St. John Crysostom and Catholic Sexual Ethics

Saw this quote by St. John Crysostom while reading up on Eastern Orthodox views on artificial birth control:

“If for a certain period, you and your wife have abstained by agreement, perhaps for a time of prayer and fasting, come together again for the sake of your marriage. You do not need procreation as an excuse. It is not the chief reason for marriage. Neither is it necessary to allow for the possibility of conceiving, and thus having a large number of children, something you may not want.

The bolder part is what I found particularly noteworthy. I’m curious. How was he suggesting that couples not “allow for the possibility of conceiving?” I feel it’s anachronistic to suggest anything like nfp. As far as I know, we have no evidence that people in that time had any knowledge of nfp methods. So, what was he talking about?

Before anyone comments, I want to note that it will be a waste of time to remind me of all the things St. John Crysostom said in opposition to artificial birth control. I’m already aware of them.

Even if people had no knowledge of NFP as we understand it, they certainly knew that conception was less likely to occur at certain periods. Perhaps St. John Chrysostom’s words should be understood in this context. Our ancestors were far from ignorant about such practical aspects of life. :slight_smile:

St Augustine of Hippo, writing in 388 against the Manichaean’s use of a calendar-based contraceptive method, said:
Is it not you who used to counsel us to observe as much as possible the time when a woman, after her purification, is most likely to conceive, and to abstain from cohabitation at that time, lest the soul should be entangled in flesh? This proves that you approve of having a wife, not for the procreation of children, but for the gratification of passion. (St Augustine, On the Morals of the Manichaeans, chapter 18, paragraph 65)

Fascinating! While the Church has moved on a little from this position (formal, official permission for NFP can be dated to around 1880 or so), this quote clearly illustrates that “the ancients” knew about it, or at least its rudiments. Thanks for sharing this. :thumbsup:

One option would be to abstain from sex for the whole period when the couple does not want a child. The context mentions temporary abstinence as an option for spouses.

That’s true; and some of the Fathers in his time and before mentioned total abstinence as an appropriate way to limit the size of one’s family, but that’s not what St. John Crysostom is talking about here. Here he is specifically talking about not allowing for conception when one is reunited with their spouse and has relations for the sake of their marriage after a period of pious abstinence.

I think the text you quoted admits more than one interpretation regarding the sentence about not allowing conception. It might mean you don’t have to do that when you come back together, but it also seems possible to me that he is using that sentence to further justifying the practice of abstaining by agreement. You may abstain by agreement because it is not always necessary to allow for conception. Abstaining by agreement and coming back together are two clauses, and both are mentioned in the preceding sentences. I think there are grounds for supposing that the sentence about not allowing conception could refer to either one.

First off, you have a quote but no source. Is it from a book? A homily? What section of it? Who translated it, and what is his book called? How literal is his translation?

And then, we probably have to look at the Greek.

I’m not trying to be difficult. It’s just that if there are questions about a passage, nobody can give you logical answers without consulting the context, or actually looking at the original wording.

I would say that couples should abstain from sex as much as possible. My reasoning:sex is a lower-ordered, primitive pleasure as opposed to a higher-ordered spirituality. I also realize that sexual urges can be ever so strong, and engaging in sex can be a release from sexual tension, but I personally would try ever so hard to avoid sex as much as possible, except for procreation.

I’m seriously failing to understand how you’re getting that from the text I provided. Isn’t it obvious he is talking about resuming marital relations after having abstained for religious reasons? So, it makes no sense to say he’s suggesting just more abstinence. If that were the case, then it would not be a coming back together for the sake of the marriage that he is suggesting.

If you are not trying to be difficult, then why don’t you assist me in this? You obviously have Internet access. It is very simple and easy to google the exact quote I provided to find its ultimate source. But, if you must hear it from me, it is a copied and pasted quote from a website called “orthodox wiki” in a page called “sex.”

Since you’re a Greek scholar, you’ll have to help with analyzing the quote in its original language since I am not familiar with Greek.

Are you married? Genuinely curious. This is not some snub way of suggesting your opinion doesn’t matter unless you are, but, seriously, are you married?

Well, now that I have time again, I have done a bit of due diligence.

And that quote doesn’t actually exist.

It’s a paraphrase or extended explanation by George Gabriel, from Footnote 28 to an essay called “You Call My Words Immodest” by this same gentleman named George Gabriel, who apparently is some kind of Orthodox or has some interest in Chrysostom. Several Orthodox webpages quote the paraphrase instead of the quote, so it’s not surprising that you would have been given wrong info.

Here is the actual quote from “On Virginity” as he quotes it. (He doesn’t say where it is from, so I’ll search for that next.) I’ll paragraph it a bit more, so that it’s easier to follow the argument:

"Thus, marriage was given to us for procreation also, but much more for the purpose of extinguishing our burning nature. And Paul is a witness to this, saying, `Because of fornications, let each have his own wife,’ and not for the purpose of procreation. And he commands that you come together again, not for you to become fathers of many children.

