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Sex, Sin and Salvation: What Augustine Really Said

(lecture text)
David G. Hunter, PhD


It may have been a mistake for me to offer to speak about Augustine on marriage and sexuality. This is one topic on which many people have expressed very strong opinions, and these opinions are usually not very favorable towards Augustine. To cite one somewhat extreme example: several years ago the German Catholic theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann published the book, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, in which she offered a rather drastic assessment of Augustine's ideas on marriage and sexuality. Here is a sample of her judgments: "The man who fused Christianity together with hatred of sex and pleasure into a systematic unity was the greatest of the Church Fathers, St. Augustine" (75). "Like many neurotics he radically separates love and sexuality" (76). "Augustine was the father of a fifteen-hundred-year-long anxiety about sex and an enduring hostility to it. He dramatizes the fear of sexual pleasure, equating pleasure with perdition in such a way that anyone who tries to follow his train of thought will have the sense of being trapped in a nightmare" (78). And, finally, the "attitude of the Church's celibate hierarchy is that the locus par excellence of sin is sex, a view based on Augustine's pleasure-hating fantasies" (90).

While Ranke-Heinemann's perpectives on Augustine are excessive, they are not untypical of what many contemporary Christians believe about the North African bishop. It is not my purpose here to defend Augustine from all his critics. Too many of the arguments against him are, in my opinion, correct. We simply have to admit that Augustine made some mistakes. The most notable of these mistakes was his idea that the original sin of Adam and Eve had introduced a fundamental disorder into human sexual desire. Augustine believed that Adam and Eve's choice to disobey God had led to disobedience within their own bodies. Sexual desire, because it operates independently of the human mind and will, became for Augustine a privileged symptom of the sinful human attempt to assert autonomy against God. The result of the original sin, Augustine argued, was that human beings lost control even over themselves.

Nevertheless, no one is ever entirely wrong, especially not someone like Augustine, who was such a perceptive observer of human behavior and such a profound interpreter of the Bible and Christian tradition. One of the problems with modern (and ancient) criticisms of Augustine is that they focus only on his defense of original sin and his skewed view of sexual desire. Because the Pelagian bishop Julian of Eclanum had criticized this point, Augustine became almost obsessed with demonstrating the supposed linkage between sex and sin. In my talk tonight I would like to present for your consideration another picture of Augustine. I will focus on three distinct contexts in which we see an Augustine who is rather different from the Augustine of the Pelagian controversy. I will first discuss the Confessions and the way in which marriage and sexuality figured into Augustine's own construal of his conversion. Second, I will examine the theological controversy in which Augustine developed the central features of his theology of marriage, his debate with the monk Jovinian. Finally, I will turn to a body of literature that is almost always neglected by critics of Augustine, namely his sermons. Here we will see that when Augustine actually came to preach to married couples, his pastoral approach to sex, while not exactly "enlightened" from a modern point of view, was not at all the "hatred of sex and pleasure" imagined by Uta Ranke-Heinemann and other critics.

Part One: The Confessions

The necessary starting point of any discussion of Augustine's views on sex and marriage must be his personal experience, at least in so far as that experience is presented to us and interpreted by Augustine himself in the Confessions. Many of you are familiar with Augustine's description of his adolescent adventures early in the Confessions. There he observed that his youthful sex drive led him to confuse the search for love and friendship with the satisfaction of his sexual desires: "The bubbling impulses of puberty befogged and obscured my heart so that it could not see the difference between love's serenity and lust's darkness." What is not so often noted is that Augustine actually blames his parents for not arranging an early marriage for him. As he writes: "That would have transformed to good purpose the fleeting experience of beauty in these lowest things, and fixed limits to indulgence in their charms. Then the stormy waves of my youth would have finally broken on the shore of marriage" (2.2.3). As Augustine saw it, marriage would have provided a disciplined way of life in which the vagaries of sexual desire could be directed towards the laudable task of producing and raising children. In a similar vein, in book 6 where Augustine described conversations between him and his friend Alypius on the topic of marriage, he noted that at the time he failed to appreciate the true value and significance of marriage:

Neither of us acknowledged that the beauty of having a wife lies in the obligation to respect the discipline of marriage and to bring up children. To a large extent what held me captive and tormented me was the habit of satisfying with vehement intensity an insatiable sexual desire (6.12.22).

