Augustine, Saint (d. 430) (birth control)

Saint Augustine was the most influential early Christian writer on contraception, abortion, and sex in general. His writings have proved to be a dominant influence on Western attitudes. Born in North Africa of a pagan father and Christian mother (Saint Monica), Augustine received a Christian education and went on to advanced studies in Carthage, where he devoted himself at first to rhetoric and then to philosophy. While in Carthage, he converted to Manichaeanism, a dualistic religion that was a main rival of Christianity at the time. In Manichaean cosmology, the universe was divided into two pantheistic portions, the kingdoms of Light and Darkness, which were in juxtaposition, each reaching out into infinity. Light and Darkness were both eternal and uncreated power in everlasting opposition and conflict, although the God of Light was alone able to know the future. Eventually Light would overcome Darkness and this was represented in earthly forms as the struggle between the material and spiritual, or ideal. Humans represented the material, or darkness, but they retained an element of light and were in a sense prisoners because the earthly life was a testing one in which they were to struggle to overcome the elements of darkness and to gain the full light. This struggle could be aided or impeded by, among other things, sexual actions, and one of the worst things humans could do was to procreate because procreation kept imprisoning the light in new physical bodies, children of loins. The Manichaeans taught that concupiscence (lust) as well as covetousness were signs of darkness, and the true believers refused to eat flesh, drink wine, eat any products of sexual union such as milk (they did not know about the birds and bees in fertilization), or have sexual intercourse.

According to the Manichaeans, the human race was divided into three classes. The first were the Adepts, the Elect who renounced private property, practiced abstinence, observed strict vegetarianism, and never engaged in trade. The second were the Auditors, men and women of good will who as yet could not control their material desires and who earned money, owned property, ate flesh, and had procreative intercourse, but also served and supported the Elect and strove to reach the Adept status themselves. The rest of society was totally lost in wickedness because they rejected the gospel of Manes.

Interestingly, because the Manichaeans believed that procreation continued the imprisonment of the Light contained in the seed, they were often charged by their opponents of engaging in sexual intercourse without procreative purpose, including coitus interrupts and anal intercourse. The Elect themselves were also charged with engaging in a ritual in which they ate human semen to free part of the God of Light still imprisoned in their seed. Augustine mentioned this charge against them several times and it is one of the early references to oral-genital contact as a means of preventing conception. Sometimes, at least according to their opponents, males engaged in fellatio with other males, and females engaged in oral-genital contact with other females. Auditors, who were allowed to marry, were encouraged to avoid pregnancy in order to avoid imprisoning more souls of light. They did so by abstaining from sex for a period after menstruation when they believed conception was most likely to take place, but they also used coitus interrupts in addition to fellatio, according to Augustine, and probably various barrier methods and herbal contraceptives and abortifacients as well.

Augustine was a Manichaean for some eleven years but never reached the Elect stage, in part because of his difficulties with abstaining from sex. He remained an Auditor, living with a female lover and growing increasingly uncomfortable about his inability to control his lustful desires. His failure was emphasized by the fact that he had a son, something even Auditors were supposed to avoid.

We know of his anguish and concern over his inability to control his sexual activity because he wrote about it in detail in a unique autobiographical account entitled Confessions. He emphasized that he regularly prayed to God to help him control his lustful desires, but at the end of each prayer he concluded “Give me chastity, and continence, but do not give it yet.”

Reluctantly, Augustine arrived at the conclusion that the only way he could control his venereal desires was by marriage, and after kicking out both his lover and his son, he became engaged to a girl who was not yet of age (twelve was the legal minimum age; fourteen was the custom). While waiting for the girl to reach the eligible age, Augustine found he could not control his sexuality and turned to prostitutes for his pleasure. At this juncture he went through a personal crisis, in part brought to a head by his growing lack of faith in Manichaeanism, as well as personal contact with Saint Ambrose, one of the Christian intellectuals of the time. Augustine’s problems were solved by his conversion to Christianity. Somewhat miraculously, he felt himself purified, purged of his sexual desire, and the celibacy and continence that he had so much difficulty in achieving earlier, he now found easy.

He soon was made a priest; and within a few years, Bishop of Hippo, and he threw himself into the controversies of the church. His ideas and extensive writings essentially became the major foundation of western Christianity. As far as sex was concerned, what he did was to carry over into Christianity the Manichaean ideas about lust and coitus and establish them as main points of Christian doctrine. He held that the true Christian life, and the most desirable model for all, was a life of continence. There was nothing that brought the “manly mind”—he always wrote from a male viewpoint—”down from the heights than a woman’s caresses and that joining of bodies without which one cannot have a wife.” He held that before Adam and Eve had fallen from Paradise, the two had been able to control their genitals, although if they had chosen to do so, they could have managed to have sex without lascivious heat or unseemly passion. It was after they had entered the real world that the genitals lost the docility of innocence and were no longer amenable to the will. Augustine termed this impulse “concupiscence” or “lust.” Though he was forced to conclude, in part because of the biblical commandment to be fruitful and multiply, that coitus must be regarded as a “good,” every concrete act of intercourse was evil, with the result that every child could literally be said to have been conceived in the sin of its parents.

After converting to Christianity, Saint Augustine concluded that sex for any purpose other than reproduction, and sex using any form of birth control, was a sin, a philosophy that carried down through the centuries in Western Christianity.

After converting to Christianity, Saint Augustine concluded that sex for any purpose other than reproduction, and sex using any form of birth control, was a sin, a philosophy that carried down through the centuries in Western Christianity.

Augustine concluded that sexual intercourse of a married couple was permissible only when it was employed for human generation. All intercourse between the unmarried was condemned by Augustine, although he held that true wedlock could exist without a ceremony. All forms of sex not leading to procreation were condemned and the only position acceptable was with the woman on her back and the man on top and using the orifice, the vagina, and the instrument, the penis, God had designed for such purposes. Sexual intercourse undertaken simply for pleasure, even with one’s spouse, was a sin.To use any method of fertility control that permitted pleasure but prevented children was condemned.

Moreover, there was no particular reason for Christians to have children. The biblical injunction to increase and multiply was interpreted as not a requirement to have large families but rather to grow in reason. Perfection was to be sought in abstinence and virginity rather than in the married state. In fact, it was under Christian influence that Constantine revoked the laws put in place by the Emperor Augustus in the first century to penalize childlessness. Contraception and abortion were both condemned because they represented attempts to have sexual pleasure without bearing children.

Next post:

Previous post: