The Development of Sex, Marriage, and Nature in Christian Thought
“To have intercourse without intending children is to violate nature, which we must take as our teacher.” – Clement of Alexandria
Throughout many traditions of Christian thought, theologians have taken nature, by which they’ve generally meant human nature, as an instructor of moral norms. It would be a mistake to read “nature” here as simply descriptive of what occurs in nature, as if these occurrences provided moral norms or precepts; rather, nature teaches because nature has purpose. Christian morality is usually teleological: one ought to do the good, and the good is that which brings a being completion or fulfillment. Knowledge of truth is good for human beings because human beings are rational creatures. Health is good for us because we’re living creatures. This, in a nutshell, is the natural law tradition.
You can see this basic moral framework in the claim of Clement of Alexandria (150-215) that I quoted above. You might have noted that Clement’s reasoning, while appealing to nature, takes a much stricter line than most of today’s Christians, the Catholic hierarchy included, on what nature morally permits. Where today you’ll hear the pope forbid his followers from frustrating conception or engaging in sex outside the form that would typically lead to procreation, you won’t hear him tell Catholics that they must intend pregnancy with every act of sex. Catholic thought has developed just a little bit.
Clement’s reasoning avoided the nuances that trouble Catholics today attempting to explain their church’s somewhat confusing teaching. For him, sex was strictly for procreation and therefore marriage was strictly for those who could procreate. No marriage for the young or old. No sex during times of infertility. Pretty simple. In fact, Clement specified when during the day those permitted to marry could have sex: no intercourse “after coming home from church or from the marketplace or early in the morning like a rooster, for these are the proper times for prayer and reading and the other deeds done during the day.” For all his keeping of nature’s rules and regulations, Clement was a defender of sex and marriage against gnostic sects of his day that taught their followers and other Christians to renounce and refrain from sex and marriage, believing these epitomized the condition of human sinfulness.
Comparing this theology of sex to the larger tradition brings to light the differences in the way nature has been understood throughout the history Christian thought. The meaning and moral application of nature has a history of difference and development, even where those who use the term mean to refer to some absolute, as was the case for Clement and is the case for the contemporary Roman hierarchy. Augustine , for example, also preached that conjugal intercourse for any sake other than procreation, even within marriage, carries some fault; but he, believing marriage has a purpose and natural order including but beyond simply procreation, called lustful sex in the context of marital fidelity a “forgivable fault.” Not exactly praise, but looking back we can see how a forgivable fault could become, in time, something morally neural and possibly virtuous.
Looking at this development, I’m particularly intrigued by the fact that, within the same basic framework of natural moral order, an act that was once thought to be absolutely forbidden (marital sex not intending procreation) became considered a “forgivable fault” and eventually received blessing from authorities on high. Makes me curious what developments of thought lay ahead, especially, as I hope, the church learns from and incorporates feminine and feminist perspectives on the matter.