Consensus of the Fathers on Sexual Desire


Over in the Social Justice forum, there’s been an ongoing thread where a fellow participant made the assertion that the early church Fathers were unanimous in their belief that sexual desire is a result of original sin. If true, this seems to be in conflict with recent teachings from the popes regarding the meaning and purpose of human sexuality. I haven’t read the original text, but my understanding is that JP II’s theology of the body assumes that sexual desire existed in a pure, unselfish form prior to the fall.

Does anyone have further information on the proper interpretation of the Fathers on this point? This reminds me of another thread I participated in a while back, where the OP claimed that in the early church, the original meaning of the word “lust” was equivalent to “sexual desire”. Later on in the thread, we established that that assertion was false. Perhaps the idea that the Fathers considered sexual desire to be a product of the fall is a similar mis-translation of the original texts? Perhaps they intended to teach that lust was a product of the fall?


I’ve never looked this up in the Fathers of the Church before, but I’m very wary of claims that say that this or that Pope invented something entirely new. After just a minute of searching, I found that the Wikipedia article on “Catholic theology of the body” mentions several Fathers in whom some of the ideas in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body find an early expression.

As just one example of this, consider this paragraph from St. Irenaeus; I would say it is a precursor to the idea that Adam and Eve had non-sinful sexual desires before the Fall: And Adam and Eve----for that is the name of the woman----were naked, and were not ashamed; for there was in them an innocent and childlike mind, and it was not possible for them to conceive and understand anything of that which by wickedness through lusts and shameful desires is born in the soul. For they were at that time entire, preserving their own nature; since they had the breath of life which was breathed on their creation: and, while this breath remains in its place and power, it has no comprehension and understanding of things that are base. And therefore they were not ashamed, kissing and embracing each other in purity after the manner of children. (St. Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, paragraph 14) As I said, I’ve never looked this up in the Fathers, but I’m guessing if we looked we’d find plenty who talked about non-sinful sexual desire in contrast to lust.


Hum. Interesting and very good thread. I just wonder about “Theology of the body” being an encyclical is it infallible? Or just good and authoritative?


Me too. I find it hard to believe that the Fathers saw all sexual desire as a result of the fall. I suspect there may be a problem of translation here, where lust is being mistranslated as sexual desire. Then again, I would say that the quote from Irenaeus actually supports the idea that sexual desire didn’t exist in the garden:

And therefore they were not ashamed, kissing and embracing each other in purity after the manner of children.

The phrase “after the manner of children” sounds to me like he’s saying that their relationship was not sexual. If two children hug each other (or if a child hugs a parent), it’s an expression of love with no sexual connotation whatsoever.

I believe the Theology of the Body was a series of Wednesday audiences given by Pope John Paul II. It was not even an encyclical, although aspects of it were probably included in some of JP II’s encyclicals. As such, it certainly does not rise to the level of an ex cathedra statement, but it should be given due respect as a legitimate exercise of the pope’s teaching office.


Ok it wasn’t an encyclical. My bad. So encyclicals are not automatically “Ex Cathedra” ?
Infallibility is something I’m trying to understand. So Im workin’ on it. :thumbsup:


If that quote supports sexual desire in the Garden of Eden, I’m not sure I want to live anymore.


An ex cathedra statement is an extremely formal declaration by the pope. It must meet certain criteria, which were established by Vatican I. You can read more about it in the Catholic Encyclopedia article on infallibility. In simple terms, the criteria are: The pope must teach in his public capacity as the successor of Peter, rather than as a theologian, philosopher, etc. He must make it clear that he intends to teach in the fullness of his authority as pope, rather than offering an opinion that is open to debate. He also must make it clear that he intends to bind the whole Church to the teaching he is defining. Finally, he can only teach infallibly on matters of faith and morals. He cannot bind the Church to a teaching that has nothing to do with the faith.

As a rule, encyclicals are written to the whole church, so the pope is certainly teaching the whole church in his capacity as the successor of Peter. But it’s pretty rare for the pope to include language in an encyclical that explicitly binds the whole Church to a definitive teaching. On the other hand, Vatican II clarified that even if the pope does not issue an ex cathedra statement, his teaching still deserves the respect and assent of the faithful, to the degree to which he intends it as an official teaching.


