As part of the mainstream Christian tradition, Augustine has shaped significantly the conversation about how Christianity has understood and approached sexuality throughout the years since the early Church, including the fact that human beings were created both male and female. However, something we must consider it when one tries to find out Augustine’s views on human sexuality is that his understanding of marriage and social norms shaped his views.
To make things even more difficult, Augustine links women with the physical world (one of Elizabeth Clark’s assertions) and such link affected Augustine’s conclusions on this topic. As if it were nothing, we find in Augustine’s writings improvements and changes in thought that might affect how we read him nowadays. Then, the struggle for Augustine was real: interpreting Scripture in new ways while at the same time being informed by the Roman/Greek pagan culture of his times. In this respect, I will try to present Augustine’s responses to the question here made taking into account these warnings in order to present his thought in a more holistic way.
Based on Romans 7, Augustine uses the Apostle Paul’s words to find support to his belief that human sexual parts are uncontrollable because of the consequences of the Fall. This belief is interesting because for Augustine, the rest of the human body parts are controllable, except the sexual parts in both the male and female. One notes here the place that libido/sexual passion plays in Augustine’s understanding of sexuality and its implications as well. Interestingly, for him the responsible of this sad situation would be the first female, Eve, for being disobedient to God and paying attention to the serpent’s voice. In Augustin’s reasoning, such an episode is the source of the original sin, and thus, the place where the original human sexuality, sex, desire, and passion became corrupted.
To understand better Augustine’s conclusion, it is important to notice what he says about human sexuality during the Paradise. For him, in the pre-Fall state, both the male and female were able to have purposeful sex with the objective of begetting children and multiply humanity. Under such a state, Augustine believed that male and female had the ability to control their sexual parts without recurring to sexual passion. Instead of using an uncontrollable passion, both sexes were able to use their reason and will to activate a particular organ in the right place at the right moment.
In other words, the key feature of human sexuality during the Paradise is for Augustine the human ability of both male and female to control their bodies in an unpassionate manner. After the Fall, this body control was lost, becoming sexuality thus shameful and corrupted. In this respect, there are some conclusions in light of Augustine’s reasoning: first, sexual activity became degraded by sin; second, the female was responsible for such situation; and third, sexual desire/passion has become sinful and it must be avoided.
What we see here is how Augustine connects human sexuality with the creation order: sexuality and its related aspects such as sexual desire and the sexual act, for instance, are the way God has established to carry out his will that humanity fills the earth. Despite sin has affected sexuality, the purposes of God regarding the multiplication of the sexes continue developing until the end in order that they may fulfill the divine order regarding the administration of the earth. Augustine admits that God might choose other ways to carry out his will but choose the means of procreation instead. This suggests that for Augustine, the role of the sexes in the procreation process and in its social dimension of multiplication could be fixed: the male rules, the female is subordinated under such rulership, and together both sexes should be focused on their duties to fulfill the cultural mandate.
One also appreciates Augustine’s hierarchical understanding of social roles of the sexes. The subordination of women, something Augustine agreed with, is then a way to manage the household and the social created order. This seems be grounded in the belief that both the male and female had been created according to the image of God. But for Augustine, this meant that the rational soul was what mirrored God. In this respect, the male and the female both participated in the image of God. But it is only the male who reflects totally such an image. Augustine interprets Paul’s words that the man is the glory of God and that the woman the glory of man in the sense that women’s intellect and body are inferior to men. So women reflect the image of God only partially in the rational aspect but not in her female body. In the end, the female is basically the helpmate of the male.
Not surprisingly, Augustine’s thought regarding female subordination basically would consider women’s life be developed within the household as wives and mothers. This is part of the moral order of society of his times where the inferior is subordinated to the superior. We can appreciate this in the way Augustine had her mother and sister as well regarded. However, in other respects, he has a negative view of women. For example, we observe his views on gender roles when he decided to send her back her first concubine to Africa in order to marry another girl (he would stay with the child). By doing so he would have an opportunity to be engaged to a young girl. But since the waiting was long, he found a second concubine to satisfy his sexual urges. Although Augustine was not Christian when this happened, this illustration shows the lack of balance between the sexes in his times. The male had power and status that the female did not have.
After his conversion to Christianity, Augustine offered a vision of marriage and gender roles that allowed him to rediscover the value of human sexuality in light of the gospel. This could explain why, despite Augustine’s negative conclusions about human sexuality, he also developed a more positive image (in relation to his former ideas) regarding both sexes when we consider all his writings as a whole. This statement seems to be in contradiction with the previous paragraphs where Augustine placed a huge responsibility to the female. But this apparent contradiction might disappear in some respects if one considers Augustine’s comments on the sexes according to this renewed theological-sexual anthropology.
In his Confessions, a more thoughtful Augustine asserts the female had a purpose since the beginning of the creation (before the Fall), and this purpose was the procreation in order that humanity might be reproduced. By claiming this, he considered procreation including the means associated to it as something good and part of the created order. One observes Augustine granted procreation a prominent social status, even as a goal of marriage. Probably because of what he experienced during his former life, Augustine asserted the sexual act had become corrupted in the Fall and that sexual desire should be avoided. It gives me the impression that he tended to equal an uncontrollable lust with sexual desire itself. In any case, there are parts where Augustine seems to be more negative about human sexuality and marriage than in other writings.
What is important for sexual ethics is that after many years of reflection we see Augustine proposing a new perspective regarding the purpose of marriage: procreation (natural-the body) and friendship (spiritual-the soul), where this bonding or unitive dimension serves a key characteristic to differentiate a marriage from other kinds of relationships. Augustine seems to have seen in this natural/spiritual dimension of marriage, and extensively to procreation, an eventual solution to the dilemma regarding the natural purpose of sex and the danger of lust/passion. The mature Augustine now justifies the existence of sexuality as a means to bring Christ to the world. Not surprisingly, Augustine also tended to spiritualize the procreative dimension of marriage, asserting that now that Christ is manifested, it is not even rational to desire to have children.
Overall, despite the limited view of sexuality held by Augustine, he indeed contributed to Christianity by highlighting the spiritual dimension of marriage in a culture that emphasized physicality. Although Augustine continued praising the procreation as an important end of marriage, one observes he amplified his vision on human sexuality. I think this allowed him to make more connections between sexuality and the way how humanity developed according to the Scriptures. This has, of course, impacted on a theological-sexual anthropology. In fact, the marriage as an institution is a legacy of the Early church, especially due to Augustine’s development of his ideas on human sexuality and marriage.