Sex Drives and Original Sin

Anthony Zimmerman
Originally titled "Adam and Eve"
Homiletic and Pastoral Review
January 1988
Reproduced with Permission

Reverend Anthony Zimmerman, S.V.D., is an expert on population questions. He taught moral theology at Nanzan University, Nagoya, Japan from 1960 to 1979. A proponent of Natural Family Planning, he is the Director of the Japan Family Life Association. Fr. Zimmerman edited the volume Natural Family Planning Nature's Way-God's Way (De Rance, Milwaukee, 1980).

For many centuries Fathers and theologians theorized that lack of control of our sex automatisms is somehow associated with the transmission of original sin. Defective sex propagates a defect-laden offspring, so went the theory. This theory spawned an ambiguity about even licit sex which endured for many centuries. Today we would have to ask a new question: if the original sin is propagated by sexual intercourse, then how are in vitro children affected?

St. Augustine felt that he was on firm ground when he taught that the sex drive as we experience it today is a punishment, a defect, which God inflicts on us for original sin. Before the sin sexual functions would have been subject to motor control, he thought, like movements of our hands and feet (see The City of God, 14:18-27).Now the sex drive is not obedient to the will, but rebels and operates spontaneously, on its own. The rebellion of sexual drives against man's will is God's punishment for man's rebellion against God.

But St. Augustine built this theory on a shaky foundation, namely, an interpretation of the vignette about nakedness before the sin which is told in the Book of Genesis. We know today that the style of this part of Genesis requires a symbolical interpretation at times rather than a literal one. The nakedness story may not be about tailors and scissors and woven wares, but about the sense of shame and helplessness which sin detonates in man. St. Augustine could not yet know about Humani Generis,in which Pope Pius X11 explains that symbols are used as teaching aids in the first chapters of Genesis: "These chapters have a naive, symbolic way of speaking, well suited to the understanding of primitive people" (DS 3898;ND 239).The Church teaches today that conjugal love, properly performed, is not at all defective, but is an integral part of human love. That doctrine differs from the theory of St. Augustine that sexual automatisms are a defect, a punishment for original sin.

But if sexual automatisms are not a defect in man, being good together with licit conjugal relations, then where is the evil gate through which original sin is propagated by parents to children? St. Thomas, following St. Augustine, assumed that the generative act itself is infected by the sin which it transmits, and recoils upon the members, as we shall see. Let us first examine the text of St. Augustine, then turn to Thomas, and finally to the doctrine of the Church today, which must stand also in the context of in vitro propagation.

"Sex is a punishment for sin"

In the book The City of God, St. Augustine proposed the teaching that the sex drive as we know it is a defect, a punishment of original sin which we all inherit. This book educated Catholic Europe for a thousand years. It was studied not only by professional theologians, but also by schoolmasters, lawyers, administrators, and even rulers, forming the minds of educated people. Charlemagne made it the model upon which to build the Holy Roman Empire. "For a thousand years it was the European's guide to the rights and duties of man," writes Philip Hughes (11, page 23). In Book 14 St. Augustine teaches that sexual automatisms are a punishment of original sin. He begins his argument by pointing out that "lust requires for its consummation darkness and secrecy" (14:18), a sure sign, he thinks, that humans are ashamed of it. Even parents hide it from the very children whom they have begotten. What is wrong with lust is the rebellious insubordination of the sexual organs, their defiance of the will, and that is the result of original sin (14:20).

Had there been no original sin, conjugal partners could have generated and born children without "the shame of lust." Just as we can move our hands and feet freely, and they do exactly what we want in our present experience, so in Paradise, the members should have discharged the function of generation without lust. This lust is all the more shameful because the body, which is by nature inferior to the soul and subject to it, resists the authority of the soul. This would not have been the case in Paradise where the body would not have been in rebellion against the soul, where there would have been no quarrel between will and lust (14:23).

Because man disobeyed God, continues Augustine, man's members became disobedient to man (14:24). We should not doubt that God would have allowed a way in Paradise of begetting offspring "without the disease of lust" entering the act. The members would have been set into motion without "the seductive stimulus of passion." There would be no wild heat of passion during intercourse, but "calmness of mind" with a deliberate act of the will to set the members in motion (14:26). Thus writes St. Augustine in The City of God.

We distinguish today between lustand the nuptialgift exchanged by husband and wife; lusttreats the other as an object,whereas lovetreats the other as a person. We agree with St. Augustine's concept that before original sin, conjugal partners would have avoided lust. But we need not follow his thinking, which is rather extraordinary and which was not received by the official Church, that in Paradise the marital union would have been without venereal pleasure. Rather, the joy of union is part of God's gift to mankind.

Distinguish between love and lust

St. Thomas uses St. Augustine frequently in his commentaries on Paradise and on the marital act, The corruption of original sin, he wrote, is transmitted by the act of generation. Consequently "the powers which concur in this act are said to be the most infected. The act of generation itself is therefore infected by original sin. Corruptions are said to be infectious, he explains, if they are easily transmitted from one subject to another, like leprosy and murrain and the like. "Now the corruption of original sin is transmitted by the act of generation. . . . Therefore the powers which concur in this act are chiefly said to be infected" (ST I-II,83,4).

The turpitude which accompanies the marriage act always causes shame, says St. Thomas elsewhere (ST Suppl. 49,4), not because this is a sin but because it is a punishment, and man is naturally ashamed of any defect. Man is wholly excused from sin if he performs the act for the sake of generating offspring, or in order to fulfill one's duty to the partner, since the pursuit of the goods of marriage excuse the act. If excused, the act can even be holy: "The marriage act derives the goodness from the indissolubility of the union, in respect of which it signifies the union of Christ with the Church" (1bid.).

