Sex and the Church

may 004

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is recognized as one of the most important theologians and philosophers of the early Church. Doctrines of the Church held for centuries bear the unmistakable print of Augustine’s theology. Augustine was an apologist for the faith against the many heresies that assaulted the 4th and 5th century church.

The man who would influence the Church, grew up in  a small north African town. His father was a pagan, but his mother Monica was a devout Christian. At school in Carthage, he grew interested in the writings of Cicero and the Manichaean philosophers. Augustine went home to teach; but when Monica found out that he was teaching a philosophy contrary to Christianity she threw him out of the house!  Offered a  professorship in Rome, Augustine left for Italy. After a year in Rome, he was offered a job as the professor of rhetoric for the city of Milan. Augustine’s mother followed him there thinking that the time was right to arrange a marriage for her son. Monica found her son living with his concubine whom he deeply loved and who had given Augustine a son. Marrying the concubine would have ruined him socially and politically, yet he struggled with leaving her and his son. In the end he left his concubine and son, and broke the engagement with the girl his mother had chosen for him.

Augustine’s struggle was not new for him. Throughout his youth he had sought to overcome the cravings of his flesh. Lust, which Augustine later named “concupiscence”, was the torment of Augustine’s life. In the June 19, 2017 issue of The New Yorker, Stephen Greenblatt has written an article entitled “The Invention of Sex”. Greenblatt is The Professor of Humanities at Harvard. He writes at length of Augustine’s struggle to understand the relationship between our humanity and sin. Is there “Something, deeply, essentially wrong with us”? Are we what Augustine called a massa peccati, a mass of sin? Augustine’s search led him to Genesis. He interpreted the creation myth in Genesis literally and came to believe that “Adam had fallen…not because he was deceived by the serpent but because he chose to sin and in doing so he lost Paradise.” (Greenblatt, page28, The New Yorker.“) I recommend Greenblatt’s article for a more thorough understanding of Augustine’s writings about this subject.

I can’t help but wonder how much this influential theologian’s obsession with “sex and sin” has been a negative force in the Church.  Would we be so caught up in prying into each other’s bedrooms to see who’s doing what to whom? Maybe the Church could actually be about the work that Jesus set before us instead of judging one another. Sin is a reality in our lives; but also a reality is the word “good” that God uttered after each thing that God created.

Monica’s lifelong prayerful goal for her son was finally realized when he was baptized and became a Christian. Ordained shortly thereafter as a priest, and then a bishop; Augustine became a theologian of great importance to the Church. He established monasteries for both lay and ordained orders in the Church. Perhaps Augustine’s most quoted and noted lines come from these verses he wrote after his conversion:

Late have I loved Thee, O Lord; and behold,

Thou wast within and I without, and there I sought Thee.

Thou was with me when I was not with Thee.

Thou didst call, and cry, and burst my deafness.

Thou didst gleam, and glow, and dispel my blindness.

Thou didst touch me, and I burned for Thy peace.

For Thyself Thou hast made us,

And restless our hearts until in Thee they find their ease.

Late have I loved Thee, Thou Beauty ever old and ever new

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