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New reprint of a book on sexual ethics that Benedict XVI cherished


Jeffrey Bruno/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 | Cluny Media LLC

Ulrich L. Lehner - published on 02/20/20

August Adam's 'Primacy of Love' was released in 1932, and led to the end of his academic career.

Some books contending with pressing issues shape a whole generation but slowly slip into oblivion once the generation moves on to other battles. This was the fate of August Adam’s little book The Primacy of Love. In the moral theology of the 1970s his ideas were considered “out of date,” or so obvious that nobody thought it necessary to acknowledge their intellectual debt to him. Yet those who read him cherished his gentle approach to sexual morality and pastoral concerns, among them no other than Pope Benedict XVI. The latter even called it a key reading of his youth!

Cluny Media has made August Adam’s Primacy of Love again available. Their team has produced a beautifully typeset book with a lovely cover and a sturdy binding.

Adam was born in the Bavarian heartland in 1888 and became, like his brother Karl, a priest in the Diocese of Regensburg. While Karl Adam became one of the most famous dogmatic theologians, especially due to his worldwide bestseller The Spirit of Catholicism, his brother tackled the issues of social and sexual ethics. His promising career came to a halt when he decided to publish a programmatic, popular book tackling the problems in Catholic catechesis about sexuality: He renounced the often rigorist Catholics who identified the “filth of sin” always with sexuality, as if the other six deadly sins would not also be filthy, and the purely negative view of the human body as well as conjugal love. 

In a time, in which, as Frank Sheed wrote in his memoirs, scrupulosity among teenagers was common and drove many out of the church, this book was the attempt to approach sexuality with a healthy realism without giving up the call to chastity as virtue. Nevertheless, Adam insisted, the value of chastity only derived from love as the primary virtue; if chastity was not lived out of love for God and fellow humans, it was worthless. 

The uproar about the book, which went through many editions and translations, was immense; after all, it was the year 1932! Critics, however, used the publication to destroy his academic career. They sabotaged his attempts to receive a professorship, and even to get a second doctorate in theology. August Adam nevertheless did not complain and instead dedicated his life to being a high school teacher in Straubing in Bavaria. He died in 1963.

It was here where he had a profound impact on generations of students: I have met many of his former students and every single one of them admired his truthfulness and integrity, but also his ability to guide them to think with the Church. As a teacher he was able to write a number of bestselling popular books which helped countless Catholics to understand their faith better, and tackled topics nobody would want to touch, such as the role of women in the Church, hollow and true piety, dogma and lived experience. 

If one reads August Adam’s writings, one will find that rare wisdom you see only in the best of writers. Bold, yet unpretentious, he showed what Christian life can be and how it changes those, who try it. Perhaps so many looked up to him because he lived what he said: When the Nazis took control of the government, August was under observation, since he had criticized the Nazi party since the 1920s.

His 1943 book on the Sixth Commandment was not permitted to be printed by the Gestapo, and it cannot really surprise us that one source tells us that he was on the list of those to be eliminated after the “final victory” of Hitler’s army. One only wished that his famous brother Karl, chair of theology in Tübingen, would have had such wisdom: Instead, the older Adam embraced the Nazis because he hoped Hitler would break up the structures of conservative Catholicism. Wisdom does not come with a university chair, my wise Capuchin great uncle used to say—and he was right.

“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (Mt 11: 25, NIT).

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