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St. Augustine
January/February 2016

(Illustration by Michael Daley)


In so far as St Augustine of Hippo gets a press at all today, it is a bad one. In the popular imagination, he is remembered above all for his notorious prayer: “Give me chastity and continence, only not yet.” Lacking context, his plea is taken by most people as evidence of hypocrisy, but is in fact the opposite. It occurs in his Confessions, Augustine’s literary and spiritual masterpiece, which is addressed throughout to God. The fact that he confesses his self-deceit to God and man is testimony to the sincerity of his remorse. But the presumption that the pious are all hypocrites makes the opportunity to subpoena a saint against his own faith too good to miss.

Even worse, Augustine is credited with saddling Christendom with its most unfashionable doctrine: original sin. The learned sneer at him for misunderstanding the Fall, though the more charitable among them blame a faulty translation. But original sin is more generally reviled because it is supposed to have unleashed the emotion that modern psychology most abominates: guilt. What kind of monster could have believed that even innocent babies “are born sinners”? Or teach that God knows in advance who will be saved and who will not — the idea of predestination that later loomed so large in the Reformation — thereby undermining free will? No wonder Catholics have long been notorious for their exaggerated sense of guilt. It is all Augustine’s fault.

Yet here, too, the modern view does not do justice to Augustine. In more than a hundred works, he set out what has remained the orthodox teaching of the Catholic Church for 1,600 years. Free will is compatible with God’s foreknowledge, because our thoughts and actions are governed by causality. Original sin is not the fault of the newborn infant, but it is the occasion for God’s grace — proof that humanity cannot do without God and his forgiveness. For Augustine, man’s first disobedience was above all a sin of pride, when Adam and Eve sought to blame others for their actions. The Fall brought death into the world and with it the corruption of sexual desire — a subject on which Augustine wrote without prudishness. For him, the inability of men to control their lust was a consequence of Adam’s disobedience. Original sin is about human psychology, the ways in which we justify ourselves, as much as it is about theodicy, the ways in which we justify God. When Augustine converted from the teachings of Mani to those of Jesus, he also rejected fatalism, astrology and the notion of evil as an independent power. If we are evil, it is because we freely choose to do wrong.

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