The Primacy of Love in Catholic Sexual Teaching

The Mission of August Adam’s The Primacy of Love

Bavaria produced a number of remarkable theologians in the 20th century, many of whom are forgotten today. Among these are the Adam brothers. While Karl Adam (1876–1966) is still read and reprinted, especially his groundbreaking The Spirit of Catholicism (1924), which inspired Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity (1968), his brother August has been largely elided from the history of theology. Undeservedly so: The Primacy of Love was a bestseller in the first half of the century, translated into several languages, and called by Pope Benedict XVI a “key reading” of his youth. It was truly revolutionary because it shook the Catholic world out of its complacent slumber in the field of sexual ethics. It called for a radical change, not in doctrine, but in catechesis: namely, to a return to the principles of St. Thomas Aquinas.

The Mission of the Author

August Adam was born on April 14, 1888, in Pursruck in the Upper Palatinate. Always looking to his elder brother as inspiration, he followed him to the seminary and also studied for the priesthood. He was ordained in 1911 in Regensburg, and was sent in 1922 to Tübingen to write his doctoral dissertation. It is telling that he delayed his doctoral degree so that he would not be forced to take up an administrative position in the diocese; he was much too much a pastoral man than to live his life behind a desk. He finished his doctorate in 1924 under the direction of the leading moral theologian of the time, Otto Schilling (1874–1956).

Schilling’s theology was extremely influential before the Second Vatican Council (1963–1965), because he attempted to give his discipline a systematic foundation based on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. His attempt to combine normative claims with a strong emphasis on the development of the human person, almost a personalist approach, set him apart from more casuistry-oriented theologians.[1] Schilling also understood caritas, love, to be the centerpiece of moral theology: it is, he asserted, the principle, root and form of Christian morality and virtue. Adam took this insight and applied it in a refreshingly readable and witty way to moral catechesis. This is not surprising, since he worked since 1924 as a high school teacher of religion in Straubing in Lower Bavaria, and did so until his retirement in 1953.

In 1929 and 1932 he applied for the chair in moral theology at the philosophical-theological college of Passau. His brother Karl, then one of the most distinguished theologians in the Catholic world, supported his application and called him one of his students. On January 20, 1932, he wrote to the rector of the college in Passau:

I hear that the application of my brother is heavily resisted in Passau by certain voices from Eichstätt. These cannot forgive his brave book about the primacy of love. And I do not think I judge in brotherly bias, when I agree with the assessment of leading moral theologians, that this book has a mission for our preachers and catechists.[2]

We do not know whose voices these were from Eichstätt, but as Karl Adam writes, The Primacy of Love destroyed every possibility that August might establish himself in an academic position. Moreover, August’s attempts to be allowed to seek a second doctorate in theology, which was needed to obtain a chair in Germany, were stalled by influential critics. Thus, he continued in his high school position, where he was able to foster dozens of religious vocations, strengthen the faith of countless students, and write immensely popular books.

The year 1933 changed his life: Hitler became chancellor and National Socialism became the only allowed political party. Adam, who had been an active member of the Bavarian People’s Party, the Bavarian version of the Center Party, had to withdraw from the political life. His papers hold evidence that he had rejected Nazi ideology already from the early 1920’s onwards, and most particularly because of its anti-Semitism. It cannot come as a surprise that he was on the list of local leaders to be executed after the Nazi’s “final victory.”[3] His brother Karl, however, albeit twelve years his senior, holding a chair at the respected university of Tübingen, did not have that wisdom. He supported Nazism as a tool for Church reform and as late as 1944 supported harshly racist and nationalist views.[4]

This caused a rift between the two brothers: While Karl joined the Nazi party and espoused a strongly racist theology, his brother August never gave in to such temptations. The latter’s little book on the Sixth Commandment, in which he gave an intelligible defense of Catholic teaching, was not even permitted to be published during the Third Reich.[5] This might sound surprising, because he did not criticize the regime in it; however, the Nazi censors carefully suppressed intelligible Catholic apologetic voices, in particular if they rejected their vision of “race and blood.” After all, such apologetics questioned the hegemony of Nazism as only viable worldview in Nazi Germany.[6] Because of August’s public resistance to the Nazis, the American military government even asked him to serve in 1945 as mayor of the city, which he declined.

In the midst of World War II he penned a beautiful book, perhaps my favorite, entitled Tensions and Harmony.[7] Like Romano Guardini (1885–1968), Adam was fascinated by the fact that the spiritual life was shaped by tensions and harmonies (e.g., spirit and flesh, body and soul, natural and supernatural). While most theologians had tended to overemphasize one of these polarities, Adam describes a way to treat both sides, thus keeping the tension between them without forgetting the harmony of Catholic dogma. The result is a joyous, lively apologetic in a Chestertonian style: The true Catholic avoids the pitfalls of overemphasizing one truth over the other, and thus steers clear from heresy, holds the tensions, and accordingly keeps his faith alive. The opposite of such a loving Catholic is the “correct” or “proper” Christian. August Adam describes him colorfully:

His clothes are proper from the Roman collar down to his shoes—everything exactly according to the directives . . . He holds the church in proper order, Mass always starts on time, the homilies are well prepared. He promptly answers and acts if his sheep come to him, but their hearts are never set on fire by him. Everything he does has something impersonal about it, like at the post office, or the bank. He is “proper” in everything he does . . . but he lacks a mysterious something, a grain of salt and a speck of ambergris: selfless love.

