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#99 - St. Augustine and the place of sexual intimacy in Christian marriage
by Robert Nguyen Cramer (version 126.96.36.199)
This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.
1. Insight #99 from John [BibleTexts.com note: The "insight" immediately below is from John, a fellow participant in an international ecumenical forum in which I participate, and it is being quoted with his permission. My response, also below, was originally sent to that forum.]
The magisterium has a basically flawed idea of the place of sexual intercourse in marriage. This is largely because of the influence of St Augustine. Before his conversion, he had been a fornicator and his understanding of human sexuality was fundamentally flawed. He saw the sexual relationship of man and wife as lust. Instead of realizing that he was distorting the truth through his own experience, he thought it was the universal fault of original sin.
Augustine taught that procreation was the only non-sinful end of the sex act. He taught that if a couple has sexual relations for pleasure, then it was venially sinful. His precise words, from "On the Goods of Marriage" are:
Marital intercourse for the sake of procreation has no fault attached to it, but for the satisfying of lust, even with one's husband or wife, for the faith of the bed, is venially sinful; but adultery or fornication is mortally sinful. Moreover, continence from all intercourse is even better than marital intercourse itself, even if it takes place for the sake of procreation. But even though continence is better, to pay the dues of marriage is no crime, but to demand it beyond the necessity of procreation is a venial sin, although fornication and adultery are mortally sinful.
Now, I must go in for a bit of confession. I had a couple of sexual relationships before I was married, and I will say that they were fundamentally different from the one I have with my wife. I must admit that one of these women was better in bed than my wife is. However, if I were to meet with [that woman] again, and she were to offer to go to bed with me, I would turn her down without hesitation or regret. With [that woman], it was having sex, and with my wife, it is sharing love. The latter is so much better than the former that I will take it every time.
So, I have experienced a sexual relationship not dissimilar to Augustine's. However, I have also experienced a sexual relationship with my wife, an experience that Augustine did not have. Now, had I not gotten married, I would believe that I knew about sex, and I would project my non-marital sexual experience onto my opinions about marital sex -- and I submit that my doing so would be wrong. Augustine himself says about his relationship,
What held me captive and tortured me was the habit of satisfying with vehement intensity an insatiable sexual desire. (Confessions, 6.12.22)
Now, I know what this sort of relationship is like -- I was in one myself. And it is not marriage, it is lust.
Thus, I am saying that Augustine had a fundamentally flawed view of what sex was all about, because his sole experience of it was through sinful relationships. While I freely admit that I am projecting my own experience of sex onto Augustine, I do not think that I am being unfair to him in doing so. The problem is that Augustine has influenced generations of celibates, who only know what marital intercourse is like through (at best) second hand knowledge or textbooks or (at worst) adolescent fantasies.
So, we get things like the Council of Trent's Roman Catechism that said that there are three lawful uses of intercourse in marriage: (1) to procreate, (2) to "render the debt", and (3) to avoid fornication. Note that nothing is said here of the mutual love of husband and wife. Also note that procreation is first in importance.
BTW [by the way], "render the debt" comes from the Church's legal view of marriage, which is based in Roman contract law.
The first piece of Church teaching which said that mutual love was an acceptable reason for a married couple to have intercourse was Pope Pius XI's Casti Connubii (n. 59):
For in matrimony as well as in the use of matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivation of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider, so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved.
Earlier, Pius quotes Canon 1013 of the 1918 Code of Canon Law:
The primary end of marriage is the procreation and the education of children.
Mutual love was very much secondary to this.
Vatican II, I believe, finally got it right when they said, in Gaudium et Spes (n. 49):
[Married] love is uniquely expressed and perfected through the marital act. The actions within marriage by which the couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy ones. Expressed in a manner which is truly human, these actions signify and promote that mutual self-giving by which spouses enrich each other with a joyful and a thankful will.
Note that there is nothing said about primary and secondary ends, nor is there any feeling that intercourse must be extrinsically justified. The Council fathers accepted the importance of the transmission of life "without making the other purposes of marriage of less account."
2 - Response #99 from BibleTexts.com:
John, you have addressed well some very important issues regarding the difference between being-in-lust and the loving physical intimacy experienced in a healthy, holy marriage. Even Paul, who admittedly was not married, indicated no theological conditions or constraints on married couples when he wrote (1Co 7:3-5, TEV):
3 A man should fulfil his duty as a husband, and a woman should fulfil her duty as a wife, and each should satisfy the otherís needs. 4 A wife is not the master of her own body, but her husband is; in the same way a husband is not the master of his own body, but his wife is. 5 Do not deny yourselves to each other, unless you first agree to do so for a while in order to spend your time in prayer; but then resume normal marital relations.
