It took me years to fully pin him down. My suspicions had been right. The main engineer of Catholic disgust with sex proved to be Saint Augustine who lived in North Africa from 354 to 430. His influence on later centuries is truly enormous. Quotes from his more than 100 writings dominate medieval theology. Augustine is the Church Father most admired, revered and studied till the present day. And there is much in his thinking that truly deserves credit. Unfortunately however, his warped ideas on sex have blighted Catholic doctrine ever since and have spoiled the sex lives of innumerable Catholics.
So who was Augustine?
Augustine was born a full citizen of Thagaste, a Roman settlement in what is now called Algeria. His father, the Roman colonist Patricius, married Monica, who was a Bedouin girl and a Christian. Augustine excelled in the schools of rhetoric that existed at the time. He had a gift for language and literature, he soaked up Greek philosophy and dabbled in fringe religions. He soon became a teacher of rhetoric himself, first in Thagaste, then Carthage, Rome and Milan. During this time he joined the sect of Manicheans as a ‘hearer’. It is here that he acquired his lasting contempt for sex.
Mani taught that the world is divided into two opposing camps: the world of light, life, goodness and beauty on the one side, and the world of darkness, death, evil and ugliness on the other. These worlds are constantly at war with each other, with gods and spiritual powers on each side leading the battle. The earth is a middle ground which has fallen under control of the powers of evil. Our mind is a spark of light caught in the ugly mess of dark, sinful matter. Chief rulers of the earth are Ahriman, the Prince of Darkness, and Âz, the Demoness of Sexual Lust. She was also the creator of human beings.
Listen to this excerpt of Mani’s instructions:
“When Âz created the body (of Adam), she placed inside him her own desire, lust and copulation and animosity and bad-mouthing, hate and sin, rage and pollution and mindlessness, hostility to religion, thieving and lying, robbing and evil-doing, obstinacy, vengefulness, sorrow and despair, pain and ache, poverty and destitution, illness, old age and stench . . . And Âz filled Eve’s mind, so that she would become even more thieving, monstrous, lusty and desirous (than Adam) and seduce that male with desire. In this way she arranged that humans be born in the world from those two creatures (Adam and Eve) and be filled with sexual lust and desire and behave with rage and vengeance and without mercy and are subject to sexual lust and desire and do the will of the demons and go to hell.”[i]
When Augustine became a Christian in Milan, he renounced Manichaeism but, as we will see, traces of its beliefs stuck to his mind. He returned to North Africa, was ordained a priest and became Bishop of Hippo. Hundreds of his sermons have been preserved. Through his eloquent letters and persuasive treatises he soon put his stamp on the thinking of the Church in his time.
What did he teach about sex?
Interview with Augustine[ii]
Hippo, 420 AD. Augustine has graciously allowed me to ask him some questions. I have been led into his lounge and offered a seat on a wooden chair studded with pillows. Augustine sits opposite me, his stately figure enhanced by his grey hair and purple-embroidered toga, his fierce eyes sizing me up.
After a brief opening chit-chat I come to the point. We have both agreed to take our gloves off and call a spade a spade.
Bishop, do you still adhere to the teachings of Mani?
“Certainly not! There is only one God and he is good. Everything he created is good. Evil comes from the devil and from human sinful actions.”
What about sex in us? Is it evil?
“Sexual lust, yes. You see, sexual passion is something foreign to us. Procreation itself is alright. It comes from God. But now procreation is tainted by the shameful excitement of our sexual organs. That excitement is an evil intruder!”
An intruder? How come?
“Just think about it. You control all the members of your body but not your penis. If you see a beautiful girl, you feel attracted to her. Your penis stiffens, and gets erect. Did you tell it to do so? When your foot, arm, finger, lip, or tongue make a movement, they do so because you tell them so. You control them by your will. Even the urine contained in your bladder obeys your command and flows from you whenever you tell it do so. Not so with your sex organs. They do what they like.”[iii]
It’s just a spontaneous reaction of the body . . .
“No, no, no! You got that wrong. Sex is different. And Sacred Scripture confirms it. Have you not read in Paul’s letter to the Romans: ‘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.’[iv] The evil in our flesh is the sex drive. It is the sin Paul speaks about.”
But surely our sexual desires too are created by God . . . ?
“Not so. Before Adam and Eve sinned, in paradise, they would have been able to produce children without foul sexual passion. Their sexual organs would have been stimulated into activity by will-power alone, just as the will controls other organs. In paradise the husband could have relaxed upon his wife’s breasts with complete peace of mind and bodily tranquillity, without being excited by the allurement of lust. His penis would not have been activated by tumultuous passion, but brought into service by the deliberate use of his will power. When the need arose he would simply erect his penis at will and dispatch semen into his wife’s womb with no loss to her virginity.”[v]
Without the wife losing her virginity you say?
“Indeed. Why do you look surprised? In paradise there would have been no need of lusty carnal copulation. If people had not sinned, they would have had children as a direct gift from the Almighty Creator. After all, he had been able to create Adam and Eve themselves without parents, hadn’t he? And he was able to form the flesh of Christ in a virgin womb. Moreover, to use an argument even pagans can understand, God is able to bestow on bees a progeny without sexual intercourse . . .”[vi]
But if sexual desire is not from God, where does it come from?
“Simple. It comes from sin, starting with Adam and Eve. They committed a sexual sin when they disobeyed God. And by God’s just punishment, humans today suffer the disobedience of their genitals as retribution for the disobedience of their first ancestors. Remember the story in Genesis? Adam and Eve blushed after they sinned. They covered their shameful parts with fig-leaves. Previously genitals had not been shameful to them. Why else would they suddenly be so ashamed of their nakedness? Had they not been daily in the habit of looking upon their sex organs without embarrassment? But after their sin they could no longer bear to have those sexual members naked, but immediately took care to cover them!”[vii]
Sex in Christian marriage?
