St. Augustine: a View on Marriage and Sexuality in today's World

What would be St. Augustine's reaction if he returned to the world at this start of the third millennium, and had to evaluate the modern attitude toward marriage and toward human sexuality?
I believe that (with surprise, or perhaps without it) he would identify two phenomena that he experienced in his own time (even if under somewhat different modulations); two attitudes that he combatted; two valuations, seemingly located at opposite poles, and nevertheless intimately related to each other.
Disesteem for marriage; exaltation of sex
On the one hand there is the little favor which marriage enjoys nowadays, the disesteem into which it seems to have fallen. Modern public opinion accords it little standing and less trust, has increasing doubts about its value and is skeptical as to its possibilities of working out well. Surrogates abound (free unions, trial marriages...) to the point that the very notion of marriage is losing all objective content (same-sex "marriages"). No doubt most of our contemporaries would not - yet - say that marriage is bad; but they might have some difficulty in specifying why it is good.
On the other hand, this disesteem of marriage goes hand in hand with a certain omnipresence of sexuality in almost all the aspects of life. While this might at first sight indicate an apparent re-evaluation of sex, a more attentive analysis suggests in fact its absolute trivialization.
There is no longer any norm for sex: no understanding within which it attains full and proper meaning, and outside of which it must be considered a-normal. Indeed, what seems today to be considered normal - as if it should apply to everyone - is an "active" sexual life, whatever form that activity takes. Sexual intercourse is no longer regarded as something sacred, filled with meaning, which characterizes one unique human relationship, that of marriage, and is reserved for those who are spouses. Sexual activity doesn't imply a deep dedication of persons; it can be casual, temporary, promiscuous. Anyone - even a person of the same sex - can be a good and legitimate sexual "partner".
A renewed personalist view
Saint Augustine had already seen quite a bit of this in his own lifetime. So probably he would not be greatly surprised to verify how errors and aberrations of the past keep turning up again in modern times. What might strike him however is the new personalist outlook on marriage which has developed in the Church over the last decades. I have the feeling that he would understand it in depth and (what could be of greater interest) would point out - his teachings already intimate - both the genuine ways along which it should be developed as well as the possible deviations or superficial interpretations that it needs to avoid.
The Second Vatican Council wished to respond to the modern devaluation of marriage by offering a renewed vision of its dignity, a vision impregnated precisely with a distinct personalism capable of attracting and inspiring Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
The Council, in the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes (no. 48), describes marriage as the "intimate partnership of married life and love": it speaks of the physical intercourse of the spouses as an expression of their mutual "giving and accepting" of one another: it insists on how husband and wife "through this union experience the meaning of their oneness and attain to it with growing perfection day by day"; and adds that "as a mutual gift of two persons, this intimate union and the good of the children demand total fidelity from the spouses and require an unbreakable unity between them"
It is worth noting that the same number of Gaudium et spes also underlines the natural connection between the procreation of the children on one hand, and on the other both the institution of marriage itself as well as the personal love of the spouses: "By their very nature, the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown" (cfr. also no. 50).
Over the last decades so much writing on marriage has repeatedly invoked conciliar personalism. Not everything written however seems to have fully understood the multiple facets of this matrimonial personalism, or - above all - to have perceived the intimate relationship that links together the most essential of these facets. One especially notices a tendency at times to depreciate the procreative aspect of the marriage, contrasting it precisely with the aspect of personal fulfilment (which is identified with love). At the same time, not a few authors - also in many sectors inside the Church - reflect the modern diffidence toward the concept of an indissoluble matrimonial bond, as if such a bond would necessarily compromise the process of personal fulfilment.
While the line of St. Augustine's thought, as well as the mode and tone of his exposition, naturally correspond to the historical issues in which he was involved, he ever remains a doctor universalis. So many aspects of his teaching anticipate our modern insights. More importantly still, they enlarge and mature them, and so have the power to save them from partial judgments and false oppositions and lead them to a fuller and deeper synthesis. In relation to our subject, I consider that much can be found in the richness of his thought to deepen our understanding of married personalism and of human sexuality as presented by Vatican II and subsequent magisterium.
Some may find this suggestion strange, given the extent to which Augustine has been accused not only of having a negative and pessimistic attitude towards sexuality, but also of offering a fundamentally defective view of marriage, attributing importance and value to its procreative function alone and ignoring totally its personalistic aspects. This is a critical view that I do not share, considering it to be based on an inadequate reading of St. Augustine, as well as on a faulty understanding of conjugal sexuality itself. But the criticism has been repeated so often than it seems wise to let it in some way condition our study.
Saint Augustine, a pessimist?; an anti-personalist?
Concretely it could suggest that we center our considerations around two questions. Firstly, was St. Augustine's view of marriage exclusively procreative, or does his thought also present aspects that can properly be called personalist? Secondly, was his view of sexual activity pessimistic, or can we find in it elements of real utility for our own correct focussing of sexuality, especially as an expression of married love?
Our study calls on us to pay special attention to two of the great controversies Augustine engaged in: that with the Manicheans early in his Catholic life, and that with the Pelagians later on. The manichean doctrines represented a frontal attack on marriage. The pelagian views involved a more camouflaged attack on the Christian norm for sexuality in our present human condition. The former were openly anti-marriage; the latter were apparently pro-sexuality, but in fact tended to undermine man's ability to respect and uphold the dignity of sex. St. Augustine's polemics with the Manicheans reflect his defense of marriage in general and of procreativity in particular; those with the Pelagians reveal his reserves about views which present human sexuality as basically unproblematic.
Since, in the dualist view of the Manicheans, the body is the work of the devil, its propagation is evil; and marriage, considered as the institutional means of procreation, is also evil [1]. Given this peculiar manichean tenet, it is natural that St. Augustine, in his reply, expounds the opposite thesis: conjugal sexual intercourse is good precisely because procreation is good [2]. This explains in large part his insistence on the generative purpose of sex [3].
But it is not true that the only value that Augustine sees in marriage is procreation. In his very first work on marriage, De bono coniugali - written in those early anti-manichean days - we meet what will be a life-long chant in praise of the three essential values or properties by which the goodness of marriage itself is shown. Properly considered, his thought here merits to be termed "personalist". Observing that "it is proper to inquire for what reason marriage be good", he goes on, "this seems to me not merely to be on account of the begetting of children, but also on account of the natural association between the two sexes" [4], whose mutual faith he describes as "the first fellowship of humankind in this mortal state" [5]. He insists on the value of love between husband and wife, and how the "ordo caritatis" unites those whom age or misfortune may have deprived of children: "Now in good although aged marriage, even if the vigour of youth between man and woman has faded, the order of charity between husband and wife remains in its fullness" [6]. He presents fidelity as an exchange of mutual respect and service [7], and insists too that "the bodies of the married too are holy, when they keep faith to one another and to God" [8]. And in his later work on widowhood, he writes: "The good of marriage is always a good indeed. In the people of God it was at one time an act of obedience to the law; now it is a remedy for weakness, and for some a solace of human nature" [9].
Augustine goes farther. In defending the goodness of matrimony, he offers a never surpassed analysis of the essential values - profoundly human values and divine blessings at one and the same time - which characterize and show the beauty, nobility and attractiveness of marriage. This is the augustinian doctrine of the bona matrimonialia, which time and again he presents in the form of canticles of praise of the three values or essential properties which evidence the goodness of marriage: its exclusiveness, its procreativity, and the unbreakable nature of the conjugal bond.
For him, each of these essential properties of the conjugal society is a good thing, that gives dignity to matrimony and shows its deep correspondence to the innate aspirations of human nature, which can therefore take glory in this goodness: "This is the goodness of marriage, from which it takes its glory: offspring, chaste fidelity, unbreakable bond" [10].
The three "bona": bonum fidei, bonum prolis, bonum sacramenti... Here we have a formula that is typically augustinian in its brevity and incisiveness. Writers down the centuries have tended to echo its brevity, without perhaps making sufficient effort to penetrate its depth and to discover its anthropological richness. St. Augustine is not to be blamed if later ecclesial reflection, dwelling on the procreative finality of marriage which he so well defended, has neglected to maintain and develop his positive view of the other deeply human values by which marriage is essentially characterized [11].
In this context it seems arguable that theology and especially canon law have fostered a restrictive and at times even apparently negative view of the properties of marriage, which laid special emphasis on the aspect of obligation involved in each "bonum" and concerned itself mainly with the juridical consequences of their exclusion. It seems to me beyond question that this insistence on the obligatoriness of the "bona" has tended to obscure their actual goodness. Now Augustine did not present the "bona" mainly as obligations, but as values, as blessings. "Let these nuptial blessings be the objects of our love: offspring, fidelity, the unbreakable bond... Let these nuptial blessings be praised in marriage by him who wishes to extol the nuptial institution" [12].
