Saint Augustine formulated the classic Christian understanding of desire, that “our hearts are restless until they rest in God.” Gilbert Meilaender maintains that this frustrated desire lies at the heart of our existence. In The Way That Leads There he takes Augustine as a “conversation partner” for exploring subjects that human beings have wrestled with for centuries — desire, duty, politics, sex, and grief. Meilaender’s carefully reasoned insightful work rescues Augustine from many of our misperceptions and interacts meaningfully with both C. S. Lewis and Catholic moral theology, generating insights on difficult topics. The picture of life that emerges in these pages is one of incompleteness, of our inability to perfect and unify our moral lives. Yet this inability is not a cause for despair; it is rather a call to look, with Augustine, to God as the source and object of our greatest desire.
The final part of Meilaender’s exposition of Augustinian thought on the appetites combines the observations on food and sex:
Food and Sex
When thinking with Augustine about the pleasures and dangers of food, we found it necessary in the end to move toward a richer and deeper understanding than his of the good of eating as a human activity. We must do the same in the case of sex. Indeed, Roman Catholic thought itself — though its condemnation of contraceptive intercourse had roots in the Augustinian contention that the pleasure of sex and the good of offspring are not to be separated — has not been able to rest entirely content with his analysis.
Having thought with Augustine about the place of food and of sex in human life, we need to bring these together and see what can be learned from the one for the other. Even in Augustine’s day the monk Jovinian, who was condemned (whether rightly or wrongly has been disputed) for teaching that virginity and marriage were equally worthy states of life, extended his critique to the use of food, teaching that “[t]here is no difference between abstinence from food and receiving it with thanksgiving.” [David G. Hunter, "Resistance to the Virginal Ideal in Late-FourthCentury Rome: The Case of Jovinian," Theological Studies 48 (March 1987):] And, of course, Augustine’s experience as a Manichee would have suggested an ascetic practice that connected abstinence from sex with abstinence from food. [Hunter, p. 53] Insight gained in the one case (food) may help in the other (sex).
In his instructive assessment of Augustine’s understanding of human sexuality in the history of redemption, Paul Ramsey suggested that Augustine had “the problem of saying why only one tumult of the soul — that which springs from fallen sexuality — causes shame.” [Ramsey, p. 63] Ramsey was of course right to note that Augustine placed great argumentative emphasis on man’s inability to control his generative organ and the shame that inability created. Nevertheless, the kind of description Augustine gives of sin’s effect on sexuality is not unlike language he uses in other contexts. For example, he sees in the unruliness of the sexual organ an apt punishment for man’s disobedience to God. In City of God (16.4) he uses similar language to describe the scattering of the peoples at the Tower of Babel:
“Since a ruler’s power of domination is wielded by his tongue, it was in that organ that his pride was condemned to punishment. And the consequence was that he who refused to understand God’s bidding so as to obey it, was himself not understood when he gave orders to men.” Closer still to my concern, when Augustine speaks of the need to discipline the body by fasting, he says: “Your flesh is below you; above you is your God. When you wish your flesh to serve you, you are reminded of how it is fitting for you to serve your God.”
[Augustine, The Usefulness of Fasting, in Saint Augustine: Treatises on Various Subjects, Fathers of the Church, vol. 16 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1952), p. 4.]
Other desires — in particular, our desire for food — are, like sex, necessities that may in our bondage to sin become sweet to us. To consider together these two necessities, sex and food, offers an occasion to do for sex what we did for food — namely, to find in if another good beyond the obvious biological one.
I suggested above that Augustine’s analysis of our desire for food was incomplete in an important way. Eating serves, in his view, only one good: nourishment of life and health. Any legitimate pleasure we have in eating may not therefore be separated from and pursued apart from that good. We should eat only to sustain life.
What Augustine missed, I suggested, was another good that eating serves — the human conversation and community that a shared meal constitutes. Perhaps we should wonder whether something similar is not missing from his analysis of sexual desire. He supposed that in paradise the bond joining Adam and Eve would have been essentially a bond of concord or friendship. “Their married intercourse, had it occurred, would have been [merely and no more than] a physical concretization of their pre-existing concord.”
Hence, he “never found away… of articulating the possibility that sexual pleasure might, in itself, enrich the relations between husband and wife.” [Brown, p. 402] Desire for coitus may be put in service of the good of procreation, and we should affirm Augustine’s belief — shared generally by Christians — that such procreation is an important good or purpose of sexual union.
