St Augustine on sexuality

354 - 430 AD

Augustine had led a rather dissolute life. For 9 years he belonged to the sect of Manicheans as a 'hearer'. When he converted to Christianity he renounced the dualism of the Prophet Mani. He affirmed that the male and female sexes are not evil in themselves (On Continence, § 24). Also, children born from marriage, even though they result from a passionate embrace, are not evil on account of it (On Marriage, § 18). However, in his view, sex remained tainted with sin.

The sin of Adam and Eve, and sex

Spurning God's command, Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden fruit. Augustine interpreted this in a sexual way. Eve had desired the fruit "which was desirable for the knowledge it would give" (Genesis 3,6). The sin consisted in sexual desire, sexual passion.

In this, Augustine followed the opinion of the Gnostic teacher Mani.

from Lutwin's 'Life of Adam and Eve' (14th cent)


Adam and Eve lost control over their genitals

"For it was not fit that his creature should blush at the work of his Creator. But by a just punishment, the disobedience of their genitals was the retribution to the disobedience of the first man, for which disobedience they blushed when they covered with fig-leaves those shameful parts which previously were not shameful . . . They were suddenly so ashamed of their nakedness, which they were daily in the habit of looking upon without embarassment, that they could now no longer bear those sexual members naked, but immediately took care to cover them! Did they not thereby perceive those members to be disobedient to the choice of their will, which certainly they ought to have ruled like the rest (of their body) by their voluntary command?" (Against Two Letters of the Pelagians 1.31-32)


Augustine takes Adam and Eve's covering of their genitals (Genesis 3,7) as proof that sexual passion was no longer in control.

This was the effect of original sin.

Every man's seed is corrupted

“Seed would issue from a man by the quiet and normal obedience of his members to his will's command, if sin had not preceded. The question now before us does not concern the nature of human seed, but its corruption. Now nature has God for its author; it is from its corruption that original sin is derived. If, indeed, the seed had itself no corruption, what means that passage in the Book of Wisdom, "Not being ignorant that they were a naughty generation, and that their malice was inbred, and that their cogitation would never be changed; for their seed was accursed from the beginning"? Now whatever may be the particular application of these words, they are spoken of mankind. How, then, is the malice of every man inbred, and his seed cursed from the beginning, unless it be in respect of the fact, that "by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for in him all have sinned"? (On Sexual desire, Book II, chap. 20)

The same lack of sexual control is now manifest in every male person.

Remember that a man's seed contained the fulness of sexual energy according to Greek thinking.

In paradise there was no sexual desire or pleasure

"In Paradise, it would have been possible to beget offspring without foul sexual passion. The sexual organs would have been stimulated into necessary activity by will-power alone, just as the will controls other organs. Then, without being goaded on by the allurement of passion, the husband could have relaxed upon his wife's breasts with complete peace of mind and bodily tranquility, that part of his body not activated by tumultuous passion, but brought into service by the deliberate use of power when the need arose, the seed dispatched into the womb with no loss of his wife's virginity. So, the two sexes could have come together for impregnation and conception by an act of will, rather than by sexual passionful cravings" (City of God, Book 14, Chapter 26).


If Adam and Eve had not sinned, people could have conceived children with sinful sexual desire or pleasure!

In paradise God might have created children without the need of intercourse

“From where would have come the progeny of the first people, whom God had blessed, saying, "Increase, and be ye multiplied, and fill the earth;" if they had not sinned, whereas their bodies by sinning deserved the condition of death, and there can be no sexual intercourse save of mortal bodies? For there have existed several and different opinions on this matter; and if we must examine, which of them be rather agreeable to the truth of Divine Scriptures, there would be matter for a lengthy discussion. Whether, therefore, without intercourse, in some other way, had they not sinned, they would have had children, from the gift of the Almighty Creator. After all, he had been able to create themselves also without parents, and he was able to form the flesh of Christ in a virgin womb, and (to speak even to unbelievers themselves) he was able to bestow on bees a progeny without sexual intercourse . . . ” (On Marriage, §2.)


Here Augustine goes further. God might have created children to Adam and Eve without the passion of intercourse . . .


