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Celibate Marriage: Augustine | Catholic Life

Celibate Marriage: Augustine

Augustine is a challenge when it comes to marriage. He is a doctor of the Church, so we cannot simply dismiss him as a confused bishop who liked to write a lot. And yet at first glance he seems so anti-marriage, even in his work on the good of marriage.

I had studied a bit about celibate marriage by the time I took a class on Augustine, but I was still shocked to read his perspective. He was such a supporter of celibate marriage that he insisted that a vow of celibacy was binding once made, even if the husband had only agreed to the vow because he was coerced by his wife!

This simply did not match with my modern notions of freedom of choice,1 loving marriage, and self-giving in marriage. And yet, while Augustine’s pastoral directives are not directly applicable to our lives today, the underlying doctrine which he conveys is too valuable to ignore.

Believers in Christ are taught not to think carnal connection the chief thing in marriage, as if without this they could not be man and wife, but to imitate in Christian wedlock  as closely as possible the parents of Christ, that so they may have the more intimate union with the members of Christ.

Is it possible that couples married in the Church today are not taught this? It is well worth our time to impress upon young couples the reasons behind the Church’s teachings on sexual intercourse and children, but some efforts to accomplish this good goal inadvertently undermine the essential Christian truth that sex, even when perfectly open to life,  is not the chief thing in marriage.

But however let such as are continent, either men,  who, on the death of their wives, or, women, who, on the  death of their husbands, or both, who, with mutual consent, have vowed continence unto God, know that to them  indeed there is due a greater recompense than marriage chastity demands.

I am actually glad that this sort of thing is not included in marriage preparation classes as I think that it would take weeks to convey the essential truth without denigrating the good Christian marriages in which couples join with God in creating new little Christians.

But God forbid that the nuptial bond should be  regarded as broken between those who have by mutual consent  agreed to observe a perpetual abstinence from the  use of carnal concupiscence. Nay, it will be only a  firmer one, whereby they have exchanged pledges together, which will  have to be kept by a special endearment and concord—not  by the voluptuous links of bodies, but by the voluntary affections of souls. For it was not deceitfully that the angel said to Joseph: Fear not to take unto you Mary your wife. Matthew 1:20 She is called his wife because of her first troth of betrothal,  although he had had no carnal knowledge of her,  nor was destined to have. The designation of wife  was neither destroyed nor made untrue, where there  never had been, nor was meant to be, any carnal connection.

One thing that concerns me greatly about comments that I have heard whenever the topic of celibate marriage is raised, is the idea that Mary and Joseph can be dismissed as some super-Saints whose marriage is not the ideal to which all Christian marriages must aspire. It is highly unlikely that any of us will ever achieve the holiness of Saint Joseph, let alone that of the only woman freed entirely from sin. But Catholic marriage by its very nature must hold Mary and Joseph’s marriage as the highest ideal. Considering Catholic marriage apart from Joseph and Mary is akin to contemplating Christian sacrifice apart from Jesus Christ. It simply does not work.

1. This is an Augustine joke. Please laugh. You are predestined to. Thank you.

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18 Responses to “Celibate Marriage: Augustine”

  1. Felipe Bezerra 04. Sep, 2010 at 5:30 pm #

    This isn’t a comment about the post (I confess I haven’t read it YET) but about the blog. I thought I was alone in the blog-sphere trying to be a good catholic blogger. I know I’m not a good one but I try…
    This is a link (I hope it works) for my old post if you want to check it out
    there are some newer posts if you’re interested…
    Nice to meet you!

  2. Melody 05. Sep, 2010 at 3:00 pm #

    I do get the point about the carnal aspect not being the defining thing of marriage. However I think it is also necessary to consider the environment in which people such as Augustine lived. When my husband was going through deacon formation classes (which I was required also to attend), it was brought up in a class on Church history that at one time it was taught that even marital sex was at least venially sinful. So it is no accident that the list of married saints is skewed heavily to the side of those who were celibate for at least part of their marriage. It was a Catch-22 situation, because it was also taught that it was a sin to refuse one’s husband when he wanted sex, because that left him open to temptations to stray from his marriage vows. It seems that this is one of the areas where the theology has evolved a bit. Just guessing that some of this may have had its origin in the texts in Leviticus about ritual impurity; plus influences from the various gnostic traditions with their dualistic view of the physical and spiritual realms.

