by Theresa Notare
January 26, 2007
St. Augustine often gets bad press for his teachings on marriage and sex. Some say he "had issues," that he "feared" or had contempt for marriage and sex. Others say he was generally pessimistic and didn't have a happy thing to say about human nature.
These criticisms are challenged in a paper presented in October 2006 to the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family by Dr. John Cavadini of Notre Dame. Dr. Cavadini says some of Augustine's insights can serve to enrich the lives of Christian married couples. They can even help to transform their lives.
Augustine taught that the Christian life is "a journey of healing or purification of the heart," and that this is so because our baptism incorporates us into the Body of Christ. These points seem so simple that we can easily miss their power, especially as they apply to building a loving, life-long marriage.
Although people often have admirable desires and aspirations, human nature can be pretty sloppy. People can act from less admirable motives, justifying even poor choices to themselves. This is only too clear with regard to married life and human sexuality. Dr. Cavadini points out that Augustine was especially mindful of how the effects of Original Sin harm relationships. For example, he observed that a husband and wife's conjugal relations should be a participation in "wondering joy in the presence of the other as a creature of God." It should therefore give "a type of praise of God." But due to the effects of Original Sin, sexual pleasure can degrade into "domination, manipulation," or even "use of the other for self admiration or gratification."
If Augustine is right and human nature is so deeply flawed, what are we to do? That's where participation in the life of Christ comes in.
Augustine taught that baptism radically changes a person. It incorporates him or her into the Body of Christ. Because each Christian has been grafted onto Christ's actual body, in St. Paul's words, "the life we lead is not our own." This has wondrous implications for Christian marriage.
Christ's very identity is that of love. Participating in His life by being incorporated into His body is to participate in Christ's love. Dr. Cavadini explains that this does not mean each baptized Christian is perfect like Christ. We are still human beings. It does mean, however, that each of us is in the process of "being transformed more and more fully by that love as we interact with each other." In the end, says Augustine, our human hearts should be "conformed to the 'deep heart' of Christ." Spousal love is then transformed into a true offering of one heart to the other.
Christian marriage is a life-time vocation, because Christ is an integral part of this covenant. Even though human love may fail, Christ's love does not. As members of the Body of Christ, Christian spouses are never alone in their struggles and difficulties. They have the very life-blood of Christ in them, to help them lay aside selfish desires and petty differences, to go the distance in mutual growth. Their one-flesh union participates in the reality of grace. As St. Augustine says, they are taking part in a journey with Christ. If Christian couples persevere, they will be transformed to love as Christ loves.
Theresa Notare, MA, is the Assistant Director for the Natural Family Planning program of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. To read Dr. Cavadini's complete paper and others presented at the 2006 Notre Dame colloquium, see: /laity/marriage/notredame.shtml.