"Big Four" Highlights


The Augustine Toolbox

Marriage advice from a Church Father

By Jason Godin

“How would St. Augustine react if he returned to the world at the start of the third millennium, and had to evaluate the modern attitude toward marriage and toward human sexuality?” This cogent question is put forth by theologian Msgr. Cormac Burke in The Theology of Marriage (Catholic University Press, p. 125).

It is an appropriate question to consider as the Church celebrates tomorrow the feast day of the saint from the turn of the fifth century. Many have heard about Augustine of Hippo, but few have seen him as Msgr. Burke has described him in one of the chapters of his most recent book – as a Doctor of the Church who shared, in a profound and personal way, three qualities that reflect the goodness and interrelatedness of marriage and sex: exclusiveness, procreativity and unbreakable conjugal bond.

Augustine saw marriage and sex through the positive, wide lens of the first good – exclusiveness, or bonum fidei. Not created by God to live alone (cf. Genesis 2:18), man finds in monogamous marriage the first, natural fulfillment of his sense for companionship. As a result, marriage emerges as a primary social space, one demanding both vigilant protection against outside forces and an awareness of the need for restraint by both parties. Unlike its contemporary imitations, such as hooking up or cohabiting, Augustinian exclusiveness reflects and respects the reciprocal nature of man and woman, finding both necessary partners toward containing sexual appetites and achieving authentic freedom.  

The second Augustinian good – procreativity, or bonum prolis – further elevates marriage beyond a simple social institution for acceptable sexual activity. The ability of a man and a woman joined together for life to create new life reveals marriage as a “divine plan for human development and destiny” (p. 134). This is an essential point so often lost in a world that sees little, if any, value in human life.

Unbreakable Conjugal Bond
The third good – an unbreakable conjugal bond, or bonum sacramenti – sanctifies marriage as a union capable of bearing the trials and tests of time. Part of what makes sacramental marriage such a tried and true institution historically is that it calls for total self-giving devotion, a dedication that mixes equal parts mettle and maturity. Augustine argued that the admiration one feels for an elderly couple renewing their wedding vows, for example, flowed from appreciating the glory of this good.

The contemporary cultural landscape stands in sharp contrast to the three Augustinian goods. Sex isn’t seen as a sacred act shared solely between one man and one woman married for life; rather, it is considered little more than a contact sport, complete with contract, where success is measured by how good you feel now, not later; a social construct, changing with the winds of conventional wisdom; a consensual engagement, enjoyed with as many men and/or women as possible. Modern marriage is by design an arrangement that ends all too often in arraignment, a temporary association with no bonds beyond “making love.”

Tools are devices used to help accomplish a task at hand. They enhance our performance of an activity. In our context, we may even see them as the abilities inside us to achieve greatness. Starting today, celebrate bonum fidei, bonum prolis and bonum sacramenti as goods that make marriage great.

Exclusiveness, procreativity, and an unbreakable conjugal bond are blessings, not burdens. They prioritize permanence over passing pleasures, and are designed to withstand the pressures of life. They are, in short, the very tools we need to build stronger marriages, families of faith, and a world where the wonders of life reach their fullest expression.

Jason Godin is associate editor of Fathers for Good.