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  • The Proper Order of Conjugal Love:The Relevance of St. Augustine's Insights
  • Perry Cahall (bio)

Augustine says the "order of love" (ordo amoris) is the "brief and true definition of virtue."1 According to this order, the human person must love everything in creation according to its proper relationship to God, which means loving God above all creatures and not inordinately loving any creature as the human person's ultimate end.2 Living according to the order of love presents one with "the promise that human life might participate in the very trinitarian life and mutual love of God."3

Augustine also speaks of an "order of charity" that ideally "flourishes between husband and wife."4 This spousal love is part of the overarching order of love that orients the spouses toward participating in the life and love of the Trinity. Thus the order of charity that ought to flourish between spouses is one aspect of "believers living as a community of mutual love [who] should themselves be the eschatological appearing of God's own mutual, trinitarian love in history."5 In this article I will apply what Augustine says about the order of love in general to the order of love that he says should exist between spouses to show the validity Augustine's thought has for living out married life today. [End Page 117]

Ordered Love and the Use/Enjoyment Distinction

For Augustine, love that is in accord with the truth of God's love must be an ordered love, in terms of everything being loved hierarchically according to its proper relationship to God. In fact, for Augustine, all virtue is ordered love.6 He proposes a hierarchy of objects of human love consisting of God, ourselves, our neighbors, and our bodies.7 Our love of created things must be in relation to the Creator if it is to be considered true love.8 Whatever and whomever we love, we must not love them more than we love Christ.9 Augustine's point is that nothing we love can take the place of our ultimate end, who is God. Within this order Augustine distinguishes between divine love, lawful human love, and unlawful human love.10 With regard to marriage, Augustine says that a man who does not possess lawful human love for his spouse "isn't fit to be counted among human beings."11 Yet, if his love for his wife is true, a husband should order his love for her with reference to God.12

An important part of how human persons should order their love with reference to God, participate in the love of God, and share this love with each other, seeking each other's ultimate good, is Augustine's use/enjoyment (uti/frui) distinction. In the order of love, God alone is the ultimate object of our love and therefore God alone may be truly "enjoyed" (frui).13 Every created thing that is an object of our love must be referred to the love of God or "used" (uti).14 In De doctrina Christiana, Augustine defines frui and uti as follows: "To enjoy [frui] something is to hold fast to it in love for its own sake. To use [uti] something is to apply whatever it may be to the purpose of obtaining what you love—if indeed it is something that ought to be loved. (The improper use of something should be termed abuse.)"15 After providing these definitions Augustine says, "It is only the eternal and unchangeable things . . . that are to be enjoyed; other things are to be used so that we may attain the full enjoyment of those things."16

However, previously Augustine had said, "There are some things [End Page 118] which are to be enjoyed, some which are to be used, and some whose function is both to enjoy and use."17 Augustine asks "whether humans should enjoy [frui]one another or use [uti]one another, or both."18 He answers,

We have been commanded to love one another [John 13:34; 15:12, 17], but the question is whether one person should be loved by another on his own account or for some other reason. If on...