SCHOLION: The three phases of temptation


I have an obligation as an Unreconstructed Ossified Manualist to remind (or in many cases teach) you about something before the big Memorial Day (PENTECOST) weekend.

The manualist I sometimes cite, Fr. Adolphe Tanquerey, writes about temptation in The Spiritual Life. (Great, clear book.  He doesn’t fool around.  UK link HERE.)

I found a brief exposition of temptation, citing Tanquerey and Augustine, in the new Manual of Minor Exorcisms:

The moral theologian Adolfe Tanquerey quotes the teaching of St Augustine to explain the three phases of temptation – suggestion, pleasure and consent.

He says, “Suggestion consists in the proposal to some evil.  Our imagination or our mind represents to us in a more or less vivid manner the attaction of the forbidden fruit.”

Then he describes how pleasure follows the suggestion: “Instinctively our lower tendencies are drawn towards the suggested evil and a certain pleasure is experienced.”

He adds, “this pleasure does not, as long as the will refuses to consent to it, constitute a sin.”

But then explains, “If on the contrary, the will delights in the pleasure, willingly enjoys it and consents to it, the sin is committed.”

Read.  Ponder.  Commit to memory.  Teach to children.  Remember when examining your conscience.

And don’t forget to GO TO CONFESSION.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Phillip says:

    My first exposure to this concept was in a rather good homily given at Sunday Mass a few months ago at Navy boot camp. It was pretty helpful to me when making my examinations. I used to be kind of scrupulous about confusing the attraction to sin with deliberate consent to sin. Understanding the difference has given me a lot of peace of mind.

  2. ContraMundum says:

    Also, it seems to me that most temptations begin with venial sins. They are deficient in one of the necessary ingredients — grave matter, full knowledge, full consent of the will. Once the venial sin is secured, the gravity, knowledge, or consent will be ratcheted up.

  3. acardnal says:

    “it seems to me that most temptations begin with venial sins.”

    Not sure I follow your reasoning ContraMundum. Venial sin is sin. Temptation is not sin. So . . . sin follows temptation; not “temptations begin with . . . sins.”

  4. ContraMundum says:

    I should have said, then, that in a series of related temptations, the first ones are temptations which, if acted upon, would be venial sins.

  5. ContraMundum says:

    Or, to borrow a phrase from far too many stories, “It all started innocently enough….”

  6. Timothy Mulligan says:

    I would also strongly recommend How to Resist Temptation, by Fr. Remler. It is published by Sophia Institute Press.

  7. flyfree432 says:

    I teach this to our children in our parish school of religion programs. I use an old Tom & Jerry cartoon as an example. The little devil and angel cats pop up on Tom’s shoulders and tempt him and he has to use his imagination and consent to trying to blow up Jerry with the dynamite. Simply being presented with the possibility of sin is not the same thing as sin. Somehow it helps them understand Jesus’ own temptation better as well.

  8. Centristian says:

    That’s easy enough, I think. It’s what constitutes “grave matter” that I always seem to be unclear on.

    Consenting to lust would, I suppose, be grave matter. A man entertains impure thoughts without restraint: grave matter. But suppose a man walks down the street to pass a woman whom he notices has a great pair of legs. He more than merely notices, he gets himself an eyeful. Then he looks again, and concedes to himself, “wow…niiiiice legs.” But not to paint all men as dogs, let’s suppose a woman walks outside of her house and let us then suppose that her handsome and fit young next door neighbor is mowing his lawn, shirtless, and she cannot help but be startled by his sculpted form. She not only approves but enjoys, then concedes to herself, “niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice.”

    Now, neither the man noticing the female pedestrian’s great legs nor the woman admiring the lawn mower’s sculpted torso actually entertained any impure thoughts, but they simply couldn’t take their eyes off of the physical attributes which they admired of their unwitting temptors.

    Was that lust? Was it gravely so? Venially? Or was it no sin at all?

    A man breaks into someone’s home and robs it, raking all of the victim’s valuables. Grave matter. How about a woman who spends most of her time at work on Facebook and socializing with her co-workers? She’s stealing, too. Is that grave matter, however?

