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Saint Augustine and Christian Marriage
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Great Catholic Books Newsletter
It must seem strange, or even a bit archaic, to address oneself to a topic like "Saint Augustine and Christian Marriage."
What makes it odd is that Augustine died in 430 A.D. and this is the last decade of the twentieth century. If anything has changed it is the attitude towards marriage in the past 1500 years.
And besides, are not some theologians nowadays saying that if there is one single person in Christian history responsible for the painful tension between the modern age and the Church's antiquated notion of marriage it is Saint Augustine. His wooden orthodoxy and so say the critics his preoccupation with man's sinful nature made him see sin everywhere, even in the marital embrace of husband and wife. Anybody but Augustine!
But that is precisely why we had better take another look at Augustine, lest we mistake the myth for the man, and dismiss as unimportant the one great witness of Christian tradition on whom the Second Vatican Council mainly relied for its understanding of Christian marriage.
If we look closely at the doctrine on marriage in the "Constitution on the Church in the Modern World," we shall find that all the basic premises of this document on the meaning and responsibilities of marriage are the premises of Saint Augustine. Not only is Augustine's famous treatise on "The Good of Marriage" directly used by the Council, but what Augustine said the Council canonizes with its authority, as the Church's magisterium has been canonizing over the centuries.
What makes Augustine especially relevant is that his stand on contraception and marital indissolubility taught then is being taught still an eloquent witness to the Church's doctrinal stability and a warning rebuke to those who would water down the teachings of Christ to accommodate the Gospel to the world.
Augustine had the enemies of Christian marriage in his day, and we have them in ours. What he wrote then is worth hearing now, because the Christian marriage he defended needs defense today, and for much the same reasons, seeing that the opposition to Christ and His message of salvation has not essentially changed.
Marriage Elevated by Christ
For St. Augustine, when God became man He raised marriage to a level it had never had before. Christ made marriage the living witness of the New Testament. This meant that Christian marriage was to reveal to the world the Savior's New Commandment of selfless love.
Christ's commandment "Love one another as I have loved you," was to prove to the world that married Christians were indeed His disciples. How? By their practice of such love as the world had never seen before: love between the spouses and love from the spouses to their children, as not even the Mosaic law required.
Given the high demands of charity placed on His married followers, Christ provided also the means they would need to live out this superhuman love. That is why He instituted the sacrament of matrimony.
Blessings of Christian Marriage
One of the surprises in St. Augustine is that he wrote so extensively on marriage and always associated marriage with consecrated chastity. Those blessings for Augustine, as for the Church (using Augustine's language ever since) are three: children, mutual faith, and sacrament.
As we look more closely at each of these, we shall better understand the Catholic Church's position on marriage today.
Over the centuries, Augustine has been quoted in his classic statement: "The procreation of children is the first, natural, and legitimate purpose of marriage."
Every word in this statement needs to be scrutinized:
Augustine says a great deal about the duties of Christians to live up to their fundamental purpose.
He distinguishes two kinds of sins that a couple commit against this first blessing of marriage:
The first sin he calls mortal, and equates it with fornication and adultery for gravity, when the married couple deliberately seek to prevent conception while enjoying intercourse.
Since Augustine's time, the Church's hierarchy, notably the Popes, have been quoting Augustine in this matter being sure that they were reflecting the Church's constant tradition. He speaks of "evil appliances," used in his day. They were evil then and they are evil now, only they have since become more sophisticated.
The second kind of sin he calls venial, which may come as a surprise to some people. Augustine has been much maligned on this point. He says that when marital intercourse is had without the use of contraceptives but performed with what we might call "a contraceptive frame of mine," it is nevertheless wrong and venially sinful.
What can this mean? It can mean that a couple do not use physical contraceptives but when they have intercourse they either selfishly hope they will not have a pregnancy, or selfishly do not want a conception, or when their only purpose in having intercourse is to enjoy the pleasures of sex, they do not sin gravely, but they do sin venially.
Why should Augustine say this? Because Christians, in his estimation, should never become so preoccupied with the sexual experience as to ignore either the procreative purpose of intercourse, or the unitive purpose of intercourse.