As we continue the interview, I remember that Augustine himself enjoyed turbulent sexual relationships. As a young man he had a mistress whom he took with him to Carthage, Rome and Milan. In 385 his mother Monica persuaded him to get engaged to a thirteen-year old girl. Augustine dismissed his mistress. But although she had given him a son, Adeodatus, and he had taken her to bed, night after night, for 18 years, he never bothered to mention her name in his books. During the time he had to wait for his future bride to grow up, Augustine had taken another mistress to satisfy his sexual needs . . .
Does your negative view of sex not reflect your own experiences?
“Yes, I have been a sinner. I admit it. I was a slave of my lustful passions. But the problem lies in all of us. It lies in original sin which is carried by a man’s sperm and passed on by it. Malice is inbred in every human being, and every man’s sperm is cursed from the beginning. As Paul teaches: ‘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’.”[viii]
But surely Christian marriage does not pass on a curse?
“Unfortunately it does. Yes, Christian marriage is a good thing. The glory of matrimony lies in children, chastity and the mutual pledge of love. But intercourse, even in a good marriage, is tainted by evil because of the sexual passion of the flesh. And people know it. Why else do they feel ashamed when they make love? Why do they seek privacy, remove witnesses and avoid even the presence of the other children who were born of the same process as soon as these reach the age of observation?”
Excuse me. Parents simply feel embarrassed. It proves nothing!
“It does. It does. Every baby, though as yet incapable of sinning, is affected by the contagion of passion and sin. Of course, God is the Author of nature. He created human beings and unites male and female under nuptial law. But the authors of original sin are the devil who deceived our ancestors and the will of the human beings who consented.”[ix]
You mean Christian parents pass on Adam’s and Eve’s sin to their children through sexual intercourse?
Yes. They do. Sin cannot be separated from the actual process of generation. The embrace of a man and his wife, which is lawful and honourable in itself, cannot happen without the heat of sexual passion. For it is lust that somehow, by a power of its own, excites the sexual organs. This carnal sexual desire is no longer counted as a sin in people who are baptised, but it is present nonetheless because of sin. It is the daughter of sin, as it were; and because of it, whoever comes into being by natural birth is bound by original sin. There is an exception of course: Jesus Christ. He was conceived by the Virgin without sexual desire. That is why he alone was born without sin.”[x]
But that is awful. What can Christian parents do about it?
“In a nutshell: avoid intercourse in their marriage. Obviously, they need to have intercourse on rare occasions to produce children. That’s alright. In fact, having children is the only worthy reason for having intercourse.[xi] But if they make love just to satisfy their sexual need, or just to avoid seeking sex outside marriage, they commit a fault. They yield to sexual desire. It is not a big sin, but nevertheless it is not perfect. It amounts to a minor sin.”[xii]
So sex between husband and wife is sinful?
“Well, let’s say it’s tainted with sin. Though sex is necessary to have children and so unavoidable, there is something disgusting about sex. A good Christian man knows this. He loves in one and the same woman, his wife, her being a creature of God while, at the same time, he hates in her the corruptible and mortal conjugal relationship and sexual intercourse. He loves in her what is characteristic of her being human, he hates in her what belongs to her as a wife.”[xiii]
But that makes a farce of full human love between husband and wife!
“Far from it! True love has nothing to do with sex. Perfect Christians look on their marriage as providing for a brotherly and sisterly friendship without any carnal embraces. The husband possesses his wife as though he possessed her not. That is how it should be in the marriage of Christians. The husband hates in his wife their relationship in this world, and loves the hope of everlasting blessedness.”[xiv]
Coping with misguided teachings
Augustine left their mark on the 16 centuries of Christianity that followed. His insights about God have been beneficial, as I will show in a future chapter. His misgivings about sex are different. They have caused, and are still causing, unspeakable damage.
When, through evolution, God created us to be male and female, he made us sexual beings. That means we have sex organs, sexual feelings, sexual pleasures and intercourse. There is nothing shameful or disgusting about them. Of course, we need to use our sexual powers responsibly, like any other gift we possess. But sex is good. Sex too is a gift, not evil or caused by sin. It is holy and good.
Augustine is wrong when he states that original sin is passed on by sexual passion in the parents. He misleads Christian parents by telling them that the physical expression of a loving relationship in marriage can only be excused by the need of producing children.
Through his flawed ideas Augustine greatly contributed to the stranglehold of the Octopus on so many Catholic lives, the Octopus of shame about sex, disgust with sex, repression of sex.
[i] Shaburagân. See D. N. MacKenzie, “Mani’s Šābuhragān,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 42/3, 1979, pp. 500-34; 43/2, 1980, pp. 288-310.
[ii] In Augustine’s replies I will as much as possible cite his exact words.
[iii] Augustine, On Sexual desire, Book II, chap. 53.
[iv] Romans 7,15-18.
[v] Augustine, City of God, Book 14, Chapter 26.
[vi] Augustine, On Marriage, §2.
[vii] Augustine, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians 1.31-32.
[viii] Augustine, On Sexual desire, Book II, chap. 20; the quote is from Romans 5,12.
[ix] Augustine, On the Grace of Christ, Book II, § 42.
[x] Augustine, On Sexual desire, Book I, chap. 27.
[xi] Augustine, On Marriage, § 1.
[xii] Augustine, On Marriage, § 6.
[xiii] Augustine, Sermon on the Mount, Book I, § 41.
[xiv] Augustine, Sermon on the Mount, Book I, § 42.
John Wijngaards, My Story – My Thoughts, Screwed up sex guru