Everyone’s talking about marriage these days. Even those who don’t believe in it are talking about it all the time. The definition of marriage, the future of marriage, gay marriage, divorce and remarriage, when to get married, how to be married, how to stay married. It’s simultaneously being undermined and romanticized. Some say marriage is a dissolving institution, just par for the course in this sea of modernity we’re swimming in, and still others seem to hold it on an impossibly high pedestal, as though one’s life doesn’t begin until one’s wedding day: when you find your soulmate, your “other half,” you will have found your ultimate fulfillment, the one who will dispel your loneliness forever. Among certain Catholic circles, there is such an emphasis on and exaggeration of JP II’s Theology of the Body that sex itself sometimes seems to be thought of as a sacrament. There often seems to be much more talk of marriage as a vocation in the Church than of religious life as a vocation. And mention St. Thomas Aquinas’s saying that religious life is objectively higher than marriage and you may be met with an uncomfortable silence.
It is fascinating, therefore, to go back and read St. Augustine of Hippo’s Of the Good of Marriage, written around the year 400, today. He was dealing with his own set of theological controversies on the subject of marriage. There were two main camps at the time: that represented by Jovinian, claiming that virgins, widows, and married women were all deserving of equal merit, and that represented by Jerome, which said that marriage was merely the lesser of two evils, rather than something positive in its own right.
Enter Augustine, who believed that virginity was indeed superior to marriage, but that, contra Jerome, marriage was in fact good. The way he situates marriage alongside virginity is, to my modern eyes, certainly sobering; it’s unromanticized, as it is made clear that the chief purpose of marriage is the begetting of children, and that is, in a certain sense, inferior to virginity. But it is also dignified. And, placed so squarely in relation to other ways of life, and defined so clearly, its particular beauty is able to shine forth.
He starts off the treatise by stating that marriage is an unequivocally good thing, that God willed to create man and woman in friendship, and that the first natural bond of human society is man and wife:
Forasmuch as each man is a part of the human race, and human nature is something social, and has for a great and natural good, the power also of friendship; on this account God willed to create all men out of one, in order that they might be held in their society not only by likeness of kind, but also by bond of kindred. Therefore the first natural bond of human society is man and wife […] He created the one out of the other, setting a sign also of the power of the union in the side, whence she was drawn […] they are joined one to another side by side, who walk together, and look together whither they walk.
After beginning this way, Augustine carefully outlines what he believes to be the three “goods” of marriage. First is proles, the begetting of children, which Augustine believes is the “only worthy fruit” of sexual intercourse. The second good is fides, which seems to refer to both sexual fidelity (“sustaining each other’s weakness” so as not to engage in “unlawful intercourse”) and the loyal companionship between man and wife. Augustine takes a very harsh view of sexual relations, even within marriage: it is sinful to a lesser degree within marriage, and forgiveable by God if the couple does not engage in contraceptive practices or “unnatural acts,” but it remains “an element of evil encapsulated in every marriage.” In contrast to, say, John Chrysostom, Augustine views the ideal Christian marriage as one characterized by sexual continence.
The third good of marriage that Augustine outlines is sacramentum—marriage is a sacrament, like baptism, and is therefore a sign of spiritual things. It is the sign of the spiritual marriage between Christ and the Church. He does not speak much on how marriage can lead to growth in holiness, but he does say this:
What wherefore he says, She, that is unmarried, thinks of the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; we are not to take in such sense, as to think that a chaste Christian wife is not holy in body. Forsooth unto all the faithful it was said, Do you not know that your bodies are a temple of the Holy Ghost within you, Whom you have from God? Therefore the bodies also of the married are holy, so long as they keep faith to one another and to God.
Therefore marriage is a good, wherein married persons are so much the better, in proportion as they fear God with greater chastity and faithfulness, specially if the sons whom they desire after the flesh, they also bring up after the spirit.
So, in summary, marriage, which is primarily for having children, is a good, because offspring, faith, and sacrament are goods. Virginity is technically better because it allows more freedom to “have [one’s] thoughts of the things of Lord,” but—and this is important—it is very possible for a married woman to be holier than an unmarried woman, because there “may be virginity without obedience.” (“Wherefore not only is the obedient preferred to the disobedient, but a more obedient married woman to a less obedient virgin.”)
In the context of the current debates on marriage, this is something to think about.Also, a heads up: First Things will be hosting an Intellectual Retreat in early August on the topic of Love & Friendship. There will be a section on marriage, in which texts like this one will be discussed. Keep your eye on our Events page in the coming weeks.
Bianca Czaderna is assistant editor at First Things.