Augustine speaks here in rather favorable terms about marriage itself, at least as a remedy for concupiscence. He says that if his desires had been directed towards procreation within a legitimate marriage, then something good would have come of them. The problem, as Augustine saw it in hindsight, was that the "concupiscence of the flesh" had led him to seek sexual satisfaction apart from any higher purpose: apart from love, apart from permanent commitment, and, above all, apart from procreation. It is significant - especially in the light of the accusations often made against Augustine's ideas of sex and marriage - that by the time he wrote the Confessions Augustine viewed marriage as one acceptable solution to his problem with sexual desire. He presented marriage as a legitimate way to manage the difficulties presented by unrestrained desires.

A second feature of Augustine's discussion of sex in the Confessions is the connection he drew between the habit of his sexual activity and the freedom of his will. Augustine described this most vividly in book 8 of the Confessions in the memorable chapters leading up to the story of his final conversion in the garden at Milan. In his early thirties, after years of searching Augustine had finally become convinced that Christianity was the true religion and that he should commit himself completely to the faith. Like many Christians in the fourth century, however, Augustine was convinced that to become a true Christian he had to renounce his career and his plans for marriage and enter into some form of monastic life. And there was the rub, for Augustine found himself trapped and unable to choose to give up his involvement in sexual pleasure.

In book 8 of the Confessions Augustine portrayed his state as one of moral paralysis, a lack of freedom brought on by the accumulation of his own wrong choices. He offered the following analysis of his predicament in terms that approach a modern understanding of sexual addiction:

I was bound not by an iron imposed by anyone else but by the iron of my own choice. The enemy had a grip on my will and so made a chain for me to hold me a prisoner. The consequence of a distorted will is passion. By servitude to passion, habit is formed, and habit to which there is no resistance becomes a compulsion. By these links, as it were, connected one to another (hence my term a chain), a harsh bondage held me under restraint.

Augustine's account of his apparent inability to give up his sexual activity illustrates a crucial aspect of his thinking on sexual desire. As Augustine interpreted it, his desire for sex had become the point of his resistance to the will of God.

It is important to see that even in Augustine's own analysis of his dilemma, the root of the problem was not sexual desire or sexual activity per se, but rather a more fundamental weakness of will (or, better, lack of charity) that prevented him from giving himself wholeheartedly to God. As Augustine described it, the real problem was the conflict within him of two different wills - a will to love and serve God wholeheartedly and a will to love and serve only himself. These conflicting wills - which Augustine characterized, in the words of Paul, as "the lust of the flesh against the spirit" and "the lust of the spirit against the flesh" - were at war deep within his own heart. It is true that Augustine's conversion (at least within the narrative of the Confessions) did involve the rejection of sex and marriage. However, he did not identify the "lust" or "concupiscence of the flesh" strictly with sexual desire. The desire for sex, in Augustine's view, was simply one of the many forms that the lust of the flesh could take.

This last point can be illustrated clearly from book 10 of the Confessions where Augustine subjected himself to a kind of examination of conscience, discussing to what extent he was still influenced by any of the three sins of 1 John 2:16 ("the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the ambition of the secular world"). In book 10 Augustine began with the "lust of the flesh" and discussed a variety of sensual desires, such as the tendency to enjoy a good meal a little too much, to be distracted from prayer by the beauty of a hymn in church, or to be captivated by the scent of a woman's perfume. Sexual temptations were no more, or less, prevalent than these other sensual allurements. Of far greater concern to Augustine in the Confessions were the more subtle, spiritual temptations presented by idle and morbid curiosity ("the lust of the eyes") and, especially, by pride ("the ambition of the secular world"). Although Augustine's conversion took the form of a rejection of sexual activity, he does not seem to have been at all obsessed with sexual temptations. Augustine's personal experience certainly had made him aware of the potentially disruptive and addictive character of sexual desire. Nevertheless, in my view the Confessions offers no grounds for the accusation that Augustine saw sex as "the locus par excellence of sin." In the Confessions Augustine regarded sexual desire as simply one of many lusts that scourge the human heart, and not even the most dangerous one.

