Books: From sex to sanctity

Peter Stanford finds the great killjoy guilty as charged
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The Independent Culture
Saint Augustine

by Gary Wills

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 12.99,153pp

THERE IS something profoundly irritating about those ex-smokers who, having kicked the habit, become evangelical in the presence of an ashtray. , I have always suspected, would have been a 40- a-day man, but born as he was in AD354 this addictive personality had to find other outlets. His weakness, as he detailed in his candid Confessions, was sex. And, once weaned, he became the most profound sexual pessimist that Christianity has ever known.

From an early age in his native North Africa, Augustine was, by his own admission, horny. He tells how his father took him to the public baths and rejoiced in his huge erection as a sign he would be a grandfather. That came to pass when Augustine was just 17. He never married the child's mother, later working through other mistresses as well as "polluting... the stream of fellowship... with the dregs of lust" - a passage which Rebecca West took to mean he was bisexual.

Then, in his early thirties, Augustine saw the light, was baptised and turned over a new celibate leaf. It was clearly a struggle for him to forswear the pleasures of the flesh in his career as a priest, bishop and polemicist. He seems to have invented the maxim that those who have least sex talk about it most. The ideal, even for married couples, should be affection without sex. This bleak encapsulation became the root of Catholicism's profound and continuing sexual pessimism.

Many contemporary Catholics reject efforts by the ecclesiastical authorities to wrap their duvets in barbed wire, and have delighted in exposing Augustine's hypocrisy. The fifth-century libertine turned puritan has become a symbol for all that is perceived as wrong about the church.

It is a heavy burden to put on one man and is particularly unfair, argues Garry Wills, because Augustine was basically a good egg. He loved his mother, gave witty sermons and refused in practice to condemn those who neglected his maxims. Wills's revisionist study is clearly designed to stir up controversy. He starts by suggesting that the translation of the Latin Confessiones into English as Confessions is a gamma-minus mistake. Wills prefers "The Testimony", conveying the rich theological associations of the Latin word.

He then tries to steer his evaluation into other areas than sex. The saint's contribution to fashioning a theology of church-state relations, which subsequently enabled Rome's rise to political power in medieval Europe, has been underplayed, as has his gift for exploring the mystery of God and the danger of heresies that deem this world wholly evil and the next world wholly good.

Yet Wills has to come back to sex. Yes, he admits, Augustine did find even conjugal love repellent, but only because he was so focused on divine love. And yes, his past was chequered, but at least he stuck to one woman at a time. These mitigating circumstances demonstrate that Augustine was more complex than the habitual Aunt Sally held up for ridicule by liberal Catholics. Yet, iconoclastic as Wills strains to be, the most he achieved was to make me feel sorry that Augustine got himself so tangled up over sex. On the question of his appalling legacy to my generation of Catholics, I am afraid that he remains guilty as charged.