Many years later in his Retractiones (in English, “Retractions”) Augustine listed his three reasons for writing De santa virginitate.
He wished to emphasise “that virginity is a gift from God, that it is a great gift, and that it needs to be guarded with a great amount of humility.”
Augustine was responding to the claim of Jovinian, a monk in Rome, who had argued that virginity and perpetual continence were in no way superior to marriage.
In contrast, Augustine stated that in itself the celibate life is superior to marriage, but balanced this praise for celibacy by demanding celibates protect their gift with a great amount of humility.
Augustine based his argument for the superior status of Christian virginity on the fact that was “a sharing in the life of angels.” The model for the virgin is the church itself, the virgin of Christ.
All Christian virgins warrant special honour for preserving in their flesh the same spiritual integrity that the church preserves in its integrity of faith.
After attempting to counter the Scriptural argument of Jovinian with his interpretation of other passages of Scripture, Augustine then spends almost half of De santa virginitate exhorting Christian virgins to attain great humility.
(In using Mary, the mother of Christ, as the example of such humility, in De santa virginitate reveals more of his Mariology than he does elsewhere in his voluminous writings. Augustine never wrote a separate work about Mary.)
Humility is needed to honour God by humbly acknowledging that virgin it is a gift from God – a gift that he claimed was greater than the gift of marriage, but not as great as the gift of martyrdom.
By advising that no celibate person should ever consider that he or she was superior to a married person by possession of the gift of virginity, Augustine strove to dissuade Jovinian and others that celibacy was causing dissention within the church.
On Holy Virginity. By Augustine of Hippo. From the Retractions 2:23:
“After I had written 'on the Good of Marriage,' it was expected that I should write on Holy Virginity; and I did not delay to do so: and that it is God's gift, and how great a gift, and with what humility to be guarded, so far as I was able I set forth in one volume. This book begins, etc..” From New Advent.
On Holy Virginity. By Augustine of Hippo. Another web site.
For further reading.
Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia.ISBN: 0-8028-3843-X Published in 1999, with 880 pages. Edited by Allan Fitzgerald O.S.A. (Stocks of this publication are now exhausted, but it is still available second-hand online from Amazon.com. and other sites.)
The encyclopedia is the product of more than 140 leading scholars throughout the world. This comprehensive publication contains over 400 articles that cover every aspect of the life and writings of Augustine of Hippo (354-430). It traces his profound influence on the church and the development of Western thought through the past two millennia…."