Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Thursday, July 29, 2004

On Sex and Marriage 

Okay, I know I've been lacking in 'sound byte blogging' as of late.  Witty quips and cynical rantings will be found aplenty later on.  But first I need to do something I've been meaning to do for a while.  Oswald at Catholic Analysis (here and here) and the folks at Sanctificarnos (here) have been commenting on the phenomenon of 'homosexual marriage,' and doing a fine job of it.  There is a need, I think, to move beyond sarcasm and pithy remarks (though these are not without their place!) and deal philosophically with this issue, and I'm appreciative of these two (amongst others) for taking the lead on this in St. Blogs.  And at the encouragement of a friend, I thought I would offer an 'Augustinian take' on the issue.  [I'm sure more than a few wonder, with some annoyance, why I write about St. Augustine so much.  I'll be honest.  Because I read Augustine so much.  I'm a doctoral student and I do it for a living, so to speak.  More than anything, it's a labor-saving device.  If I were to write commentaries on Edith Stein or Gregory the Great, I would double my workload.  And I'm too intellectually lazy for that] 
Thus, following is a rough draft of a brief synopsis of St. Augustine's thoughts on marriage and sexuality, and some thoughts on their relevance for modern society.

"Therefore the first natural bond of human society is man and wife. Nor did God create these each by himself, and join them together as alien by birth: but He created the one out of the other, setting a sign also of the power of the union in the side, whence she was drawn, was formed. For they are joined one to another side by side, who walk together, and look together whither they walk. Then follows the connection of fellowship in children, which is the one alone worthy fruit, not of the union of male and female, but of the sexual intercourse" (On the Good of Marriage 1.1).

Here is summarized St. Augustine's theology of marriage, sexual union, and procreation.  The union of man and wife is the 'first natural bond of human society,' and this union is an exalted form of friendship.  And yet friendship alone cannot suffice to explain the union of husband and wife - for if God had intended marriage to satisfy the demands of friendship alone, he would simply have given Adam a male companion (cf., Literal Commentary on Genesis 9. 5. 9)!  That Adam was granted a woman instead reflects a deeper meaning behind the biological complementarity of the sexes - man's ordination to 'be fruitful and multiply,' which is the preeminent vocation of Eve.

From this friendship, then, flow children, as the natural fruit of this divinely-ordained union.  And sexual union, even in Paradise, was carried out explicitly for the purpose of procreation (Harmony of the Gospels 2,.1. 2).  This is not the only or exclusive purpose of conjugal love: Augustine also points to the loyalty and fidelity of the spouses and the significatory power of the indissolubility of their union (together making up the three 'goods' of marriage).  He also grants that this good is present so long as the birth of children is intended, or even so long as it is not intentionally avoided: sexual union is a good even in situations of menopause or sterility (Contra Julian 5.12.46-48).  Practices which deliberately exclude the possibility of procreation, such as sodomy or contraception, are ipso facto immoral (Against Faustus 22.38). 

Augustine's apparent 'narrowing' of conjugal union to the rigid demarcations of the generation of children strikes us as rather constricting.  Seems as though he's taken all the fun out of it.  But Augustine's vision of earthly life, we must recall, is framed by the devastating effects of the Fall of man 'in Adam.'  The harmonious and integrated conjugal love of our first parents has, in their descendents, become fragmented and disordered, and is ever on the verge of collapsing into compulsive lust.  Not that this tendency is inevitable or all-encompassing, but the danger of it is never far from view.  Sexuality cannot no longer be simply assumed to serve the good of the spouse, family, or society.  All too often it becomes, rather than a means of loving others, a means of self-love.  And here is where the pleasure of sexual intercourse plays a crucial role.  Pleasure, in itself, is a good thing, and is legitimately enjoyed when it accompanies a good act.  Yet acts can never be legitimately carried out simply for the sake of pleasure.  Augustine is keenly aware of the depths of human motivation: If sex is used merely as a means of pleasure, it immediately and necessarily becomes a means of one party's exploitation of the other.  Augustine is aware of this tendency only because he recognized it himself.  In his Confessions, he reflects upon his past relationship with his mistress, and recognizes in hindsight why he longed for her so much.  It was not from a genuine appreciation of her person, her soul, but because her body gave him - at least temporarily - a satiation of the most profound restlessness of his own soul:

"For this cause my soul was sickly and full of sores, it miserably cast itself forth, craving to be excited by contact with objects of sense. To love and to be loved was sweet to me, and all the more when I succeeded in enjoying the person I loved.  I befouled, therefore, the spring of friendship with the filth of concupiscence" (Confessions 3.1.1.).

This is, in my view, what makes St. Augustine's insights on marriage and sexuality so relevant today.  The lacunae in his teaching have been pointed out repeatedly, and beneficially: his theology of marriage was by no means comprehensive or exhaustive, nor does it lack its shortcomings.  But few were as aware as St. Augustine of the degree to which, due to the effects of concupiscence, sexuality could be twisted into a form of self-serving exploitation of another person.  Procreation, for Augustine, served as the only concrete guarantee that sexuality would always be put in the service of a larger community, outside oneself - the family, the civitas, the society as a whole.  And the complementarity of the sexes, along with the observance of the laws of nature, ensured that sexual union would remain - at least incipiently - oriented towards these ends. 

St. Augustine never had the opportunity - nor did any ancient writer - to comment upon the phenomenon of 'gay marriage.'  Although homosexual behavior was hardly unknown in his day, never did it achieve the level of societal recognition and widespread approval as it possesses today.  Yet it is not difficult to imagine his response.  A human relationship in which the sexual faculty - one can hardly call it sexual union - is cut off, intrinsically and deliberately, from the service of procreation, puts it into a scenario where it cannot but turn inward upon itself.  Sexual union, in this context, can only serve as a means, even if subtly and subconsciously, of bodily exploitation of another, and can only create, in the long run, a culture of 'sexual cannibalism.'

# posted by Jamie : 11:32 AM


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Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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