A portrait of St. Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne, circa 1645, with the theologian in his studio holding his pen in one hand and a flaming heart in the other.

If you think St. Augustine instilled the Church with phobias about sex, you probably don’t understand St. Augustine, PhD student Meghan Bowen told an audience of theology students Jan. 9 at Regis College in Toronto.

St. Augustine wrote extensively about marriage, sex, family and children in his extended essay “On the Good of Marriage” and in his most famous book, The Confessions. Much of modern Catholic thinking on these subjects claims to be rooted in St. Augustine, but Bowen’s research indicates that modern Catholic writing about marriage is based on a very superficial reading of the fourth-century Doctor of the Church.

St. Augustine readers fail to appreciate the legal and cultural background of the Roman Empire and how a Roman understanding of marriage was St. Augustine’s starting point, said Bowen, a second-year PhD student at Regis who has been studying Catholic sexual ethics.

In the Roman Empire there were three kinds of marriage. Manus marriages put women directly under the authority of their husbands and made them and their children heirs to the husband. In free marriages (a relatively new development in Augustine’s time) women remained under the authority of their fathers and could not inherit from their husbands, though their children would. In both these forms of marriage the Roman Empire expected couples to produce children who would inherit property and contribute to the good of the empire.

The third form of marriage was concubinage. Unlike the negative association in modern English, there is no negative, dishonourable association with this legitimate form of marriage in the Roman Empire. But a concubine marriage is undertaken without the intention of producing children and any children that do result cannot inherit.

In the eyes of Rome, marriage existed primarily to produce heirs, because heirs were essential for the continuance of the empire. So when St. Augustine writes about marriage, this is the institution he has in mind.

St. Augustine believed sex was normal, in the moral sense. But the good of sex was that it produced children. He offered two reasons for Christians to be celibate.

First, he was concerned that sex might result in passion. For St. Augustine passions were a kind of perversion of emotions. He believed passions could obscure reason. Passion could become lust — sex undertaken solely for pleasure and blind to its proper, child-producing purpose. He worried sex would become an end when it should be a means toward a different end.

Second, St. Augustine didn’t really think Christians needed to have children to pass on their inheritance of faith. The Christians of the Roman Empire in the fourth century were surrounded by non-Christians. Through evangelization, Christians could produce spiritual heirs that would pass on the faith.

So Christians should avoid the temptations of passion and lust that can infiltrate marriage and spread the faith by “spiritual procreation.”

“Marriage and procreation are good, but goods that ought to be avoided if at all possible,” said Bowen.

It may surprise modern readers to find that some of our modern theology of marriage is absent from St. Augustine’s writing. Where modern theologians such as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Pope St. John Paul II have emphasized the Church as the bride of Christ and built their theology of marriage on this analogy, that never occurred to St. Augustine.

Sacramentally speaking, for St. Augustine marriage is not a symbol of Christ and the Church, but rather a symbol of the unity of God with the heavenly city.

In the end, we have to accept that our modern understanding of marriage, family and children is different from anything a fourth-century bishop in North Africa could ever have imagined.

“We see sexual intimacy alone as a good within marriage,” points out Bowen.

St. Augustine also saw affection or friendship as a good within marriage — which was an insight not shared much in the Roman empire. But for St. Augustine this friendship was separate from sex and, morally speaking, better than sex.

As for the idea that St. Augustine was obsessed with sex or a reformed libertine — forget it, said Bowen. First, we have no other source about St. Augustine’s sex life than St. Augustine’s writings. He was also a great and famous teacher of rhetoric, thus a master of hyperbole. Finally, St. Augustine’s sex life can’t be understood apart from the culture and times in which he lived.