"Some have argued that Augustine of Hippo never really shook himself entirely free from his Manichaean upbringing, with its intrinsic distaste for sexuality and understanding of eroticism as a work of shameful evil, and that through him Manichaean tinges have survived in Western Christianity ever since." (John Anthony McGuckin. The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years)

I know that in the Roman Local Church, until about the 4th century, there was no mandatory practice of priestly celibacy:

  • George T. Dennis SJ, professor of Catholic University of America, says: "There is simply no clear evidence of a general tradition or practice, much less of an obligation, of priestly celibacy-continence before the beginning of the fourth century." (Dennis, George T. SJ on Cochini, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy (book review), Theological Studies, 52:4 (1991:Dec.) p.738)

  • Philippe Delhaye wrote: "During the first three or four centuries, no law was promulgated prohibiting clerical marriage. Celibacy was a matter of choice for bishops, priests, and deacons. [...] The apostolic constitutions (c. 400) excommunicated a priest or bishop who left his wife 'under pretense of piety' (Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio 1:51)." (Philippe Delhaye, "Celibacy, Clerical, History of" in New Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 3, Catholic University of America, p.370)

  • "Early heretics, such as Manichaeans and Montanists, added a negative influence by proclaiming that sexual expression – including that of the laity – was impure. Catholic leaders, such as St. Augustine, taught that Original Sin was transmitted through intercourse. Therefore, abstinence and virginity was the ideal life and only the weak should marry. However, most bishops and presbyters continued to marry. <…> When monastic spirituality became popular in the fourth and fifth centuries, it promoted the ideal of celibacy as a model for all priests." (Dues, Greg (1992). Catholic customs & traditions: a popular guide (Rev. and expanded. ed.). Mystic, Conn.: Twenty-Third Publications. pp. 168, 169.)

Question: Is there really any connection between Augustine's background as a Manichaean and his idea of priestly celibacy?

1 Answer 1


There seems to be an evident connection of Augustine's theology of Sexuality, Priest celibacy, and his Gnostic background.

Johannes van Oort in his article Was Julian Right? A Re-Evaluation of Augustine’s and Mani’s Doctrines of Sexual Concupiscence and the Transmission of Sin describes how early Christians contemporary of Augustin, such as Julian of Eclanum accused him of still being a Manichaean, based on his view of sexual concupiscence and the transmission of original sin. Even though Augustin, after being converted to Christianity, gave some positive quality to the institution of marriage, which go against the fundamental abhorrence of it by Manichaeism. However, his overall view of the sin and the nature of sexual lust reveals his deep inclination to this Gnostic Manichaean theology. This is the main reason for the Gnostics to force celibacy by hating marital sexual relations.

It is an established fact that Augustine was a Manichaean from his nineteenth to his twenty-eighth years. This period lasted from 373 to 382. ... Augustine, the young intellectual searching for truth, joined them as an auditor. This status of being a ‘Hearer’ should by no means be underestimated. The position of the Manichaean auditores was comparable to that of the catechumens in the Catholic church. Yet their catechumenate did not only consist of doctrinal initiation, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. The auditores were required to take care of the material well-being of the electi [Elect]:

Augustine’s stress on the ‘random motion’ (motus inordinatus) as typical of the sinfulness of the sexual concupiscence is strikingly similar to the Manichaean views on the subject. In this respects, then, Julian seems to be right.

In Augustine’s own days, it was the Italian Catholic bishop, Julian of Eclanum, who accused him of Manichaeism because of his opinions on sexual concupiscence, marriage and original sin. Julian’s criticism even culminated in the venomous remark :

If the Ethiopian will change his skin or the leopard its spots, only in that case you will be able to cleanse yourself from the Manichaean mysteries.

[..] Augustine says in The Punishment and Forgiveness of Sins and the Baptism of Little Ones that original sin reveals itself in the disobedient excitation of the members:...

