Reformers:
They deny free will and thus ascribe responsibility for evil to God, not to his creatures. At the same time, the “one special thing” they use to spice everything else is a doctrine of liberty that teaches that “having faith, they need nothing else.” . . . Luther’s denial of free will “plainly sets forth all the world to wretched living.” After all, if the way we act is not within our control, what incentive is there to struggle against one’s passions and temptations? Furthermore, if our actions make no difference to God, why should they make any difference to us? More considers Luther’s denial of free will to be “the very worst and most mischievous heresy that was ever thought upon, and also the most mad” (Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage, Scepter, 123–25).
Invitation to Hypocrisy
Luther’s denial of free will remains a stumbling block for many good Christians who strive for virtue and holiness. This basic misunderstanding is made especially harmful when coupled with the common “once saved, always saved” mentality. The danger of this belief is that it can give rise to a disconnect between how one lives and what one believes: If it is impossible for me to overcome sin, and through my faith I’m assured salvation, then what keeps me from living a blatantly duplicitous life? Our modern culture is rife with examples of Christians—Catholics included—who go to church every Sunday and yet live in a way that is incompatible with Christ’s teachings.
We are called to serve God with all our faculties, both natural and supernatural. We must use our free will to choose what is good and holy and avoid what is evil. If we don’t have authentic free will, as many Protestants have claimed, how can we possibly live an upright Christian life? How can we freely follow Jesus’ command in the New Testament when he quoted Deuteronomy, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37)?
If all we do is fraught with sin, as the Reformers taught, why bother to strive for virtue?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, on the other hand, says:
The way of perfection passes by way of the cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis [self-denial] and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes (CCC 2015).
We have a fallen nature, but we are not snow-covered dung. Rather, as Paul said, we make up for what is lacking in the suffering of Christ (cf. Col. 1:24). So when we offer our struggles and good works to Christ, they multiply and unite with his and help to build up the body of Christ, the Church. The “dunghill” is in reality fertile soil. Our cooperation with God’s grace nurtures the soil to produce good fruit: “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).
By making use of the sacraments, prayerfully examining our consciences each day, and aggressively working to build virtue, we can be assured that when we call upon Christ, he will aid us in our daily struggle for holiness so that we can say with Paul at the end of this life, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).