    A man raised in the Catholic faith denies the existence of God and declares Jesus to be a fraud. Grave matter. How about a man raised in the Faith who becomes confused by alot of contradictory teaching bandied about in the Church, causing him to seriously wonder if it isn’t all just a fiction. He doesn’t outright deny the dogmas of the faith, but he permits himself to read the Wikipedia entry entitled “Atheism”. Is that grave matter? Is that a sin or just a temptation?

    It seems to me it isn’t always necessarily a cakewalk to discern grave matter from venial, or even necessarily sin from temptation.

  9. Dismas says:

    I struggle constantly with the distinctions between suggestion, pleasure and consent. The only way I find peace is to be grateful that my conscience can’t settle the matter and for confession. It’s my hope, and it seems, that each confession brings me closer and closer to clarifying these distinctions for my intellect and conscience. However, where I still have problems and can’t seem to find peace is the requirement for no attachment to sin to gain plenary indulgences. How as a concupiscent creature can I ever have no attachment to sin? What does no attachment to sin mean in the light of suggestion, pleasure and consent?

  10. OrthodoxChick says:


    I don’t think that just noticing that someone is attractive or even acknowledging to oneself that someone is attractive is a sin. I think it’s if we allow our my mind to take it to the next level (ie. telling someone else how hot that guy/girl is) that crosses into sin because you risk talking about someone as an object rather than as a child of God if you let yourself go there. That kind of talk is a “near occasion of sin” that can be avoided if one knows to be on their guard against it.

    A person who spends their time at work doing anything other than work when it’s not lunch/break but actual work time is indeed sinning.

    Having a crisis of faith and searching for information to try to examine both sides of the argument to sort it out is not a sin. Allowing those doubts to cause you to despair of your faith, ie., keep you from Mass, the Sacraments, and prayer, is a sin. Talking about those doubts to someone else in such a way that you cause them to despair of their faith is a sin.

    This happened to me very recently and actually is what drew me to this blog. Up until a few days ago, I was trying to do what I thought was my little role to play in the New Evangelization. I was a regular commenter on a local blog dedicated to the local politics of the town that I live in. So I was blogging with neighbors, some identified and some anonymous. The blog is owned by and administered by professed liberals and frequented mostly by liberals. One of the owners was raised Catholic but now describes herself as “spiritual, not religious”. If I had a nickel for everytime I heard that one…

    About a month ago, a bunch of the liberal neo-atheists were debating me about the existence of God. They threw everything at me from Hitchens and Dawkins quotes (which are dopey and easy to defend if one is open to Truth) to using science to shoot down everything I said. Example: there is no such thing as an incorrupt body of a saint. It is saponification, you stupid, ignorant, Catholic fool.

    This was followed by me going on a tear defending the Church’s position in opposing the HHS mandate and I have also been in a heated debate about the Church being pro-life. As the only practicing Catholic commenter who defends the Church regularly at this blog, I took a mighty beating in the personal attacks department over the HHS mandate, and my belief in God, especially. The pro-life debate wasn’t so bad because one other non-religious (but spiritual) pro-lifer jumped in to assist me, taking the position that one needn’t be religious in order to oppose murdering innocent lives.

    All of these debates left me battle-worn and weary and wondering if I really knew what I thought I knew, or had I screwed it all up and done more harm than good? I had to research atheism and saponification and lots of other nonsense just to understand their side of the debate and it did start to cause me to wonder.

    Fr. Z can correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t view that at all as a sin. I see it for exactly what it felt like. I volunteered to go into battle and I got the stuffing beat out of me by the enemy. He used my neighborly bloggers to try to plant seeds of doubt in me and to try to erode my faith. And it almost worked. After many, if not most of those blog posts, while I was doing my best to defend the faith as best as I understand it, I would just go sit by myself on the front porch feeling very weak and eek out a simple, little prayer. It was all I could muster the emotional strength for at the time because I felt so heavily burdened by doubt. I said all I could think to say, which was, “Lord, don’t let go of me.” I never stopped going to confession (although a few of them were spaced a few extra weeks apart) and Mass and I threw in a few rosaries and St. Michael the Archangel prayers too. The Lord brought me through it and re-strengthened my faith even more firmly than before. Then He led me here.