Part Two: The Controversy with Jovinian

This brings me to the second major context in which Augustine developed reflections on marriage and sexuality, the debate with the monk Jovinian. In the early years of the fifth century, not long after completing the Confessions, Augustine undertook two new writings in response to a pressing issue of his day: one a treatise titled The Good of Marriage, the other a discussion of celibacy called On Holy Virginity. Looking back on these books in the year 427, Augustine said that he wrote them to oppose the ideas of Jovinian, a monk who had gained a considerable following at Rome in the early 390s. Although he was a celibate monk himself, Jovinian was concerned that the enthusiasm for celibacy then sweeping through western Christianity had gone a bit too far.

Advocates of the celibate life, such as Ambrose and Jerome, occasionally suggested that Christian marriage was something less than fully Christian, that married Christians were somehow tainted by sexual activity and deserved a reward vastly inferior to that merited by consecrated virgins and other celibate Christians. In response, Jovinian argued that faithful married Christians and committed celibates were equally pleasing to God and that all would receive an equal reward in heaven. Celibate Christians had no reason to regard themselves as superior to married Christians. After all, Jovinian argued, it is the Church itself that is holy, and all baptized Christians share in the holiness of the Church. "Be not proud," Jovinian admonished the consecrated virgins, "you and your married sisters are member of the same Church."

The leadership of the western church was, to put it mildly, unreceptive to Jovinian's ideas. Led by bishops such as Ambrose and Pope Siricius, who were (not coincidentally) strong proponents of the new discipline of clerical celibacy, Jovinian and his followers were condemned by local synods at Rome and Milan. Augustine tells us, however, that Jovinian's ideas continued to spread. His followers claimed that those who defended the superiority of celibacy could do so only at the expense of condemning marriage.

Augustine's observation is usually taken as a reference to Jerome, who had written two books titled Against Jovinian. In his polemic against Jovinian Jerome had spoken in such a harsh manner about marriage that even his closest friends thought that he had gone too far and attempted to take his treatise out of circulation. In response to this situation Augustine decided to accept the challenge of Jovinian. His aim, quite simply, was to find a middle ground between Jerome and Jovinian, that is, to defend the superiority of the celibate state at the same time as he maintained the dignity and genuine goodness of marriage.

At the heart of Augustine's treatise The Good of Marriage was his teaching that there are three distinct "goods" in marriage: the procreation of children (proles), the fidelity of the couple (fides), and the sacramental bond (sacramentum). It was not at all unusual in the ancient world to see procreation as the primary purpose of marriage. It was a commonplace in antiquity that the household should serve as the foundation of the city, while the city in turn served as the foundation of the empire. Augustine drew on this tradition in the opening paragraph of The Good of Marriage, where he presented marriage as the fundamental bedrock of human community, though he portrays the origins of humanity in imagery drawn from the scriptures. He writes:

Every human being is part of the human race, and human nature is a social reality and possesses a great and natural good, the power of friendship. For this reason God wished to create all human beings from one, so that they would be held together in their social relationships not only by the similarity of race, but also by the bond of kinship. Therefore, the first natural bond of human society is the union of husband and wife.

Augustine's starting point is a significant one, for he grounds the marital relationship, and sexual reproduction in particular, in the social nature of the human race. From the very beginning, Augustine argues, God intended human community to be knit together by the closest possible bond, that of blood relationship. Therefore, God determined that sexual reproduction should be the natural means of producing individuals who were, quite literally, born for friendship in community. This, Augustine says, was the significance of God's taking of Eve from Adam's side. It signified the powerful union of two people who walk side by side, with their eyes fixed ahead of them, focused on the same goal.