Maybe. I’m not too good at questions of translation, being an English-only speaker. But one thing I like to do, when questions like this come up, is look up relevant passages of Scripture and see what the Fathers said about them. One passage that comes to mind is “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed undefiled.” Hebrews 13:4. That seems to indicate that sexual intercourse can be holy, and perhaps some of the Fathers would talk about their positive views on sexuality in such a context. Here’s what Google comes up with when I search for that passage in the Church Fathers, see what you think:

You might try to come up with other possibly-relevant passages and do similar searches. I typically find that I can find modern Church Teaching in the Fathers by methods such as this.

Then again, I would say that the quote from Irenaeus actually supports the idea that sexual desire didn’t exist in the garden: “And therefore they were not ashamed, kissing and embracing each other in purity after the manner of children.” The phrase “after the manner of children” sounds to me like he’s saying that their relationship was not sexual. If two children hug each other (or if a child hugs a parent), it’s an expression of love with no sexual connotation whatsoever.

Maybe so. It depends on how exactly he is using the simile “childlike.” If we had a translation from the original Greek available, instead of an English translation of an Armenian translation, it might shed more light. Perhaps the phrase “after the manner of children” is not so strongly worded in the original, and only means “childlike” as in “innocent.” One reason I think that might be the case is because the words “kiss and embrace” have a pretty obvious sexual connotation; “embrace” is often a euphemism for sex in these ancient writings; I would be surprised if he applied those terms to children without qualification.

Lol, yeah, I see what you’re saying! I hope this post clarifies why I think that passage is a possible precursor to the idea we’re discussing here (assuming it isn’t talking about sexual activity among children).


Thank you for sharing the search results from the Fathers, dmar. I read through some of them, and a couple things come to mind: First, a number of the Fathers agree that marriage is a good thing. It isn’t a necessary evil. To me, that would imply that marriage is not a product of the fall. The question of sexual desire is still a bit ambiguous, though. St. John Chrysostom appears to teach that sexual relations in marriage are good in the following quote:

And while thou, fresh from the company of your own wife, darest not pray, although this is no blame at all; do you lift up your hands, fresh from reviling and insult, which brings after it no less than hell, before you have well cleansed yourself? And how do you not shudder? Tell me. Have you not heard Paul, saying, “Marriage is honorable, and the bed undefiled?” [Hebrews 13:4] But if on rising from the undefiled bed, you dare not draw near in prayer, how do you coming from the bed of the devil call on that awful and terrible name? For it is truly the devil’s bed, to wallow in insults and reviling

He’s contrasting sexual relations in marriage with sinful insults and badmouthing. In a nutshell, I think I could paraphrase him as saying “You treat sex with your wife as if it’s dirty and unbecoming of the Lord, but then you go out and insult people. You’ve got it mixed up! Sex in marriage is blameless.”

But then Augustine offers a view that seems more complex in his work “On the Good of Marriage”. First, he affirms that marriage is good:

…marriage and fornication are not two evils, whereof the second is worse: but marriage and continence are two goods, whereof the second is better…

Then, he implies that sexual intercourse can serve to deepen friendship between a husband and wife:

God gives us some goods, which are to be sought for their own sake, such as wisdom, health, friendship: but others, which are necessary for the sake of somewhat, such as learning, meat, drink, sleep, marriage, sexual intercourse. For of these certain are necessary for the sake of wisdom, as learning: certain for the sake of health, as meat and drink and sleep: certain for the sake of friendship, as marriage or sexual intercourse: for hence subsists the propagation of the human kind, wherein friendly fellowship is a great good.

But later on, he suggests that it is a fault for a husband and wife to have relations that are not explicitly necessary for obtaining children:

For necessary sexual intercourse for begetting is free from blame, and itself is alone worthy of marriage. But that which goes beyond this necessity, no longer follows reason, but lust. And yet it pertains to the character of marriage, not to exact this, but to yield it to the partner, lest by fornication the other sin damnably.

These writings are somewhat tangential to the topic of sexual desire. If Augustine believed that sex should ONLY be pursued with the intention of conceiving a child, maybe he believed that sexual desire was a fault?


This is easily resolved with one word “disordered”.
The Fathers really mean “disordered sexual desire” or concupsicence.

Before the Fall it was well ordered and under control and hence more free. In fact Aquinas I believe teaches that sex was even better before the Fall :thumbsup:.


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