Sunday, 5 June 2011

Biblical and patristic texts on marriage and sex

This is the final post in a series on gender and sexuality in the New Testament and the Fathers (defined rather loosely to extend to Aquinas).

The principal themes that emerge from the sources are as follows: 

- Marriage is in a real sense good and honourable.  We have seen that celibacy and virginity were preferred to marriage and sexual activity, but marriage was regarded as an honourable condition.

- Marriage is permanent and exclusive.  Hence divorce and adultery are wrong.

- The purpose of marriage and marital sex is procreation.

- Another purpose is to provide a remedy or outlet for sexual desire.

- Marital sex represents a debt that the parties must pay to each other.

- There is an ambivalent attitude towards the moral status of sex.  For instance, it is good to abstain from sex even within marriage, or at least not to let marital passion go beyond bounds.


1 Corinthians 7.1-11

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: "It is well for a man not to touch a woman." But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. To the married I give this command - not I but the Lord - that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.


Hebrews 13.4

Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.


Ephesians 5.25-32

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.... He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.


Mark 10.2-12

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’


St Clement of Alexandria, The Paedogogus

The procreation of children is the remit and ordinance of those who are joined together in marriage; and their objective is that their children be good....  See how Moses in his great wisdom symbolically rejected sowing one's seed fruitlessly, saying "You shall not eat the leopard or the hyena" [Deut. 14.7].  He did not want human brings to share their character or to experience lust of the same magnitude as theirs, for it is said that these animals suffer from a mad frenzy to have sexual intercourse....  It is lawful for you to take sensual pleasures only from your wife in order to beget legitimate offspring, for only these pleasures are lawful according to the Word....  For this reason, Moses himself prohibited his people from sleeping even with their own wives in cases where they were subject to menstrual flows....  For pleasure alone, when experienced in marital intercourse, is unlawful, unjust and foreign to reason.  Again, Moses ordered men not to sleep with pregnant women until they gave birth....

In summary, then, one should either be joined in marriage or be completely unstained by marriage....  Is it permissible to engage habitually in intercourse in the same way as it is permitted to eat, as being something that is necessary?... In fact, it spreads a cloud over the senses and weakens one's strength....  However, marriage is indeed allowed and accepted: for the Lord wishes the human race to be replenished; but He does not say, "Be lustful", nor is it his will that you be dedicated to pleasure as if you were born for intercourse....  Animals who have the use of reason avail of a certain time period which is suitable for insemination.  However, to have intercourse for purposes other than to beget children is to do an injury to nature....  Marriage constitutes an endeavour to beget children, not an undisciplined ejaculation of semen, which is unlawful and foreign to reason....

It is therefore not just to be held bound by sexual things, nor to cling stupidly to lusts, nor to be moved by appetites that are foreign to reason, nor to desire to be defiled.  It is permitted to him alone who has married a wife... to sow his seed, when the time allows him to sow.


St Jerome, Against Jovinian

At the same time we must notice the Apostle’s prudence. He did not say, it is good not to have a wife: but, it is good not to touch a woman: as though there were danger even in the touch: as though he who touched her, would not escape from her who “hunteth for the precious life,” who causeth the young man’s understanding to fly away. “Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk upon hot coals, and his feet not be scorched?” [Prov. 6.27-28] As then he who touches fire is instantly burned, so by the mere touch the peculiar nature of man and woman is perceived, and the difference of sex is understood....

If we abstain from intercourse, we give honour to our wives: if we do not abstain, it is clear that insult is the opposite of honour.... “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.” This is so clear that no explanation can make it clearer... If corruption attaches to all intercourse, and incorruption is characteristic of chastity, the rewards of chastity cannot belong to marriage.... It is disgraceful to love another man’s wife at all, or one’s own too much. A wise man ought to love his wife with judgment, not with passion. Let a man govern his voluptuous impulses, and not rush headlong into intercourse. There is nothing blacker than to love a wife as if she were an adulteress....


St John Chrysostom, Homily 9 on 1 Timothy

Especially let us train [youths] in chastity, for there is the very bane of youth. For this many struggles, much attention will be necessary. Let us take wives for them early, so that their brides may receive their bodies pure and unpolluted, so their loves will be more ardent. He that is chaste before marriage, much more will he be chaste after it; and he that practiced fornication before, will practice it after marriage....


