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Tag: City of God

The grandaddy of Catholic Social Teaching: St Augustine and the City of God

Illuminated capital, Augustine writing the City of GodOne could say that the source of Catholic social teaching starts long before the promulgation of Rerum Novarum. See the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, or the Epistles. But as far as non-Scriptural sources go, I’d pick St Augustine of Hippo’s City of God as the first Christian teaching to address the question of the well-ordered society, and the contribution that Christians can make to the common good.

You’ll find a succinct summary of this massive work here on Sparknotes, and a book by book summary here on New Advent. The City of God was written as a response to the accusation by pagans that all of Rome’s problems at the time were the fault of the Christians (sound familiar?). St Augustine first points out that pagan society carried within itself the seeds of its own destruction, and then goes on to show that although Christians are citizens of the City of God (a heavenly City), as “resident aliens” in the City of Man during their earthly lives, they can and should contribute to the common good of the society in which they live.

City of God, Image paperback, with intro by Etienne GilsonI’ve written a bit previously about this work, here where I summarize the introduction to the Image edition by Etienne Gilson, the French historian of philosophy and a Neo-Thomist philosopher in his own right. Here I go on to comment on what Gilson had to say.

Augustine’s City of God is a timeless work relevant in any age, for the City of Man will always be looking for a scapegoat on which to pile blame for its own problems. Certainly that is the case these days.

Comment on Gilson’ s Foreward to City of God

Aside from agreeing with Gilson’s general thesis — that we wouldn’t have the modern notion that we can create a universal and just society, had it not been for Augustine’s City of God —  I will simply suggest that his last point is one worth considering. Although I don’t think we are anywhere near creating a just society on earth (according to the secular or the Christian model) – in fact, we often seem to be going in quite the opposite direction! – it seems that in the present day, when the secular world presents itself more and more as being necessarily antagonistic toward the Christian faith than perhaps at any time since Augustine’s own day, it is more important than ever that separated Christian bodies unite with – or at least collaborate with – the Catholic Church, to make common cause toward building a just society consonant with (not striving against) Christian principles. (In fact we see, more and more, that other religions are willing to make common cause with Christianity against the assaults of secularism.)

Now, when Augustine used that term “Catholic,” he meant not only “that Church visibly united with the See of Peter (the pope),” but also “that Christian body which is free from heresy (or doctrinal error)” – i.e., not the Donatists, Pelagians, Arians, etc. From the Catholic perspective, these two uses of the term are identical: the Catholic Church proclaims the Christian faith in its fullness, and without error through its infallible teaching authority (Magisterium). Any Christian individual or corporate body that denies any portion of the Catholic Church’s teaching of the faith is at a spiritual disadvantage, because they do not know (or acknowledge) the faith in its fullness. According to this understanding, Protestants differ from Catholics not simply as one religious denomination differs from another (“different strokes for different folks”), but they necessarily suffer from the ill effects of doctrinal error, to the extent that they differ or dissent from the Catholic faith. It is an act of charity to try to heal the breach of separation, so that “separated brethren” may be restored to the full life of the Christian (i.e., Catholic) Church.

I don’t say this polemically — that is, I’m not trying to present an argument to support the Catholic view, but simply trying to articulate it, because Gilson wrote as a Catholic when he said that “If we really want one world, we must have one Church, and the only Church that is one is the Catholic Church.” Gilson does not say so, but I think he would agree that this desire for a unified society (“one world, one Church”) can best be achieved if separated Christian bodies are re-unified with the Catholic Church. The Body of Christ must be whole in order to be healthy, and it must be healthy in order to be able not only to defend itself against the encroachment of secularism, but to work toward building a just society, for the good of all (Christians, secularists, and others).


Sixty years after Gilson wrote his essay, the gulf between the Christian and the secular mindsets has become only more pronounced, much deeper and wider than it was only a few decades ago, to the point that no one denies the profound differences between the two. One evidence of this is the increasing stridency of self-proclaimed atheists. In the mid-20th century, public atheists could still cheerfully make common cause with religious believers, because they could recognize that the two shared many ideas about the common good; this seems no longer to be true. Public atheists today (notably Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) argue that religious believers are not only wrong (mistaken) but downright evil, and must be eradicated (I believe it was Dawkins who recently suggested that inculcating religious faith in one’s children should be considered child abuse).
 
At any rate, there seems to be plenty of evidence that today, more than ever, Christianity in particular, and religion more generally, is under the guns of the secularists. (Remember that even in Augustine’s own day, those who wanted to blame Christianity for the world’s problems did so on religious, not atheistic, grounds.) I think this explains why both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI have labored so ceaselessly not simply to be “ecumenical” in the pallid sense often used by those who profess to embrace the “spirit of Vatican II” (“let’s all make nice and pretend that all religions are equally good and true”), but in the more vital sense of trying to bring separated bodies of Christians back into the embrace of Mother Church, so that they may not only have the benefit of the sacraments of the Church and the authoritative teaching of the Roman Magisterium, but also so that the Body of Christ may be truly unified and at full strength – both lungs, all the arms & legs, fingers & toes cooperating fully with their Head, which is Christ, and his vicar on earth, the Roman pontiff. Only if the Body is whole and healthy can it most effectively build up society on earth, so that it more closely resembles the City of God, of which all Christians are citizens by virtue of their baptism, and to which all men are called.

We have seen in recent years a remarkable amount of progress toward this re-unification: not only the restitution of some of the ancient churches to the Roman Communion under Pope John Paul II but also great progress more recently with traditional-minded Anglicans (Anglicanorum Coetibus) and in ironing out remaining obstacles between Rome and the Eastern Orthodox. It should be noted that Rome has taken some pains to show that the legitimate spiritual patrimony of these other Christian traditions should be preserved and allowed to flourish in their own right, rather than trying to homogenize everyone to become cookie-cutter “Roman” Catholics; the present and former Holy Fathers have shown that this legitimate diversity, when secured by a common faith, enriches the Church, rather than weakening it.

