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from issue no. 11 - 2010

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The question is, which nature


The distinction between nature and grace is overlooked because the nature created integral by God at the beginning is confused with the nature now injured by sin. Dialogue with the patrologist Nello Cipriani


Interview with Nello Cipriani by Lorenzo Cappelletti


The banishing from the earthly Paradise, detail of the <I>Annunciation</I>, Beato Angelico, Prado Museum, Madrid

The banishing from the earthly Paradise, detail of the Annunciation, Beato Angelico, Prado Museum, Madrid

To mark the publication of the book I cattolici e Ia società pluralista. II caso delle “leggi imperfette” (Catholics and the Pluralist Society. The Case of ‘Imperfect Laws’, extensively reviewed by Massimo Borghesi in 3ODays no.2, 1997), we thought to interview Father Nello Cipriani, professor at the patristic Augustinianum Institute and author of one of the more interesting essays in the above volume. The ensuing dialogue initially centred on Saint Augustine’s approach to the theme of certain civil laws, out of line with natural law or even contradictory. The conversation expanded in scope to consider the distinction between human nature as it was originally created by God, and man’s nature now: the nature that is “wounded, plagued, damaged, ruined” as Saint Augustine puts it, the one that generally has to be reckoned with in history.

When and in which texts did Augustine address the case of imperfect laws?
NELLO CIPRIANI: It’s not that this theme is addressed in a specific way in Saint Augustine. Some opportunities arise allowing Augustine to address laws and the attitude of Christians to State laws. Two texts are the most interesting: one is contained in De libero arbitrio, where Augustine speaks of the relationship between the eternal and temporal laws, and another in the 19th book of The City of God where he discusses the attitude of Christians to State laws. In numerous other places, even in his very first works, he obviously speaks of the distinction between Church and State. In a commentary on the Letter to the Romans, for example, he forcefully affirms that the State should not intervene in debates within the Church on questions of orthodoxy or morality. For his part, the Christian must consider himself a citizen in all respects. It would be a grave mistake to try to evade civil laws and public authority. But it would be an even worse mistake to look to the State for solutions to questions concerning his faith. Initially, Augustine had very clear ideas about the distinction. Then, in the wake of the donatist controversy, he was forced in spite of himself to defend the intervention which had come about although he was of a different opinion. In fact, Augustine had become the seconder of a request that was very different from Honorius’ intervention, as the Epistola 185 proves. At a council of bishops in 404, Saint Augustine and a few others opposed the majority theory that the emperor be asked to pass a law suppressing the whole donatist heresy. More simply, he wished to ask for confirmation of the law that the Emperor Theodosius had passed against all heretics, but he wanted the heavy fine under the law to be inflicted not on all schismatics indiscriminately but only on the ringleaders of the attacks on the Catholic Church. This, as you can see, is not an intolerant stance at all but inspired by the principle of distinction between Church and State.
Your contribution (in the above book) focused on the utility of imperfect laws, in that they were a demonstration that the civitas Dei and the city of men can never coincide and, therefore, that there is a gap between natural law and man’s condition scarred by sin in history. This utility does not obviously emerge wherever consideration of imperfect laws is limited to abortion or euthanasia. Clearly in these cases there is a real problem of perfecting the laws. But in many others.
I cited other examples: personal freedom, adultery, concubinage...
... the same distinction that exists between Christian and civil marriage. Now, it seems to me that, in a positive sense, this discourse on imperfect laws may be based on Augustine’s revised formulation of the concept of people, of the theory of State. When Augustine criticizes Cicero’s notion of people, he offers another and, inevitably, the notion of sin enters into it, that is, of evil that has to be tolerated as a part of the society which is not the civitas Dei.
Augustine saw the State as a natural institution, desired by God, with its own ends fully justifying it. And State laws have a positive function, which is above all to keep the peace, guarantee concord, allow for peaceful co-existence, in short.
That’s important, I think, the idea of justice being commensurate in a sense to social peace. This is one version which could almost be said to be utilitarian.
