Augustine on Sex

I have been reading back through Augustine’s Confessions recently, and I have noticed an intersection between his thought on sex and my argument regarding contraception from last week. In Book II, Augustine recounts his adolescent years and first stirrings of sexual sin within him, a major theme throughout the rest of the work. But he begins by noting that his sexual deviancy was actually rooted in a good desire: “The single desire that dominated my search for delight was simply to love and to be loved” (2.2). However, “no restraint was imposed by the exchange of mind with mind, which marks the brightly lit pathway of friendship. Clouds of muddy carnal concupiscence filled the air.” Augustine’s Neoplatonic tendencies poke out here as he sets the purely immaterial contact of “mind with mind” over against “muddy carnal concupiscence.” In other words, his desire for bodily sexual union represents a baser, lower desire, or perhaps better, the turning of a good desire (for God) toward baser, material things.

In the next paragraph, Augustine laments that no marriage arrangements were made for him during this time that could have channeled his sexual urges toward a lawful end. But even that would not have solved the problem completely, for he goes on, “Even so, I could not have been wholly content to confine sexual union to acts intended to procreate children, as your law prescribes, Lord.” I have several observations on this sentence:

  1. Augustine would not affirm the Catholic teaching of today that permits natural family planning. He would regard all sexual intercourse that is not specifically for the purpose of procreation as thwarting the purpose of sex. The ethical acceptance of at least some sexual acts that are not motivated by a desire to procreate is a relatively recent teaching of the Catholic Church, originating in the 20th century, if I am not mistaken.
  2. Consequently, it appears that Augustine’s view of sex is utilitarian at its heart. Sex exists as a means to procreation, and it has no value outside of that purpose. Apart from that single purpose, it expresses a love that has turned in the wrong direction, toward the material.
  3. This view of sex owes much more to Neoplatonic philosophy than it does to Scripture. As I mentioned before, Scripture often speaks of sex as a good apart from procreation. While procreation is one purpose of sex, it also serves as an expression of love between spouses, either consummating or reaffirming their covenantal union. In the process, it brings pleasure that aids in fighting temptation. Scripture specifically commands spouses to delight in each other’s bodies so that they have help fighting the temptation to seek pleasure elsewhere (Prov. 5:15-23; 1 Corinthians 7). Knowing these passages, I am baffled by Augustine’s suggestion that God’s law prescribes sex only for the purpose of procreation. That is simply not true.
  4. A more expansive understanding of the sexual union as an echo in human experience of the greater union between Christ and the church (Eph. 5:22-33) helps us to see why we should regard sex between husband and wife as a good unto itself, even apart from procreation.

As I have said before, we cannot sever sex from procreation, for to do so would be to thwart one of the purposes of marriage and to regard children as a burden rather than a blessing, contrary to the teaching of Scripture. Every marriage, unless providentially hindered, should be open to the gift of children. But the union of a husband and wife is about more than that.

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