In other words, marital intercourse should not be self-directed but altruistic. It should express a selfless love directed to another person beyond the individual married spouse.
Having clarified the fact that the fundamental purpose not to be a subordinated purpose of marriage is children, Augustine goes on to say that the second blessing is mutual faith.
By "faith" he means confident trust based on love. What makes it trust is that the husband is confident about the wife's loyalty to him, and the wife is confident about the husband's loyalty to her.
What is the basis of their mutual trust? It is their mutual love.
Wherein precisely does the confidence reside, or in what are the two spouses trustful of one another? In their reliance on the pledge that each makes to the other not to betray.
She is confident that he will not be unfaithful to her, and he that she will not be unfaithful to him.
Implicit in this Augustinian idea of mutual trust are many unspoken elements:
That their married vows are vows, binding and therefore restricting the liberty that each had before they made the vows.
That marital love is exclusive love, one man and one woman, this man and this woman, and no other man and no other woman.
Flowing from this Christian idea of mutual faith is Augustine's beautiful idea of Christian friendship, which he sees exemplified in a marriage that is truly faithful on both sides. He calls it amicitia, and he notes how often Scripture uses the nearness and dearness and exclusiveness, and intimacy of marital love to describe the kind of love that God has for man and that we should have for God.
One more facet of their mutual faith should be touched upon, and that is its capacity for producing holiness.
Augustine's mother, Monica, has become for all ages the model of how fidelity in marriage sanctifies. He speaks of her as "fair, reverent, amiable, and admirable to her husband."
We are in need of this truth today, to remind ourselves that marital fidelity is sanctifying; that it has never been easy; and that it is most sanctifying when it is most demanding.
We should not expect Augustine, in the beginning of the fifth century, to have a fully developed theology of the sacraments in general or of matrimony in particular.
Yet, significantly, he used the word "Sacrament" relative to marriage in a sense that is at first startling but, on reflection, becomes very meaningful.
Augustine practically equates marriage as a sacrament with marriage as indissoluble.
Why the correlation? Because he saw all around him, in the decadent Roman Empire, broken marriages, broken homes, broken promises, broken hopes, and broken hearts.
He knew, as only an Augustine could understand, how weak is fallen human nature.
He had written powerfully against the Pelagians who madly claimed that man could practice virtue without the help of divine grace.
He knew from painful experience how imperious the sex passions can be.
He knew from observation that there is no controlling these passions without divine assistance, to be finally found only in Jesus Christ.
He saw, and therefore he said, that nothing but a constant influx of divine power
All of this, and more, he wrapped up in the single Latin word Sacramentum, sacrament which is at once a mystery and a covenant and a witness to the world:
It is a mystery because only God knows how Christian marriage operates. But Christ will not be wanting in His grace. He gives the baptized what no one else has a claim to His abiding assistance until death.
It is a covenant, as Augustine so eloquently pointed out.
Out of his long controversy with the Manichaeans, he made clear that we are not mere pawns of fate; that we are, with God's grace, masters of our destiny.
The covenant of marriage is an agreement between Christ and the married couple. They do their part and He will do His.
It is a witness to the world.
Augustine saw how imperative it was for Christian spouses to be faithful to their promises, and to accept their marriage as indissoluble until death. Why? Because, more than almost anything in the Christian religion, this fidelity and indissolubility testify to everyone the special presence of God.
God, Augustine taught, can do the impossible, humanly impossible, and thus show that He is present and active and effective in the lives of those who believe in Him and, believing, strive to live up to His commands.
We have much to learn from Augustine, but not the least is that the teachings of the Catholic Church have not substantially changed in the past 1500 years.
Today, as in his day, we need to recover the clarity of his faith which saw in Christian marriage the real test of Christianity.
As goes the Christian family, so goes Christianity; on it depends the future of the Church.
The secret is to believe that Christ wants the married to trust in the strength of His grace in their lives. He wants to show them in acts and not mere words, that He is in the world today and nowhere more eloquently, miraculously present than in the Christian family.
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