The word ‘utility’ is reflected in the texts of the Digesto that I mentioned in my contribution: ‘Civil law is not totally removed from the law of nature or of the peoples but nor does it obey it in every respect’. It is also a word Augustine uses. State laws are not intended as the transcription of eternal law, at least not per omnia. What they are designed to do is protect all that is of common use: for the majority of citizens. This is the fundamental point. Augustine makes use of this notion to demonstrate above all that Cicero’s definition of State as a society founded on the consensus iuris does not really stand up, is not true; on the other hand, the second part of this definition was true, that the State was founded on the communion of things useful to everyone. According to Augustine, the State raises fences that allow all citizens to use temporal goods but stop them harming one another, thus fostering concord and peace, no more no less. Of course, in so doing, justice must never be far away. But historically (and here dawns the light of Augustine’s historico-political realism), man lives in a condition of sin, a condition in which few men agree to submit to God’s justice, to eternal law. The majority, by contrast, go in search of the private bonum, of what is useful, to personal advantage, in the private interest. Then the State has necessarily to limit its task to keeping the peace, regulating the use of goods which, moreover, are not only material. Augustine acknowledges as natural goods not only property but also freedom, the family, children, health, and the State has to protect all of these goods. So the State has a great positive function to perform. Unfortunately in the past (and still today) many law scholars have accused Augustine of failing to grasp the positive role of the State; this, when the exact opposite is the case.
A positive role which also imperfect laws have...
Certainly. Civil laws reflect Augustine’s conception of State. If the State has this very concrete function of fostering concord among citizens, then civil laws must evidently reflect this principle and draw their inspiration from it.
Was this position of Augustine’s ever followed up in the history of Christian thinking?
I think the answer to that question lies in Saint Thomas Aquinas. If he didn’t answer it, no one did. I have great respect for Thomas as a reader of Augustine. He criticized him, certainly, he stressed Augustine’s dependence on Plato but the author who interpreted Augustine in Scholastics better and more extensively than anyone else was none other than Saint Thomas, in my view. Also, I don’t think Medieval authors paid much attention to this idea because it was a completely different historical context: the world was no longer a pagan world turning Christian. While Augustine held strongly to a sense of State, things became blurred later, society became a Christian society and so the distinction no longer exists. That’s why all those ideas arose under the name of political Augustinism (wrongly attributed to Augustine) that the Church should prevail over the State. During the Middle Ages some expressions, albeit found in Augustine, were privileged and seem to vest the emperor with the task of fostering religion. In the fifth book of The City of God, for example, Augustine in his reference to Theodosius praises the Christian emperor. These were texts that were widely read and brought out during the Middle Ages. But it is in none other than The City of God that Augustine proves he has a different conception. However, I don’t think the Middle Ages could accept this idea of Augustine’s for no other reason than that they were no longer aware of any distinction.
And yet the utility of imperfect laws should stand even within a Christian society. The paradox is that today, even though ours is no longer a Christian society, contemporary theology seems to find it difficult to stand the test of this theme. Indeed, the problem seems to be to avail of perfect laws. Isn’t this because there is no distinction made between nature and grace? Isn’t the root of the notion that the civitas Dei is as if ultimately dependent on the application of the ‘Christian’ State and of ‘Christian’ laws?
I would say that Augustine does not just distinguish between nature and grace but also between integral nature, such as God made, and corrupted nature. It seems to me that original sin is no longer accepted today. Rather, there is a tendency to present nature in the integral state, as Rousseau does.