By starting his discussion of marriage with this emphasis on the social character of the human race and the social value of friendship, Augustine has accomplished two significant goals. First, he has linked sexual intercourse and procreation to God's original intention at the beginning of creation. This might not sound surprising to us today, but in fact many of Augustine's contemporaries tended to see sexuality as an inessential adjunct to human nature, something made necessary only because of the first sin. Many early Christians believed that sex was introduced into human experience only after the fall had led to death and made necessary the reproduction of the human race. It is noteworthy that Augustine did not follow this tradition. Rather, he saw sexual union and the procreation of children as entirely natural and God-given realities. In fact, as Augustine said in his Literal Commentary on Genesis, written a few years later, the "original blessing" which God bestowed on the first human beings, to "increase and multiply," is a blessing that has never been revoked, despite the sin and punishment of the human race.

A second implication of Augustine's emphasis on the social character of humanity is that while sex and procreation are good, they are not ends in themselves; they exist, rather, as the natural means that make possible the greater good of human friendship, which he describes elsewhere as a good to be sought for its own sake. Sex, then, as Augustine saw it, was always an instrumental good, a "good necessary for the sake of something else," as he puts it. In other words, friendship and community are the primary goods, while human sexual activity is the means to these ends. Nevertheless, there is no question that Augustine viewed human reproduction as something good and originally intended by God. No matter how much Augustine insisted (especially in his later writings) that original sin had damaged human nature, he always maintained that sexual union itself and procreation were the good creations of a good Creator.

There is yet another dimension to Augustine's understanding of the good of procreation, one that might seem surprising, especially to those who expect Augustine to be hostile to sex and pleasure. Early on in the treatise The Good of Marriage he writes:

Marriages also have the benefit that sensual or youthful incontinence, even though it is wrong, is redirected to the honorable purpose of having children, and so out of the evil of lust sexual union in marriage achieves something good. Furthermore, parental feeling brings about a moderation in sexual desire, since it is held back and in a certain way burns more modestly. For a kind of dignity attaches to the ardor of the pleasure, when in the act whereby man and woman come together with each other, they have the thought of being father and mother.

Here Augustine has stated a theme that is often overlooked by those who see him as entirely hostile to pleasure or sexual activity. He clearly regards sexual intercourse between married persons, when engaged in for the sake of procreation, as something good. The good consists not only in the production of children, but also in a change that occurs within desire itself. The evil of unrestrained sexual desire - that is, the lust or concupiscence of the flesh - can be directed towards a good purpose and even transformed, so to speak, when it is utilized for procreation.

A similar statement can be found later in The Good of Marriage where Augustine suggested that procreation is necessary for the health of the human race, just as food is necessary for the health of the individual. In this context Augustine stated explicitly that the pleasure that accompanies natural acts, such as eating and sex, is something to be enjoyed, as long as it does not lead to excess. "Neither activity is devoid of pleasure for the senses," Augustine insisted, "and when this is regulated and put to its natural use under the restraint of moderation it cannot be lust." This is an extraordinary statement, so much so that many years later in his review of his writings, the Retractations, Augustine felt compelled to provide a further explanation: "I said this because the good and right use of 'lust' is not 'lust.' For just as it is evil to use good things in the wrong way, so it is good to use evil things in the right way." Although Augustine did assert that there was something "evil" about unrestrained sexual desire, he maintained that at least in respect to intercourse within marriage, the evil of lust ceased to be evil when it was directed to its proper purpose, that is, procreation.

But procreation was not the only good of marriage that Augustine treated. There is a second good, which Augustine called "fidelity" or "faithfulness" (fides in the Latin). The notion of "fidelity" deserves close scrutiny for it, too, has a dimension that commentators have often overlooked. "Fidelity" had several meanings for Augustine. On the one hand, it included the rudimentary faithfulness that all married people owe each other, that is, the duty to abstain from adultery or sexual relations with other persons. But fidelity meant more than simply avoiding illicit sex. For Augustine, fidelity included the positive duty of married persons to engage in sex in order to help each other avoid adultery. Augustine spoke here not of sex for the purpose of procreation, but of sex purely to satisfy desire. Such fidelity, Augustine wrote, is "a great good of the soul, even when manifested in the small and insignificant matters of the body."