Paul even includes non-Christian spouses in this teaching, when he goes on to say (1Co 7:12-14, TEV):
12 If a Christian man has a wife who is an unbeliever and she agrees to go on living with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a Christian woman is married to a man who is an unbeliever and he agrees to go on living with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made acceptable to God by being united to his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made acceptable to God by being united to her Christian husband. If this were not so, their children would be like pagan children; but as it is, they are acceptable to God.
All of this is very consistent with the early Christian considerations of marriage and even of weddings. As pointed out in my online article on "Church Weddings" (http://www.bibletexts.com/terms/churchweddings.htm):
First-century Jews and Christians did not hold weddings in synagogues or churches. Kenneth Scott Latourette comments (A History of Christianity, Volume I, Revised Edition, New York: Harper & Row, 1975, pages 204-205):
Christians were not required to seek the blessing of the Church to give validity to their marriage. However, by the time of Tertullian [160-225 A.D.] it seems to have become customary to have a Christian ceremony in which the Church cemented the marriage, confirmed it with an oblation, and sealed it with a benediction.
A religious wedding ceremony did not begin to be considered as a sacrament until almost three centuries later, and, as mentioned above, it was not officially recognized as one of the seven sacraments until the Council of Trent, between 1545 and 1563. Wedding ceremonies very likely were performed in Christian homes prior to Constantine. Up to the time of Constantine, churches were not edifices that were specifically built for Christian worship. They were Christians' houses in which fellow Christians gathered and worshipped, maybe the same houses in which weddings sometimes took place. It wasn't until the fourth century that Church edifices began to be built. The beginning of consideration of the wedding ceremony as a sacramental rite roughly coincided chronologically with the erecting of church edifices, which increasingly replaced houses as the places of worship.
May I have permission to quote you on the BibleTexts.com website? I believe that your explanation would be salutary and even comforting to some readers.
3 - Insight #99 from John - [Excerpts from his response to another forum participant's comments and to my request to quote him.]
This morning, I had my wife read my post, Bob's post, and [another forum participant's] post. She said that while her experience of sex is almost certainly different from mine, she had also had a non-marital sexual relationship (also before we were married), and that it was different in kind from our marital relationship. She agreed with me that our sexual relationship is a physical sharing of our love, while her previous relationship was not.
We also agreed that having had a true marital sexual relationship -- a true physical sharing of love -- has had a major influence in keeping the marriage going strong. (We have been married for 28 and a half years).
I wrote about my premarital relationship because I felt it was germane to the subject. My main point was that Augustine's nonmarital sexual relationship coloured his view of all sexual relationships. I wanted to say that I had an experience similar to Augustine's, but I also had an experience of a marital sexual relationship, which Augustine did not have. Thus, I believe that I have a solid basis for saying why I feel that Augustine's view of sex in marriage is fundamentally flawed.
And Bob, if you want to quote me, go right ahead.
4 - Insight #99 from Kim - [In the continuing stream of postings that followed those above were several postings by Kim Power, author of Veiled desire: Augustine on women (New York: Continuum, 1996). She has kindly given me permission to quote her postings. For those interested in further researching Augustine and women, the chapter in Kim's book that is most relevant to our current discussion is chapter 8, pages 94-107.]
It's something of a myth that Augustine didn't experience marriage. He was in a common-law marriage for 14 years and he was faithful to her all that time - remarkable in that environment. when they parted for him to make an upwardly advantageous marriage, he wrote that she was torn from his side and that his heart was bruised and bleeding. The Latin he used echoes Genesis about a man cleaving to his wife and the tearing is one flesh being torn asunder. The image of him as a sexual profligate was painted after he became an ascetic. He may have had some homosexual encounters as a youth, but at 17 he fell in love with his partner and didn't sleep with anyone else for 14 years. After their separation he took up with another woman while he waited for his bride to get to the legal age for marriage, but he said himself that lust had no hold on him anymore and it didn't last. I have argued elsewhere that it didn't last because he was still grieving for his lost love. I think he told himself it was just sex and another woman would do as well, in an effort to convince himself that he had done the "right" thing in making a politically advantageous marriage. When he wrote the Confessions, he said that the wound had still not healed, and fifteen years later he condemned men who did as he had done as adulterers against their common law wives. His attitude to sex was not idiosyncratic amongst elite men. IT was feared as all things that stopped them thinking were feared. Rationality was the benchmark of humanity and wisdom.
Augustine was also the man who wrote about companionate marriage, and I think it was because that was the sort of partnership he had had. by the end of his life he accepted that sex was part of God's creation (something many other fathers never did-Ambrose of Milan and John Chrysostom, for example) but believed that desire had been corrupted by the Fall. I suspect he often gets blamed for what men have said he said, rather than what he did say often. He did write in appalling images about sex, but so did the philosopher poets too. Here endeth the lesson. Cheers, Kim
5 - Insight #99 from John - [John's response to the comments of another participant in the forum]
The birth of [Augustine's son] Adeodatus was an unintended consequence of his relationship [with his companion of 14 years].
