I’ve been re-reading St. Augustine’s City of God lately, both for the TCT course I’m teaching this Fall but also because it’s the most insightful – and influential – Catholic meditation on religion and politics. We have an election tomorrow, too – as you may have heard – in which various parties now seem to have a vested interest in claiming that what’s really at stake is an existential “threat to democracy.”
I don’t believe that for a moment – at least in the short run – though you’d have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to be troubled by the many deep crises we face, not least the continuing massacre of the innocents in abortion (and the scientific lying needed to rationalize it), our vicious identity politics cum cancel culture, and the grooming and mutilation of our children by sexual ne’er-do-wells.
To say nothing of a false understanding of America itself, which is not a pure democracy anyway, but a constitutional republic, because the Founders knew that, historically, bare popular majorities, by a strange paradox, often bring about tyrannies.
You should make every effort necessary to vote, if you haven’t already, for whomever you believe will best respond to those and many other challenges because all these things matter. And because any one of our current crises could put us on the road to ruin.
Still, it’s the hysterics who seem to equate a red or blue outcome with the end of the world who, at the moment, are doing the most harm to our nation and, more importantly, to their and our souls.
Augustine had to try to explain what was literally the invasion and sacking of the Capitol of the greatest empire in the world by the “barbarian” Visigoths – a real-life MSNBC’s-worst-nightmare January 6. And it did lead within a few decades to the end of the Western Roman Empire (the Eastern Empire lasted another 1000 years).
Augustine demolished the charge that the Christian virtues, especially the softer ones like love and mercy, had weakened the empire, and showed that those virtues actually improved Rome in the ways that truly mattered. Because empires and all political orders can – and usually do – become idols. And one reason divine Providence lets them fail, whatever their benefits, is precisely to keep us from worshipping a false god.
Further, Augustine never sees anything as a mere “issue.” That’s the way politicians – and more and more of us, even Christians – talk about, well, everything, as if there were no other dimension to our lives in common, such as true and false, good and evil, and much else that simply doesn’t depend on majority votes.
That’s bad enough in politics, especially among a people richer and freer than virtually any other in human history. But the disease has lately even entered the Church.
The recently released Instrumentum laboris (“Working Document”) for the Synod on Synodality speaks in terms borrowed from our all-devouring politics. It’s brim full of inclusiveness, diversity, and (allegedly) listening, all but devoid of words like truth, holiness, sin, redemption – and Jesus.
One of the reports recently submitted to Rome blithely comments, “Issues such as the Church’s teaching on abortion, contraception, ordination of women, married clergy, celibacy, divorce and remarriage, Holy Communion, homosexuality, LGBTQIA+ were raised up across the dioceses both rural and urban. There were of course differing views on these and it is not possible to give a definitive community stance on any of these issues.” [Emphases added.]
To speak of such matters as “issues” marked by “differing views” has already walked a good way towards allowing that they could be altered by “a definitive community stance,” or at least what can be claimed as such by those doing the reporting. It’s curious how the materials produced so far for the Synod seem not so much to be raising up fresh voices “from the peripheries,” as the synod claims, as to march in lockstep with the progressivism of the developed world.
By contrast, St. Augustine always considers things starting from God, which is why his Confessions is not so much an autobiography as an account of a soul’s painful stumbling towards its Creator. City of God does not so much concern itself with arguments for why Rome was invaded as how God works in history, which we cannot control, because He has His own plan.
At the same time, Augustine describes incisively the virtues each of us needs to develop and how a just city, one focused on God and his intentions, will look at what happens – whether it succeeds or fails.
And there’s more to that story. Most of us who learned in school about the Visigoth sack of Rome, and Augustine’s response in City of God, came away with the impression that “barbarians” – and paganism – made an incursion into a decadent late Empire. And there’s some truth in that.
If you look more closely, however, Alaric, the leader of the Visigoths, had been a highly successful officer in the Roman Army, so not really a total outsider. If anything, he wanted even greater recognition within the Roman system, and that frustration partly fueled his attack.
Further, Alaric and many of the Visigoths themselves were Arian Christians, which is to say heretical Christians who – to oversimplify a bit – viewed Jesus as created with divine elements, but not divine like the Father and the Holy Spirit as in orthodox Trinitarian belief. (The Council of Nicaea responded to that error – and we still use the Creed that it produced.)
But beyond the theological disputes, it’s worth noting that the sack of Rome was largely the work of heretical Christians (Visigoths). And entering the city was made a lot easier because rebellious slaves – rightly resentful of long mistreatment – opened the Porta salaria, the Salarian Gate, to the invaders.
It’s been said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Pray God to keep us from reaping the whirlwind we have sown for ourselves in our Church and our nation.
*Image: Sack of Rome by Alaric (sacred vessels are brought to a church for safety) by Maïtre François (for Augustine’s La Cité de Dieu (Vol. I), translated from Latin by Raoul de Presles, 15th century [Ste Genevieve Library Paris]
You may also enjoy:
Anthony Esolen’s Clever Barbarians?
Brad Miner’s The Eighth Day
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