There is nothing defective or pessimistic in this forceful analysis. On the contrary, St. Augustine's thesis - that the marital relationship is good because of three exceptional values which characterize it - appears as powerfully attractive to those whose natural sense of life has not been warped.
One feels that modern men and women, or at least those who have retained some feeling for marriage, will have little difficulty in accepting that there is a value in the "fides" of matrimony. It is a good thing that spouses pledge mutual and exclusive fidelity, so showing the unique appreciation each has of the other. The good or value of fidelity is surely clear. "You are unique to me", is the first truly personalised affirmation of conjugal love; and echoes the words God addresses to each one of us in Isaiah: "Meus es tu" - "You are mine" [13].
A greater effort may be required today to understand and admit that this mutual fidelity is all the more of a value because it is meant to be permanent; enshrined, that is, in an unbreakable bond. Modern man has developed a notion of his own freedom which makes him suspicious of any definitive commitment. He always wants to be in a position to go back on his choices, even on a choice as natural as marriage. And that is why indissolubility, which is an essential "bonum" for St. Augustine, has become a "malum" for modern man. A temporary or breakable bond is better than an unbreakable one. Only soluble marriage is good and acceptable; an indissoluble bond is bad and unacceptable. Yet it is Augustine who is right, and modern man who is mistaken in his paralysing diffidence, and needs to correct his perspective about the positive needs and fulfilling tendencies of his own nature.
Truly, for whoever has not lost contact with his or her own humanity, the value of a bond of love that is permanent should be clear. To possess a stable home or haven, to know that one's "belonging" to another - and that other's belonging to one - is for always: all of this is natural and highly attractive for the human person. One wants that, and while one knows it will require sacrifices, it is natural to sense that the sacrifices are worth it. John Paul II insists on this point:"It is natural for the human heart to accept demands, even difficult ones, in the name of love for an ideal, and above all in the name of love for a person" [14].
Pope John Paul II, in full consonance with St. Augustine's vision, goes further in fact and speaks of indissolubility as good news: "To all those who, in our times, consider it too difficult, or indeed impossible, to be bound to one person for the whole of life, and to those caught up in a culture that rejects the indissolubility of marriage and openly mocks the commitment of spouses to fidelity, it is necessary to reconfirm the good news of the definitive nature of that conjugal love that has in Christ its foundation and strength"" [15]; "the family achieves the good of being together. This is the good par excellence of marriage (hence its indissolubility) and of the family community" [16].
Marriage is good: a deep and demanding good to be faithful to, not a superficial "experience" to be tried and discarded as soon as its first demands make their appearance.
As already remarked, it is not true that Augustine saw marriage exclusively in a procreative light. At the same time it is clear that the "bonum prolis" or procreativity was a main marital value for him; and an essential one, along with the "bonum fidei" and the "bonum sacramenti". Perhaps it is here where modern man is farthest from understanding St. Augustine's thought, and where he could at the same time most benefit from it. Is procreativity a value for our contemporaries? Do they grasp the personalist dignity of procreation, seeing the fallaciousness of views which dismiss as mere "biologism" any defense of the intrinsic and inseparable connection between the procreative and the unitive aspects of marital intercourse? [17] Do they realize not only that marriage is naturally designed to be fruitful, but that this fruitfulness is a good thing, a "quid bonum"; because, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, "children are the supreme gift of marriage and greatly contribute to the good of the parents themselves" (Gaudium et spes, 50)? Are people therefore convinced that the practice of contraception - or even of needless natural family planning - impoverishes the personal and conjugal life of the spouses? If few would answer these questions with an unhesitant Yes, and many with a qualified or unqualified No, then modern thought is certainly not aligned with that of St. Augustine nor, it would seem, with the judgment of Vatican II on how procreation enriches married life.
The augustinian "bona" and christian personalism
For many years after the Second Vatican Council some theological and canonical writers worked from the assumption that preconciliar church thinking had been dominated by an institutional understanding of marriage, and that, in the spirit of the Council, this must now be replaced by a more person-centered understanding. In this view the institutional understanding emphasized the social aspect of marriage and, concretely, its role as an institution for propagating the human race. In contrast, again according to this way of thinking, the Council called for a renewed understanding of marriage in a more personalist way: with greater emphasis on the relationship between husband and wife, on the role and aspirations of conjugal love, and on personal fulfillment; with greater freedom, therefore, from institutional restraints. Part of this whole process, it was suggested, must involve a shift of emphasis away from the traditional augustinian bona which were particularly regarded as institutional elements of matrimony unfavorable to the development of personalism.
Both the presuppositions of this view and as well as the contrasts it makes have always struck me as unwarranted. For a Christian, after all, marriage must surely be always seen as an institution - not of positive human law, but of divine law. In other words, it is not a mere historical invention or a temporary arrangement devised by man - suited perhaps to the human or social "mores" of some particular moment, but which people of a later age could well modify or discard - but a God-given reality which corresponds to man's nature and to the divine plan for man's development and destiny.
It is this institution, marriage itself, which can indeed be viewed from a variety of standpoints. In considering it, one can stress personalist values (self-fulfilment, conjugal love, etc.) on the one hand, or legal realities (validity of consent, capacity, etc.) on the other; and then one can certainly draw a contrast between the two views. So, while one can quite legitimately draw a contrast between a personalist and a legal (or even, if one wishes, a legalistic) understanding of marriage, I find it quite misleading to draw a contrast between an "institutional" and "personalist" understanding.
So it was that during my years at the Roman Rota I published quite a number of canonical and theological studies, seeking to show that the "institutional view" and the "personalist view" of marriage lend themselves to synthesis rather than to contrast; and - more to our present point - that the augustinian bona are deeply personalist, both reflecting the aspirations of conjugal love and favoring the true human fulfilment of the spouses [18].
In fact, to maintain that a procreative understanding of marriage is not personalist reveals a major defect in anthropological thinking. The contemporary loss of the sense of the goodness of human procreativity, of the uniqueness of each occasion when two cells become a child, or a spouse becomes a parent, suggests a devalued concept of life itself and of the privilege of being cooperators with God in its perpetuation. It was during his manichean period that Augustine had his one son - unplanned and unwanted. How significant it is that even then, despite the manichean tenet that procreation is bad, he received this son as a gift from above, naming him Adeodatus - "Given-by-God".
In this sense one can claim that Augustine's doctrine of the triple "bona" is personalist. If we have largely lost that positive vision of these basic values of marriage, if we too easily tend to think of the burden, and not of the goodness and attractiveness of an exclusive life-long, fruitful union between man and woman, then it is perhaps we, and not St. Augustine, who could be charged with pessimism, or at least with an impoverished outlook on reality.
After all, the key idea on which all genuine christian personalism is built, is expressed in the well-known sentence of Gaudium et spes: "man cannot fully find himself [plene seipsum invenire non posse] except through a sincere gift of himself" (no. 24) [19]. Whoever does not really give himself to another, remains alone, and "it is not good that man should be alone" (Gn 2:24); that way he cannot fulfil himself. That dedication to another can be directly to God [20]; otherwise (and of course it is the most common case), it is precisely dedication in marriage. But it has to be a real dedication - an authentic donation made totally and without reserve - and it is here where dedication as love, and marriage as an institution, meet and coincide.
If an unreserved dedication towards the other party is today no longer regarded as an essential value of the matrimonial relationship, neither is a commitment without reservations toward children, the possible fruit of the conjugal union. Generally speaking, marriage is still expected to be faithful and exclusive; but it is accepted that it can be temporary and sterile.
Summing up, then, the main value that many of our contemporaries see in the man-woman relationship would seem to be simply some form of sexual companionship, formalized or not in marriage. Sexuality, and not conjugality, has become the reference point. As a result, the distinction between licit and illicit sexual relationships (in more traditional terms, between marriage and fornication, etc.) becomes more and more blurred, and ends up by losing any real meaning. Not a few maintain that - provided a sincere love exists - , matrimonial and extra-matrimonial relationships are almost indistinguishable from the moral point of view. Given the presence of such love, both are "good" (though some may grant that from a certain point of view the former is preferable) [21]. But the basis for this "goodness" no longer resides in the total mutual self-donation, shown through the conjugal bona. It is placed in the fragile goodness of "love", devoid of any real aspect of self-dedication: a transitory love, without any promise of fidelity, and closed to its possible fruit in a new life. Such love does not really unite - more than for a moment and in passing - nor has it the capacity to take a person out of his or her existential solitude. The physical expression of love, no longer restricted to a truly married relationship, can easily fall under the sway of a force - that of uncontrolled sexuality - that isolates the individual and tends to dehumanize and devitalize love itself.