But sexual desire also embodies, nurtures, and enriches the good of carnal conversation and community — the complete sharing of life — between husband and wife. To seek such community, therefore, even when children are not planned, wanted, or desired, is not mere grasping for a repeated pleasure separated from the good of marriage. On the contrary, it is one of the goods of marriage. Thus, contraceptive intercourse for the expression and enjoyment of such community cannot separate the pleasure from the good of marriage; for it is one of the goods of marriage.
This brings us, of course, to where Catholic thought itself has in recent years come — to speaking of two goods, procreative and unitive, that marriage serves. For Augustine there was (in paradise) one good of marriage, and the pleasure of the sexual act was not to be separated from that good. Other goods of marriage (fidelity and sacrament) come into the picture only within a fallen world, and they do not alter the basic structure of his thought.
To suggest, as I now have, that we should think of sexual union within marriage as itself one of the goods of marriage (rather than simply as a pleasure that must be enjoyed only as part of an act aimed at procreation) is to speak of both a procreative and a unitive good of marriage. So the question we found in Augustine must be reformulated. We now have to ask not about the relation between the pleasure of coitus and the good of offspring, but rather about the relation between two goods: children and fleshly communion.
Might contraceptive intercourse wrongly separate not a pleasure from a good but the good of procreation from the good of communion in love between spouses? The claim that these two goods must be “inseparable” in the sexual act is essentially the claim that contraceptive intercourse makes impossible the full communion in love that the act of coitus between husband and wife intends.
When pondering this claim, we should not forget what we learned from thinking about the goods of eating. A meal is both medicine for the body and the expression of human community. In any proposed separation of these goods we must simply try to see whether the resulting moral reality involves distortion or harm. To express marital communion in the sexual act while using contraceptives is not unlike sharing in a festive meal when one is not hungry and eats little.
Precisely in order to share fully in the good of community on that occasion one does not do what one does on the occasion of some other meals. Although the species-sustaining, biological purpose of food is not served by such eating, neither of the goods of eating seems distorted by doing so.
Thus, thinking along with Augustine, we move beyond and in some respects “correct” his understanding of the place of both food and sex in human life. We may share in a meal not to sustain life or health but simply as an embodiment of human community — a kind of “ecstatic” experience in which we set to the side our aim of self-preservation and simply enter into the fellowship the meal constitutes.
The good not served in such participation in the meal is not the only good of eating, and one might well eat even when nourishment is not at all needed. Likewise, husband and wife may share in the act of love not to produce a child but simply as the most intimate incarnation of their mutual self-giving — a kind of ecstatic experience in which they set aside their procreative potential and simply share the fellowship their bodily union constitutes.
The good not served in their coitus is not the only good the sexual act serves, and they might well make love even when they neither need nor desire children. To be sure, deliberately avoiding children indefinitely could be expected to have a subtle but deformative effect on the character of their love. Were this to happen, then, clearly the several goods of marriage would have been separated too greatly.
The implications of such a correction of Augustine’s understanding go far beyond a consideration of contraception alone. Indeed, correcting Augustine in this way is necessary if we are to make sense of the deepest reasons for concern about new reproductive technologies — a concern clearly reflected in Catholic teaching. When the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published Donum Vitae, central to its rejection of laboratory fertilization was the belief that the child must be understood as gift, not product — equal in dignity to his parents:
“[T]he origin of a human person is the result of an act of giving. The one conceived must be the fruit of his parents’ love. He cannot be desired or conceived as the product of an intervention of medical or biological techniques.”
[Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin, and on the Dignity of Procreation (Boston: St. Paul Books and Media, 1987), p. 28.]
It is not unusual to see a link between this reasoning, which condemns assisted reproduction, and the reasoning that disapproves of contraception. Certainly the Congregation thought it saw a connection. “Contraception deliberately deprives the conjugal act of its openness to procreation and in this way brings about a voluntary dissociation of the ends of marriage. Homologous artificial fertilization, in seeking a procreation which is not the fruit of a specific act of conjugal union, objectively effects an analogous separation.” [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, p. 27] More colloquially put, contraception makes possible sex without babies; assisted reproduction makes possible babies without sex. In either case the goods of marriage are separated.
But are the moral realities reflected in these two separations really so similar? Kim Power has claimed that “Augustine implicitly legitimated a split between love and sex which facilitates the depersonalisation of sexual intercourse. ” [Power, p. 161] This does not, I think, put the matter quite rightly, but she has pointed to a serious problem.