Pope Benedict XVI echoes this reflection, albeit without naming Adam, in his masterful encyclical Deus Caritas Est (2005), in which he writes:

If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties,” then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely “proper,” but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well (§18).

Immediately after the war, in The Virtue of Freedom, Adam reflected on what was needed to rebuild Europe and arrived at the conviction that proper freedom, understood as virtue, was a key to recovery. Such freedom also meant a rediscovery of epikeiea, the idea that the spirit of the law did not require a slavish obedience. Freedom would help overcoming the German tradition of militarism and blind obedience to the state. The Germans had to be honest enough to look their past in the eye and realize that “the absolute totalitarianism of the state” had brought about “the absolute enslavement of the people.”[8] The Virtue of Freedom was even translated in fascist Spain in 1961.[9] In a time when theologians hardly reflected on the vocation of women in the Church he wrote in 1954 Christ and the Woman, translated into Italian in 1961, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council.[10]

The Mission of the Book

The Primacy of Love was first published in Straubing/Bavaria in 1931. It had an immense echo, and was reprinted until 1956. August Adam’s book was a wake-up call: Although the Catholic tradition had never fallen into the trap of Manichean dualism, Adam detected tendencies in popular belief and the catechesis of his day that depreciated the human body, bodily expression of love in marriage, and sexuality itself. Moreover, he brilliantly unmasked the widely held identification of immorality with sins against the 6th Commandment, and of morality with sexual purity. This, he claimed, had led in Catholic catechesis to an unhealthy overemphasis of chastity, as if it was the highest virtue.

Instead, Adam showed how and why love must be the form and principle of all Christian morality and how chastity becomes only valuable through love. Likewise, marital sexuality was viewed by many theologians almost entirely from what Adam called a “Platonist” or spiritualist viewpoint, with misgivings; sexual intercourse, most stated, was only sinless if procreation was explicitly intended. For Adam it was 18th century Jesuit theology and the Salamancan Carmelites with their exquisite Thomistic commentaries, which began to overcome such a view and rediscover also the values of mutual companionship and friendship in marriage.[11]

Adam deviated from the consensus of most contemporaneous moral theologians when it came to the so-called teaching of the parvitas materiae in sexual matters, or the seriousness of sexual sins. Following his teacher Schilling, Adam went back to the writings of Aquinas himself, and was critical of later interpretations that saw in every (!) violation of the 6th commandment a mortal sin, regardless of intention and circumstances.[12]

Only a handful of theologians seem to have not followed this Catholic axiom, among them Charles Billuart, O.P., (1685–1757) in his Cursus Theologicus, whom St. Alphonsus, the patron of moral theology, did not cite a single time. Instead, Alphonsus seems to have understood all sensual delight in the sexual sphere as sinful.[13] By the 20th century, however, a considerable number Catholic theologians (e.g., Joseph Mausbach, Schilling, etc.), following the renaissance of Thomism, had heavily diminished this axiom; yet Adam still saw it proclaimed in catechesis.

This especially burdened adolescents in puberty, who understood each sexual daydream or desire, or even an erection in the morning, as mortal sin. Frank Sheed (1897–1981) wrote in his autobiography that this interpretation of the 6th Commandment “cut a wide swath of disaster”:

The result was that confession became a torment. The story was current when I was young of a boy who confessed that he had had bad sexual thoughts. “Did you entertain them,” asked the priest. “Oh no, Father. They entertained me.” It was a joke, but many of those who smiled at it could remember a time when it was no smiling matter. In those places, where the whole school went to Communion, many a boy—afraid to confess, afraid to stay away from the altar rail—received his Savior feeling that he was in mortal sin.[14]

Only if we become aware of such shortcomings of Catholic sexual education and pastoral theology in the first half of the 20th century do we begin to understand why Adam’s book was hailed as “revolutionary.” It broke new ground, but not for the liberal sexual ethics of the 1970’s, but for chastity understood as the fruit of love. The Primacy of Love attempted to bring back a proper understanding of sin as rebellion against God. After all, if everything was a mortal sin, then nothing was. Only if love was at the center of the Christian life, then one could withstand the temptation to become loveless, “correct,” and hypocritical Christians.

This book reminds us that the way to the Theology of the Body of St. John Paul II. was not an easy one. It took bold theologians like August Adam who sacrificed in a largely prudish time their career for the truth St. Thomas Aquinas preached, namely that love is the central Christian virtue which forms all others, and that sexuality is a gift from God, destined for conjugal love.