To my mind, then, a proper re-appraisal of St. Augustine's contribution to married personalism depends on our ability to interpret his doctrine of the "bona" also in a personalist key, and not only, as is so often done, in one that is juridic and that some would describe as merely "institutional". The doctrine of the "bona" is St. Augustine's great legacy in defense of the goodness of marriage. Contemporary christian thought - in response to current pessimism about matrimony - should feel challenged to explore and expound in fuller measure the human content and appeal of these values.
St. Augustine and conjugal love
What place does conjugal love occupy in St. Augustine's thinking? He was no doubt too much a man of his times to give the same importance to the affective or sentimental aspects oflove, as we tend to do today. For him the truth of conjugal love is to be found not in the area of feelings, but within the ordo caritatis where the emphasis is placed on faithful companionship independently of the variations or the possible waning of passionate or affective love. For him too the essence of the marital covenant lies in reciprocal self-giving [22]. But the quality of this mutual donation is put to the test by time, and there is no doubt that St. Augustine was more impressed with the goodness of the faithful marriage weighed down by years - the "bonum et annosum coniugium" - than with the romantic but untested conjugal encounter of youth [23]. What a turn of Latin phrasing St. Augustine might have given to the saying that a young couple in love is a pleasing sight, but an old couple in love is a sight to marvel at.
Fidelity is the fruit of authentic marital affection. Love, like every virtue, is difficult and suffers moments of temptation. The faithful and chaste spouse is superior in her love than the one who lends herself to fleeting affairs. "And in what is the wife superior if not through her love for fidelity, her love for marriage, her more sincere and chaste love [towards her husband]"? [24]. Her love is more genuine because it is more faithful.
In his great catechesis, "Theology of the Body", John Paul II presents a personalist analysis of sexuality and marriage, seeing them as a divinely instituted means to help man overcome his "original solitude". In connection with this, it is interesting to note that in a work as important and as early as De bono coniugali, Augustine begins his exposition by emphasizing the companionate nature of marriage. He too sees the goodness of the conjugal union evidenced in its being the first natural fulfilment of the human need for sociability. In the opening chapter, Augustine clearly sets forth the broad human foundation on which he grounds the goodness of marriage: man's sociable nature and the natural value that man finds in friendship. It is only after laying down that human sociability finds its first natural expression precisely in marital society, that he goes on to indicate what it is that distinguishes the married relationship: i.e. the fact that it involves a man and a woman not in any mere ordinary friendship, but in a procreative society [25]. We have already noted above passages of the same work which can rightly be termed personalist. Let us also recall the terms in which, in De civitate Dei, he envisions marriage in Eden: "a faithful covenant between the spouses based on love and mutual respect" [26].
St. Augustine and conjugal sexuality
This brings us to the second aspect of our considerations. Although the goodness of marriage has been questioned and relativized in modern times, the goodness of sex seems paradoxically to be in a process of becoming unquestioned and absolutized. Even to suggest, however qualifiedly, that "there is something wrong with sex", is likely to provoke an outburst of wrath at what is considered a revived Puritanism. And if in an article such as this, I were to suggest (which I do) that St. Augustine holds there is something wrong with sex, the reply would surely be immediate, "You see; there you grant the truth of the criticism about St. Augustine's pessimism about sex, that hangover from his manichean background".
Was St. Augustine's view of sexuality - especially in its conjugal context - pessimistic, or does it contain insights that can provide a more positive understanding of how sexuality is meant to be, and to remain, an expression of married love?
St. Augustine's extraordinary sense of the holiness and majesty of God undoubtedly intensified his sense of man's sinfulness. If we feel that he exaggerates the latter, perhaps it is because we are deficient in the former. Further, if Augustine sees and weighs man's littleness, he does so precisely in the light of God's infinite majesty and redemptive mercy. This explains why he is not pessimistic about man's possibilities and dignity, but just the contrary. This optimism of St. Augustine about man's calling and destiny - about the ultimate value of human life - explains how his thought has attracted and inspired countless numbers over the centuries. His optimism is all the more evident and attractive to those who understand the realism on which it is so firmly grounded.
Now this this has particular application to that important aspect of life which is human sexuality. Any accusation here of pessimism - in the Catholic Augustine - is also firmly to be rejected. His struggle with his own sexual impulses was long and hard, and such a sensitive personality with a manichean background must have gone through many temptations to lapse into pessimism. Yet he won in his struggle to control his sexuality; and to my mind he also conquered any pessimistic view of sexuality in general. He was not pessimistic about sex. He was not optimistic either. He was realistic; he felt something was wrong.
Here distinctions must be drawn out and followed with the greatest care. In the first place it should be noted that it was not in his polemics against the Manicheans that Augustine maintained there is something wrong with our sexual instinct (the Manicheans thought it not so much wrong as unimportant), but in his controversy with the Pelagians. Precisely because in the maturity of his thought he considered sexuality to be God-given and noble, he felt it so important to point out any negative element that may have affected it.
Catholic thought (largely under the influence of St. Augustine) has always defended the proposition that "sex is good". But to hold that "sex is good" is not the same as to affirm "there is nothing wrong with sex". The Catholic Church defends the first proposition, and rejects the second. Its whole view of creation in general and of man in particular is that, as God's work, they are good. But the Church views the good work of creation as threatened by evil, often from within, especially by the evil which man himself can freely design or choose. Between the goodness of Creation and the need for Redemption lies the reality of the Fall. So the Church, which holds that human nature is good, also holds that something has gone wrong with human nature; and that if this "something-gone-wrong" is not understood, taken into account, treated and if possible remedied, it can frustrate and destroy man's development as man. Further, while this "something wrong" makes its presence felt in all aspects of human activity, it especially troubles the area of sexuality.
This something gone wrong is a strange tendency of man to center on the things of creation, especially on himself, as if his happiness and fulfilment were to be found in created and perishable goods, and not in uncreated Good (cf. St. Thomas: I-II q. 82, art. 3). St. John, warning against the power of this potentially fatal attraction, distinguishes three aspects to it: "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life" (I Jn 2:16). St. Augustine is acutely aware of all three; but it his understanding of the lust or concupiscence of the flesh - the "concupiscentia carnalis" - that concerns us in particular. For it is indeed true that his thinking on this has had a profound effect in giving to Catholic understanding of sexuality its powerful and demanding realism.
Just as he fought the negative views of the Manicheans, so he resisted the over-optimistic views of the Pelagians - in a controversy where his purpose was to defend a Christian understanding of sexual morality against a naturalistic exaltation of sex.
The pelagian controversy forced Augustine to expound the defects of the present condition of sexuality. He has great difficulty in accepting that sexuality, as we now experience it, corresponds to the order created by God. He finds a disorder - that of concupiscence - in sexuality; and regards it, not as of God's institution, but as the result of sin [27]. This controversy - and its subsequent effect on Catholic morality - hinges on a proper understanding of the notion of concupiscence, and it is vital to understand the quite different positions sustained by the Pelagians and by Augustine. They maintained that concupiscence is a natural good [28], and is evil only in its excesses [29]. Augustine holds that it is in itself a disease or disorder [30], which accompanies man as a consequence of original sin.
The present imperfections of man are seen by Augustine in the light of the perfection of man's first creation, and of his eternal destiny. The concupiscence of the flesh is but one aspect of that broader concupiscence - an unwanted law everting man's values - that Augustine, like men before and after him, experienced. In his teaching on concupiscence, St. Augustine was of course following in the footsteps of St. Paul, who so bitterly complained to the Romans about the sin-engendered concupiscence which held him captive, and who so forcefully expressed his longings to be freed from the law of sin that dwelt in his members [31].
St. Augustine, like St. Paul, expresses neither manicheism nor pessimism but revealed and realistic doctrine when he affirms that "our body weighs heavily on our soul" [32]. Again like Paul, he looks for deliverance. He particularly senses that sexual nature is out of harmony with its original plan, and he longs for that situation of Paradise where sexual desire and activity would not have been subject to libido [33], and where it would have been possible to engage in marital relations without having instinct tending to dominate over mind and will and love.
Once and again he repeats that concupiscence is an evil in itself, an evil nevertheless that has a good use - one only - which is within marriage, in married intercourse directed to procreation. He maintains that an evil is present in that licit use of marriage, an evil which chaste spouses use well [34].
These are strong opinions about concupiscence, and certainly they lend themselves to be wrongly understood if they are taken out of context and above all if there is a lack of proper understanding of what concupiscence consists in, why it is evil, and how it is to be distinguished from a healthy sexual and married instinct [35].