Augustine illustrated the importance of the good of fidelity with the example of two thieves. If one thief should enlist the help of another to commit a crime and should agree to give his partner a share of the loot, they have entered into an agreement characterized by fidelity. Even though they are partners in crime, their fidelity is still something good, even though it is being manifested in bad behavior. The goodness of their fidelity, Augustine observed, is evident from the fact that if one thief should violate their agreement, the other thief would have every right to complain. The only grounds for breaking their agreement would be if one thief decided to return to the "true and legitimate fidelity" which both of the thieves owe to society and which they violated by turning to crime in the first place.

Augustine's point was that fidelity can exist as a good quality of human relationships even in a context in which evil is present. In the case of a man and a woman, this fidelity establishes a union that can legitimately be considered a marriage, even if there is no intention to have children. Here Augustine took a stand that is virtually unique among early Christian writers. He acknowledged the value of a relationship that had come into being purely out of a desire for sexual pleasure, and not for procreation. He even called it a "marriage." What made such a marriage good, Augustine indicated, was the good of fidelity. "For the reason why such couples were married," he wrote, "was so that concupiscence itself might be directed towards a legitimate bond and not flow in a disordered or haphazard way. Concupiscence in itself has the unrestrained weakness of the flesh, but from marriage it receives the permanent bond of fidelity; in itself it leads to unrestrained intercourse, but from marriage it has the restraint of chaste procreation."

In this remarkable passage Augustine suggests that the good of fidelity can be present even if the couple's primary aim is not to produce children, but simply to enjoy sexual pleasure. Good is produced because the intrinsically unstable or unrestrained character of sexual desire is given a certain limit and order within a relationship characterized by fidelity. Fidelity is, as Augustine says, "a sort of mutual servitude," in which spouses agree to support each other in their weakness. Not even the call that one partner might feel towards celibacy can cancel this duty of fidelity. Augustine made an important distinction in this context between the spouse who seeks to have intercourse primarily out of sexual desire and the spouse who agrees to have intercourse primarily out of the duty of fidelity. The one who acts out of lust (that is, out of greed or selfishness) is guilty of what he calls a "forgivable fault" (venialis culpa). But the one who engages in sex to support his or her partner is acting out of love and compassion. For such a person, therefore, no guilt is involved.

I will return in a few minutes to this topic of the "forgivable fault" and Augustine's discussion of the value of fidelity, for this subject dominates his actual preaching on marriage. For now it is enough to emphasize that Augustine saw fidelity, together with procreation, as one of the genuine goods of marriage. Like procreation, fidelity was always something good, even though it might be exercised within a relationship in which lustful or selfish desire predominated over the desire for children. The value of fidelity, Augustine argued, is that it places a limit on the possible disorders of desire and harnesses desire to the benefit of the marriage relationship. As Augustine put it, "What is honorable in marriage, therefore, is chastity in having children and fidelity in performing the conjugal duty. This is what marriage is for, and this is what the apostle [Paul] defends against every charge when he says, 'If you have married, you have not sinned, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin'."

In addition to the good of procreation and the good of fidelity, Augustine spoke of yet a third good in marriage, that of the "sacrament." Augustine was one of the first Christian writers to use the language of "sacrament" in regard to marriage, although his usage of the term is somewhat different from the later Catholic idea of the seven sacraments. For Augustine the idea of sacrament was closely related to the Greek word mysterion, or "mystery," which was translated as sacramentum in early Latin versions of the bible. A sacrament was a "mystery" in the sense of a sacred symbol, and the term was frequently applied to liturgical rites, as well as to the symbolic or allegorical interpretation of scripture. In Ephesians 5:31-32, for example, Paul had quoted the words of Genesis 2:24 ("A man will leave his mother and father and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh") and then said that the marital union was a "mystery" (or "sacrament") which referred to Christ and the church.

