Apostolic Letter on Augustine of Hippo
His Holiness Pope John Paul II
August 28, 1986
Augustine of Hippo, who, scarcely one year after his death, was called "one of the best teachers" of the Church by my distant predecessor, St. Celestine I, has been present ever since in the life of the Church and in the mind and culture of the whole western world. * * * later, Pius XI [declared] that, of those who have flourished from the beginnings of the human race down to our own days, none—or, at most, very few—could rank with Augustine, for the very great acuteness of his genius, for the richness and sublimity of his teachings, and finally for his holiness of life and defense of Catholic truth. * * *
The conversion of St. Augustine, an event totally dominated by the need to find the truth, has much to teach the men and women of today, who are so often mistaken about the greatest question of all life. * * * He understood that reason and faith are two forces that are to cooperate to bring the human person to know the truth. * * *
He understood that the first question to be asked about the serious question of evil, which was his great torment, was not its origin, but what it was; and he saw that evil is not a substance, but the lack of good: "All that exists is good. The evil about the origin of which I asked questions is not a substance." He concluded that God is the creator of everything, and that no substance exists that was not created by Him.
Taught by his own experience of life, he made the decisive discovery that sin has its origin in the will of the human person, a will that is free and weak: "It was I who willed and refused; it was I, I." * * *
1. Reason and faith
First of all, there is the problem that occupied him most in his youth and to which he returned with all the force of genius and the passion of his spirit: the problem of the relationship between reason and faith. This is a perennial problem, no less acute today than yesterday. * * * Augustine's intellectual and pastoral endeavor aimed to show, beyond any shadow of doubt, that "since we are impelled by a twin pull of gravity to learn," both forces, reason and faith, must work together.
He always listened to what faith had to say, but he exalted reason no less, giving each its own primacy in time of importance. He told all, "Believe that you may understand," but he repeated also, "Understand that you may believe." He wrote a work, perennially relevant, on the usefulness of faith, and explained that faith is the medicine designed to heal the eye of the spirit, the unconquerable fortress for the defense of all, especially of the weak, against error, the nest in which we receive the wings for the lofty flights of the spirit, the short path that permits one to know, quickly, surely and without errors, the truths which lead the human person to wisdom. He also emphasizes that faith is never without reason, because it is reason that shows "in what one should believe." "For faith has its own eyes, by means of which it sees in a certain manner that what it does not yet see is true." Therefore "no one believes anything, unless he has first thought that it is to be believed," because "to believe is itself nothing other than to think with assent...if faith is not thought through, it is no faith." * * *
2. God and man
* * * Although God is transcendent and ineffable, Augustine is nevertheless able, starting from the self-awareness of the human person who knows that he exists and knows and loves, and encouraged by Sacred Scripture, which reveals God as the supreme Being (Ex 3:14), highest Wisdom (Wis, passim) and first Love (1 Jn 4:8), is able to illustrate this threefold notion of God: the Being from whom every being proceeds through creation from nothing, the Truth which enlightens the human mind so that it can know the truth with certainty, the Love that is the source and the goal of all true love. For God, as he so often repeats, is "the cause of what exists, the reason of thought and the ordering of living, or, to use an equally famous formula, "the cause of the universe that has been created, and the light of the truth that is to be perceived, and the fountain from which happiness is to be drunk." * * *
He finds God as "the eternal internal," most secret and most present—man seeks Him because he is absent, but knows Him and finds Him because He is present. * * * Referring to the period before his conversion, Augustine says to God: "Where were You then for me, and how far away? And I was a wanderer far away from You.... But You were more internal than what was intimate in me, and higher than what was highest in me"; "You were with me, and I was not with You." * * *
The human person, accordingly, cannot understand himself except in relationship to God * * * his words, "You have made us for yourself and our heart has no rest until it rests in You," are very well known. He sees the human person as a capacity of existence elevated to the immediate vision of God, the finite who reaches the Infinite. * * *
3. Christ and the Church
One may rightly say that the summit of the theological thinking of the Bishop of Hippo is Christ and the Church. * * * The Church is inseparable from Christ. From the time of his conversion onwards, he recognized and accepted with joy and gratitude the law of providence which has established in Christ and in the Church "the entire summit of authority and the light of reason in that one saving name and in His one Church, recreating and reforming the human race." * * *
[Augustine wrote that] the mediation of Christ is accomplished in the work of redemption, which consists not only in the example of righteousness, but above all in the sacrifice of reconciliation, which was supremely true, supremely free, and completely perfect. The essential characteristic of the redemption by Christ is its universality, which shows the universality of sin. This is how Augustine repeats and interprets the words of St. Paul, "If one has died for all, then all have died" (2 Cor 5:14), i.e., dead because of sin: "The Christian faith, accordingly, exists precisely because of these two men"; "One and one: one for death, one for life." Therefore "every man is Adam; likewise, for those who have believed, every man is Christ." * * *
In Augustine's view, to deny this doctrine is the same as "emptying the cross of Christ" (1 Cor 1:17). To prevent this, he wrote and spoke much about the universality of sin, including the doctrine of original sin * * *
Another fundamental theme is that of the Holy Spirit as the soul of the mystical body: "what the soul is to the body of a man, the Holy Spirit is for the body of Christ, which is the Church." The Holy Spirit is also the principle of community, by which the faithful are united to one another and to the Trinity itself. * * *