Augustine and sexual pleasure
In the first place, one must acknowledge that some looser expressions of St. Augustine when he speaks of concupiscence seem to imply that its simple presence involves a certain personal guilt; but this is not so. What he holds is that it can be only be regarded as sinful inasmuch as it comes from sin and induces to sin, but it is not a sin in itself. This is clear enough from terms in which he defines it: concupiscence is a certain bad inclination or quality, [36]. This is also clearly reflected in the various texts where St. Augustine says that all sins are forgiven in baptism, concupiscence however remaining after its reception [37]. This is what Thomas Aquinas teaches with his usual precision: concupiscence remains in us as a defect (poena) that accompanies our fallen state, and not as a moral fault (culpa) [38].
However, one has to face up to the question of whether, in Saint Augustine's mind, concupiscence is simply to be identified with sexual pleasure in itself; and, concretely in marriage, with that pleasure which accompanies the physical union between the bodies of the spouses when they engage in the marital act.
Here we need to think things out gradually. First, let us keep in mind that the thought of great minds is in constant ferment; it progresses and matures; at times it even changes radically, above all (something quite logical) in the case of persons who have experienced a drastic conversion, passing from one concept of life and of human nature itself to another that is totally different. Let us think of Saint Paul, for example; and of so many notable figures of more modern times, especially since the mid-nineteenth century.
There is no more remarkable example of this than Saint Augustine. For that reason, if we want to thoroughly appreciate his concept of concupiscence (which was certainly negative), it is necessary to ponder mainly the writings of his last years - the period of his maturity, if we can express it so -, in which he studies and thoroughly analyzes the nature of concupiscence: the period of his anti-pelagian writings.
Here what specially stands out is his long controversy with the pelagian bishop Julian of Eclanum who in some way deserves our gratitude because the dialectic between the two gave rise to Augustine's work, De nuptiis et concupiscentia, where his concern to clarify certain more delicate aspects of his thought helps us immensely to grasp that thought with greater precision.
Julian had twisted Augustine's strictures on concupiscence, as though they implied a negative judgment on the attraction between the sexes, or on sexual pleasure in marital relations. Augustine vigorously denies Julian's charges that he had ever condemned sexual differences or union or fruitfulness: "He asks us whether it is the difference in the sexes which we ascribe to the devil, or their union, or their very fruitfulness. We answer, then, nothing of these qualities, inasmuch as sexual differentiation pertains to the bodies of the parents, while the union of the two pertains to the procreation of children, and their fruitfulness to the blessing pronounced on the marriage institution. But all these things are of God..." [39]. And in a later passage he repeats that he has nothing to object to Julian's praise (by which he seeks to lead the thoughtless astray) "of the works of God; that is, his praising of human nature, of human seed, of marriage, of sexual intercourse, of the fruits of matrimony: which are all of them good things" [40]. When Augustine condemns concupiscence, therefore, he condemns none of these divinely-given values of sexual nature. Now a further point needs to be noticed. Augustine makes it clear that what he regards as the disorder of concupiscence is not synonymous with sexual pleasure either.
This point needs to be specially stressed since, given the vigor with which Augustine criticizes the yielding to concupiscence, a superficial reader might easily conclude that he is criticizing the actual seeking of pleasure itself in marital intercourse. A proper reading shows that this is not so.
Already in De bono coniugali, in a passage where he compares nourishment and generation, he had insisted that sexual pleasure, sought temperately and rationally, is not and cannot be termed concupiscence [41]. Elsewhere he contrasts the lawful pleasure of the conjugal embrace with the unlawful pleasure of fornication [42]. In his debate with Julian, he makes it clear that it is not pleasure which he criticizes: "because pleasure can also be honourable" [43]; and he is content that Julian admits that pleasure can be both licit and illicit [44].
One specially interesting passage shows the methodical way in which he deals with his adversary, declining to let him score debating points by reading ideas into Augustine's writings which he has not put there, or by accusing him of things he has not said. He will go along with Julian when the latter lists the God-made and therefore praiseworthy aspects of the sexual relationship; but he will not let himself be drawn further. When Julian affirms (as if Augustine had denied) that marital intercourse, with its intimacy, with its pleasure, with its semination, are from God and therefore in their own way to be praised, Augustine rapidly ticks off these 'non-arguments' - "Dixit "cum calore"; dixit "cum voluptate"; dixit "cum semine" - which are irrelevant to their debate, since Augustine is in full agreement that these are good things given by God. But, he goes on, Julian, who says all of this (making points which I have never called into question), does not mention precisely what I say is bad in intercourse: carnal concupiscence or libido [45].
His reserve, then, is not about the goodness of marriage, nor about the intimacy and pleasure of conjugal intercourse, but about the force and effect of libido or the "concupiscentia carnis" which, he says, "is not a good that proceeds from the essence of marriage, but an evil which is the accident of original sin" [46].
Concupiscence in marriage
What then, for Augustine, is carnal concupiscence, if it is not the pleasure of sexual intercourse [47]? It is that "disobedience of the flesh" as a result of which the human will "has lost all proper command for itself over its own members" [48]; "that carnal appetite which impels man to seek feelings because of the pleasure they give, whether the spirit opposes or consents to this" [49]. It is that disordered aspect of sexual desire which breaks away from man's will and from the rational ordering of the sex appetite; so often making him experience sexual desire when satisfaction of that desire is either impossible or illicit: blurring his moral sense, inspiring actions that his mind reproves: actions that are to be judged non concupiscendo, sed intelligendo [50]. In a word, concupiscence is the compelling tendency to seek pleasure in a sidetracking of both reason and will.
We would repeat that, in dealing with our present subject, it is necessary to define terms with the greatest possible exactness. In our opinion, it seems more accurate to describe concupiscence as "un manque de contrôle de la raison et de la volonté sur les mouvements des organes sexuels" [51] than simply as "the passionate, uncontrolled element in sexuality" [52]. Man's passions form part of his nature, also in its original state. It is not the passionate, but the uncontrolled, element that characterizes concupiscence.
One would expect few to quarrel with Augustine if he had illustrated the presence of concupiscence or lust by simply pointing to such phenomena as fornication or adultery. But we cannot and should not want to pass over the fact that he speaks of concupiscence within marriage itself, in the exercise of conjugal relations. One of his frequently repeated ideas is that even in the lawful use of marriage there is an evil present, an evil which chaste spouses use well [53]. For some people this idea alone is enough to justify the charge against Augustine of a negative and manichean approach to sex. Yet I think that his position can be shown not only to be truly Christian, but to contain deep insights for the guidance of both the married and the single.
Part of Augustine's argument is that no one is ashamed of what is totally good [54], and he uses this point to show that some element of disorder accompanies the marriage act, in both its preparation and its consummation. He argues that, even though people think it fitting to perform their upright actions in the broad light of day, this is not so with the conjugal act, which - although upright - spouses would be ashamed to perform in public: "Why so, if not because that which is by nature fitting and decent, is so done as to be accompanied with a shame-begetting penalty of sin?" [55].
Why is it that normal married couples, who are not ashamed to give public expression to their mutual affection by means of a glance or a smile, would nevertheless be embarrassed to perform the marital act before others, even (once again the example is Augustine's) before their own children?
The explanation no doubt lies partly in the imperious nature of the sexual urge, as a result of which an ambivalent element easily enters even into marital sexuality. The ambiguity appears in the very marriage act itself: in that what should be wholly an act of love may be merely an act of selfishness; what should be the greatest physical expression of self-giving and dedication to another - filled therefore with gentleness and consideration - , can be reduced to an essentially selfish act, intent on satisfying a powerful urge to that pleasure which resides in the mere physical possession of the other.
So it should be clear that, even within marriage, seeking to satisfy one's concupiscence in a self-seeking way (and therefore without genuine love), with the intention of using one's spouse as an object to be subjected to one's carnal longings and without the desire to give oneself lovingly to him or her, constitutes an offense against the essence of marital respect and self-donation.
Spouses who sincerely love each other are readily aware of this element in their relationship which requires purification [56]. They sense the need to temper or restrain the force drawing them together, in such a way that they can by united in an act of true mutual giving, and not one of mere simultaneous taking. Their intimacy is therefore not something to which they can too lightly abandon themselves, for they are put to the test in it, at least before each other's eyes [57]. It is only natural that they do not want that test to be subject to the scrutiny of others.