For Augustine, then, the sacrament in marriage referred to its character as a sacred sign, something that referred beyond itself to the spiritual union of Christ and the church. What was it about marriage that made it an appropriate symbol for this union? To answer this question Augustine turned to the passages in the gospels describing Jesus' prohibition of divorce. In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus' prohibition of divorce was reinforced by the same quotation from Genesis 2 (the "two in one flesh" text) that appeared in the Letter to the Ephesians. Putting the two together, Augustine concluded that it was precisely the prohibition of divorce - that is, the indissolubility of the marriage bond - that constituted the "sacrament" or sacred significance of marriage. In other words, Christian marriages had to be indissoluble because they symbolized the eternal union of Christ and the Church.

Augustine's notion of the sacramentality of marriage was another important piece in his defense of the goodness of marriage against ascetic extremists. To a certain extent, it was the logical outgrowth of the notion, which he had presented in earlier writings, that the marriages in the Old Testament were a prophetic foreshadowing of the marriage of Christ and the Church. By extending the same idea to marriages after Christ, Augustine created a way to view Christian marriage within the framework of salvation history. In The Good of Marriage, for example, Augustine spoke explicitly about the different "sacraments" that were present in the time of the Hebrews and in time of the Christians. Before the coming of Christ, polygamy, as well as divorce and remarriage, were allowed; now strict monogamy is the norm. The reason for this historical relativity, Augustine argued, lies partly in the fact that there was a greater need to produce children in the period before Christ. But it also derives from the fact that marriages possessed a different sacred meaning or "sacrament" in the prior dispensation than they do in the present. As Augustine put it: "Just as the sacrament of multiple marriages in the past signified the future multitude that would be subject to God in all the nations of the earth, so the sacrament of single marriages in our day signifies the unity of us all that will one day be subject to God in the one heavenly city."

Augustine has offered here a fascinating account of the relativity of moral standards based on the notion that sexual conduct can have different meanings (different "sacraments") in different periods of salvation history. For Augustine, the primary sacrament of marriages in the Hebrew Bible was their very multiplicity, a multiplicity that was fulfilled historically in the spread of Christianity throughout the world. In Christian times, by contrast, the primary sacrament in marriage is an indissoluble unity, a unity that will be realized only at the end of time in the City of God. As Augustine put it: "Out of many souls there will arise a city of people with a single soul and a single heart turned to God. This perfection of our unity will come about only after this pilgrimage [on earth], when no longer will anyone's thoughts be hidden from another, and no longer will anyone be in conflict with anyone about anything."

Perhaps the most important feature of Augustine's notion of the "sacrament" in marriage is that it provided him with a way to think about a transcendent significance in human relationships. For Augustine Christian marriages were meant to be indissoluble because they symbolized a unity that transcended their own fragile humanity, a unity that was to be realized fully only in the coming kingdom of God. Augustine's notion of the sacrament in marriage, therefore, acknowledged that of all human relationships marriage was the one that was capable of bearing a unique meaning in salvation history. Put simply, the "sacrament" in marriage meant that marriage was an eschatological sign, a sign of the ultimate unity of God and humanity, as embodied in the union of Christ and the Church.

Part Three: Augustine's Preaching on Marriage

This brings me to the final portion of my talk, Augustine's preaching on marriage. As I mentioned above, not much attention has been paid to this aspect of Augustine's work. One reason for this, I believe, is that much of what Augustine says in his preaching is unexceptional, even banal. He warned his congregation about the dangers of adultery. He cautioned against sex with slave girls and slave boys, as other patristic preachers did. He urged the men, especially, not to follow a double standard in sexual ethics by holding women to rules of sexual purity that they themselves had no intention of following. But Augustine also occasionally brought up the delicate issue of his congregations' own acts of marital intimacy. As I noted above, in the treatise The Good of Marriage Augustine had discussed the question of the moral status of sex when it occured within marriage purely out of lustful or selfish desire. Augustine called this a venialis culpa, that is, a "venial" or a "forgivable fault." Augustine derived this idea from his reading of 1 Corinthians 7:5-6, where Paul said that married couples should abstain from sex only for brief periods of time for the sake of prayer. "Then come together again," Paul wrote, "so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession (secundum veniam), not of command." As Augustine understood it, the concession or forgiveness that Paul offered was for acts of sexual intercourse that took place purely out of lust and not for the sake of procreation. For married people, such acts contain some "fault" (culpa), but are easily "forgivable" (venialis) because of the goodness of marriage.