    • Rae 08. Sep, 2010 at 4:59 pm #

      “However I think it is also necessary to consider the environment in which people such as Augustine lived” I could not agree more. That is what I was trying to get at in saying that “while Augustine’s pastoral directives are not directly applicable to our lives today, the underlying doctrine which he conveys is too valuable to ignore.”

      What interests me is what is really essential about Augustine’s theology and what we can discard as a product of his time and human misunderstanding. Where are we now in terms of recognizing the body and sexual activity as good, and yet still holding true to our traditional belief about procreation, concupiscence, and the good of giving oneself entirely to God? I don’t know.

  3. alison 07. Sep, 2010 at 2:39 pm #

    I guess I didn’t comment yet because I didn’t mean to cause great concern to anyone, but this is still a topic that just doesn’t quite make complete sense to me, and I don’t believe its as easy as saying that “Mary and Joseph were celibate so that is the ideal.” Yes, their marriage was real and legit and beautiful, but I don’t think its by accident that Mary just happened to be conceived without sin and well, they raised the son of God which, let’s face it, is never going to happen again. They were a unique case. Taking celibate marriage to be what I think you’re saying (an ideal that we should all aspire to even if we can’t make it) would mean that there would be no procreation and in one generation there’s be no humans, which pretty much contradicts everything I’ve ever been taught about the Church (that being fruitful and multiplying is intrinsically good). Yes, I know this will never happen, but its still a good litmus test to look at the end result if we’re going to say if something is an ideal or not.
    Anyway, I don’t want to say anything else because I don’t want to offend you or the entire Church by these fleeting thoughts I’ve had on the subject.

    • Rae 08. Sep, 2010 at 4:57 pm #

      Please don’t worry about offending me! You are very good at challenging concepts without making me feel like you are challenging me, so go for it! I think that I am right in my understanding of Church teaching, but it is obviously possible that I am wrong, and it is likely that I express things in a way that is not exactly correct.

      Celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom is an ideal in the sense that martyrdom is an ideal. For most of us it will never be reality and we are simply to take the goodness of the ideal and find little ways to live it out, even though our lives simply are not meant to fully embody the ideal. It is not that we should personally aspire to either or feel that we “fall short” but rather that we should recognize it as something inherently GOOD even if it is not right for us.

      I started re-reading JPII’s theology of the body and will hopefully soon have a post for you with quotes from that. I am willing to bet that his explanation will work better than anything I could come up with!

      Also, I’m not sure about your litmus test. Honestly not sure. On the surface it seems good, but then I can’t think of what it would be based on in Christian thought. After all, would it not be ideal for everyone to skip purgatory because they were fully purified on earth? It seems like spiritual perfection would trump the need to procreate.

      But I will admit that it is likely that you are getting at something that I am missing. Would you mind explaining a bit more about what you mean by “everything I’ve ever been taught about the Church” regarding the goodness of procreation? I may have a bit of re-reading to do.

      • alison 14. Sep, 2010 at 2:20 pm #

        Ok, yeah I guess I agree on the “goodness” factor but was more confused by the “ideal” terminology. It helps to compare it to martyrdom, but I still wonder if martyrdom is different since its less of a choice whereas celibacy for the church is definitely a conscious choice.
        My hesitance to accept this as an ideal I think stems from trying to understand and explain the issue of homosexual marriage. As you know I’ve been trying to write about it and must admit that now I’m slightly stumped up because I understood procreation and complementary sexuality is an integral part of marriage, yet know you’re providing sources that say that part of a marriage is actually not integral, its only optional.

        • Joshua Michael 14. Sep, 2010 at 4:51 pm #

          “procreation and complementary sexuality is an integral part of marriage”

          This is true in one sense, but not true in another. Complementary sexuality (not sexual relations!) is always required of marriage. But strictly speaking, “procreation” is not required. If it was then only parents could be *really* married.

          In Catholic theology only the natural* possibility of procreation is required. I recall that JP II actually goes into this in the Theology of the Body, though West and other popularizers don’t generally talk about it.

