Continence and Obedience

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) in his treatise De bono coniugale (On the Good of Marriage) argues that obedience is a greater virtue than continence.

He states: “The good of obedience is better than of continence.” And why? Because “marriage is in no place condemned by authority of our Scriptures, but disobedience is in no place acquitted.” In other words, marriage is permitted, but not required of everyone, whereas obedience to lawful authority is required of every person. Then he asks, “If therefore there be set before us a virgin about to continue so, but yet disobedient, and a married woman who could not continue a virgin, but yet obedient, which shall we call better?” (29)

He notes that “obedience is in a certain way the mother of all virtues,” for obedience is the virtue “whereby precepts are complied with.” However, he observes that there may be obedience without virginity and virginity without obedience.

First, regarding obedience without virginity, he says: “There may be obedience without virginity, because virginity is of counsel, not of precept.” (30) Celibacy is a counsel because its external practice is not required of every person, but only recommended, as Christ said, “Whoso can receive, let him receive” (Matt 19:12).

St. Augustine distinguishes between the virtues of continence and chastity: “There may be obedience to precepts without virginity, but not without chastity. For it pertains unto chastity, not to commit fornication, not to commit adultery, to be defiled by no unlawful intercourse: and whoso observe not these, do contrary to the precepts of God.” (30) Chastity is the virtue whereby one abstains from unlawful sexual intercourse, whereas continence is the virtue whereby one abstains from all sexual intercourse. Chastity is a precept required of every person, whereas continence is a counsel pertaining to those who have chosen the celibate state of life. Married spouses are called to practice conjugal chastity; those who are not married are called to practice chastity by continence.

Secondly, regarding virginity without disobedience, St. Augustine notes that “there may be virginity without obedience. . . . We have known many sacred virgins, talkative, curious, drunken, litigious, covetous, proud: all which are contrary to precepts.” Therefore, while affirming the three goods of chastity, continence, and obedience, he is led to conclude: “Not only is the obedient to be preferred to the disobedient, but a more obedient married woman to a less obedient virgin.” (30)

Quotations from A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol. III, ed. Philip Schaff (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1886).

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