A further point is that the sexual urge, besides being imperious, tends to be indiscriminate; it easily disconnects itself from love and draws a person in a direction that love cannot or ought not to go. Such is the case, for instance, of the single person who feels a powerful attraction towards the husband or wife of a friend. The fact of marrying does not necessarily eliminate these difficulties. A married person too can be suddenly beset by an unwanted and perhaps apparently uncontrollable sexual desire for a third person. Within married life itself, as between husband and wife, desire may come at a moment when it cannot be lovingly satisfied, or go in a direction which may not be properly followed. The husband who cares for his wife will at times find himself drawn into this conflict. He realizes that his wife perhaps does not want intercourse, and yet he does: or, more accurately, his instinct does. He would wish to have his sexual nature readily obedient to the call of his will, to the control of reason; yet finds that his instinct does not easily obey. He has to master it. This difficulty which he experiences, this "struggle between will and libido" [58], this threatening presence, also within marriage, of sexual selfishness, constitutes the evil of concupiscence which, according to Augustine, married people must learn to use well.
Conjugal chastity
This disorder of concupiscence, which in our present state accompanies the goodness of marriage, is redeemed by the virtue of chastity. Here Augustine's thought can be condensed in a single phrase, where he distinguishes "the goodness of marriage from the evil of carnal concupiscence, which is well used by conjugal chastity" [59].
What Augustine means by married chastity emerges from his comments on the Genesis account of Adam and Eve's behavior before and after the Fall. Before the Fall, they were naked and yet felt no shame (Gen 2, 25): "not because they could not see, but because they felt nothing in their members to make them ashamed of what they saw" [60]. In that state of integrated nature, Adam and Eve sensed nothing disordered - no element of selfishness - in the conjugal attraction between them. Not mere instinct, but their mind and will, would have determined the occasions of having marital relations, which would have corresponded fully and effortlessly to their own sense of mutual donation in the exercise of their generative power. "If there had been no sin, man would have been begotten by means of the organs of generation, not less obedient than his other members to a quiet and normal will" [61].
Augustine dwells on our first parents' reaction when, after sinning, they discovered that sexual desire seemed to have broken loose from conjugality: a sense of shame made them cover their members, and they clothed themselves. It is important to bear in mind that this shame was just between the two of them: who, after all, were husband and wife, and were alone. It was precisely into their mutual relationship that shame had entered. They were not ashamed to be husband and wife, nor to express their conjugal affection; but they were ashamed at a new element that threatened the purity which they had experienced in their original relationship.
Here we see both the effect of concupiscence and the natural reaction to it. Its effect is to make man and woman become too immediately absorbed with the exterior physical aspects and attraction of sex, preventing them from reaching, "seeing" and understanding the inner meaning and real substance and value of sexual differences and complementarity. Our first parents had that deeper and fuller vision in their state of original creation, and so could look with undisturbed joy on one another's nakedness without having sexual attraction or sexual understanding - sexual enrichment - perturbed by an excessive corporal impact. The covering of their nakedness, after the Fall, was a natural reaction designed to defend the clarity of their vision, their ability to see each other's sexuality in its full "spousal" meaning and not to run the risk of being blinded by its physical aspect alone [62].
In the reaction of Adam and Eve we see the pudicitia coniugalis: a certain modesty or reserve as between husband and wife born of their vigilance toward what each senses is a tendency not to honor the mystery of their reciprocal sexuality, and not to act according to the laws which their mind discovers in it: a tendency which is a temptation to use, and not to respect, the other. Adam and Eve - the only couple to experience sexuality as it was before and not just after the Fall - give a first example of married chastity, taking precautions so as to preserve their mutual love from the selfishness of that urge "which is not readily obedient to the will of even chaste-minded husbands and wives" [63].
The action of Adam and Eve exemplifies that sense of shame which, given the present state of our nature, is now natural to all men and women [64]. Their action also points up a clear lesson: if married people do not observe a certain modesty or restraint in their conjugal relations, this can undermine the mutual respect that should characterize their love, as well as the true freedom with which their reciprocal spousal donation should be made. Not only before their marriage, but also within it, love itself should inspire the spouses to protect and strengthen that freedom. John Paul II explains the point in these terms: "... that interior freedom of the gift, which of its nature is explicitly spiritual and depends on a person's interior maturity. This freedom presupposes such a capacity of directing one's sensual and emotive reactions as to make self-donation to the other possible, on the basis of mature self-possession..." [65].
If modern man does not see that something is wrong - that something is fallen and broken - in the relations between the sexes, he will not see the importance of chastity, the key to sexual salvation. We could express this in another way by saying that whoever values sex more than love will become more and more subject to the dominion of the former, and less and less capable of experiencing and expressing the latter. The exaltation of sex necessarily involves a depreciation of love and, in the long run, the loss of the very capacity for love. There is no one who does not realize this truth deep in his heart; and, I think, they are few who do not in some way long to achieve or recover the capacity of a more human, truer and purer sexual love. Augustine's cry could well be theirs: "Lord, make me chaste, though not yet..." [66], the cry of a spirit divided between the slavery of the flesh - whose relentless force it at least recognized - and the longing for a clean love that remains in each person until the end, however depraved he or she may seem to be. One can therefore understand that not only St. Augustine's doctrine but above all his life - narrated with such sincerity in his Confessions - continues to be be a source of inspiration and hope for those who, in a world inundated by eroticism, come to know it.
Catholic tradition and the wrong use of the body
Perhaps the closest parallel to the experience of Adam and Eve is that of the teenage boy and girl in whom an initial attraction of idealistic love suddenly becomes aware of the disturbing element of the flesh. They should realize that this new attraction between them is also natural, while at the same time recognizing that not everything about it is good. Just as, at a later stage, the young man and woman preparing to marry can be convinced that not everything is good in the instinct drawing them so powerfully to one another; and can remain so convinced even when they recognize the goodness of the union to which it draws them. It is not bad to be drawn to that union; yet it is not good to be drawn to it against one's better judgment.
So much modern "sex education" is in effect trying to instil into young people's minds the idea that there is no such thing as a good or bad use of sexuality: that all use of the body is in fact indifferent. Augustine, along with the whole Catholic tradition of moral teaching, insists that it is precisely because the body is good that it can be used wrongly. So, in a characteristic passage, he contrasts the virtuous use of the evil of 'libido' (i.e. the ordered use of sexuality despite the disorder of concupiscence) by married people, and the sinful misuse of the good of the body by the unchaste [67]. Concupiscence constantly threatens to dominate both the married and the single; it has, as Augustine says, "to be mastered by the chaste" [68], and chastity, further, is "a gift of God" [69].
Continuous pressure is being exercised on young people today to behave as if it were immodesty, and not modesty, which is natural: as if a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, felt no natural reproach - from within - at certain ways of talking or dressing or acting: as if passion were never selfish and grasping and in need of being so judged and resisted. All of this can lead, through a progressive dulling of the moral sense, to the unnatural and inhuman situation where the atmosphere reigning between the sexes becomes one of suspicion, distrust or fear, and where lack of respect acts as a powerful inhibitory factor on the growth and maturing of tenderness and love.
In this context, it should be emphasized that awareness of the presence of a selfish element in the realm of sexuality is not the result of formal religious training. On the contrary, it is natural to each person to be aware of this problem [70], just as it is natural for each one to be aware of that something wrong with his or her nature which Christians have traditionally called original sin, and which prompts "desires against which the faithful also have to battle" [71]. The Church does not accept that it is being pessimistic in urging people to fight against the bad tendencies of fallen nature. This is realism, not pessimism. It would be pessimism to believe (as Augustine believed for a long time) that it is not possible to win in the fight. The Church procalism that we can win - with Christ [72], not without him. At the other extreme, to say that there is no fight to be fought, is unrealistic and a form of Pelagianism.
The faithful readily enough recognize the truths behind the Church's teaching. They may well wish that there were indeed no need to struggle: "there is indeed no Christian seeking holiness who would not wish to free the spirit from the bad desires of the flesh that war against it" [73]. But faced with the inevitability of the fight, they welcome positive guidance about the nature of the war which all of us must wage, and about the spiritual means offered to us (prayer and the Sacraments, above all) so as not to be defeated in the struggle, or so as to remedy the defeats that may come, and so ensure eventual victory.
It is in this sense that Augustine recalls St. Paul's experience of the temptations of the flesh and the remedy he found for them. Augustine takes up that heartfelt cry, "Miser ego homo, quis me liberabit de corpore mortis huius?" (Rom 7:24) - words of one who fights in anguish but learns to win - , and comments that we too need to understand these words and apply them to ourselves because, like Paul, we are involved in the same battle and have the same means to conquer that he had [74].
Truth in sexual knowledge
Space does not permit more than a brief reference to a question that occupied St. Augustine (although from quite a different point of view to the one outlined here): why Adam and Eve did not (as it seems) have intercourse in Paradise [75]. It was after the Fall that they, to use the biblical term, knew each other [76].