"But to come together again for what purpose?

"*So that Satan may not tempt you,’* he says. He continues, but he does not say,come together if you wish children.’

"But what does he say?

"`If they cannot abstain, let them marry.’

"For in the beginning, as it was said, marriage had two purposes. But later, with the earth and the sea and the entire world filled, one reason alone remains: to cast out debauchery and lasciviousness.”

Chrysostom doesn’t say anything about contraception; the text as it stands just says that married couples can come together for other reasons than procreation. It sounds to me like he’s talking about how old married couples or barren married couples can still do it, but I don’t know the context so that’s just my opinion.

Anyway, Footnote 28, which is where your quote comes from, says this:

"The plain meaning of Chrysostom’s words is, ‘If for a certain period, you and your wife have abstained by agreement, perhaps for a time of prayer and fasting, come together again for the sake of your marriage. You do not need procreation as an excuse. It is not the chief reason for marriage. Neither is it necessary to allow for the possibility of conceiving, and thus having a large number of children, something you may not want.’

“He spoke in a manner that was understood perfectly by his audience. In their world, contraception, that is, prevention of conception, and induced abortion were well known for many centuries. Both existed side by side, but the Church condemned abortion and not contraception…”

Gabriel goes on from there for quite a while. (Incorrectly, because there are quite a few patristic texts that object to ancient contraceptive plants like “laser” or other Roman contraceptive devices and sexual techniques.)

It seems odd to me that the actual Chrysostom text would come from “On Virginity” and not from one of his marriage-related works! But I will see whether I can find the passage and what the heck is going on there.

So to sum up: the OP’s quote is actually by George Gabriel, paraphrasing a quote by Chrysostom in an extremely loose way that leaves out most of the actual quote content.

The actual quote comes from “On Virginity,” chapter 19, 1. It’s in Patrologia Graeca, volume 48, column 547; and in Sources Chretiennes, volume 125, 156.

The context is interesting. Chrysostom is praising virginity but also making sure that everybody knows there’s nothing dirty or bad about marriage, or about sex in marriage. So he does indeed talk about both the marriage bed and virginity.

So in Chapter 18, he’s talking about how virginity doesn’t weaken people’s resistance to temptations of passion; sin is what weakens people. Moving along, he next argues in Chapter 19 that the main purpose of marriage is to help people stay pure and sinless. (Much like the purpose of virginity, in fact…) So he’s arguing the dignity of both states of life. Chapter 20 follows this up by saying that virginity is also not to be despised.

Here’s the full text of Chapter 19, translated very roughly by me:

Chapter 19: Once there were two reasons for matrimony; now there is one.

And marriage indeed was given to us more for quenching the flame of nature than for the making of children.

And Paul also testifies to this, saying, “But because of fornication, let each one have his own wife.” (1 Cor. 7:2) Not, ‘because of the procreation of children.’

And he orders [them] to come together again (cf. 1 Cor. 7:5), not ‘so that they may be parents of many children,’ but why?

“So that Satan,” he says, “may not tempt you.” (1 Cor. 7:5)

And he did not say it was ‘if they want children,’ but if what? “If they cannot contain themselves, let them enter into matrimony.” (1 Cor. 5:9)

For as I said, “in the beginning,” (Gen. 1:1) marriage had two purposes (ie, to “increase and multiply,” cf. Gen. 1:28). But once the earth and the sea and all the globe had been filled, only one reason remained: the abolition of wickedness and lust.

For there are those who are still wallowing in their vices, and they long to live the life of pigs and to die in brothels. Marriage helps them in not the least way, for it is a necessity to them; and it protects the holy and chaste who have been freed from filthiness.

But how much longer? I will stop fighting against a shadow. And to you [virgins are the addressees of this book], who hold no less excellence of virginity than us, I ask whether it is said as excuses and goes on as pretexts, as well as cloaks for lust.

So basically Chrysostom is saying that marriage is supposed to be helpful against lust, and that spouses should have sex so that they can avoid lust. Spouses don’t have to have the intention to procreate in order to have sex. That seems pretty straightforward.

I don’t see a single word or reference to contraception. He’s not saying that it’s a bad idea to have the intention to procreate.

Thank you for the research. Yes, it seems the original author was trying to force from the text that Crysostom was giving the OK to use contraception; a reading that is just as anachronistic as saying the early Church practiced nfp when they did not wish to have children. From the actual quote, I just get that it’s a prudent thing to come together to curb passions and that you don’t have to actively want children in order to do this, though, children may be a consequence of this. Because, as you’ve pointed out, Crysostom makes no statement like the one from the author of “…children, which you may not want.”

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