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from issue no. 08 - 2009

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City of God, place of Grace


The dualism of the two cities is not to be seen as the conflict between Church and State. Indeed Augustine affirms the necessity of the civil order whose simple task is to ensure peaceful co-existence between opposing interests


by Massimo Borghesi


<I>The baptism of Saint Augustine</I>, fresco (1338), church of the Eremitani, Padua

The baptism of Saint Augustine, fresco (1338), church of the Eremitani, Padua

It is interesting to note that Augustine’s present relevance coincides with the unfashionableness of the medieval version of his thought, with the definitive waning of that political Augustinism which supplied the theoretic justification of papal supremacy over imperial power in the running quarrel that lasted from Gregory VII until Boniface VIII. The many studies that have emerged in recent decades on the work of the bishop of Hippo, from that of Reinhold Niebuhr to those of Étienne Gilson, Sergio Cotta, Joseph Ratzinger and others1, all proceed from a re-appraisal of Augustine’s position, in particular that expressed in De civitate Dei, along with a critique of medieval political Augustinism. The theses of these studies could be summed up as follows: for Augustine the dualism between the two civitates, the “city of God” and the “earthly city” is not to be identified with the conflict between Church and State. “The City of God, with resplendent walls of adamantine, is the supernatural goal of the believer; with Saint Augustine, it becomes achievable in this life. All just men are citizens. The conflict between Christians and Romans, Church and Empire, provincials and government ceases: it shifts into the conscience”2. Augustine’s model, secondly, differs both from the potentially revolutionary eschatology of Origen – which tends to de-legitimize the ordinances and laws of the State because they are not in line with the requirements of the Gospel – and from the political theocracy of Eusebius of Caesarea who, identifying Christian universalism with that of Rome, laid the ideological basis on which Byzantium was to found its “Christian” empire3. This double distinction, from Origen and from Eusebius, enables us, in third place, to see the model set out in De civitate Dei as absolutely not theocratic, and this despite the fact that during the Donatist controversy, particularly in his Letter 93 to Bishop Vincentius, Augustine lets one glimpse a possible use in that direction. It is this “use” that explains the “political Augustinism” which, as Gilson well explains, led his followers to affirm “a dual and complementary tendency. On the one hand, forgetful of the great apocalyptic vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, they reduced the City of God to the Church, which in Augustine’s authentic view was no more than the ‘pilgrim’ part, working in time to enlist citizens for eternity. On the other, there was the ever growing tendency to mistake the earthly city of Augustine - the mystical city of perdition - with the temporal and political city. From then on the problem of the two cities became that of the two powers, the spiritual power of the popes and the temporal one of States or princes”4.
The present relevance of Augustine’s position lies in the escape from this constriction and in the setting out of the three points above. As a result the meaning of the civitas Dei as the locus of grace becomes comprehensible in all its force. This perception becomes crystal clear in the waning of that identification of nature and grace which Romano Guardini, in his Das Ende der Neuzeit, defines as the “modern disloyalty”, the wrongful appropriation of contents and values which only the presence and the workings of the supernatural can keep alive and genuine. Equally clear also is the decline of the identification of the ideal city with the political city which marked the medieval theocratic dream as, on a different plane, it marks the modern utopia, whose model emerges towards the end of the Middle Ages as a result of the secularization of the notion of “age of the Spirit”, as affirmed in Joachim of Flore’s theology of history5.
An understanding of Augustine’s particularity thus leads one’s thinking about Christianity back to a situation prior to the Middle Ages, to the situation of the early Church. As Ratzinger puts it, when Augustine “sets out his view of the relationship between Church and State in practice he took as his basis the situation of the Church of the catacombs. The Church in no way yet appeared as an active element in that relationship, the notion of Christianization of the state and the world decidedly did not belong among Saint Augustine’s programmatic points”6. This does not indicate an indifference to the world and the res publica, but means that “his doctrine of the two civitates aims neither at ecclesializing the State nor statalizing the Church but it aspires, in the midst of the orderings of this world which remain and must remain worldly orderings, to make present the new force of faith in the unity of mankind in the body of Christ, as an element of transformation whose complete form will be created by God himself, once this history has reached its end”7. Thus Augustine is not concerned about working out a Christian constitution for the world, the idea of a “Christendom”. “Here it is not permitted to abandon oneself to any illusion: all the States of this world are ‘earthly States’ even when they are ruled by Christian emperors... They are States on this earth and hence ‘earthly’. Nor can they, in fact, become anything else. As such they are the forms of necessary ordering of this age of the world and it is right to be concerned for their well-being”8.
The archeological remains of the baptistry of San Giovanni alle Fonti in the restructuring that followed on the research of 1996; the octagonal shape of the font is noted, repeated by the  external perimeter of the structure

The archeological remains of the baptistry of San Giovanni alle Fonti in the restructuring that followed on the research of 1996; the octagonal shape of the font is noted, repeated by the external perimeter of the structure