In addition to corporate reunions, there have also been a number of public statements issued by representatives of the Catholic Church and of various Protestant bodies, affirming their common faith on many points, not only of doctrine but how that doctrine bears on Christians vis à vis the problems of modern society. If this trend of solidarity continues, there may be some real hope of the Christian Church in the future being able, as She has in the past, to make lasting and beneficial contributions to the common good of the City of Man.

Gilson’s Foreward to the City of God

What follows is my summary of the abbreviated version of Gilson’s introductory essay that appears in the Image edition of the City of God that I’m reading. It runs on a bit, so I’ll put my commentary in a separate post.
 
Gilson emphasizes that our modern aspiration to build a perfect, universal society had its origins in Augustine’s description of the City of God and the way this City cooperates with, and shares benefits with, the City of Man. However, the modern world neglects a fact that the ancient world would have found impossible to deny – that every society is held together (i.e., merits the name of “society”) only insofar as it is united by two things: religion and blood kinship. He goes on to say that Augustine, in writing The City of God, demonstrates that the City of God, or the Heavenly Society, also is defined by these two factors – religion, in that it consists only of those who have held God as their highest good, and kinship, in that it comprises those who recognize not only the physical brotherhood of Men (all descended from the same original parents) but, more importantly, the spiritual brotherhood of Man (adopted sons of God the Father, through His divine Son, Jesus Christ).
 
In Gilson’s account, Augustine demonstrates that Rome, long before his own day, had ceased to merit the name civitas (“society” or “City”) in the sense Augustine uses the term. That is, it is no longer bound together by a concern for the common good, or a shared understanding of what that good is. Going farther, Augustine demonstrates that the earthly city (not merely the city of Rome, which is its concrete exemplar) has been at odds with the heavenly society since the first generation of mankind, when Cain, who was motivated by pride and self-interest, killed his brother Abel, who worthily worshipped God; thus Augustine illustrates the difference between these two societies, which is the difference between their two primary loves (God or self). By defining things in this way, Gilson shows that, on Augustine’s terms, no earthly city can, with perfect justice, claim the name of “society,” because its primary motivation will always be self-interest (in early Rome, this meant honor or public recognition, later wealth, power, and pleasure) rather than Charity.

Thus, suggests Gilson, any later generation which is inspired by The City of God to create a just, unified, and peaceful society needs to recognize that such a society must be founded on a love of God and neighbor and depend on the grace of God for its peace and unity, and that the any efforts in this world will always, necessarily, fall short of the perfection that can be known only in the life of the world to come. This is why modern efforts to create worldwide social unity are doomed to fail, because, as Gilson puts it, “they have studied everything except the Christian faith in order to find a common bond.” He suggests, “If we really want one world, we must have one Church, and the only Church that is one is the Catholic Church.”

Current Reading: Arthur & Augustine

I’m currently working on (re) reading a couple of things that I have loved for a while.

First is T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which I’m reading for the first time in many years, certainly since I began seriously studying the Arthurian literary tradition (in fact, wrote my doctoral dissertation on one of the earliest Arthurian romances, Chrétien de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail). I loved White’s story of the boy Arthur as a kid, after reading (about 40 times) the “Golden Book” story based on the Disney movie, The Sword in the Stone, which itself was based on the first part of White’s novel. At age 13, I took part in a performance of the stage musical Camelot, based on the latter part of the novel, but I don’t think I made the connection. As an older teenager, I finally read all of T. H. White’s novel (“The Sword in the Stone” is just the first of four parts), and was rather dismayed at the tragic turn the story takes (at that point, I must have made the connection with Camelot). Well, I hadn’t read Malory or Tennyson, so it kind of took me by surprise.

Now that I’m familiar with the whole length of the literary tradition and, of course, “all grown up,” not only am I enjoying White’s novel even more than I did as a kid, but I find all sorts of oblique commentary on the Arthurian literary tradition and its effects on the popular imagination (something Chretien was already engaged in back in the 12th century!). I’m planning to (re)read some of the other major (“literary”) modern additions to the canon of Arthurian literature, too — Tennyson, maybe Steinbeck, and definitely Charles Williams’s Arthurian poems, with C. S. Lewis’s commentary. This is my idea of fun!

St Augustine City of God Doubleday abridged

The other book I’ve started recently is the Doubleday/Image edition of St. Augustine’s City of God. This is an abridged version of the Fathers of the Church translation, cutting out most of Augustine’s digressions, with an even more abridged version of Etienne Gilson’s foreward to the original edition of that translation. I picked this copy up cheap second-hand because my Penguin edition of the complete City of God is, alas, like most of my books, in storage and inaccessible. I will definitely go back at some point and read the chapters that the Image abridgement leaves out. I’ll be commenting on Gilson’s foreward, as well as Augustine’s tome, book by book. I’ve read (and taught) portions of City of God in the past, but that took some of his major ideas out of the context of his larger argument, so I’m interested in putting the familar bits back into their proper context. This will be my first go at reading the whole argument, so I’m actually glad — for the nonce — to be able to skip over the digressions. I’ll note the “skipped” parts as I get to them.

I’m glad to be reading something Arthurian and modern alongside something theological and ancient, particularly something by Augustine of Hippo, who I think had a greater influence on the beginning of the Arthurian literary tradition than most modern critics recognize or admit. We’ll see if the juxtaposition provokes any interesting, new ideas.