Augustine and the Role of the Church within the Political Order

Written by on October 14th, 2013. Subject: Theology. Filed in Political History, about Augustine politics

|||Augustine. Concerning the city of God against the pagans. London: Penguin Books, 2003.|||

Augustine of Hippo We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly city by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self. In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord. Book XIV, Chapter 28 (p. 593)

The above-quoted selection from Augustine’s City of God may or may not be among one of the classic passages engrained in the Western psyche. Not being an historian of ideas, I do not want to make too bold of a claim, though general trends might be observed even by the young philosopher trying to sound out some historical problems. A good Aristotelian or Thomist cannot help experiencing the lure of essences—even when they are ensconced in history. Hence, I turn to a trend, broadly construed, that can be seen in a famous dictum made by the Doctor of Grace, St. Augustine.

As I have said before, much of the western medieval mindset was impressed by the intertwined relations between “throne and altar.” Whether one considers the Carolingian reforms or the tumultuous untwining that happened during the so-called “Gregorian reforms” of the 11th century,1 one thing is quite certain—temporal ends and spiritual ends were not very clearly distinguished. The factors at play are numerous, and while my remarks in an earlier article regarding the role of monasticism are, I believe, true for their own part, we must not simplify the matters.

In a sense, the “Christian problem” raised to consciousness a significant ambiguity that is embedded in all practical human agency. Christ had spoken of “things that are Caesar’s” and “things that are God’s,”2 but this distinction is not necessarily a Christian one. In supporting the primacy of speculative over practical intellection, Aristotle himself said, “Practical wisdom does not use speculative wisdom but makes the provisions to secure it. . . . It does not issue [commands] to wisdom itself. To say the contrary would be like asserting that politics governs the gods, because it commands about everything in the state, .”3 Really, the problem that is lodged in the status of practical intellection is its relationship to speculative knowledge, which the former ultimately presupposes as the foundation of any possible free agency.4 The state may force the teaching of mathematics for the sake of the common good in certain, limited circumstances. However, it must never bend the rules of mathematics to itself, creating a particular kind of “state mathematics.”

St. Augustine occupies an interesting point in Christian history, and we must be careful when we interpret him in light of the later articulations of theological science. The forms of Aristotelian science based particularly on the Posterior Analytics would shape the overall structure of Catholic (and by indirect influence, Protestant) theology. Even if the “scientific pretensions” of theology (a somewhat pejorative expression that I do not endorse) are today on hard times, the aspirational tendency of Christian thought toward some state of scientific elaboration remains like the reverberations of a former order. Even when humanity fell from grace, the order of fallen nature was forever marked with the reverberations of our first graced condition5—so too with theological thought.

When it comes to the nature of the temporal as such (ut sic), a scientific elaboration by theology and philosophy must employ a number of key abstractions—little of which can be treated here in detail. However, I do wish to say, that to understand the nature of civil society ut sic, we must really pay attention to the ut sic. To what end does civil society, as such, aim? If there is such a thing as “natural religion”6, what in the world does that mean for a world in which there are positive religions vying for some expression in the “public square?”

Here, a full treatment would require an aggressive treatment of a number of controversies that surround not only the theologians Michael Baius (16th century) and Cornelius Jansen (16th-17th century), but likewise the contested theses of Karl Rahner’s “supernatural existential,” Henri de Lubac’s treatment of the supernatural, and then many others (both Catholic and Protestant). The general question is, however, does the ratio—that is, the reason or meaning—of the natural order have its own “ontological density?” Is there a finality that runs through culture qua created culture (created culture ut sic) that is subordinate to the order of the perfect society proclaimed by Christianity—a perfect society that is not merely exemplified but lived in the Beatific Vision? The question is, “What is the nature of the culture that is presupposed by the supernatural elevation of that culture?”

As applied to civil society, then, what does it mean for a religious person to contribute to public discussion? In the ecclesiastical order, it is unacceptable to have a pharisaical desire to wash one’s hands of a society that does not match the supreme beatitude of the Beatific Vision. In via, even supernatural beatitude is incomplete beatitude. As applied to the order of public, political rationality, it is equally egregious to refuse involvement because the natural is not the supernatural and the political not the ecclesiastical. The old notion of “preambles of faith” apply primarily to those revealed truths that are presupposed by the supernatural order—just as nature is presupposed by grace (which elevates the former along its own lines as well). In an analogous sense, it might well be the case that in the face of radical cultural changes, Christian leaders will have to stress many natural truths that are overlooked by the public order. Certainly, this includes the topics of abortion and contraception. However, the post-Leonine papal encyclicals concerning the social order are a testimony to the Church’s condemnation of the modern economic-political order—not for being economic-political but for failing to be such in line with the true exigencies of human nature, meaning nature with its full ontological density, its full distinction and finality—a finality that is directed toward and perfected by the supernatural but is not equivalent thereto. It is a condemnation of civil and cultural society insofar as it fails as temporal, natural society ut sic.

What will be unacceptable to the Christian is—and here we finally return to Augustine’s quote as we close these reflections—to stop merely at this point. One does not reform the world for the sake of the world but instead for the sake of the final end to which the human person is called—the Beatific Vision. Let us not, however, forget that this activity does not mean that time and nature are vacated, for it was human nature that was saved and is ultimately perfected ut natura by man’s supernatural participation in the Divine Life. The Augustinian formulation remains correct, for even the exigencies of the natural order are subordinated to that which stands “above nature.” However, the often Platonic bias underlying the Doctor of Grace can lead one to read him in a manner that quickly empties nature (and hence, the political as well) of its own teleology. Let us recall, however, that in the single person of Christ, there were two “natures” united: the human (natural) and the Divine (supernatural).

About Matthew Minerd

Matthew Minerd Matthew Minerd, PhL is a PhD student at The Catholic University of America. His research and reading interests are the history of the Thomistic Tradition, 20th Century French Thomism, and sundry topics metaphysical and ethical.

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  1. For a very accessible treatment of this latter point, I would recommend the little text Joseph R. Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (Princeton: Princeton University, 2005). 

  2. Mt. 22:21 

  3. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Martin Ostwald (New York: Library of the Liberal Arts, 1962), 1145a7-12. 

  4. On this, I obviously presuppose the Thomistic position of intellectualism. One must not be satisfied with a single text here, but I turn the reader to a first reflection (which must be followed by many others) on Aquinas, ST I q.82 a.3. 

  5. See Jacques Maritain, Neuf Leçons sur les Notions Premières de la Philosophie Morale (Paris: Téqui, 1951), 105-107. 

  6. For the Thomist, the primary species of justice is religion, whose proper and immediate acts are directed to God in adoration as Creator. Consideration of acts of religion as means to the supernatural end of man are to be considered as infused moral virtues, founded on the order of grace. For extensive treatment on the virtue of religion and its acts, see Aquinas, ST II-II qq. 81-91.