‘Man’s nature was originally created without sin and without any kind of vice; conversely man’s present nature [natura ista, Augustine says: the nature, that is, that the interlocutor is physically faced with], by which each one is born of Adam, now needs the Physician because it is not sound’ (De natura et gratia 3, 3). Today there is such confusion that not only is it difficult to understand the distinction between nature and grace, but neither does it help to understand nature: what its truest and most profound needs are and what in nature itself are those trends that are the fruits of sin, of egoism. The tendency today is to shroud this distinction in silence. Augustine, who was accused of being pessimistic because he spoke of corrupted nature, was also really always concerned, in doing so, about bringing out the existence of natural good which is ever there even in this condition of sin. Even in this condition man still has appetitus, positive tendencies to come to know the truth, to conserve his life, his health and also towards relations of freedom with others - not of submission but neither of dominion. Augustine always acknowledges these natural tendencies very well. And he says that these positive tendencies can be spoiled. Sin lies in spoiling these positive tendencies that exist in man. So even in sin itself, man if he probes, if he really knows himself, has the power to find a way out because he can turn to what is positive. This discourse is addressed very clearly in De vera religione when it considers the tria vitia: concupiscentia, desire for sensual pleasure is none other than a deformation of the naturally good appetitus for one’s wellbeing and serenity; curiositas is the deformation of the appetitus cognitionis, that is, for the truth; superbia is the deformation of the desire for freedom. Now, it is precisely this capacity to recognize in man the positive tendencies of his nature and the negative tendencies owing to sin that allows Augustine to acknowledge, on one hand, the validity of the political plan of the State and its laws and, on the other, the inevitable limitations of justice realizeable within that.
The compromise over imperfect laws is generally and primarily justified by today’s democratic framework, characterized as it is by secularization. Reasoning such as this presupposes that within a society that is Christian in both form and content there ought to be no need of imperfect laws.
This is not a notion that Augustine ever had, that is, that society could be Christian, essentially Christian. Augustine had no illusions about that. Of course, he lived a century before the victory of Christianity but he had no illusions at all that society would ever become totally and perfectly Christian. On the contrary, we can see from The City of God that not even the Church is the Kingdom realized on earth; it is still the permixta society of saints and sinners. This realism which many alleged was pessimism, allowed Augustine to make a distinction between two spheres that of the State and its laws and that of the Church and the law of the Gospel. By contrast, there are still many Catholics today who do not see this distinction clearly, perhaps because they come from a different tradition. And I would insist that nor do they see the clear distinction between integral nature, as God wished it (God’s design on man, traces of which can still be found in human nature itself), and the corrupted nature, wounded by sin that man, in fact, is. It seems to me that even within the Church, many intellectuals do not have a firm grasp on this distinction and if they don’t keep this in mind, then they will not keep in mind the other distinction between nature and grace.
It might be said, then, that on one hand a correct doctrine of original sin helps us conceive realistically of civil coexistence and, therefore, of a doctrine of State and, on the other, that a realistic conception of civil co-existence helps towards a correct Christian conception; or, in other words, there can be no realistic perception of things, for christians, if there is not a firm grasp on the doctrine of original sin and viceversa.
As regards original sin, there is no doubt that the Catholic theologians who criticize some aspects of the Augustinian doctrine on original sin today are right. But there’s a big difference between criticism of certain categories and total rejection of any distinction between God’s original design, which can be found inscribed in human nature to a degree, and the injection of corruption which human history has wrought. I think the distinction Augustine intuited is valid: a pure human nature (not in the terms neo-scholastics used to counter Augustine), as God wished it, with its tendencies, its positive aspirations which though become historically deformed and hence vitia. By making this distinction, Augustine was able to have a very realistic vision of relations between Church and State, of the relationship between civil laws and eternal laws.
Paradoxically, it might be said that this Augustinian pessimism allowing for a conception of imperfect laws fosters freedom and tolerance much more than optimism presuming to line up all civil law with natural law.
I totally agree. I believe that excessive optimism about the human condition is harmful, a source of political intolerance between Christians and the secularminded. Christians should be endowed with sound realism. We believers know that God created all things good but also that sin came after creation: this is the substance of the Christian faith on man well able to distinguish what God originally wished from what man has done in history. I believe that this distinction may be very useful to the political and civil commitment of Christians in society.


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