Just how serious was a "forgivable fault"? Augustine did not discuss this issue at any length in The Good of Marriage. However, in several sermons he directly broached the topic and applied the principles of his treatise to the practical lives of his congregation. For example, in sermon 9 (which may come from the later years of his life), Augustine spoke of "daily sins" that were virtually unavoidable because of human weakness. Among these "daily sins" Augustine listed things such as speaking an unkind word or indulging in excessive laughter. He also mentioned eating more food than was needed to sustain life and engaging in sex more than was necessary to produce children. Augustine seemed to regard such "daily sins" as almost trivial. They did not require public penance and could be expiated, he said, simply by the daily practice of almsgiving or by the daily recitation of the Lord's Prayer. It is true that Augustine did warn his listeners not to take these sins lightly simply because they were so numerous (ser. 9.18). Like tiny grains of wheat they were capable of piling up and even sinking the ships that carried them (ser. 278.12). Nevertheless, within the pastoral context of his preaching about marriage, Augustine does not seem to have been overly concerned about the problem of unrestrained sexual desire, at least within marriage. Since he accepted the weakness of human nature as a given, Augustine was completely prepared to follow the apostle Paul and to accept that sex within marriage, even apart from procreation, was an acceptable alternative to adultery or fornication.

There is another feature of marital fidelity that is accented in Augustine's preaching that supplements in a helpful way his teaching in The Good of Marriage. In the treatise Augustine drew a distinction between the spouse who engaged in sex primarily to support his or her partner and the spouse who sought sexual relations primarily because of unrestrained desire or lust. Those who lack self-restraint are the ones who have received "pardon" from the apostle Paul for this venialis culpa. But the former, who act out of the good of fidelity, are without sin because they act out of a virtuous motivation. The same idea is found in Augustine's preaching, but in the preaching Augustine went even further in characterizing this type of sexual activity as an act of charity. The key text is found in a sermon that was discovered and published by Franççois Dolbeau in the early 1990's. The main theme of this sermon, which was composed around the same time as The Good of Marriage, was to dissuade married persons from undertaking vows of celibacy without the consent of their partners. It might seem surprising that Augustine had to face the problem of too many people avoiding sex, but this was not an uncommon phenomenon in his day and he had to deal with it in several letters, as well as in his sermons.

Augustine's response in the Dolbeau sermon was to emphasize that engaging in sex out of marital fidelity was an act of charity, mercy, and even self-control. He wrote: Love one another. Is the husband able [to practice self-control] and the wife not able to? Are you not demanding payment of the conjugal debt? Pay it yourself! And insofar as you are paying what you are not also demanding, you are doing an act of mercy. Yes, indeed, I dare to say it, "It is an act of mercy."

Augustine went on in the sermon to say that the spouse who engaged in sex out of the duty of fidelity should be regarded as actually possessing the virtue of self-control, even though he or she consented to engage in sexual activity. "What if you no longer demand, but only pay the debt?" he writes. "It is still attributed to you as self-control. For it is not being demanded out of lust, but it is being paid out of mercy. So, you should say to your God: 'Lord, you know what gift you have placed in me [namely the gift of self-control]; but I also hear what you have advised [namely, the apostle Paul's advice to "come together again"], because you have made both me and my partner, and have not wished either of us to perish'" (ser. 354A.13).

It is significant that Augustine chose to portray sexual activity in marriage, when motivated by the virtue of fidelity, as an act of love, mercy, and even self-control. In the sermon Augustine portrayed the practitioner of marital fidelity in the same terms that he used in the treatise The Good of Marriage to characterize the saints of the Old Testament. They, too, Augustine argued, engaged in sexual relations with one another, even though they possessed the virtue of self-control as an internal disposition or habitus (21.25). "Perfect souls," such as the patriarch Abraham and the matriarch Sarah, were able to make use of the goods of the world, even the pleasures of intercourse, because these were necessary in order to produce the people of God. Since they had received the gift of self-control from God, they were able to make use of earthly goods without becoming too attached to them. Therefore, to engage in sex out of duty and obedience to God was completely compatible with receiving the grace of self-control.