Adam anticipated the teachings of St. John Paul II, who wrote in Love and Responsibility what Adam expressed 50 years earlier, namely that chastity was liberating but had to derive from love:

Chastity is very often understood as a “blind” inhibition of sensuality and of physical impulses such that the values of the “body” and of sex are pushed down into the subconscious, where they await an opportunity to explode. This is an obviously erroneous conception of the virtue of chastity, which, if it is practiced only in this way, does indeed create the danger of such “explosions.”[15]

Adam has still a message for us today. Certainly, the prudish approach to sexual education of the 1930’s or 1950’s has been largely replaced by sexual lasciviousness. Nevertheless, it is still a temptation for Catholic parents to either be tacit about chastity with their children or to consider it the highest virtue. If we want our children to listen to us, we have to be able to talk with them about such delicate matters, too. If we do not, we should not be surprised if they adopt the sexual anything-goes mentality of the secular world. Adam wisely admonishes us:

The best kind of sexual education is not that which perpetually draws attention to the dangers of unchastity, or even that which is fond of preaching chastity as the most important virtue. Indirect education is always more effective. The wise instructor will not attempt to lead the young through chastity, but the other way about—to chastity through love. He will not encourage the conscientious child, in the confessional and in the examination of conscience, to dwell inordinately on this one point—like a bird fascinated by a snake . . . He will stress the spirit of love in his religious instruction—that genuine, pious comradeship, that knightly conduct toward the opposite sex which keeps more pernicious notions at bay.[16]

Editorial Note: This essay is adopted from the introduction of the new edition of August Adam's The Primacy of Love, courtesy of Cluny Media and the author.

[1]Rupert Grill, Wegbereiter einer erneuerten Moraltheologie: Impulse aus der deutschen Moraltheologie zwischen 1900 und dem II. Vatikanischen Konzil (Freiburg: Academic Press Fribourg, 2008), 120f.; Otto Schilling, “Mein moraltheologisches System,” Theologische Quartalschrift 132 (1952): 288—296.

[2]Archive of the Diocese of Passau: OA Phil.-Theol., 44. 

[3]Ulrich Lehner, “Improper Wisdom,” Commonweal, Vol. 134, No.2 (January 2007), 15–17.

[4]Lucia Scherzberg, “Das kirchenreformerische Programm pronationalsozialistischer Theologen,” in Theologie und Vergangenheitsbewältigung, ed. Lucia Scherzberg (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2005), 56–70.

[5]August Adam, Das sechste Gebot (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1948), preface; The Sixth Commandment, trans. Elisabethe Corathiel Noonan (Cork: Mercier Press, 1955; Chicago: Regnery, 1955).

[6] Ulrich L. Lehner, “The Forgotten Dimension of Catholic Exile Literature,” in Bernard Knab, Otto Michael Knab’s Fox-Fables (Eugene, OR): Wipf and Stock, 2017), vii–ix. A good example for Nazi censorship of a Catholic apologetic author is the case of theologian Hans Pfeil (1903–1997), whose books Die Grundlehren des Deutschen Glaubens (1937) and Der Mensch im Denken der Zeit (1938) were forbidden and seized.

[7] August Adam, Spannungen und Harmonie. Erwägungen über den Zusammenhang von Dogma und Leben (Kevalaer: Butzon und Bercker, 1940).

[8]August Adam, Tugend der Freiheit (Nuremberg: Sebaldus, 1947), 46. Most remarkable is that Bernhard Häring accused Adam of overemphasizing freedom—a stance he completely reversed after the Second Vatican Council. See: Bernhard Häring, “Freiheit oder Gehorsam?”, Geist und Leben, Vol. 21, No. 2 (1948): 108–121.

[9] August Adam, Die Tugend der Freiheit (Nuremberg: Sebaldus, 1947); La Virtud de la Libertad, trans. Miguel Altolaguirre (San Sebastian: Dinor, 1961).

[10] August Adam, Cristo e la donna (Rome: Edizioni Paoline, 1961); original title: Christus und die Frau (Ettal: Kunstverlag, 1954).

[11] Cf. Dominikus Lindner, Der usus matrimonii eine Untersuchung über seine sittliche Bewertung in der katholischen Moraltheologie alter und neuer Zeit (Munich: Kösel & Pustet, 1929).

[12] In other commandments the sin could be venial if the object in question (e.g., theft of a pencil; eating meat on Friday) was not a serious matter.

[13] J. F. Groner, “Review of August Adam, Der Primat der Liebe,” Freiburger Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Theologie, Vol. 2 (1955): 496; Charles Billuart, Cursus Theologiae juxta Mentem Divi Thomae, vol. 15 (Paris: 1828), diss. V (de luxuria), 282ff.

[14] Frank Sheed, The Church and I (Garden City: Double Day, 1974), 239. Sheed differentiates between sins of weakness and sins of viciousness.

[15] St. John Paul II, Love and Responsibility (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), 1993, 170.

[16]August Adam, The Primacy of Love (Providence, RI: Cluny Media, 2019).

Featured Image: Watteau, Mezzetain, 1720; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Ulrich L. Lehner

Ulrich L. Lehner is William K. Warren Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author and editor of thirty books, most notably: The Catholic Enlightenment, the bestseller God Is Not Nice (translated into five languages), and Think Better: Rediscovering the Power of Reason.

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