St John Chrysostom, Letter to Theodore

It is a grievous thing to have children, still more grievous not to have any; for in the latter case marriage has been to no purpose, in the former a bitter bondage has to be undergone....

"Marriage is right," you say; I also assent to this. For "marriage," we read, "is honourable and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge;" [Hebrews 13.4] but it is no longer possible for you to observe the right conditions of marriage. For if he who has been attached to a heavenly bridegroom deserts him, and joins himself to a wife the act is adultery.... Let no one deceive you saying: "God has not forbidden to marry;" I know this as well as you; He has not forbidden to marry, but He has forbidden to commit adultery....


St John Chrysostom, Homily 12 on Colossians

And in like manner a father rejoices both when son and daughter marry, as though the body were hastening to join a member of its own; and though so great a charge and expenditure of money is incurred still he cannot bear with indifference to see her unmarried. For as though her own flesh itself were severed from her, each one separately is imperfect for the procreation of children, each one is imperfect as regards the constitution of this present life. Wherefore also the Prophet says, "the residue of your spirit." [Malachi 2.15] And how become they one flesh? As if you should take away the purest part of gold, and mingle it with other gold; so in truth here also the woman as it were receiving the richest part fused by pleasure, nourishes it and cherishes it, and withal contributing her own share, restores it back a Man. And the child is a sort of bridge, so that the three become one flesh, the child connecting, on either side, each to other.... When there is no child, will they not be two? Nay, for their coming together has this effect, it diffuses and commingles the bodies of both. And as one who has cast ointment into oil, has made the whole one; so in truth is it also here.


St John Chrysostom, Homily 37 on Matthew

You have a wife, you have children; what is equal to this pleasure? You have a house, you have friends, these are the true delights: besides their purity, great is the advantage they bestow. For what, I pray you, is sweeter than children? What sweeter than a wife, to him that will be chaste in mind?


Pope St Gregory I, Pastoral Rule

Husbands and wives are to be admonished to remember that they are joined together for the sake of producing offspring; and, when, giving themselves to immoderate intercourse, they transfer the occasion of procreation to the service of pleasure, to consider that, though they go not outside wedlock yet in wedlock itself they exceed the just dues of wedlock. Whence it is needful that by frequent supplications they do away their having fouled with the admixture of pleasure the fair form of conjugal union.... And, while in the most honourable estate of matrimony allowing to them something of pleasure, [St Paul] added, "But this I say by way of indulgence, not by way of command" [1 Corinthians 7.6]. Now where indulgence is spoken of, a fault is implied; but one that is the more readily remitted in that it consists, not in doing what is unlawful, but in not keeping what is lawful under control. Which thing Lot expresses well in his own person, when he flies from burning Sodom, and yet, finding Zoar, does not still ascend the mountain heights. For to fly from burning Sodom is to avoid the unlawful fires of the flesh. But the height of the mountains is the purity of the continent. Or, at any rate, they are as it were upon the mountain, who, though cleaving to carnal intercourse, still, beyond the due association for the production of offspring, are not loosely lost in pleasure of the flesh. For to stand on the mountain is to seek nothing in the flesh except the fruit of procreation. To stand on the mountain is not to cleave to the flesh in a fleshly way. But, since there are many who relinquish indeed the sins of the flesh, and yet, when placed in the state of wedlock, do not observe solely the claims of due intercourse, Lot went indeed out of Sodom, but yet did not at once reach the mountain heights; because a damnable life is already relinquished, but still the loftiness of conjugal continence is not thoroughly attained. But there is midway the city of Zoar, to save the weak fugitive; because, to wit, when the married have intercourse with each other even incontinently, they still avoid lapse into sin, and are still saved through mercy. For they find as it were a little city, wherein to be protected from the fire; since this married life is not indeed marvellous for virtue, but yet is secure from punishment....


