The idea that sex should be equated with sin is a Catholic tradition that has its roots in the writings of Saint Augustine. Prior to this there was little opposition or shame associated with sexual activity, especially in the Classical world. Augustine's Confessions is a book that detailed the early part of his life, his paganism, his obsession with sex, and his ultimate conversion to Christianity. Although born into a world where sex was a common and open part of life, Augustine seemed to transfer his obsession with sexual activity into an equally vehement campaign for celibacy. To Augustine, sex had been the focus of his pagan life but upon his conversion to Christianity sex became equated with the sinfulness of paganism and the corruptibility of humankind. In this role sex plays an important part in the Confessions and Augustine's Christian philosophy.
Augustine was born into a family of mixed religious beliefs in Roman North Africa in the 4th century. His father, Patricius, was a wealthy landowning Roman and believed in the traditional pantheon of gods in the pagan religious tradition. On the other hand his mother, Monica, was a Christian who seems to have taught him the basics of Christian belief. The early 4th century was a time of transition where the old traditional pagan beliefs were being replaced by the newer Christian ones. Prior to this time the Christians had been the ones to be persecuted in the Roman Empire, while afterward those who stubbornly clung to their traditional pagan beliefs began to be persecuted by the Christians. In other words, Augustine lived at a time when Christianity was becoming the dominant religious belief in the Roman Empire and his life seemed to be a mirror of this transition.
Augustine's early life was one of a traditional wealthy Roman, yet pagan, young man. Beginning in his late teens, Augustine embarked on a life of luxury and the pursuit of pleasure when he left home to study in Carthage. Along with a cadre of friends, Augustine engaged in a life of sexual endeavors constantly comparing his conquests to his friends in a competition of sex. And even though he did settle down with a mistress and even had a child, his sexual appetite was an ever constant force in his life. It was not until his conversion to Christianity that Augustine began to rethink his ideas on sexuality.
As a traditional Roman youth, sex was, for Augustine, a sport or pastime that occupied his early life. As he described in the Confessions, he was a fornicator who engaged in extremely unsavory behavior while "all around me thus fornicated there echoed 'well done! Well done!" (Book 1, p.9) Upon his conversion to Christianity it seemed that Augustine began to associate his past behavior with sin. He began to view his earlier life as frivolous and wasteful and to be associated with corruption and being without the love of God. And because at that time he was not yet a Christian, and did not recognize God's love, he wandered around his life in a wasteful pursuit of pleasure and sex.
Part of his recognition that he was wasting his life in a frivolous pursuit of sexual conquests came from his time associated with a heretical sect of Christianity called the Manichees. Members of this sect believed that God was not all-powerful, or omnipotent, but was a force that existed to resist evil. They also believed that evil resided in the flesh and thus did not consume meat. As flesh was the home of evil, they believed that it was a sin to produce a child and many Manichees practiced abstinence from sexual activity. If a member of the sect did engage in sex they had to ensure that it produced no offspring. Augustine first began to associate himself with this sect as a student in Carthage and the fact that he had one child with his mistress prior to associating with the Manichees but none afterward may indicate that he took at least this aspect of their beliefs to heart.
In time Augustine rejected the teachings of the Manichees as he began to believe that evil was not a force by itself but was the absence of good. And as he grew older and began to re-examine his life he also began to associate goodness with God. He came to recognize that God's love was good while the absence of God's love was evil. And if God's love was the essence of goodness, then religious beliefs that did not include God, primarily paganism, were empty and without the love of God. Taking this one step further, Augustine concluded that his earlier life, which was preoccupied with an obsession for sex and pleasure, was without the love of God and therefore evil. He described his earlier life as being wasted, corrupted, foul, and because at that time he was both a pagan and obsessed with sex, paganism and sex became associated with evil in the mind of Augustine.
But what was it about sex which Augustine seemed to have a problem? Firstly his teenaged experimentation with sex had grown into a full-fledged addiction. His desire for sex had grown with each encounter, and when he gave his desire satisfaction, a habit was formed. Finally the more he allowed his habit to overtake him, the more compulsive he became in his desire for more sex. Like many addicts, the object of Augustine's addiction became both what he loved the most and his most hated enemy. He came to recognize that it was his desires that had overtaken his senses and drove him to waste his life in worthless pursuits. And the fact that all the sexual encounters did not fulfill his real desire for happiness left him empty and bitter. While plunging into the depths of lust Augustine realized that lust was not the same as love and God's love could not be found in the pursuit of lust.
As a result of his conversion to Christianity Augustine began to practice celibacy, or abstinence from sexual activity. To Augustine not engaging in sexual activity was a way to reject his previous pagan lifestyle, embrace Christianity, and allow the love of God to enter into him. Sexual desire was based in selfishness and associating oneself with sexual activity impeded one's quest to accept God into their heart. In his own life Augustine struggled to overcome his obsession with sex and often prayed to God for celibacy, but not just yet. In fact, it was not until he felt he was able to fully give up sexual activity that he officially converted to Christianity. Sex was the final obstacle to Augustine completely rejecting his pagan past, filled with the useless pursuit of sexual pleasure, and his acceptance of Christianity.
As paganism was associated with the free-expression of sexual desire, Christianity, for Augustine, became associated with the opposite: celibacy. And once a Christian, Augustine discarded his past obsession with sex and fully embraced what he felt was the way to open himself to God and his love. Sexual desire must be rejected because it led to emptiness and the absence of God's love; and therefore was evil. But while he felt that the only way to fully accept God's love was through celibacy, he understood that the human race was not created to be celibate. Sex was a necessary part of life and absolutely necessary for the continuation of the human race. However, sex for pleasure, which can lead to uncontrollable desire and ultimately compulsion, was a sin. As a result, marriage became the only acceptable condition in which a person could engage in sex. In marriage the purpose of sex was procreation and therefore acceptable. But there was always a possibility that engaging in sexual activity, even in the confines of marriage, could lead to compulsion, obsession, and the emptiness that comes from the absence of God's love. While sex in marriage was acceptable, in order to ensure against corrupting oneself through sexual activity, Augustine recommended that married couples only engage in sex for the purpose of procreation and when not so to limit their sexual activity or even go without.
So what was the role of sex in Augustine's the Confessions? Firstly it represented the pagan world and its acceptance of sex as just another bodily function without any moral repercussions. Throughout the ancient world sex did not have a negative connotation or any type of moral restrictions and as a result many at that time engaged in sexual activity for the sake of fun; Augustine included. In fact he competed with his friends to see who could perform the most depraved acts; something that he shamed him later in his life. When Augustine fell into his compulsion with sex he was not a Christian but a pagan, and this seemed to be an important fact as his compulsion for sex became associated with his paganism. As long as he did…