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St. Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality (review)

From: Journal of Early Christian Studies
Volume 6, Number 4, Winter 1998
pp. 685-686 | 10.1353/earl.1998.0058

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Journal of Early Christian Studies 6.4 (1998) 685-686

Book Review

St. Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality

Augustine: St. Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality. Edited by Elizabeth A. Clark. Selections from the Fathers of the Church, vol. 1. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996. Pp. ix + 112. $13.95 (pb).

In her introduction to St. Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality , Elizabeth Clark cites Pope Pius XI's 1930 encyclical Casti connubii. The document drew heavily from the theology of Augustine concerning the issues of contraception, sterilization, abortion, marital fidelity and the sacramental nature of marriage which generally precluded divorce. As Clark notes, the impact of Augustine's thinking in this area extended far beyond the late fourth and early fifth century. While Augustine's marital theology exerted an enormous influence over the lives of twentieth century Roman Catholics, it was produced in response to the hurly burly of various doctrinal and pastoral concerns of the late Roman Empire. By way of a prologue to the writings of Augustine himself, Clark briefly sketches some of the more important historical influences upon Augustine's thinking in this area. It is a concise, even handed and useful resume for those approaching for the first time, the much debated, sometimes convoluted and occasionally torturous byways of Augustine's theology of human sexuality and marriage.

The book is made up of extracts from various Augustinian tractates dealing either specifically or incidentally with marriage and sexuality. The English translations are taken from the Fathers of the Church series. Clark has opted to include the footnotes and editorial comments of the various translators as they appeared in their original volumes. She has also chosen to arrange Augustine's writings chronologically thus providing the reader with a sense of the development of Augustine's thinking. The various chapters are arranged thematically.

The first chapter is devoted to Augustine's personal experiences of marriage and sexuality. Clark introduces the section with excerpts from the Confessions wherein Augustine describes his struggle with his burgeoning sexuality, his relationship with his concubine, and his inability to survive without sexual companionship while he awaits his own marriage. She inserts The Good of Marriage V.5. Here Augustine describes how even the chaste concubine can rank above many matrons. Also included is Augustine's idealized description of his parents' marriage again found in the Confessions. Clark concludes the section with Letter 262 to Ecdicia. The letter graphically illustrates Augustine's application of the model of his parents marriage to the situation of "wayward" wife, Ecdicia.

The subsequent three chapters are organized theologically rather than psychologically. Chapter two is devoted to the influence of Manichaean anti-reproduction, pro-contraception ethic upon Augustine's ardent insistence that the purpose of human sexuality was solely for procreation. Chapter three deals with the ascetic debates. Clark concludes the book with Augustine's anti-Pelagian writings including the double theme of the effect of original sin upon sexual relations and its transmission via sexual relations.

The book provides an excellent survey of Augustine's theology of marriage and sexuality. For those unfamiliar with Augustine's thinking in this area it furnishes a solid introduction. Clark has chosen diverse passages which illustrate Augustine at his moderate best and acerbic worst. The result is a highly readable text which could be profitably used in a wide variety of university settings.

Constance E. McLeese
University of Montreal

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