St Augustine, On the Good of Marriage

[T]he marriage of male and female is some good.... Therefore, concerning the good of marriage, which the Lord also confirmed in the Gospel... there is good ground to inquire for what reason it be a good. And this seems not to me to be merely on account of the begetting of children, but also on account of the natural society itself in a difference of sex. Otherwise it would not any longer be called marriage in the case of old persons.... But now in good, although aged, marriage... there lives in full vigor the order of charity between husband and wife: because, the better they are, the earlier they have begun by mutual consent to contain from sexual intercourse with each other.... Marriages have this good also, that carnal or youthful incontinence, although it be faulty, is brought unto an honest use in the begetting of children, in order that out of the evil of lust the marriage union may bring to pass some good. Next, in that the lust of the flesh is repressed, and rages in a way more modestly, being tempered by parental affection....

Further, in the very case of the more immoderate requirement of the due of the flesh, which the Apostle enjoins not on them by way of command, but allows to them by way of leave, that they have intercourse also beside the cause of begetting children; although evil habits impel them to such intercourse, yet marriage guards them from adultery or fornication.... Therefore married persons owe one another not only the faith of their sexual intercourse itself, for the begetting of children... but also, in a way, a mutual service of sustaining one another's weakness, in order to shun unlawful intercourse: so that, although perpetual continence be pleasing to one of them, he may not, save with consent of the other. For thus far also, "The wife has not power of her own body, but the man: in like manner also the man has not power of his own body, but the woman."... For intercourse of marriage for the sake of begetting has not fault; but for the satisfying of lust, but yet with husband or wife... it has venial fault: but adultery or fornication has deadly fault, and, through this, continence from all intercourse is indeed better even than the intercourse of marriage itself, which takes place for the sake of begetting. But because that Continence is of larger desert, but to pay the due of marriage is no crime, but to demand it beyond the necessity of begetting is a venial fault, but to commit fornication or adultery is a crime to be punished; charity of the married ought to beware, lest... it do that for its partner which cause condemnation....

Therefore marriage and fornication are not two evils, whereof the second is worse: but marriage and continence are two goods, whereof the second is better....

Truly we must consider, that God gives us some goods, which are to be sought for their own sake, such as wisdom, health, friendship: but others, which are necessary for the sake of somewhat, such as learning, meat, drink, sleep, marriage, sexual intercourse.... These goods, therefore, which are necessary for the sake of something else, whoso uses not for this purpose, wherefore they were instituted, sins.... But whoso uses them for this purpose, wherefore they were given does well....

Hence surely it is not lawful now to doubt that marriage is no sin. Therefore the Apostle allows not marriage as matter "of pardon:".... But he allows, as matter of "pardon," that sexual intercourse, which takes place through incontinence, not alone for the begetting of children, and, at times, not at all for the begetting of children; and it is not that marriage forces this to take place, but that it procures pardon for it.... For necessary sexual intercourse for begetting is free from blame, and itself is alone worthy of marriage. But that which goes beyond this necessity, no longer follows reason, but lust. And yet it pertains to the character of marriage, not to exact this, but to yield it to the partner, lest by fornication the other sin damnably. But, if both are set under such lust, they do what is plainly not matter of marriage. However, if in their intercourse they love what is honest more than what is dishonest, that is, what is matter of marriage more than what is not matter of marriage, this is allowed to them on the authority of the Apostle as matter of pardon: and for this fault, they have in their marriage, not what sets them on to commit it, but what entreats pardon for it....

But a marriage once for all entered upon in the City of our God, where, even from the first union of the two, the man and the woman, marriage bears a certain sacramental character, can no way be dissolved but by the death of one of them.


St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, III.65.1

We may likewise gather the number of the sacraments from their being instituted as a remedy against the defect caused by sin.... Matrimony [is intended] as a remedy against concupiscence in the individual, and against the decrease in numbers that results from death.


St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles

Now, it is good for each person to attain his end, whereas it is bad for him to swerve away from his proper end....  Now, though the male semen is superfluous in regard to the preservation of the individual, it is nevertheless necessary in regard to the propagation of the species.  Other superfluous things, such as excrement, urine, sweat, and such things, are not at all necessary; hence, their emission contributes to man’s good.  Now, this is not what is sought in the case of semen, but, rather, to emit it for the purpose of generation, to which purpose the sexual act is directed....