    It’s not exactly my idea of a vacation to be in a blog full of theologians, but it’s plain as day to me that the Lord’s preparing to take me up another notch at some point so he sent me to you folks. Guess He knew I’d learn a thing or two. Seems He intends for the Latin Mass to be the next step in my journey to Him.

    I like it here. I feel uneducated and clueless but at least no one calls me names!

  11. WesleyD says:

    OrthodoxChick wrote:

    All of these debates left me battle-worn and weary and wondering if I really knew what I thought I knew, or had I screwed it all up and done more harm than good?

    I heard this story from a Dominican I greatly admire: One of the younger Dominicans had been teaching and preaching for years, and kept driving himself batty in his efforts to figure out just how effective his preaching was. Had he converted anyone? Had his preaching really changed any people’s hearts? How much of a difference was he making? Finally, his superior ordered him, under his vow of obedience, to stop trying to assess how much difference he was making.

    Those of us who plant seeds often don’t get to see what grows as a result. And those of us who harvest the growth can’t ever know if we made the difference, or whether we just harvested a seed someone else planted. I used to delight in telling people my conversion story — how my intellectual investigations had led me back to Christ’s Church — until I realized that during all my time away, somebody had been praying for me, and those prayers were probably far more potent than my own intellectual struggles.

  12. WesleyD says:

    Centristian wrote:

    It seems to me it isn’t always necessarily a cakewalk to discern grave matter from venial, or even necessarily sin from temptation.

    There are certainly fuzzy borders between these regions. But there are also some very non-fuzzy territories as well.

    I think that when your eyes are drawn to something for a second or two, that would almost never be a sin, and it can never be a grave sin. Temptations come from “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Our flesh has certain animal characteristics: if you are in a quiet library, and suddenly a wounded person covered in blood appears, or a nude streaker, your eyes will automatically be drawn in that direction. Of course, years of learning to discipline the eyes can have an effect, but it actually takes a few seconds for the brain to fully register what you are seeing and to be able to decide what to do next.

    When I am watching a movie and suddenly a sexy scene appears, I will wonder “is this something that’s okay to watch or should I fast-forward over it.” Once that thought has crossed my mind — once I have asked myself the question — then clearly my free will is engaged, and the decisions I make subsequently have a true element of consent in them. And it’s how I respond to that question — not to the movie per se — that is the key factor in determining whether sin is involved.

    Just my two cents.

  13. Supertradmum says:

    Children can and should be taught simple tools of discipline to avoid and refuse temptations. Even as part of Holy Communion and First Confession prep this is possible. To teach, for example, custody of the eyes and ears is a simple beginning. The good nuns taught me as a pre-adolescent child, not to look at things which may cause inordinate pleasure. This may sound like something out of the dark ages, but the best advice was, for example, not to look at a handsome young man, (or older one), not to look at certain movies, books, etc. all this before computer access was common. And, positively, to think of Christ, Mary and the saints, as well as a particular virtue which would combat a temptation. To replace something positive for a negative is a good habit. A little example could be changing a habit of mental criticism towards people with habits of praise and gratitude.

    In addition, the life of the virtues must be taught to children early in order to help them have a habit of virtue for the rest of their lives. The life of virtue cannot be develop in an atmosphere of serious sin. Although we are given sanctifying grace at baptism and through the reception of the sacraments, these virtues must be developed and strengthened. I have never, ever, heard a sermon on the cultivation of virtues. However, I came across Tanquerey years ago. Other good authors exist as well for such, and of course, Ignatius of Loyola and commentaries are good. I know good priests in their 40s and 50s who understand the importance of reflection, examination of conscience, and the habits of mental discipline as well as the habits of virtue. I wish we all heard more from the pulpit on these disciplines.

    Thanks, Father, for the important reminder.

  14. Mariana says:

    Thanks for all the comments above. I have a real problem in knowing if I’ve committed a mortal sin or not. All those lists of sins – I don’t consciously commit any of them, nor would I want to, but surely on some level I must commit them, and how do I find out what questions to ask myself so I could make better confessions?

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