          * Meaning that the couple is male and female by nature and thus suited for procreation.

          • alison 16. Sep, 2010 at 7:26 pm #


            just thought this was interesting since it pertains to this topic and goes along with what i was saying. (and for the record, yes, I know she’s not an apologist. nevertheless it does make you think).

            • Joshua Michael 17. Sep, 2010 at 5:35 am #

              That *is* an interesting bit of history. However, it isn’t particularly relevant to Catholic practice, as Henry VIII had already broken from Catholicism precisely because he refused to follow Catholic marriage law. Henry had previously tortured and executed Catholics who said that he should be obedient to the Pope, including St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher.

              For Catholics, as the Code of Canon law says in Canon 109.1, “Affinity arises from a valid marriage, even if not consummated…” Thus validity is independent of consummation.

        • Joshua Michael 14. Sep, 2010 at 4:59 pm #

          “I still wonder if martyrdom is different since its less of a choice”

          I’m pretty sure that active choice is required for death to be considered martyrdom. :-)

  4. Melody 08. Sep, 2010 at 6:22 pm #

    “It is not that we should personally aspire to either or feel that we “fall short” but rather that we should recognize it as something inherently GOOD even if it is not right for us. ” I can wholeheartedly agree with that. And I think to some extent we are always going to be searching for that edgy balance between recognizing the good of the body and sexuality, and the good of giving oneself entirely to God.

  5. Mandy 08. Sep, 2010 at 7:39 pm #

    I LOVED your predestination joke. So funny.

    • Rae 22. Sep, 2010 at 5:03 pm #

      Thanks! :-)

  6. Claire 09. Sep, 2010 at 7:04 pm #

    Your predestination joke was nerdy. So are you. :)

    (so am I or I wouldn’t read your blog)

    • Rae 22. Sep, 2010 at 5:03 pm #

      Why, thank you. I’m glad that you’re nerdy enough to read my blog. 😉

  7. Marc Cardaronella 12. Sep, 2010 at 7:47 pm #

    Frankly, the marriage views of the Church Fathers are pretty challenging to most people…especially married people. I remember in studying this in college and everyone got a little huffy about it. They have the same reaction toward the fact that there will be no marriage in heaven. Some would go so far as to wonder how it could be heaven if they wouldn’t still be married to their spouse. I mean, that’s admirable but I would trust God to think that he’s got the whole thing worked out and it’s going to be better.

    I also remember many folks studying Theology of the Body and then reading the Fathers and having a real disconnect. The Fathers seem so down on sex and marriage and JPII was lauding the greatness of it. I don’t think there’s really a dichotomy if you understand where the Church Fathers are coming from. Marriage is a sacrament. It’s temporary and it points to something greater. It does seem a little harsh to view marriage merely as a concession to human weakness. However, I just think the Fathers were looking more at the spiritual side of things and valuing the sign that the sacrament pointed to more than the earthly reality. I think we could probably stand to think that way a little more in our culture. This being said, I’m pretty attached to the material sign of this sacrament.

    • alison 17. Sep, 2010 at 8:36 pm #

      This is a pretty interesting take. I guess this is the hardest part that I have wrapping my head around: if marriage is a sacrament, then how is it possible to get more graces by denying part of the sacrament? I guess because its marriage that’s the sacrament and not sex? (although I took marriage to be encompassing of sex- as well as much more). Marriage isn’t just a symbol of something, it IS something in and of itself. I guess this is where the “marriage looks different for each couple” part comes in.

      Oh man, my head hurts from thinking about all of this now!

      • Joshua Michael 18. Sep, 2010 at 6:27 am #

        “I guess because its marriage that’s the sacrament and not sex?”

        Yes, this is exactly it.

        “(although I took marriage to be encompassing of sex- as well as much more)”

        Marriage as a sacrament includes the entire marital life of the spouses. In most couples’ lives this means that they receive appropriate sacramental graces through the marital embrace. But in the case of a celibate marriage, they receive appropriate sacramental graces in their practice of abstinence.

        You can see both of these at work in the lives of couples who practice NFP. Both sex and abstinence are sources of sacramental grace when undertaken for the love of God and each other.

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