[Another participant in the forum:] All of that no doubt plays into his insistence on procreation as the most important purpose of marriage. His difficulty with his family has a lot of ambivalence and ambiguity that he is trying to work out in his theologizing.
That I can go along with.
6 Insight #99 from John - [John's next response]
OK, Kim, you made me re-read part of the Confessions [of St. Augustine] (I have Henry Chadwick's translation -- bloody marvelous, if you ask me). And in book 6.15, we see
The woman with whom I habitually slept was torn away from my side because she was a hindrance to my [intended] marriage. My heart which was deeply attached was cut and wounded, and left a trail of blood.
(Which is what you said.)
In De Bono Conjugali 5, he asks the question:
Whether it is marriage when a man and woman, he not another's husband, nor she another's wife, live together solely out of lust for each other and not to beget children; but with the understanding that he will not have intercourse with another woman nor she with another man.
This certainly seems to cover Augustine's situation with his mistress. Augustine's answer is
Perhaps this may reasonably be called a marriage, if both resolve to live together until one dies and if, although neither intends to have a child, they do not make an expressed decision to avoid having children nor do the use illicit means to assure that one is not born. But if one or both conditions is not met, I do not see how we can call it marriage.
Which also seems to cover his situation. He continues, in what seems to me to be a piece of self-description,
If a man lives with a woman for a time, but only until he finds another better suited to him in terms of class or wealth, intending to formally marry; then in his soul he is an adulterer.
I think that I can say that Augustine did not consider himself to be married.
7 Insight #99 from Kim - [Kim's next response.]
John, You're dead right in reading it as self description. My argument is that in the Confessions, Augustine's language subverts his message. He wasn't legally married, but nor did he live with his partner simply for lust. Strange lust that lasts 14 years faithfully. He cannot admit that it was a marriage such as de bono coniugali allows for because he never intended it to be permanent and, because he was a Manichee when he entered the relationship, or soon after, they used contraception. Yet his description is of one flesh being pulled asunder. The Latin verb he uses in the same he uses in writing about Genesis and a man cleaving to his wife. So what I am saying is that deep in his psyche he was aware that his relationship had matured into a marriage of the heart and he committed adultery against his partner when he dismissed her to make an economically advantageous political marriage. It took a long time for that to sink in, I think, and I suspect he never forgave himself. I am not saying that I don't think that Augustinian anthropology is OK. It's not. I was arguing that although he wasn't legally married, his long term relationship of 14 years in which his partner was matrona of his household did give him an experience which we could only call that of marriage in our terms. In his culture, where men didn't marry for love but for economic or political gain, he called it lust, because by then he was infected with asceticism and anything that was perceived to tempt him from God was a lust of some kind.
8 Insight #99 from Kim - [Kim's next response.]
Just to add my 6 pennorth worth here. When Augustine dismissed Adeodatus' mother, he kept Adeodatus. That seems terrible to modern readers, but in that world, it meant that Augustine acknowledged Adeodatus as his son. Illegitimate children belonged to their mother's familia and took her family name. So in raising her son as his own, he fulfils one of the criteria by which Christian bishops recognised a de facto marriage as a Christian one, even if the partners could not marry under Roman law. For example, certain classes of people could not marry certain other classes, and some, like prostitutes and their daughters, were not allowed to marry.
9 Insight #99 from John - [John's next response to the comments of another participant in the forum]
And as far as making rules for non-celibates, Augustine said that procreation was the only non-sinful end of the sex act. He taught that if a couple has sexual relations for pleasure, then it was venially sinful. His precise words, from De Bono Conjugali 6 are:
Marital intercourse for the purpose of procreation is not sinful, but for satisfying lust, even with one's husband or wife, for the faith of the bed, is venially sinful; but adultery or fornication is mortally sinful. Moreover, abstention from all intercourse is even better than marital intercourse itself, even if it takes place for the purpose of procreation. But even though abstinence is better, to pay the dues of marriage is not sinful, but to demand it beyond the necessity of procreation is a venial sin. Fornication and adultery are mortally sinful.
In other words, adultery is mortally sinful, non-procreative sex is venially sinful, marital intercourse for the sake of procreation is OK, and abstention is best of all. He knew how difficult it was to abstain, so he praised those who could abstain.
For a bit more on Augustine's views on abstinence, here is part of De Bono Conjugali 3:
But in good marriages among the elderly, although the glow of youth has withered between them, yet love between husband and wife still lives. The better spouses they are, the earlier they have begun by mutual consent to abstain from sexual intercourse. Not that it should be necessary for them to do so, but it is praiseworthy for them to abstain.
In other words, they do not have to have to abstain from intercourse, but it is good if they do so, and the earlier the better.
I still say that anyone who really knew what part sexual intercourse plays in marriage would not have written this.
10 Conclusion from St. Paul (1Co 7:3-5, TEV):
Copyright 1996-2002 Robert Nguyen Cramer