Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Augustine On Marriage

“Indeed, Augustine’s attitude to sexuality, in view of his doctrine of the part played by concupiscence in the transmission of Original Sin, was a remarkably sane one, and very far from the extreme views which have been held by certain other Christian teachers. Like the Apostle, he preferred that all men should be even as he, and rated the life of dedicated virginity above that of marriage; but he regarded Christian marriage as a noble thing, and deprecated any attempt to disparage it. A good example of Augustine’s view will be found in his letter to Ecdicia, a Christian woman with a Christian husband, and the mother of a son. One day, without consulting her husband, she decided to take a vow of continence and to live with him thereafter as a sister and not as a wife. Such a decision was not uncommon in the early Church, and Augustine specifically approves of it, but it had to be by joint consent—pari consensu—so that neither spouse defrauded the other of the marriage debt. This requirement Ecdicia failed to observe; but her husband, a sincere Christian, agreed with her, and for some time the couple lived together in edifying continence. Ecdicia, however, was not satisfied. She assumed the black garb of a widow or a religious, in defiance of her husband’s wishes, and proceeded to squander his good alms, without any regard for the well-being of her small son. Two foreign monks, of doubtful antecedents, enjoyed her hospitality and, in her husband’s absence, she transferred most of his property to them. Exasperated by her behavior, her husband abandoned her, broke his vow of continence, and committed adultery.

It was in these circumstances that Ecdicia wrote to Augustine, no doubt believing that he would approve of her conduct. If so, she was to be disillusioned. Augustine informed her that she was wrong in the first instance to live with her husband as a sister and not as a wife if he were reluctant to do so, and referred her to St. Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians for information about the duties of the married, which she had apparently either not heard or not understood. She was further told that she was wrong to offend her husband in matters of dress. She had been wrong again to give away his possessions in alms to the two monks without his knowledge or consent. By so doing she had deprived him of an opportunity of sharing in charitable deeds to which, if she had acted differently, she might have persuaded him. With greater consideration, she would have postponed giving her alms to the poor lest she should anger her husband and cause him to recoil from his religion, to the detriment of his immortal soul. Which is better: to give bread to the hungry, or save a soul from the devil?

She was further told that, as a married woman, she had no right to say: I will do what I will with my own, and reminded about St. Peter’s teaching on the subjection of the wife to the husband. Finally, she was informed that she should have considered her son’s welfare. Augustine set a high value on the prerogatives of a mother, but he did not consider that these included the right to give away in charity what would become the property of her son. Ecdicia was reminded of the words of the Apostle: If any provideth not for his own, and specially his own household, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever, and Augustine ended his letter by exhorting her to ask her husband’s forgiveness and to promise that, if he would adhere to his profession of continence, she would obey him in all matters. In the meantime, it was necessary to remind her that her son was under his father’s control rather than hers. The lack of sympathy which she received from the ascetic bishop must have been a great disappointment to the enthusiastic votary.”

-Gerald Bonner in St. Augustine of Hippo.

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