What bothered St. Augustine, namely that the automatisms of the sexual act go their own way without being under perfect control of reason, is modified by St. Thomas in this way; Ultimately reason is in commandafter all, because the act was planned beforehand by the reasoning person:

The excess of passions that corrupts virtue not only hinders the act of reason, but also destroys the order of reason, The intensity of pleasure in the marriage act does not do this, since, although for the moment man is not being directed, he was previously directed by his reason (Supp. 41,3).

Just how is the offspring infected with original sin by the marriage act? Thomas analyzes the question as follows. Parents do not transmit the rational soul to their offspring through the semen, he reasons. The power of the semen is not able to cause the rational soul, since matter cannot produce spirit. But the semen is a "disposition to the transmission of the rational soul" and in this way, "transmits human nature from parent to child, and with that nature the stain which infects it. Although the guilt is not actually in the semen, yet human nature is there virtually, accompanied by the guilt" (STI-II,81,1.The magisterium of the Church has not made its own this concept of St. Thomas, namely that there is a defect in the marital act because it is the instrument by which original sin is transmitted. Trent said simply that the sin "is transmitted by propagation, not by imitation" (Canon 5), eschewing any further explanation of the mechanics of transmission.

St. Thomas and St. Augustine were on the cutting edge of developing doctrine, pioneering vast territories, and sometimes marking the map unclearly. How much the ordinary Christians took the prejudices of the theologians to their bedrooms is quite another matter. Saintly parents generated and educated saintly children during the centuries, and their pastors supported them. Parents had the advantage of experiencing the natural goodness of the conjugal act when performed according to God's laws, so their hearts had reasons which the minds of theologians did not know.

The Church has a positive view

The Church has a very positive view of the value of the marital embrace, caught up now in the Sacrament of Marriage. When a teaching was allegedly being circulated among the Armenians in 1341 that the act of procreation is a sin in the parents, it was labeled as an error by Pope Benedict XII (DS 1012). In recent years Pope Pius XII asserted the intrinsic goodness of the marital act and advised parents that they "need not deem immoral and refuse that which nature offers and the Creator has given" (Address to Midwives, October 29, 1951).

Vatican II, with Cardinal Wojtyla assisting, produced a beautiful passage about the holiness of the marital act:

Authentic married love is caught up into the divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ's redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church ... This love is uniquely expressed and perfected through the marital act. The actions within marriage by which the couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy ones. Expressed in a manner which is truly human, these actions signify and promote that mutual self-giving by which spouses enrich each other with a joyful and thankful will (GS 48).

The joy of the marital union is not, as St. Augustine thought, a defect because there are automatisms not subject to motor control. Quite to the contrary, the Church teaches that the conjugal embrace is essential to render the procreation of children licit. The child has a right to be conceived by parents who procreate with God in the love embrace. Because artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization lack this conjugal embrace they are not allowed by God, who has the good of the parents and of the children at heart.

Artificial insemination as a substitute for the conjugal act is prohibited by reason of the voluntarily achieved dissociation of the two meanings of the conjugal act. Masturbation, through which the sperm is illicitly obtained, is another sign of this dissociation: even when it is done for the purpose of procreation, the act remains deprived of its unitive meaning: "It lacks the sexual relationship called for by the moral order, namely the relationship which realizes 'the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love' " (Instruction on Respect for Human life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 22 February 1987).

Children who are conceived in vitro,are also descendants of Adam and Eve, and inherit original sin by way of propagation not by imitation. Sexual pleasure cannot be the instrument by which the sin is transmitted, speculations of august and towering Fathers of the Church notwithstanding.

Why, then, are the children born with a defect, with the deprivation of original grace, if the conjugal embrace is not defective, as was once supposed in a confused manner? The answer is that children today, after original sin, are conceived and born without sanctifying grace because God deprives them of the gift of grace when conceived .The fact of original sin binds the hand of God, making it impossible for him to bestow grace on the very children who are called to enter his kingdom. Without grace they cannot hear nor follow his call, and so the children are born in a state of disobedience. They become obedient again when Christ makes them his own through Baptism, infusing grace with charity.

God does not confer grace at the time of conception for the same reason, I think, that the Church does not permit Baptism without some guarantee of a Catholic education. Pastors are instructed not to confer Baptism on children unless "there is a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion" (Canon 868). And we may believe that God has made a new arrangement after original sin, namely, that the bestowal of grace will be deferred until there is a founded hope that the grace will be valued properly. God does not want to throw pearls around which will only be trampled into the mud.

The Church has an obligation to "create and uphold all the human conditions - psychological, moral and spiritual - indispensable for understanding and living the moral value and norm" (Familiaris Consortio 33). God is willing to give grace to children when there is a founded hope that they will live in the good atmosphere of the Church.

Similarly, our first parents had an obligation to create and uphold an atmosphere conducive to virtue in Eden. When they sinned, when the Eden Covenant was not observed, God could not, in his wisdom, confer grace on any and every child born into a world now subject to sin. And so long as the entire world does not give such a guarantee, God will not bestow his grace indiscriminately on children at the time of conception. Parents must bring the child to Baptism, or the child must later come by himself or herself. Original sin is a deprivation of the grace which man is required to have because God calls him to his Kingdom. This deprivation of grace is a defect in all who are conceived and born into the world which original sin initiated. It is a birth defect which parents can heal by bringing their children to Baptism.