Augustine on Onan...

Genesis 38:8-10 Then Judah said to Onan, "Go in to your brother's wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother." But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother's wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.

And why has Paul said: 'If he cannot control himself, let him marry?' Surely, to prevent incontinence from constraining him to adultery. If, then, he practices continence, neither let him marry nor beget children. However, if he does not control himself, let him enter into lawful wedlock, so that he may not beget children in disgrace or avoid having offspring by a more degraded form of intercourse. There are some lawfully wedded couples who resort to this last, for intercourse, even with one's lawfully wedded spouse, can take place in an unlawful and shameful manner, whenever the conception of offspring is avoided. Onan, the son of Judah, did this very thing, and the Lord slew him on that account. Therefore, the procreation of children is itself the primary, natural, legitimate purpose of marriage. Whence it follows that those who marry because of their inability to remain continent ought not to so temper their vice that they preclude the good of marriage, which is the procreation of children.

Augustine of Hippo, De adulterinis coniugiis ad Pollentium 1b.II c.12 (PL 40 [1887] 479B). Quoted from Pius XI, Casti Connubii (1930)


Before you call St. Augustine to your side in this matter, you might want to remember a few things.

1) Calvin accused Onan of killing his offspring. Augustine doesn't say that.

2) According to Augustine, Onan's sin is the same sin a husband commits if he has intercourse with his wife when she is pregnant. He calls Onan's acts "unlawful and shameful"? Well, see what he says about sex during pregnancy:

"There are also men incontinent to that degree, that they spare not their wives even when pregnant. Therefore whatever that is immodest, shameless, base, married persons do one with another, is the sin of the persons, not the fault of marriage" (_On the Good of Marriage_ 5).

You see, Augustine's not a good ally for you on this point, because he thought all sexual passion was sinful, and was permitted even in marriage only 1) as an exception allowed by God to prevent something worse, and 2) as an inescapable (because we are fallen) side-effect of procreation (which is good). Of course he's going to be down on contraception, but not for the same reasons you are.

Sorry, Eric, but modern caricatures of Augustine's view of sex won't do (and I'm not sure you actually believe them either). He wasn't the pleasure-denying, marriage-hating concupiscence-addled man moderns have made him into. A few quotes like the one you adduce do nothing to undo the full weight of his writing on these matters.

For more on this see, or simply read him in "On Marriage and Concupiscence."

Those who characterize Augustine's view of marital sexuality as uniformly negative are typically influenced by personal hatred of the doctrine of original sin. They despise Augustine's view of depravity and that attitude carries on into their reading of him on marriage.

A typical statement by Augustine about marriage includes both strong positives and strong negatives. In the end, he's simply more honest about depravity than moderns can take.

Chapter 8 [VII.]--The Evil of Lust Does Not Take Away the Good of Marriage.

Forasmuch, then, as the good of marriage could not be lost by the addition of this evil, some imprudent persons suppose that this is not an added evil, but something which appertains to the original good. A distinction, however, occurs not only to subtle reason, but even to the most ordinary natural judgment, which was both apparent in the case of the first man and woman, and also holds good still in the case of married persons to-day. What they afterward effected in propagation,--that is the good of marriage; but what they first veiled through shame,--that is the evil of concupiscence, which everywhere shuns sight, and in its shame seeks privacy. Since, therefore, marriage effects some good even out of that evil, it has whereof to glory; but since the good cannot be effected without the evil, it has reason for feeling shame. The case may be illustrated by the example of a lame man. Suppose him to attain to some good object by limping after it, then, on the one hand, the attainment itself is not evil because of the evil of the man's lameness; nor, on the other hand, is the lameness good because of the goodness of the attainment. So, on the same principle, we ought not to condemn marriage because of the evil of lust; nor must we praise lust because of the good of marriage.

Schaff, P. (1997). The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. V. Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems.

I'm afraid there's a great deal from Augustine which supports the view that birth control is a greater sin than simple lust, and a form of murder. Note especially the second paragraph below (all one paragraph in the original, but I pulled it out here since I can't emphasize with bold text in comments). Note that he describes exposure as a public form of sins otherwise "practiced in darkness" and then a listing of those sins which includes contraceptive methodology. If this isn't equating contraception with murder (". . .preferring that its offspring should rather perish than receive vitality") I don't know what is.

Chapter 17 [XV.]--What is Sinless in the Use of Matrimony? What is Attendedwith Venial Sin, and What with Mortal?

It is, however, one thing for married persons to have intercourse only for the wish to beget children, which is not sinful: it is another thing for them to desire carnal pleasure in cohabitation, but with the spouse only, which involves venial sin. For although propagation of offspring is not the motive of the intercourse, there is still no attempt to prevent such propagation, either by wrong desire or evil appliance. They who resort to these, although called by the name of spouses, are really not such; they retain no vestige of true matrimony, but pretend the honourable designation as a cloak for criminal conduct. Having also proceeded so far, they are betrayed into exposing their children, which are born against their will. They hate to nourish and retain those whom they were afraid they would beget.

This infliction of cruelty on their offspring so reluctantly begotten, unmasks the sin which they had practised in darkness, and drags it clearly into the light of day. The open cruelty reproves the concealed sin. Sometimes, indeed, this lustful cruelty, or; if you please, cruel lust, resorts to such extravagant methods as to use poisonous drugs to secure barrenness; or else, if unsuccessful in this, to destroy the conceived seed by some means previous to birth, preferring that its offspring should rather perish than receive vitality; or if it was advancing to life within the womb, should be slain before it was born.