Sexual passion and original sin

    How does original sin live in us? Through sexual passion, Augustine thought. He took Paul's words literally: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, I do the very thing I hate . . . It is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is in my flesh." (Romans 7,15-18). Paul speaks of our human weakness in his usual hyperbolic [= exaggerated] language. He did not mean that sin literally lives in us. But Augustine was convinced that sexual desire & sexual pleasure reveal the presence of original sin in us. And during intercourse sexual passion passes on original sin to the children, he thought.

    Augustine reasoned like this: all parts of our body are under our control, except our genitals. We tell our eye to look, our feet to move, our hands to pick up something. Our mind controls them. But our sexual organs have a life and a will of their own. They are trying to take over. They make us do things we do not want. Augustine ascribed this 'unruliness', 'disobedience', 'self-willed' passion to Adam's and Eve's sin. It has been imposed on us as a punishment. It is evil and sinful, a handle by which the devil can control us.

    Augustine's condemnation of our sexual urges had undoubtedly been influenced by Manichean disgust with sex and sexual desires.

    Self-willed passion in the sexual organs is caused by sin

    "The question before us, then, is not about the motion of bodies, without which there could not be sexual intercourse; but about the shameful motion of the organs of generation, which certainly could be absent. And yet the fructifying connection could still be there, if the organs of generation were not obedient to sexual passion, but simply to the will, like the other members of the body. Is it not even now the case, in "the body of this death", that a command is given to the foot, the arm, the finger, the lip, or the tongue, and they are instantly set in motion at this intimation of our will? And (to take a still more wonderful case) even the liquid contained in the urinary vessels obeys the command to flow from us at our pleasure, and when we are not pressed with its overflow; while the vessels, also, which contain the liquid, discharge without difficulty, if they are in a healthy state, the office assigned them by our will of propelling, pressing out, and ejecting their contents. With how much greater ease and quietness, then, if the generative organs of our body were compliant, would natural motion ensue, and human conception be effected . . . ” (On Sexual desire, Book II, chap. 53.)

    Sexual passion during intercourse is the carrier of original sin

    “Such is the present condition of mortal men, that the connubial intercourse and sexual passion are at the same time in action; and on this account it happens, that as the sexual passion is blamed, so also the nuptial commerce, however lawful and honourable, is thought to be reprehensible by those persons who either are unwilling or unable to draw the distinction between them. They are, moreover, inattentive to that good of the nuptial state which is the glory of matrimony; I mean offspring, chastity, and the pledge [= the marriage bond]. The evil, however, at which even marriage blushes for shame is not the fault of marriage, but of the sexual passion of the flesh. Yet because without this evil it is impossible to effect the good purpose of marriage, even the procreation of children, whenever this process is approached, secrecy is sought, witnesses removed, and even the presence of the very children which happen to be born of the process is avoided as soon as they reach the age of observation. Thus it comes to pass that marriage is permitted to effect all that is lawful in its state, only it must not forget to conceal all that is improper. Hence it follows that infants, although incapable of sinning, are yet not born without the contagion of sin, -not, indeed, because of what is lawful, but on account of that which is unseemly: for from what is lawful nature is born; from what is unseemly, sin. Of the nature so born, God is the Author, who created human beings, and who united male and female under the nuptial law; but of the sin the author is the subtlety of the devil who deceives, and the will of human beings who consent.” (On the Grace of Christ, Book II, § 42)

    Sexual desire, even in a good marriage, passes on original sin

    “Marriage is itself honourable in all the goods which properly appertain to it; but even when it has its bed undefiled (not only by fornication and adultery, which are damnable disgraces, but also by any of those excesses of cohabitation such as do not arise from any prevailing desire of children, but from an overbearing sexual passion of pleasure, which are venial sins in man and wife), yet, whenever it comes to the actual process of generation, the very embrace which is lawful and honourable cannot be effected without the ardour of sexual passion, so as to be able to accomplish that which belongs to the use of reason and not of sexual passion. Now, this passion, whether following or preceding the will, does somehow, by a power of its own, move the members which cannot be moved simply by the will, and in this manner it shows itself not to be the servant of a will which commands it, but rather to be the punishment of a will which disobeys it. It shows, moreover, that it must be excited, not by a free choice, but by a certain seductive stimulus, and that on this very account it produces shame. This is the carnal sexual desire, which, while it is no longer accounted sin in the reborn, yet in no case happens to nature except from sin. It is the daughter of sin, as it were; and whenever it yields assent to the commission of shameful deeds, it becomes also the mother of many sins. Now from this sexual desire whatever comes into being by natural birth is bound by original sin, unless, indeed, it be born again in him [= Jesus Christ] whom the Virgin conceived without this sexual desire. Wherefore, when he vouchsafed to be born in the flesh, he alone was born without sin.” (On Sexual desire, Book I, chap. 27.)