Canon Law puts personal consent at the heart of the constitution of the matrimonial covenant, and insists that no human power can replace this consent (c. 1057 § 2). It does not seem necessary to suppose that divine power - God's will - replaced the human consent of Adam and Eve. One can surely say rather that they - knowing they had been created by God to be husband and wife - joyfully accepted and ratified this divine choice. If they did not have intercourse in Paradise, however, this was no doubt because they were not yet "ready for it"; they were still, we might say, in a period of courtship, in the process of getting to know each other spousally; and the act of intercourse - as involving the fullness of spousal donation, self-revelation and knowledge - would, at that stage, not yet have made sense [77].
The tendency towards sexual union when this "does not make sense" is the practical expression of carnal concupiscence, present in both the single and the married. Intercourse for those not joined in marriage makes no sense: they can not share the spousal knowledge of each other implied in intercourse, which thus becomes a non-sensical act for them. For husband and wife, intercourse makes sense; but it only makes full sense if the act implies a ratification of the procreative orientation of the married relationship. That is why contraceptive marital intercourse again makes no sense; it "contradicts the truth of conjugal love" [78], and is therefore a sign of the domination of carnal concupiscence. And that is also why intercourse restricted to the unfertile periods without due reason, makes little sense; whereas restriction to those periods, with sufficient reason, makes sense, and shows the full dominion of reason over instinct.
The imperfection of non-procreative marital intercourse
What should we think of Augustine's frequently expressed opinion that married intercourse is justified only if it is intended to be procreative, and has an element of imperfection or venial fault, if carried out solely for pleasure [79]? Augustine was basing himself on I Cor 7;5-7 where St. Paul, advising spouses not to abstain too long from intercourse, adds that he says this "secundum veniam" (the Vulgate says "secundum indulgentiam"). Since Paul is evidently speaking of what can be allowed to married couples, one can certainly quarrel with Augustine's exegesis that he is imputing a sin to them. It seems to me that, as between Paul and Augustine, the difference of emphasis but also the close connection in their thought, is shown in the proposition that for spouses to seek intercourse - consciously disconnected from its procreative finality - is excusable self-seeking (Paul), but is still self-seeking (Augustine), and in this latter sense a venial fault.
No doubt it is hard nowadays to subscribe to such a view, which seems to pass over the "humanitatis solatium" aspect of marriage. Some would reject it out of hand as ignoring the unitive power and function which marital intercourse has, in itself. This latter point merits some consideration.
Augustine, if he were alive today (and Aquinas with him), might draw our attention to the essential teaching of Humanae Vitae - that the unitive and the procreative aspects of the marriage act are inseparable - and ask us to ponder whether one can actually say that intercourse has a unitive meaning, "in itself", without reference, that is, to its procreative function [80]. If Humanae Vitae tells us that the two meanings of the act are inseparable, does it not follow that the exclusion of the procreative meaning - even on the merely intentional level - frustrates the act's unique power to express and effect union? The human meaning of "You are my spouse" is, "You are unique to me; and the proof of your uniqueness is that with you, and with you alone, I am prepared to share my procreative power". The unitive function and meaning of conjugal intercourse consist precisely in this sharing of reciprocal procreativity; one can find nothing else in it that makes it truly expressive of the uniqueness of the conjugal relationship [81].
If spouses are not consciously seeking the unitive experience of sharing their complementary procreativity, what else is it but pleasure (divorced from meaning) that they are seeking? Be it noted: I do not say they do wrong in seeking this pleasure; all I suggest is that the mutual sharing of pleasure alone is a very imperfect substitute for the truly unitive experience involved in intercourse open to life.
Married chastity is necessarily based on understanding and respecting the procreative orientation of the conjugal act. Augustine points out how concupiscence is moderated by "parental affection": and says that "a certain gravity or depth of meaning is given to the intense pleasure of intercourse when husband and wife reflect that their union tends to make them father and mother" [82]. Once again we see that he has nothing to say against pleasure, but insists on the need to reflect on the meaning lying behind an act as pleasureable as intercourse [83].
St. Augustine's insistence that marital sex is truly rational only if it is open to procreation may seem, at first sight, to have neglected the personalist value of sexuality. A closer analysis, however, should lead us to ask whether there is any true personalism that is anti-procreative; i.e. whether sex deliberately separated from its procreative orientation has rational and personalist conjugal meaning. We mentioned earlier that passage of De bono coniugali where St. Augustine states that the pleasure of married sexual intercourse, kept by temperance within its "natural use", is not concupiscence [84]. I am convinced that Augustine, if he were alive today, would understand in all their depth and would joyfully embrace the analyses that recent magisterium has made of the personalist aspect of the marital union. I am of the opinion moreover that he would enlarge his way of expressing himself so as to admit and maintain that the married act and its concomitant pleasure are realized and experienced according to their natural use when what moves the spouses is the natural desire to reaffirm their spiritual and interpersonal love through this corporal union, without this necessarily being accompanied on their part by a positive desire of engendering offspring.
But Augustine would be firm, as is contemporary magisterium, that the spouses, when they seek and experience that joyous corporal union, in order to protect themselves against the self-enclosing effect of concupiscence, must respect the integral nature of the married act; i.e. without denaturalizing it artificially by contraceptive means. With the broader and more mature outlook that time would have given him, I believe that St. Augustine would maintain that the pleasure which accompanies authentic "affectus maritalis" is not concupiscence. But he too, like the magisterium, would put a condition sine qua non: that it should be a genuine marriage act by which the spouses effectively become una caro; which only happens when they do not artificially separate the procreative from the unitive aspect of the act.
Perhaps it takes a nature as deep and sensitive as Augustine's to appreciate fully the threat to human dignity and love posed by the loss of rational and spontaneous control over the sex-appetite. A constant effort is called for, in order to endow the relationship between the sexes - and between husband and wife - with the respect due between persons. Human life, for the single or the married, is disturbed when this effort is not made; and it is in danger of quick deterioration when the effort itself is scorned.
Neither manichean pessimism nor pelagian misrepresentation; realistic christian optimism!
In any case, without attempting to force the mind and texts of St. Augustine, it could well be asked if there is not a tendency today to leave married people with the impression that nothing in their mutual physical relationship calls for restraint, that their mutual love is in no way endangered by the element of selfishness operative in sexuality. Proper guidance for the married should surely help them to distinguish that element of self-seeking which can be present in their intimate relations, and which tends to be more present the more the conjugal act itself is intentionally severed from its procreative orientation. In Augustine's teaching, conjugal chastity keeps spouses on the right side of the "limes mali" [85], the boundary of evil, beyond which lies the area of moral fault.
If spouses allow pleasure to matter too much to them, they are in danger of taking rather than of giving, and of so losing the sense of mutual donation. Conjugal chastity will help them keep the truly personalist values paramount in their minds: i.e. the reaffirmation, by means of intercourse, of their spousal relationship, shown in the sharing of open-to-life procreativity. These higher motives express and preserve their good will. And then, as Augustine says, the good will of the spouses leads and ennobles the ensuing pleasure (which is had and enjoyed), but their good will is not lead and dominated by that pleasure [86].
When we enter into contact with the thought of others, we tend to be most struck by that in it which harmonizes with, or is repugnant to, our own ideas and outlook. This no doubt is why contact with a mind as rich as St. Augustine's produces such diverse reactions, and why he has been interpreted in such different keys.
Regarding sexuality in general, I don't think that Augustine in his mature thought was pessimistic; though I do think that some of his commentators were or are; and that their commentaries, as well as their selective quotations from his works, reflect this pessimism. Could it be that they are in fact imbued with some of the manichean tendencies that St. Augustine eventually shook off?
St. Augustine had to combat both manichean pessimism (in which he had shared) and pelagian over-optimism. His battle with the Manicheans lead to his encomium of marriage, to that analysis of its greatness, its essential values, that has never been superseded. His struggle with the Pelagians fostered his realism about sexuality, also in marriage, and about the need for a constant effort if sexuality is not to become less than human.
The contemporary western attitude to marriage ranges from simple loss of esteem, to pessimism, or to downright contempt. A return to St. Augustine's analysis of the "bona" provides the one broad and solid basis for a re-appraisal of matrimony in all its human value and appeal. A pre-condition for this return is to overcome clichés about the "bona" representing an outdated institutional view of marriage, and to understand that, in consonance with the harmony of God's work, St. Augustine's analysis singles out precisely those aspects of the institution that have most human and personalist appeal.
Modern man professes to have a simple view of sex. More than simple, it is simplistic; and eventually destructive. Optimistic in appearance, it tends to pessimism in reality; pelagian in origin, it leans to manicheism in the end. Sex is a much more complex reality which can influence each life for great good or great evil, depending on whether its true human significance is understood and whether the power of its instinctual demands is submitted to its rational purpose - that of perpetuating both the love of life and the life of love.