... Concupiscence, then, remains in the members of this body of death as the law of sin [cf. Rom 7:23-24]. It is present in the little ones at birth, though its guilt (reatus) is removed when little ones are baptised. It remains for the (spiritual) combat (of the adult believer), but it does not punish with damnation those who die before engaging in that combat. It holds unbaptised little ones enmeshed in guilt and draws them to damnation, like children of anger [cf. Eph 2:3], even if they die as little ones. ... so the sinful flesh of those through whom they are born transmits to them a guilt (noxa) which they have not yet contracted in their own life.

He used Job 14:4-5; Psalm 51:7; Romans 7:23-24 and the Christ's virgin birth narrative to argue that Christ was conceived without libido (lust).

Thus all the children of the woman (sc. Eve) who believed the serpent, so that she was corrupted by lust (libido), are set free from this body of death only through the Son of the Virgin who believed the angel so that she gave birth without lust (libido).

Moreover, in this first work against the Pelagians, several issues which engaged Augustine during the rest of his life already appear. Main questions are: Why do believers, who have been regenerated by baptism, not beget regenerated children? Is the soul propagated or not?

The most characteristic feature of this sexual concupiscence or libido is its random motion:

We see then that there are lusts for many things, and yet when lust is mentioned without the specification of its object the only thing that normally occurs to the mind is the lust that excites the indecent parts of the body. This lust assumes power not only over the whole body, and not only from the outside, but also internally; it disturbs the whole man, when the mental emotion combines and mingles with the physical craving, resulting in a pleasure surpassing all physical delights. So intense is the pleasure that when it reaches its climax there is an almost total extinction of mental alertness; the intellectual sentries, as it were, are overwhelmed.(...) and although on the whole it (sc. the libido) is totally opposed to the mind’s control, it is quite often divided against itself. It arouses the mind, but does not follow its own lead by arousing the body..... Human nature then is, without any doubt, ashamed about lust, and rightly ashamed. For in its disobedience, which subjected the sexual organs solely to its own impulses and snatched them from the will’s authority, we see a proof of the retribution imposed on man for that first disobedience

Augustine tried to defend the accusations of Manicheanism by evoking the Catholic Church predecessors with the same views. However, the Pelagians had the upper hand.

The Pelagians, for their part, and Julian in particular, persisted in arguing that Augustine’s understanding of original sin as contaminating posterity via its transmission through the sexual act, should be considered a relapse into Manichaeism. Again and again this accusation crops up in the words quoted from Julian in Augustine’s Against Julian and, in particular, in the Unfinished Work.

... the main features of Augustine’s points of view. In sum, it may be concluded that in his writings:
-a. concupiscentia sexualis /libido carnalis, which is beyond the control of the human will, is referred to in a highly negative way;
-a. this random concupiscentia sexualis is a punishment for primordial sin, and is transmitted as original sin by means of the human copulation;
-b. the sinfulness of concupiscentia sexualis is pre-eminently manifest in its randomness as motus inordinatus or inmoderatus.

The author attempts to find roots of Augustine's theology in Jewish apocryphal literature, such as Apocalypse of Moses, but there was hardly any similarity found in any Jewish theology with Gnosticism. The Jewish practice of Baptism of the infant on at the day of circumcision (Lev 12) was purely for ritual impurity, it never signified the moral-spiritual sin by which one bears any guilt due to nature itself. Some writers may symbolically use the example of birth impurity to express their utter failure to live up to God's expectation in deep humility and repentance. Though, they never indicated a literal view of sin being a substance, a stain or part of human genes transmitted through sexual reproduction, rather than being a moral transgression of God's law. The Gnostic concept of sin and man's nature has no similarity whatsoever to the Jewish theology.

4 Ezra (Apocrypha) chapter 3: 34: Weigh thou therefore our wickedness now in the balance, and their’s also that dwell the world; and so shall thy name no where be found but in Israel. 35: Or when was it that they which dwell upon the earth have not sinned in thy sight? or what people have so kept thy commandments? 36: Thou shalt find that Israel by name hath kept thy precepts; but not the heathen.