Augustine’s mistake, as Paul Ramsey noted with characteristic insight, was not that he depersonalized sexual intercourse; it was that he could think of personal presence in only one way. He thought of the person as present in coitus only if the act was undertaken at the command of the rational will (for, presumably, the purpose of procreation). [Ramsey, pp. 60, 62, 65]
Thus, rightly ordered sexual intercourse would not be depersonalized, but the person present in it would be characterized not in terms of passion but in terms only of reason and will. Even in paradise, says Augustine, “the man would have sowed the seed and the woman would have conceived the child when their sexual organs had been aroused by the will, at the appropriate time and in the necessary degree.” [City of God 14.24]
Hence, by his own lights and in terms of his own understanding of the human person, Augustine did not depersonalize sexual activity. Nevertheless, by driving a wedge between the desire to give oneself lovingly and passionately in the sexual act and the (rationally willed) purpose of producing a child, he invites us to think of the child as a product. Adam and Eve would, rationally and deliberately, have set to work to produce children as needed, and they would not have consummated their sexual union for any other reason.
This is precisely the separation of babies from sexual love, the understanding of the child as product, that new reproductive technologies express. It is just such a separation — what Power calls the “split between love and sex” — that makes many of the new reproductive technologies seem quite reasonable to their advocates. And the case against such forms of reproduction will depend, finally, on a view of personal presence in coitus that Augustine — acknowledging only the good of procreation and not also the good of communion in the sexual act — was unable to develop.
But once, unlike Augustine, we acknowledge both procreative and unitive goods in marriage, we are freed to consider the relation — and the separation — of these goods in new ways. Thinking along with Augustine, of the desire for sex as rather like the desire for food, we were able earlier to see why contraception does not necessarily distort or deform the meaning of our sexuality. The separation effected by new reproductive technologies is a different moral reality, however, and we will see what is problematic about it most clearly when we correct Augustine’s vision of coitus as nothing more than a rational activity aimed at offspring.
The act of love is not simply a rational, willed undertaking. Of course, a man and a woman might decide to make love. They might choose to do it for certain reasons — for example, because they hope for a child. But in the act itself, passion, not reason or will, is central. We speak of lovers experiencing “ecstasy” — a word that describes a going out of oneself, a relinquishing of control, a setting aside of one’s projects and purposes.
Even if spouses make love because they want a child, the act itself requires a letting go of such plans and projects in mutual self-giving. We might even say then, as Ramsey did in his discussion of Augustine, that “bodily powers and precisely the spontaneous and rationally insubordinate movements of sexuality are, for the purpose of accessibility or presence to another being in this world, superior to the means the soul has for the deliberate communication of itself to the other.” [Ramsey, p. 65]
Thus, married intercourse is not merely the concretization of an already existing concord, which concretization might then also be put in service of the production of children. On the contrary, it is a mode of presence to the spouse unlike any other.
From this act, in the doing of which lovers have set aside all plans and projects, a child may result. That child — begotten, not made — springs from their embrace but is not the product of a purposive act. Such a child may properly be thought of as a gift. Love-giving has been life-giving, not because the lovers willed it, but because God has so blessed it. In this instance, unlike the instance of contraception, the moral reality — our understanding of the relation of parents and child — does seem to be distorted if we separate unitive and procreative goods; the presence of the child then results from our will and choice. By contrast, the child is a gift precisely because he or she results from an act and embrace in which we set aside our intentions and purposes, in which we step out of ourselves and cease attempting to be productive.
We can begin to see this only as we think our way into Augustine’s view and beyond it, recognizing that the act of love need not be sought or desired for any reason other than the communion it expresses and embodies. “Producing” a child in other ways seems to distort the moral meaning of the child; it removes the procreative good of marriage from the context in which it is personalized and humanized (and is rather like taking in nourishment entirely apart from the fellowship of the meal).
By contrast, within a marriage that is genuinely open to children, embodying the communion of marital love in contraceptive intercourse (rather like sharing in a festive meal while actually eating little and taking in little nourishment) does not in and of itself depersonalize or dehumanize either that act or the child who may be given through it.
All this said, however, we should not fail to give Augustine his due. What he did see, and what his emphasis on procreation might remind us also to see, is that sexuality is more than a personally fulfilling undertaking intended to make us happy and give us pleasure. Of course, the unitive good of marriage is not properly understood when thought of in so self-serving a way, but perhaps it lends itself readily to such distortion. The notion that sexuality is a profound but very private and personal form of play is quite strong in our culture – and that “necessity” becomes sweet to us. By contrast, Augustine saw in the exercise of our sexuality a task — of begetting and rearing children — that God sets before human beings. If in correcting or supplementing his views we lose or ignore that insight, we may ourselves turn out to need correction.