[1] "Is it not you who hold that begetting children, and so imprisoning souls in the flesh, is a greater sin than cohabitation?": "nonne vos estis que filios gignere, eo quod animae ligentur in carne, gravius putatis esse peccatum quam ipsum concubitum?" De moribus Manich. 18, 65.
[2] "Non enim concubitum, sed ut longe ante ab Apostolo dictum est (I Tim. 4, 3), vere nuptias prohibetis, quae talis operis una est honesta defensio" De moribus Manich. 18, 65; cfr. Contra Faustum Manich., lib. 30, 6.
[3] cf. Covi, D.: "El fin de la actividad sexual según San Agustín" Augustinus 17 (1972), p. 58; Samek, L.E.: "Sessualità, matrimonio e concupiscenza in sant'Agostino": Studia Patristica Mediolanensia, 5, Milano, 1976, p. 232.
[4] "bonum coniugii... cur sit bonum merito quaeritur: Quod mihi non videtur propter solam filiorum procreationem, sed propter ipsam etiam naturalem in diverso sexu societatem" De bono coniug., 3, 3 (PL 40, 375).
[5] "quae prima est humani generis in ista mortalitate societas" 6, 6 (PL 40, 377).
[6] "Nunc vero in bono licet annoso coniugio, etsi emarcuit ardor aetatis inter masculum et feminam, viget tamen ordo caritatis inter maritum et uxorem" 3, 3 (PL 40, 375).
[7] "fides honoris et obsequiorum invicem debitorum" ibid.
[8] "Sancta sunt ergo etiam corpora coniugatorum, fidem sibi et Domino servantium" 11, 13 (Pl 40, 382).
[9] "Nuptiarum igitur bonum semper est quidem bonum; sed in populo Dei fuit aliquando legis obsequium; nunc est infirmitatis remedium, in quibusdam vero humanitatis solatium" De bono vid., 8, 11 (PL 40, 437).
[10] "illud esse nuptiarum bonum unde gloriantur nuptiae, id est, proles, pudicitia, sacramentum" De pecc. orig., 37, 42 (PL 44, 406).
[11] While strongly defending the purpose of procreation, "saint Augustin envisage plutôt les éléments qui constituent le mariage sous l'angle de la bonté morale ou de la valeur et non de la finalité, formalité sous laquelle les trois biens en question seront repris dans la théologie ultérieure" (R. Simon, "Sexualité et mariage chez saint Augustin" Le Supplément, no. 109 (1974), p. 158).
[12] "In nuptiis tamen bona nuptialia diligantur, proles, fides, sacramentum... Haec bona nuptialia laudet in nuptiis, qui laudare vult nuptias" De nupt. et conc. 1, 17, 19; cf. 21, 23.
[13] Is 43, 1.
[14] General Audience, April 28, 1982; cf. Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, V, 1 (1982), p. 1344.
[15] Familiaris Consortio, no. 20.
[16] Letter to Families, no. 15.
[17] Humanae vitae, 12; cf. C. Burke, "The Inviolability of the Conjugal Act" (in Creative Love, Christendom Press, 1989, pp. 151-167); also published under the title of "Marriage and Contraception", in L'Osservatore Romano (English ed.) Oct. 10, 1988.
[18] cf. "Marriage: a personalist or an institutional understanding?": Communio 19 (1992), 278-304; "La Indisolubilidad Matrimonial y la Defensa de las Personas": Scripta Theologica 22 (1990), 145-155; "Personnalisme et jurisprudence matrimoniale": Revue de Droit Canonique, 45 (1995), 331-349; "Personalism and the bona of Marriage": Studia canonica 27 (1993), 401-412; "Personalism and the traditional goods of marriage": Apollinaris, 70 (1997) 305-314; "Personalism and the Essential Obligations of Marriage": Angelicum 74 (1997), 81-94; "La Indisolubilidad como expresión del verdadero amor conyugal": Revista Española de Teología 55 (1995), 237-250; "Marriage: a personalist focus on indissolubility": Linacre Quarterly, 61 (1994), 48-56.
[19] "... the antithesis between individualism and personalism. Love, the civilization of love, is bound up with personalism. Why with personalism? And why does individualism threaten the civilization of love? We find a key to answering this in the council's expression, a "sincere gift." Individualism presupposes a use of freedom in which the subject does what he wants, in which he himself is the one to "establish the truth" of whatever he finds pleasing or useful. He does not tolerate the fact that someone else "wants" or demands something from him in the name of an objective truth. He does not want to "give" to another on the basis of truth; he does not want to become a "sincere gift." Individualism thus remains egocentric and selfish. The real antithesis between individualism and personalism emerges not only on the level of theory, but even more on that of ethos. The ethos of personalism is altruistic: It moves the person to become a gift for others and to discover joy in giving himself": John Paul II, Letter to Families (1994), no. 14.
[20] It would be tempting, but too time-consuming, to dwell here on the personalism represented (in an eminent way) by dedication to God in celibacy. To give oneself to another, coming out of self, is the key of personalism; and in final analysis this is because it is the way of the salvation of mankind effected through the Incarnation. If God gives himself to man it is in order that man can unite himself with God, so as to fulfil himself and ultimately to find salvation in an eternal wedlock. Marriage, sacramentum magnum (Eph. 5:32), is a figure of Christ's union with his Church, and with each Christian. God wants to "marry", to enter into an eternal covenant or con-iugium with each soul in particular ("vocamur ad coniugium Dei": Contra Adimantum Manichaei Discipulum, 13,3; "maius coniugium est animae cum Christo": Sermo 335/G, 1). God is faithful and each one is called to be faithful to him, with the fidelity that characterizes the true spouse. We all are called to be faithful spouses; there in a particular way one discovers the deep connection between christian marriage and celibacy out of love for God. The danger that threatens the married person just as the celibate is to lapse back into selfishness, abandoning the loving and faithful dedication to which one has freely committed onself. On this point Saint Augustine also shows a highly personalist spirit. When exalting matrimonial fidelity he adds that the celibate for God is also in a conjugal state: "Nec illae quae virginitatem Deo vovent, quamquam ampliorem gradum honoris et sanctitatis in Ecclesia teneant, sine nuptiis sunt: nam et ipsae pertinent ad nuptias cum tota Ecclesia, in quibus nuptiis sponsus est Christus" (In Ev. Joannis tractatus, 9, 2). The person who has chosen celibacy for God is not alone (that erroneous modern supposition); he is more immersed than anyone in the love of all loves. Nothing more personalist (and "fulfilling") than the spousal dedication that he or she makes.
[21] We have indeed come very far from that controversy with the Manicheans against whom St. Augustine maintained that marriage "is a good in itself and not only when compared, in contrast, with the evil of fornication. In other words, it is not that marriage and fornication are two evils, among which marriage is the lesser, but rather that marriage is a good...": P. Langa: "Equilibrio agustiniano entre matrimonio y virginidad": Revista Agustiniana 21 (1980), 110.
[22] cfr. Decretales Gregorii IX: "... et mutuo se concedunt unus alii, et mutuo se suscipiunt" (lib. IV, 4,1 [Augustinus de fide pactionis et consensus]).
[23] cf. text from De bon coniug. 3, 3 quoted above in note 6.
[24] "Ubi vincit uxor, nisi affectu fidei, affectu coniugii, affectu sincerioris castiorisque caritatis"? Sermo 51: 16,26.
[25] "Sociale quiddam est humana natura, magnumque habet et naturale bonum vim quoque amicitiae... Prima itaque naturalis humanae societatis copula vir et uxor est... Consequens est connexio societatis in filiis, qui unus honestus fructus est, non coniunctionis maris et feminae, sed concubitus. Poterat esse in utroque sexu, etiam sine tali commixtione... amicalis quaedam et germana coniunctio" De bono coniug., 1.
[26] "inter se coniugum fida ex honesto amore societas..." (lib. XIV, 26).
[27] cfr. Contra duas Ep. Pel. I, 17, 34; Contra Julianum IV, 13, 63.
[28] Contra Jul. Pel. IV, 21.
[29] De nupt. et conc. 2, 19, 34.
[30] cf. De nupt. et conc. 2, 32, 55; Contra Jul. Pel. V, 39.
[31] Rom. 7:8, 23-24; cf. Gal. 5:17.
[32] "Ubi quid intellecturi sumus, nisi quia corpus quod corrumpitur, aggravat animam?" De nupt. et conc. 1, 31, 35; cfr. Rom 7:24.
[33] ibid. I, 27, 30; De civ. Dei, XIV, 23, 24; Contra Jul. Pel. III, 25, 57; De Gen ad litt. IX, 10, 18.