In the Dolbeau sermon Augustine did not say explicitly that the self-control of married persons who engage in sex purely out of fidelity is equal to that of celibates or of the Old Testament saints, even though the logic of his argument might have compelled him in that direction. It is clear, however, that Augustine believed that sex did not in itself disqualify a person from achieving holiness. As Augustine wrote in another sermon, the Exposition on Psalm 149, God would attribute "perfect sanctification" to the married person who, while desiring to be celibate, chose to be faithful and support the weakness of his or her spouse. The overriding emphasis, as I see it, in Augustine's preaching on marriage was a pastoral concern for the weakness of human nature that has been damaged by sin. Though Augustine certainly believed that celibacy was the ideal way of life for Christians, he knew that this was not realistic for most people. Therefore, he developed a pastoral theology of marriage that made room both for heroic acts of self-control as well as indulgence for human limitations.


By way of conclusion I would like to return to the comments of Uta Ranke-Heinemann with which I began. Do the writings of Augustine show a "hatred of sex and pleasure"? Did he equate "pleasure with perdition"? Did he believe that "the locus par excellence of sin is sex"? Was he guilty of "pleasure-hating fantasies"? I will leave the final answer to these questions up to each of you, though my answer should be obvious by now. I have tried tonight to present some of the elements of Augustine's teaching on which a balanced and critical answer must be based. Augustine never rejected marriage or sex or pleasure. More than most Christian thinkers of his day, he tried to find a place in the church for the average, married person. As Robert Markus once eloquently argued, Augustine staunchly defended the value of "Christian mediocrity" against the ascetic elitism of his day. His deep sense of the abiding difficulty of controlling sexual desire led him to take one of the most "liberal" positions in the early church, namely to accept the legitimacy of sex within marriage, apart from procreation. Augustine also recognized the intrinsically social character of human nature and linked procreation to the formation of human community. Finally, by pioneering the Catholic idea of a "sacrament" in marriage, Augustine expressed the belief that fragile, human relationships - even sexual ones - were capable of bearing enduring, transcendent significance. Surely, there is more here than his critics have allowed.

Thank you.


U. Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven. Women, Sexuality and the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1990).
Cited in Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum I.5 (PL 23: 228).
For example, in Against Jovinian Jerome had argued that marriage was only a lesser evil than fornication and that not even the blood of martyrdom could wipe way the stain of marital intercourse.
De genesi ad litteram 9.5-7.
See, for example, De bono coniugali 9.9.
Cf. De bono coniugali 16.18. Retractationes II.xxii.2 (BA 12: 490)
De bono coniugali 4.4.
De bono coniugali 5.5. De bono coniugali 11.12 (BA 2: 52), citing 1 Cor 7:28.
I have discussed this point at length in my essay, "Reclaiming Biblical Morality: Sex and Salvation History in Augustine's Treatment of the Hebrew Saints," in In Dominico Eloquio. In Lordly Eloquence: Essays on Patristic Exegesis in Honor of Robert Louis Wilken. Edited by Paul M. Blowers, Angela Russell Christman, David G. Hunter, and Robin Darling Young. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 317-35.
De bono coniugali 18.21 (CSEL 41:215).
De bono coniugali 18.21 (CSEL 41:214).
Ser. 9.18; cf. ser. 354A.12 and ser. 278.9-10.
See Letter 127 (ca. 411) and Letter 262 (ca. 418).
Portions of this talk have appeared in previous publications, where fuller discussion and bibliography can be found. See, especially, the following: "Augustinian Pessimism? A New Look at Augustine's Teaching on Sex, Marriage and Celibacy," Augustinian Studies 25 (1994): 153-77; and "Augustine, Sermon 354A: Its Place in his Thought on Marriage and Sexuality," Augustinian Studies 33 (2001): 39-60.