Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A Cartoon Augustine

If you haven't read St. John Chrysostom On Marriage and Family Life, published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, you should. But you might want to skip the introduction by Catherine Roth, unless you want a nearly perfect example of the Orthodox caricature of Augustine and the Western position on marriage. She writes, “Some writers, especially those in the tradition of St. Augustine of Hippo, have spread the opinion that sexual relations are evil in themselves but tolerated within marriage for the purpose of procreation. This is not the general Orthodox view.” (9) It is not Catholic view either, and it isn't the view of St. Augustine of Hippo. It would have been helpful of Roth to name the nameless writers who say that sex is bad. I haven't found them, but since I don't know whom she is talking about, I will defend St. Augustine on this matter.

Augustine does not write anywhere that I've been able to find that sexual relations are bad. Not ever. He does write that lust is bad, and that sexual relations as practiced by most people in a fallen state are to some degree defective, but never that sexual relations are “evil in themselves.” To prove my point, let's take a look at some passages from On Marriage and Concupiscence. Augustine begins complaining of just the sort of thing that Roth has done:
OUR new heretics . . . are constantly affirming, in their excessive hatred of us, that we condemn marriage and that divine procedure by which God creates human brings by means of men and women, inasmuch as we assert that they who are born of such a union contract that original sin of which the apostle says, "By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for in him all sinned;"

Augustine even in his time is being accused of thinking that marriage and sex (“the divine procedure”) is evil. The accusation is nothing new. Let's see how he answers it. In Chapter 5, Augustine gives a clear summary of his position: “The union, then, of male and female for the purpose of procreation is the natural good of marriage. But he makes a bad use of this good who uses it bestially, so that his intention is on the gratification of lust, instead of the desire of offspring.” Sexual relations are good in themselves, or otherwise marriage would be an evil thing. Lust is sinful, not sex. Adam and Eve were naked and “were not ashamed,” Augustine points out, which shows that marriage can and has existed in purity. Lust arises as a result of sin, but it is accidental to marriage and to marital relations, not essential to it. One must understand lust here as being desire against reason, or as Wojtyla would have said, desire that forgets the dignity of the human person who is desired.

This is not to say one need agree with Augustine in everything he says about sexual relations. There is little of the unitive role in his writing. But to say and to repeat, as so many Orthodox writers do, and as the Torodes echo, that Augustine thought sex was bad, is to misrepresent his thought. It is a caricature, and if it is intentional, a lie.


Robert said...

According to Lawler et. al., Augustine links marital relations to amicitia.

thehibernian said...

To the best of my - albeit simple - understanding, Augustine held that the conjugal union would have been necessary even if the Fall never occurred. The marital act would, however, lack any concupiscience. I think Valerius got the point.

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