    Jesus was not born from sexual intercourse, i.e. from ‘sinful flesh’

    “There was no nuptial cohabitation [between Mary and Joseph]; because he who was to be without sin, and was sent not in sinful flesh, but in the likeness of sinful flesh, could not possibly have been made in sinful flesh itself without that shameful sexual passion of the flesh which comes from sin, and without which he willed to be born, in order that he might teach us, that every one who is born of sexual intercourse is in fact sinful flesh, since that alone which was not born of such intercourse was not sinful flesh. Nevertheless conjugal intercourse is not in itself sin, when it is had with the intention of producing children; because the mind's good-will leads the ensuing bodily pleasure, instead of following its lead; and the human choice is not distracted by the yoke of sin pressing upon it, inasmuch as the blow of the sin is rightly brought back to the purposes of procreation. This sexual passion, then, is not in itself a good in marriage. It is obscenity in sinful people, a necessity in parents who produce children, the fire of lascivious indulgences, the shame of nuptial pleasures.” (On Sexual desire, Book I, chap. 13.)


    The evil of sex in marriage

    Sexual passion should be avoided even in marriage. Sex is allowed for the procreation of children. Sexual intercourse just for pleasure even between married partners carries a veneer of sin.

    Having children is the only worthy fruit of sexual intercourse

    “The first natural bond of human society is man and wife . . . They are bonded one to another side by side, when they walk together (in life), and guide each other as they walk. Then follows the connexion of sharing children, which is the one alone worthy fruit, not of the bonding of male and female, but of their sexual intercourse. For it is possible that there should exist in either sex, even without such intercourse, a certain friendly and true union, with the man ruling, and the woman obeying.” (On Marriage, §1.)

    Sexual intercourse in marriage not for begetting children is a venial fault

    “Married persons owe one another not only the faith of their sexual intercourse itself, for the begetting of children, which is the first fellowship of the human kind in this mortal state; but also, in a way, a mutual service of sustaining one another's weakness, in order to shun unlawful intercourse (outside marriage) . . . For intercourse of marriage for the sake of having children has no fault; but for the satisfying of sexual passion, even with one's husband or wife by reason of marital fidelity, it has venial fault; but adultery or fornication has deadly fault. Of course, abstaining from all intercourse is indeed better even than the intercourse of marriage itself which takes place for the sake of having children.” (On Marriage, §6.)

    A good Christian hates in his wife conjugal connection and sexual intercourse

    “Therefore, if I were to ask any good Christian who has a wife, and even though he may still be having children by her, whether he would like to have his wife . . . in heaven to live with him there, after the resurrection, when she will have undergone that angelic change which is promised to the saints (and will put her beyond sex), he would reply that he desired this strongly . . . Thus a good Christian is found to love in one and the same woman the creature of God, whom he desires to be transformed and renewed; but to hate the corruptible and mortal conjugal connection and sexual intercourse: i.e. to love in her what is characteristic of a human being, to hate what belongs to her as a wife. . . . It is necessary, therefore, that the disciple of Christ should hate these things which pass away, in those whom he desires along with himself to reach those things which shall for ever remain; and that he should the more hate these things in them, the more he loves themselves.” (Sermon on the Mount, Book I, § 41.)

    The perfect Christian couple live together as brother and sister

    “A Christian may therefore live in concord with his wife (in three ways): (a) either with her fulfilling his fleshly craving, a thing which the apostle (Paul) speaks by permission, not by commandment; or (b) providing for the procreation of children, which may be at present in some degree praiseworthy; or (c) providing for a brotherly and sisterly friendship, without any corporeal connection, having his wife as though he had her not, as is most excellent and sublime in the marriage of Christians: yet so that in her he hates the name of temporal relationship, and loves the hope of everlasting blessedness.” (Sermon on the Mount, Book I, § 42.)

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