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from issue no. 08 - 2009

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Lex libertatis lex caritatis*

by Gianni Valente

<I>Il potere e la grazia. Attualità di sant’Agostino</I>, by various hands, Nuova Òmicron, Rome 1998, pp. 200

Il potere e la grazia. Attualità di sant’Agostino, by various hands, Nuova Òmicron, Rome 1998, pp. 200

The article by Massimo Borghesi, La città di Dio. Cioè il luogo della grazia [The City of God. That is the place of grace], dates from April 1995. It was one of the contributions, among essays and interviews, which, during the ’nineties, 30Days devoted to the “relevance” of St Augustine. The texts were then gathered in the collective volume Il potere e la grazia [The power and the grace] (Nuova Òmicron, Rome 1998), presented on 21 September 1998 by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the Hall of the Cenacle of the Chamber of Deputies in Rome. It was no accident that Cardinal Ratzinger helped launch the book. The relevance of Augustine was in fact an essential element in a study of Ratzinger of 1971, Die Einheit der Nationen. Eine Vision der Kirchenväter [The unity of nations. A vision of the Fathers of the Church]. In that work Augustine’s conception of the two cities was distinguished both from the perspective of Origen, in which an eschatological Christianity tended to delegitimize the orders of this world, and from that of Eusebius of Caesarea, in which an imperial Christianity tended toward an identification of the kingdoms: the celestial and the worldly. The theology of the De civitate Dei seemed to be irreducible both to the literature of the “left”, and especially that of revolutionary tendency, and that of the “right”, particularly in the past two decades of a certain dominant neo-conservatism. But the non-reducibility of Augustine to these two perspectives was highlighted not in order to propose a third way of the “center”, but simply to respect what the city of God is precisely: the place of the happening of grace.
Thus the rediscovery of De civitate Dei enables us on the one hand to go beyond medieval and modern Augustinism and on the other allows a critical evaluation (according to the directive of the Apostle Paul: “Examine all things, hold fast what is good”, 1 Th 5, 21) of instances of Enlightenment thinking. Voltaire himself in the Traité sur la tolérance, a reply to a French abbot who, citing Augustinian expressions, managed to justify the wars of religion, called for a return to St Augustine and the Fathers of the Church. Voltaire writes: “Allow me to stick to your first opinion. In truth it seems to me better”.
The Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis humanae of Vatican II, as mentioned in Pope Benedict XVI’s speech to the Roman Curia, 22 December 2005, can be considered an example of this return to biblical-patristic tradition.
Cardinal Jean-Jérôme Hamer, recalled that “the most positive contribution to the future of the Declaration on Religious Freedom” was the intervention in the assembly, in the presence of the Council Fathers, of Bishop Carlo Colombo on the supernaturalness of the Christian faith. If born from the attraction of grace, by its nature, the recognition of faith can only be by the heart, that is free: “Credere non potest nisi volens. Si corpore crederetur, fieret in nolentibus: sed non corpore creditur. Apostolum audi: ‘Corde creditur ad iustitiam’. Et quid sequitur? ‘Ore autem confessio fit ad salutem’. De radice cordis surgit ista confessio / One cannot believe except willingly. If one believed with the body, this could also occur in those unwilling, but one does not believe with the body. Listen to the Apostle: ‘With the heart you believe to obtain justice’. And how does he continue? ‘And with the mouth you acknowledge to obtain salvation’. From the root of the heart this acknowledgment arises” (Augustine, In Evangelium Ioannis XXVI, 2).
In the statement Dignitatis Humanae there seems to emerge a hint of Augustine in the clear distinction between the principle of religious freedom, which applies to everyone, and “freedom of the Church, namely the freedom that the only-begotten Son of God has given the Church purchased with His blood” (Dignitatis Humanae, n. 13). The Church claims for itself that same freedom that it asks for all other religious expressions: that is freedom of worship. But the criterion of its judgment and its action is the freedom that the only-begotten Son of God has given her by grace: the freedom of the sons of God (cf. Rom 8, 21). Libertas Ecclesiae is libertas caritatis (Augustine, De natura et gratia 65, 78). The freedom of the Church is charity. And since “libertas Ecclesiae is the fundamental principle in relations between the Church, the public powers and the whole civil order” (Dignitatis humanae, n. 13), it is necessary to ask in prayer that the Lord bestow what He commands: “Love is always patient and kind; love is never jealous; love is not boastful or conceited, it is never rude and never seeks its own advantage; it does not take offence or store up grievances. Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing but finds its joy in the truth” (1 Cor 13, 4-6). A small and important example of the freedom proper to love is the letter that Pope Benedict XVI sent to Chinese Catholics.

* Augustine, Epistolae 167, 6, 19.

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