Another theme dear to Augustine's ecclesiology was that of the Church as mother and teacher, a theme on which he wrote profound and moving pages, because it had a close connection to his experience as convert and to his teaching as theologian. While he was on the path back to faith, he met the Church, no longer opposed to Christ as he had been made to believe, but rather as the manifestation of Christ, "most true mother of Christians" and authority for the revealed truth. * * *
[The Church] is a mother, but also, like Mary, a virgin: mother by the ardor of charity, virgin by the integrity of the faith that she guards, defends and teaches. This virginal motherhood is linked to her task of teacher, a task which the Church carries out in obedience to Christ. For this reason, Augustine looks to the Church as guarantor of the Scriptures, and attests that he will remain secure in her whatever difficulties arise for him, urgently exhorting others to do the same: "Thus, as I have often said and impress upon you with vehemence, whatever we are, you are secure if you have God as your Father and His Church as your mother." * * *
4. Freedom and grace
Even to indicate briefly the various aspects of St. Augustine's theology would be an infinite task. Another important, indeed fundamental aspect, linked also to his conversion, is that of freedom and grace. * * *
He always defended freedom as one of the bases of a Christian anthropology, against his former coreligionists, against the determinism of the astrologers whose victim he himself had once been, and against every form of fatalism; he explained that liberty and foreknowledge are not incompatible, nor liberty and the aid of divine grace. "The fact that free will is aided, does not destroy it; but because it is not taken away, it is aided." And the Augustinian principle is well known: "He who made you without your participation, does not justify you without your participation. He has made you without your knowledge; He justifies you if you will it." * * *
On the other hand, Augustine insists on the necessity of grace, which is the same thing as the necessity of prayer. To those who said that God does not command what is impossible, and that therefore grace is not necessary, he replied that "God does not command what is impossible; but when He commands, He exhorts you to do what you can and to ask for what you cannot do," and God gives help so that the command becomes possible, since "He does not abandon us unless we abandon Him first."
The doctrine of the necessity of divine grace becomes the doctrine of the necessity of prayer. * * * Grace is therefore necessary to remove the obstacles that prevent the will from fleeing evil and accomplishing what is good. These obstacles are two in number, "ignorance and weakness." * * *
The two obstacles of ignorance and weakness must be overcome if we are to breathe the air of freedom. It will not be superfluous to recall that the defense of the necessity of grace is, for Augustine, the defense of Christian freedom. Starting from Christ's words, "If the Son sets you free, then you will be truly free" (Jn 8:36), he defends and proclaims this freedom which is inseparable from truth and love. Truth, love and freedom are the three great good things that fired the spirit of Augustine and exercised his genius; he shed much light on the understanding of these.
To pause briefly in consideration of this last good, that of freedom, we must observe that he describes and celebrates Christian freedom in all its forms, from the freedom from error--for the liberty of error, [that is, the false "freedom" to err,] is "the worst death of the soul"--through the gift of faith which subjects the soul to the truth, to the final and inalienable freedom, the greatest of all, which consists in the inability to die and in the inability to sin, i.e. in immortality and the fullness of righteousness. All other freedoms which Augustine illustrates and proclaims find their place among these two, which mark the beginning and the end of salvation: the freedom from the dominion of the disordered passions, as the work of the grace that enlightens the intellect and gives the will so much strength that it becomes victorious in the combat with evil (as he himself experienced in his conversion when he was freed from the harsh slavery); the freedom from time that we devour and that devours us, in that love permits us to live anchored to eternity. * * *
In the case of the grace that strengthens the will, he insists that it operates by means of love and therefore makes the will invincible against evil, without removing from the will the possibility of refusal. * * * "Do not think that you are drawn against your will: the spirit is drawn also by love." But love, as he also observes, works "with liberal sweetness," so that "the one who observes the precept with love, observes it in freedom. "The law of freedom is the law of love." * * *
Augustine teaches no less insistently freedom from time, a freedom that Christ, the eternal Word, has come to bring us by his entry into the world in the incarnation: "O Word that exists before time, through whom time was made," he exclaims, "born in time although You are eternal life, calling those who exist in time and making them eternal!" It is well known that St. Augustine studied deeply the mystery of time and both felt and stated the need to transcend time in order to exist truly. "That you may be truly yourself, transcend time. But who shall transcend it by his own power? Let Christ lift him up, as He said to the Father: 'I wish that they too may be with me where I am.'" * * *
* * *
Before concluding, let us ask this extraordinary man what he has to say to the modern man. I believe that he has indeed much to say, both by his example and by his teaching.
He teaches the person who searches for truth not to despair of finding it. He teaches this by his example—he himself rediscovered it after many years of laborious seeking. * * * His legacy includes the ardent desire to understand his own faith—"Be a great lover indeed of understanding," is his command to others, which he applies to himself also; likewise the profound sense of the mystery—"for it is better," he exclaims, "to have a faithful ignorance than a presumptuous knowledge". * * *
Another contribution of Augustine's teaching to the men and women of today which we may briefly mention is his proposal of the twofold object of study that should occupy the human mind: God and man "What do you wish to know?" he asks himself. And he replies: "God and the soul are what I wish to know." Nothing more? Nothing at all. Confronted with the sad spectacle of evil he reminds modern men and women that they must nevertheless have confidence in the final triumph of the good, i.e., of the City "where the victory is the truth; where dignity is holiness; where peace is happiness where life is eternity." * * *
Given at Rome, at St. Peter's on August 28, on the feast day of St. Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, in the year 1986, the eighth of my Pontificate.
IOANNES PAULUS II