It is obvious that such a view forces itself on the attention at the very moment when the ideal which characterized post-war Catholicism, that of a “new Christendom”, later and different from the medieval form, shows unmistakable signs everywhere of wear and tear. It is hardly a matter of a passage from an excessively optimistic version of the political element - from democracy naturaliter Christian – to a more pessimistic one; from a trustingly ‘natural lawish’ view to one marked by Realpolitik, from Thomas to Augustine seen as forerunner of Machiavelli and Hobbes9. If Augustine’s relevance depended merely on this then his rediscovery would coincide with the stalemate suffered by the Catholic presence in politics, with the abandonment of their idealistic witness in the public sphere. As against the medieval “political Augustinism” we would have a spiritualistic Augustinism as label for the rout of the political Catholicism of recent decades. In reality the return of Augustine will only have effective and not mere ideological meaning if it enables a critique of the over-determination of the political moment, the courage to admit imperfection without setting it on a pedestal, and along with this the awareness of the otherness of the civitas Dei, its difference from any res publica. This divergence is insisted upon by Augustine to the point where he openly magnifies the civic virtues which gave rise to the greatness of Rome: “By showing through the opulence and the glory of the Roman empire everything that civic virtues can produce even when unconnected with the true religion, God intended to demonstrate that the latter renders men citizens of another city, where truth is sovereign, charity law and whose duration is eternal”. The new city produced by grace, which dwells in its citizens mixed with the earthly city, has no need of the downfall of the “natural” virtues in order to show itself, even if that is what most often occurs in reality.
The “return to Augustine” thus coincides with the awareness that our present, as a period in which so many aspects of the situation of the early Christians are again making themselves felt, is more than ever the time of “grace”, a time of “encounters” in which, as Gustave Bardy says in his splendid book Conversions to Christianity in the Early Centuries, the miracle of a change becomes possible through living, profound testimony. The time, therefore, for a Christian community which knows it has no “fatherland”, “a community of foreigners which accepts and makes use of earthly realities but is not at home in them”10; of a civitas, finally which, beyond the clerical image of a besieged fortress, worn by the conflict with power, is able to see the situation as it was in the beginning: “Christianity which still thinks of the boundless spaces of people and which still has hope for the salvation of the world”11.


Notes
1 R. Niebuhr, Christian Realism and Political Problems, New York 1953; on Niebuhr as an Augustinian scholar cf. G. Dessì, Niebuhr, Antropologia cristiana e democrazia, Rome 1993; M. Borghesi, “Cristianesimo e democrazia in Reinhold Niebuhr”, in Il Nuovo Areopago, 1, 1994 (pp. 31-42); E. Gilson, Les métamorphoses de la cité de Dieu, Paris 1952; S. Cotta, La città politica di sant’Agostino, Milan 1960; J. Ratzinger, Volk und Haus Gottes in Augustinus Lehre von der Kirche, Ismaning 1971; J. Ratzinger, Die Einheit der Nationen. Eine Vision der Kirchenväter, München 1971.
2 L. Storoni Mazzolani, Sant’Agostino e i pagani, Palermo 1987 (pp. 93-94).
3 For this distinction and, in particular, for the difference betwen Origen and Augustine, cf. J. Ratzinger, Die Einheit der Nationen. Eine Vision der Kirchenväter, München 1971.
4 E. Gilson, Les métamorphoses de la cité de Dieu, Paris 1952.
5 cf. A. Crocco, “Il superamento del dualismo agostiniano nella concezione della storia di Gioacchino da Fiore”, in AA. VV., L’età dello Spirito e la fine dei tempi in Gioacchino da Fiore e nel gioachimismo medievale, S. Giovanni in Fiore 1986 (pp. 143-161). On the diversity between the Augustinian model, which presupposes the two civitates, and Joachim’s which leads to the unification of Church and society within one city, cf. M. Borghesi, “L’età dello Spirito e la metamorfosi della città di Dio”, in Il Nuovo Areopago, 13, 1994 (pp. 5-27); (the entire issue, with contributions from J. R. Armogathe, G. Contri, C. Dalmasso, N. Grassi, M. Vallicelli, is dedicated to the comparison between Joachim of Flore and Augustine). On the secularization of the third age of Joachim cf. H. de Lubac, La posterité spirituelle de Joachim de Flore, 2 volumes, Paris 1979-1981. On the transformation of Augustine’s city of God in the course of the modern age see E. Gilson, Les métamorphoses de la cité de Dieu, Paris 1952.
6 J. Ratzinger, Volk und Haus Gottes in Augustinus Lehre von der Kirche, Ismaning 1971.
7 J. Ratzinger, Die Einheit der Nationen. Eine Vision der Kirchenväter, München 1971.
8 Ibidem.
9 This is the thinking behind the reassessment of Augustine by R. Esposito, Nove pensieri sulla politica, Bologna 1993.
10 J. Ratzinger, Die Einheit der Nationen. Eine Vision der Kirchenväter, München 1971.
11 H. U. von Balthasar, Rechenschaft, Einsiedeln 1965.


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