The author concludes that:

For the time being, we may conclude that Julian displayed keen insight in claiming that Augustine’s views concurred with those of the Manichaeans. It seems that we may detect a relic of Augustine’s Manichaean past in his strong emphasis on the random motion (motus inordinatus) as typical of the sexual concupiscence by which sin is transmitted.

Also read the related essays available on academia, such as Tom Torbyns' The Origins of Augustine’s Theology on Concupiscence, Massa Damnata and Limbo in light of Early Christian, Gnostic, Manichaean, (Neo-)Platonic

We also read in the chapter iv 'The Gnostics, the Montanists, and the Manichaeans' in The Ancient Church: Its History, Doctrine, Worship, and Constitution Traced for the First Three Hundred Years, by William Dool Killen C. Scribner, 1859

[Writing about certain Manichaen teacher]... His disciples, called Manichees or Manichaeans, assumed the name of a Church, and were divided into two classes, the Elect and the Hearers. The Elect, who were comparatively few, were the sacred order. They alone were made acquainted with the mysteries, or more recondite doctrines, of the sect; they practised extreme abstinence; they subsisted chiefly upon olives; [439:2] and they lived in celibacy....[..] All these heretics believed that the largest measure of future happiness was to be realised by those who practised the most rigid asceticism. Mani admitted that an individual without any extraordinary amount of self-denial, might reach the world of Light, for he held out the hope of heaven to his Hearers; but he taught that its highest distinctions were reserved for the Elect, who scrupulously refrained from bodily indulgence. The Church silently adopted the same principle; and the distinction between precepts and counsels, which was soon introduced into its theology, rests upon this foundation. By precepts are understood those duties which are obligatory upon all; by counsels, those acts, whether of charity or abstinence, which are expected from such only as aim at superior sanctity. [443:1] The Elect of the Manichaeans, as well as many of the Gnostics, [443:2] declined to enter into wedlock, and the Montanists were disposed to confer double honour on the single clergy. [443:3] The Church did not long stand out against the fascinations of this popular delusion. Her members almost universally caught up the impression that marriage stands in the way of the cultivation of piety; and bishops and presbyters, who lived in celibacy, began to be regarded as more holy than their brethren. This feeling continued to gain strength; and from it sprung that vast system of monasticism which spread throughout Christendom, with such amazing rapidity, in the fourth century.

It thus appears that asceticism and clerical celibacy have been grafted on Christianity by Paganism. Hundreds of years before the New Testament was written, Buddhism could boast of multitudes of monks and eremites. [443:4] The Gnostics, in the early part of the second century, celebrated the praises of a single life; and the Elect of the Manichaeans were all celibates. Meanwhile marriage was permitted to the clergy of the catholic Church. Well might the apostle exhort the disciples to beware of those ordinances which have "a shew of wisdom in will-worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body," [444:1] as the austerities of the cloister are miserable preparatives for the enjoyments of a world of purity and love. Christianity exhibited startling tokens of degeneracy when it attempted to nourish piety upon the spawn of the heathen superstitions. The gospel is designed for social and for active beings; as it hallows all the relations of life, it also teaches us how to use all the good gifts of God; and whilst celibacy and protracted fasting may only generate misanthropy and melancholy, faith, walking in the ways of obedience, can purify the heart, and induce the peace that passeth all understanding.

  • 1
    Sir, how did it happen that my question was found by exactly the right person who is very well versed in the topic I need and gave exactly the answer I need? Thanks a million.
    – Orthodox
    Commented Jun 25 at 17:55
  • Thanks. I myself only now learned after reading these sources about the origin of the ascetic celibacy had roots in the Gnostics. I only knew about Augustine's Manichaean roots, but these sources helped me learn a lot. It was only about using right keywords in searching on duckduckgo. Keywords like "augustine sexuality manichaenism celibacy", which gave these sources.
    – Michael16
    Commented Jun 26 at 17:24

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