Well, if both parties alike are so flagitious, they are not husband and wife; and if such were their character from the beginning, they have not come together by wedlock but by debauchery. But if the two are not alike in such sin, I boldly declare either that the woman is, so to say, the husband's harlot; or the man the wife's adulterer.

Schaff, P. (1997). The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. V. Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems.

I agree with the first commentor-- Augustine is simply not sound on sexuality. Even the quote in the post is saying that if any person has the ability to stay chaste, that person should not marry. The passage in your April 1 quote says sex is bad, just a necessary evil for reproduction, rather as sticking people with knives is bad in itself, but good for curing sick people.

I wonder why Augustine believed those things. The passages we've quoted are just assertions, which is OK, but I wonder if he has any reasoning behind them elsewhere.

Dear Eric,

Reading the "Confessions" will go a long way toward helping us understand Augustine's teaching on sexuality, I think.


Never fear, I give no credence at all to the idea that Augustine was a "pleasure-denying, marriage-hating concupiscence-addled man." I like Augustine a great deal. The fact remains, however, that he was wrong about sex in one very significant way, and that particular error is directly relevant to the issue at hand.

The quotations you produce only illustrate and strengthen the point I was making. The first one says that reproduction is good, but the sexual passion that attends the sex act is bad. The second one explicitly calls carnal pleasure with a spouse "venial sin." Between the two quotations, you nicely reinforce my post, because those were exactly the two teachings I attributed to Augustine in it.

Also, you need to read the latter portion of the second quotation a bit more carefully. You will see that the clause "preferring that its offspring should rather perish than receive vitality" describes the action that immediately precedes it: "to destroy the _conceived_ seed by some means previous to birth," an option he says they choose once contraception (which he also opposes, but does not equate with killing) has failed them. He is talking about abortion.


I'm not seeking to explicate Augustine at any great length. I've read enough of him on these points to be confident of my reading. But for my point about Onan, this debate is ultimately immaterial. His view is the same as Luther's and Calvin's--indeed that of the universal church prior to the 20th century. And your view is that they're all wrong. That's also clear. But you can't deny they share the same reading of the passage in question.

Let me add that I think you, rather than I, misunderstand Augustine's point at the end of the second-to-last paragraph.

You assume that Augustine means by "conceived seed", an impregnated egg. But Augustine lacked the understanding of reproductive biology we enjoy. Augustine is contrasting an unquickened seed to a quickened fetus.

His point is that you can kill an unquickened (conceived) seed that has not yet received vitality (quickening) or you can seek to abort a quickened baby through abortion. Your reading makes this sentence an exercise in redundancy by ignoring the correlative conjunction "or" which brings the sentence's final two clauses into contrast.

By your reading, Augustine is comparing abortion to abortion. Nonsense. The sentence progresses from the sin of induced barrenness to the sin of contraception to the sin of abortion. It's an entirely logical progression of sin. And he terms the middle sin "preferring that its offspring should perish rather than receive vitality."


No, I was assuming nothing about Augustine's understanding of human ova and their fertilization. Why would I? It adds nothing to my point. You say, "Augustine is contrasting an unquickened seed to a quickened fetus," and that's almost correct. Actually, he is contrasting an unquickened fetus to a quickened fetus. The PNF translation is misleading on this point. The Latin is "conceptos fetus," not "concepta semina."

The point is, in the three instances Augustine considers here, #2 and #3 are both post-conception. There is a fetus involved in both cases. The destruction of a fetus is abortion. You are right to note a progression in sin from #1 to #3, but #2 and #3 are both abortions; #3 is worse in Augustine's view only because it happens after the quickening. In both cases, a baby has been formed. The only appearance of contraception in this passage is instance #1: taking the drugs of sterility (sterilitatis venena), i.e. keeping the seed from taking root and forming a fetus in the first place. The destruction and ejection (exstinguat ac fundat) of the unquickened fetus and the killing of the quickened fetus are practiced by this theoretical couple only after contraception has failed (si nihil valuerit).

It is plain from this passage that Augustine considers contraception to be wicked, and to spring from the same root of sin as does abortion, but he does NOT equate contraception with the killing of one's offspring. The thing he says the parents prefer "should rather perish than receive vitality" is not a pre-implanted seed, but a conceived fetus.

"Of all the kinds of sexual intercourse, this has least to recommend it. As an amusement it is too fleeting, as an occupation it is too wearing; as a public exhibition there is no money in it. It has, in our last day of progress and improvement, been degraded to brotherhood with flatulence--among the best bred these two arts are now indulged only in private--though by consent of the whole company, when only males are present, it is still permissible, in good society, to remove the embargo upon the fundamental sigh. . . Caesar in his Commentaries, says, "to the lonely it is company; to the forsaken it is a friend; to the aged and impotent it is a benefactor; they that be penniless are yet rich, in that they still have this majestic diversion. There are times when I prefer it to sodomy. . . The monkey is the only animal, except man, that practices this science; hence he is our brother; there is a bond of sympathy and relationship between us. Give this ingenious animal an audience of the proper kind, and he will straightway put aside his other affairs and take a whet; and you will see by the contortions and his ecstatic expression that he takes an intelligent and human interest in his performance."
- Mark Twain, Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism, 1879

Recommendations on where to look (ie. know of a link?) for a copy of De Conjugiis Adulterinis, anyone?

please email me:
or just post a link on my blog (anywhere)



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