If two people are burning with passion and incontinent in their desires, is their choice to marry a sin? There is an ethereal, spiritual piety within much of evangelical discourse about sex and marriage that holds only the most idealistic reasons to marry as valid. Or at least there was in my youth, anyway: very pious people anxiously fretted about whether a young man had a prayer life of a sufficiently robust quality, and whether they were ‘spiritually growing’ together. All well and good, I suppose, even if those mutual prayer sessions are essentially hotbeds of sexual fervor that has been sublimated by very intense prayer. Only there’s something especially idealistic about that approach: I have sometimes pushed against this atmosphere by suggesting that burning with passion is one of the best reasons to marry, not the worst. I suspect St. Paul would not approve.
St. Augustine wouldn’t approve either, mind you—except he adds a particularly interesting dimension to the case. In his discussion of Paul’s dictum that those who do not possess continence should marry rather than burn, he affirms that for such individuals marriage is no sin. Except he adds a caveat: “If [this marriage] were chosen in preference to fornication, it would be the lesser sin of the two, but none the less a sin.” In other words, if two people lack continence and marry, they’re good. But if they make a comparative assessment, and weigh up fornication and marriage and decide for marriage, their choice is still a (very minor) sin.
This is a fascinating bit of moral reasoning, and it deserves some unpacking. The distinction Augustine assumes goes straight to the heart of his moral theory. The first thing to note is that there is some difference between the kinds of affections or impulses that are at work within incontinence and the deliberative, reflective consideration between two courses of action. Marrying despite or because of one’s incontinence is fine. But marrying when one is considering fornication as an option makes marriage itself sinful. Why? Presumably because one has treated fornication as an option for oneself, which changes the nature and texture of marriage. We might think of those who are married and consider divorce as an option: doing so alters the terms on which the marriage goes. What we do, how we live, is invariably conditioned (even if invisibly) by what options we chose between in getting there.
But it is not simply the existence of alternate options that matters, but our reflective consideration of them as real possibilities for us. All this rests upon a subtle moral distinction for Augustine: what one wants and what one considers or deliberates about choosing are not equivalent. It is probable that a couple seized by passion really is choosing to marry rather than fornicate. Fornication is an option in fact: it lies before them, waiting to be seized. The choice to marry in that context dissolves fornication as an option, and does so without being sin. But if they suspend judgment about which path they should choose, and put marriage and fornication on a par as though they were uncertain of what they ought do—well, in that case, marriage is in fact sin.
People say that marriage won’t solve your problems, and that’s true enough. But it solves some problems, including the very difficult problem of incontinence. Even if a couple sins by marrying, Augustine argues that marriage actually makes ‘incontinent’ sexual acts morally licit. In other words, marriage does establish a kind of umbrella over the sexual desires of the couple, sanctioning a kind of excess of desire for the other (and only for the other). For Augustine, “incontinence” within sexual desire means desiring it without the “sole purpose of begetting a child and sometimes without any intention of having one.” So he’s not exactly getting all crazy with this. But the bar is low, even so, for couples: if they “love what is honourable more than what is not”—namely, procreation—then “the Apostle’s authority concedes that their behavior is pardonable.” Note what a low bar that is: they only have to love it more than what is not honourable. Sexual incontinence loses its potency in marriage precisely because marriage gives it room to breath: it removes the sting of incontinence, by allowing it a context in which it can be mutually enjoyed in a way that honours procreation.