St. Augustine Once Again Shows He was Not a Real American Catholic

St. Augustine Once Again Shows He was Not a Real American Catholic March 10, 2015

Not only did he reject lying for a good cause, he also was not nearly as eager to kill bad guys as he should have been. A reader writes:

I’d like to recommend this short letter by St Augustine. It’s regarding non-Catholics who have been convicted of harming and even murdering Catholics, including priests. St. Augustine does not wish to see them receive punishment like they’ve inflicted. As it turns out, ancient Christians were not so eager to dole out death as some would have us believe.

“[W]e do not wish to have the sufferings of the servants of God avenged by the infliction of precisely similar injuries in the way of retaliation.”

But Augustine helped to formulate Just war doctrine. Yes. He sure did. And just war doctrine is, of course, ordered not toward the question “When do we get to kill people?” but “How do we make it as hard as possible to kill people?” This is, as ever, the difference between anti-abortion-but-not-prolife postmodern Catholic thought that animates zeal for war, torture, and the death penalty and actual prolife thinking.

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  • How many of us really want to follow Christ? His love is a tough love.

    • HornOrSilk

      And tough love here doesn’t mean beating up kids to correct them, as some Americans think!

      • Dave G.

        Beating up kids? Hardly an American phenomenon. Which is, of course, different than spanking. Also not uniquely American.

      • The irony is, of course, that Augustine praised the idea of beatings (with rods no less) not only by parents to correct children but by authorities to extract confessions in the very letter that is the subject of the post.

        The relevant quote:

        “beating them with rods, a mode of correction used by schoolmasters, and by parents themselves in chastising children, and often also by bishops in the sentences awarded by them”

  • MeanLizzie

    I thought Aquinas formed the Just War theory? I always get them confused….

    • HornOrSilk

      No, Aquinas reconfigured some of what went before him, but Augustine had a just war (or, just use of force) theory. A big difference between the two is how they established it. Augustine was all about authority and the right authority was a necessary precondition to use force — so he did not think a person without authority could kill in self-defense. Military soldiers, in official duty, could. Augustine was, just like his time, far more limited, in general, to what could or could not be used. However, once he believed it justified, he could show himself a strong proponent of such authority (not always to kill, mind you, but also torture). Aquinas reconfigured things, some for the better, some for the worse — though I would also say where Aquinas improves things is his attempt to make a systematic instead of practical analysis.

  • Elmwood

    read about cardinal gibbons, the “americanist”, who demanded all american catholics to support america’s entry into wwi against the wishes of pope benedict xv who wanted peace. archbishop ireland, another americanist, forced thousands of eastern catholics to the orthodox church. obedience isn’t an american quality.

    i would say weigel, sirico, neuhaus and novak are heirs to this americanist movement in the catholic church.

  • donttouchme

    This is a red herring, or just more rhetoric heaped on top of all the rest. That’s why the first two-thirds of the sentence quoted are left out: “For although we might silently pass over the execution of criminals who may be regarded as brought up for trial not upon an accusation of ours, but by an indictment presented by those to whose vigilance the preservation of the public peace is entrusted, we do not wish to have the sufferings of the servants of God avenged by the infliction of precisely similar injuries in the way of retaliation.”
    Augustine implores a judge who is a Christian not to retaliate in vengeance on men who mutilated and murdered the judge’s friends. Paraphrase: “Dear friend and Christian judge, I’m not opposed to the death penalty in general, but please don’t have these men killed or mutilated out of vengeance, in retaliation for murdering our friends.”

  • It was a different time. I await your commentary Augustine’s praise of the judge’s ordered beatings of the accused to extract confessions then used to convict them. Up to now, I’d put that under the category “not a good idea”, but since you bring this up as a model for present conduct.

    Or we can view it as what it is, a call to avoid vengeance in a case very far from us and difficult to get into the details.

  • JM1001

    I sympathize with your position, Mark. But my own intellectual integrity requires me to at least bring up as a point of discussion something I noticed in Augustine’s letter that, it seems to me, would be a very powerful argument for the anti-abolitionist side of the capital punishment debate.

    The death penalty as a just punishment rests on the idea of retributive justice — that a person can deserve death for particular crimes. However, this does not mean that every criminal that has committed a crime deserving of death should be executed, for there are other goods that might be pursued in the punishment of a criminal: their rehabilitation and repentance, for example. In order to pursue those goods, a punishment might, in a particular situation, call upon the virtue of mercy, forgoing the death penalty in order to give the criminal time to be rehabilitated and, hopefully, repent.

    But mercy — like all virtues — is only meaningful if we are free to do otherwise. If we are not free to do otherwise, can forgoing the death penalty for a particular criminal, not because we chose to do so, but because it has been abolished as an option entirely, truly be called mercy? Which brings me to what Augustine says in his letter:

    [T]he apostle was not satisfied with merely exhorting us to practise moderation, but also commands us to make it known: “Let your moderation,” he says, “be known unto all men;” [Philippians 4:5] and in another place, “Showing all meekness unto all men.” [Titus 3:2] Hence, also, that most signal forbearance of the holy David, when he mercifully spared his enemy when delivered into his hand, [1 Samuel 24:7] would not have been so conspicuous had not his power to act otherwise been manifest.

    Therefore, so the argument could go, the death penalty should not be abolished, so that it exists as an alternative choice of action, allowing our opting for mercy to be actually meaningful and, to use Augustine’s words, conspicuous.

    An obvious response to this potential argument could be that, as our culture rapidly de-Christianizes, the virtue of mercy is in constant danger of no longer being considered a virtue at all, and therefore, as a matter of prudence, abolishing the death may be the wise thing to do. This view would be consistent with my own suspicions (which I have already stated elsewhere) that even if the death penalty is just in principle, it may no longer be just in practice. The anti-abolitionist side contributes to this continual degeneration by too often appealing to a cold, hard retributivist position — a universe of law without grace — which is completely blind to the idea that, as Augustine says, the power to execute vengeance is valuable because it affords us the opportunity for mercy.

    • capaxdei

      An unjust punishment ought to be forbidden, so the argument you envision would only come up in a context where people agree that the death penalty is just. If abolition is not required by justice, it might still be required by prudence, if the good of abolition exceeds the good of maintaining the death penalty.

      To what extent does the argument from conspicuousness tip the scales in favor of the death penalty? What effect does the opportunity for a judge to show clemency — which St. Thomas, following Seneca, defines as the mitigation of punishment in accord with right reason — in a capital case have on the common good?

      Well, the manifestation of virtue by someone in authority is generally a good thing for a society. But how little must there be in favor of abolition for it to be outweighed by a consideration like “good judges make good citizens.”

      Then too, where clemency is possible in principle so is severity, which St. Thomas defines as the moral virtue of inflicting punishment in accord with right reason. If severity is never in accord with right reason, then a change to the law would seem to be in order. If it sometimes is, then the connection between this issue and the quotations from St. Paul becomes even more tenuous.

      And they are tenuous enough to begin with. St. Paul is concerned that Christians give witness to those around them to the peace of Christ that reigns in their hearts. I suggest that’s not a concern as such for the legal system of a secular state.

      • JM1001

        Very good. I don’t have much to add, since I want to think on this further. The death penalty is not something I discuss very often, as it is very difficult for me, much like discussions on the morality of war. I will have to continue noodling over this…

  • ivan_the_mad

    My own prudential judgement on the matter is that we ought not to proscribe capital punishment, but virtually categorically commute all death sentences to life imprisonment.