[34] cf. De nupt. et conc. 2, 21, 36; De pecc. Orig. 37, 42; De cont. 12, 27; Contra Iul. Pel. V, 16, etc.
[35] cf. C. Burke: "A Postscript to the Remedium Concupiscentiae", The Thomist 70 (2006) 481-536.
[36] De nupt. et conc. 1, 25, 28.
[37] De pec. mer, 2,4,4; 2,28,45; De nupt. et conc. 1, 23,25; C. ep. pelag. 1, 13,27; C. Iul. 2,9,22; Retr. 1, 15,2; C Iul. op. imp. 2, 226.
[38] "non est malum culpae, sed poena tantum, quae est inobedientia concupiscentiae ad rationem" (Suppl. q. 49, art 4 ad 2).
[39] De nupt. et conc., 2, 5.
[40] ibid. 2, 26, 42.
[42] "et utrumque non est sine delectatione carnali, quae tamen modificata, et temperantia refrenante in usum naturalem redacta, libido esse non potest" De bono con. 16, 18.
[42] "Delectant coniugales amplexus: delectant etiam meretricum. Hoc licite, illud illicite". Sermo 159, 2, 2.
[43] De nupt. et conc. 2, 9, 21.
[44] "Satis est nobis, quod confitearis aliam esse illicitam, aliam licitam voluptatem. Ac per hoc mala est concupiscentia quae indifferenter utrumque appetit, nisi ab illicita voluptate licita voluptate frenetur" Contra Jul. Pel. 6, 16, 50; cf. ib. 4, 2, 7.
[45] The passage reads: ""Ista", inquit, "corporum commixtio, cum calore, cum voluptate, cum semine, a Deo facta, et pro suo modo laudabilis approbatur" ... Dixit "cum calore"; dixit "cum voluptate"; dixit "cum semine": non tamen dicere ausus est, Cum libidine: quare, nisi quia nominare erubescit, quam laudare non erubescit?" De nupt. et conc. 2, 12, 25. For the evolution of Augustine's thought on concupiscence and libido, see E. Schmitt, Le mariage chrétien dans l'oeuvre de Saint Augustin, Etudes Augustiniennes, Paris, 1983, 94-105.
[46] De nupt. et conc. 1, 17, 19.
[47] And if, therefore, it presumably is not the rational desire for pleasure either.
[48] De nupt. et conc. 1, 6, 7; cf. De Gen. ad litt. 9, 10, 16ss.
[49] Contra Iul. Pel. 4, 14, 65.
[50] Op. imperf. c. Jul., 4, 69.
[51] Schmitt, E.: op. cit. 95.
[52] Bonner. G.: St Augustine of Hippo, Canterbury Press, 1986, 375.
[53] cf. De nupt. et conc. 2, 21, 36; De pecc. orig. 37, 42; De cont. 12, 27; Contra Iul. Pel. 5, 16, etc. cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Suppl., q. 41, art. 3 ad 4.
[54] "cum debeat neminem pudere quod bonum est" De nupt. et conc. 2, 21, 36.
[55] De civ. Dei, 14, 18; cf. Contra duas Ep. Pelag. 1, 16, 33.
[56] That there is something to purify in marital sexuality is expressly recalled by Vatican II when it speaks of how Our Lord has "healed ("sanare"), perfected and elevated" conjugal love, also in its physical expressions (Gaudium et spes, 49; cf. Familiaris Consortio, 3). One should also recall the strong statements of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (in the section entitled "Marriage under the regime of sin"): "Every man experiences evil around him and within himself. This experience makes itself felt in the relationships between man and woman. Their union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation" (no. 1606). "According to faith the disorder we notice so painfully does not stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of their relations, but from sin. As a break with God, the first sin had for its first consequence the rupture of the original communion between man and woman. Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations; their mutual attraction, the Creator's own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust" (no. 1607).
[57] a test that John Paul II does not hesitate to describe as "the test of life and death" (Audience of June 27, 1984).
[58] De civ. Dei 14, 23, 3.
[59] De nupt. et conc. 2, Preface; cf. Op. imperf. c. Jul. Preface.
[60] De nupt. et conc. I, 5, 6.
[61] ibid. 2, 7, 17; cf. ibid. 22, 37; 31, 53.
[62] cf. John Paul II, General Audience, January 2, 1980: Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, III, 1 (1980), 11-15.
[63] De nupt. et conc. 2, 35, 59.
[64] "Hoc pudoris genus, haec erubescendi necessitas certe cum omni homine nascitur, et ipsis quodammodo naturae legibus imperatur, ut in hac re verecundentur etiam ipsa pudica coniugia": Contra Duas Ep. Pelag. 1, 16, 33.
[65] General Audience, November 7, 1984: Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, VII, 2 (1984), 1174-1175; and see also in particular his reflections on shame and nakedness in the Audiences of February 13, 1980 and following.
[66] "At ego adulescens miser valde, miser in exordio ipsius adulescentiae, etiam petieram a te castitatem et dixeram: 'Da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo'. Timebam enim, ne me cito exaudires et cito sanares a morbo concupiscentiae, quem malebam expleri quam extingui. Et ieram per vias pravas superstitione sacrilega non quidem certus in ea, sed quasi praeponens eam ceteris, quae non pie quaerebam, sed inimice oppugnabam": Confessionum, lib. VIII, 7, 17.
[67] "bonum opus est bene uti libidinis malo, quod faciunt coniugati, sicut e contrario malum opus est, male uti corporis bono, quod faciunt impudici" Contra Jul. opus imperf. 5, 12.
[68] De nupt. et conc. 2, 35, 59. St. Thomas Aquinas says that continence "importat resistentiam rationis ad concupiscentias pravas" (II-II, q. 155, art. 4).
[69] De bono vid. 4, 5; cf. De nupt. et conc. 1, 3, 3.
[70] cf. Thonnard, F.-J.: "La notion de concupiscence en philosophie augustinienne", Recherches Augustiniennes 3 (1965), 95.
[71] "desideria, contra quae dimicant et fideles": Contra Jul. Pel. 2, 3, 5.
[72] "I can do all things in him who strengthens me" Phil 4:13.
[73] "Nullus quippe sanctorum est, qui non velit facere ne caro adversus spiritum concupiscat" Op. imperf. contra Iul. 6, 14.
[74] "Simul itaque cognoscamus verba pugnantium, si pugnamus. Hoc enim modo non vivimus nos, se vivit Christus in nobis, si et ad pugnam contra concupiscentias exercendam, et ad victoriam usque ad consumptionem eorumdem hostium capessendam, in illo fidimus, non in nobis. Ipse quippe factus est nobis sapientia a Deo, et iustitia, et sanctificatio, et redemptio" (Contra Iulianum, lib. 6, 23. 70).
[75] cf. St. Thomas: Prima Pars, q. 98, art. 2 ad 2.
[76] cf. Gen 4, 1.
[77] If one supposes (although the position is not free from difficulties) that their consent to be husband and wife came at a later time, the matter is clearer still: intercourse - the act of spousal knowledge - when they had not yet consented to be spouses, would have made no sense.
[78] John Paul II, Address, September 17, 1983: Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, VI, 2 (1983), 563.
[79] "Numquid hoc non est peccatum, amplius quam liberorum procreandorum necessitas cogit, exigere a coniuge debitum? Est quidem peccatum, sed veniale" Sermo 51, 13, 22; cf. De bono con. 6, 6; De nupt. et conc. 1, 14, 16; Contra Jul. Pel. V, 16, 63; Op. imperf. c. Jul. I, 68, etc. It should be noted that Thomas Aquinas teaches the same: II-II, q. 154, art. 2 ad 6; Suppl. q. 49, art. 5; cf. q. 41, art. 4.
[80] see Samek, op. cit., p. 271.
[81] cf. C. Burke, "The Inviolability... 160.
[82] De bono coniug. 3, 3.
[83] St. Thomas too indicates that the defect in conjugal intercourse is not the intensity of the pleasure accompanying it (which he defends), but the fact that this pleasure does not follow the guide of reason: Suppl. q. 49, art. 4 ad 3.
[84] De bono con. 16, 18.
[85] cf. Contra Jul. Pel. IV, c. 8, n. 49.
[86] "bona voluntas animi, sequentem ducit, non ducentem sequitur corporis voluptatem" De nupt. et conc. 1, 12, 13. We could remark here on how the Catholic attitude towards pleasure is boldly brought out by Thomas Aquinas. He teaches that in the state of innocence the pleasure of marital intercourse would have been even greater, due to a purer nature endowed with a more sensitive body (Prima Pars, q. 98, art. 2 ad 3).