The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!


Saturday, July 23, 2016

Two Cities

St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo
Over 1,600 years ago St. Augustine wrote his masterpiece, The City of God, in which he strove to convince his readers, then and now, that the entirety of human society, from its very beginnings until its yet to be encountered finality, has as its end the formation of a Holy Society. This society, toward which we are struggling, is the very reason everything, meaning the entire universe, was created. Certainly very few prior to Augustine, with the obvious exception of Jesus Christ Himself and the Mosaic author of Genesis, had ever considered human society in such expansive, universal terms. In other words, according to Augustine, this City of God not only includes the entire world, but explains its very existence. All of creation, therefore, has meaning only as it relates to this Holy Society, the City of God.

In his work, Augustine compares this City with the human city, which in Augustine's time was the city of Rome, and by extension the entire Roman Empire. Of course, at the time the Empire was under siege. Alaric and his Visigoths had recently shocked the Empire by a decade-long ravaging of Italy culminating in the sack of Rome itself (410 A.D.). The pagans, and there were still many Roman pagans, ignored Rome's decline and moral decay that had begun long before the Christian ascendancy and blamed Christians for the failure of Roman power to protect the capital. Augustine would have none of it. Through many pages of wonderful argument Augustine shows that the Roman city was really no true city because it lacked true justice. The only true city is the city that manifests true justice, and this can only be a city with Christ as its head. This is the City of God.
Alaric and the Visigoths Sack Rome (410 A.D.)

Today we inhabit both of these cities. We live and work and struggle in a city of man with its distorted sense of justice, peace, and well-being. For many of this city's inhabitants justice has come to mean only order, peace only the absence of conflict, and well-being only material prosperity. Such attitudes can easily lead a worried populace to accept a level of authoritarianism that promises stability and safety. But with that authoritarianism comes its partner, injustice. Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao's China and too many others all morphed from authoritarianism to totalitarianism and brought injustice on a massive scale to their enslaved people. Lest we become complacent, it's important to understand that no nation, even a constitutional republic such as ours, is immune. Just glance back through our own recent history to a time when American citizens were confined in camps and stripped of their liberty and property because of their national origin or ancestry; or when an entire class of citizens were deprived of their constitutional rights because of the color of their skin. Yes, even the United States has sometimes succumbed, although it has struggled mightily to correct some of these injustices. But injustice continues simply because it will always be present in the city of man. Indeed, today our nation allows the slaughter of its most innocent, the unborn, an injustice that has cost the lives of over 50 million future citizens.

The city of man offers us a series of imperfect choices of the kind we now encounter in the upcoming election. And because we must inhabit this city, we must choose. We must choose one candidate or another or none at all. But whatever our choice, as Christians we should be aware that no election will ever lead to a society of perfect justice, despite the predictions of the candidates and hopes of the people who support them.

I'm not advocating an abdication of our civic responsibility or a pulling away from human society. We must still live and work; we must pay our taxes; we must respect legitimate civil authority; but in all these we must avoid doing evil. St. Paul reminds us of all this in Romans 13, calling us as Christians to be good citizens in the city of man

This doesn't mean that we don't confront our society when it falls short of God's will for it. After all, as individuals and as a society, we must always obey God's commandments: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments" [Jn 14:15]. And we must encourage our fellow citizens to do the same, to turn to God in love and to obey His commandments, which were given to us for our good and the good of society as a whole. But we cannot expect political solutions to cure all our societal ills. For example, I have long believed that the end of the scourge of abortion will never come about through political means. Such a change -- a change in a society's deep-seated morality, in its sense of justice -- demands a real change in the hearts of its citizens, and that can happen only when those citizens turn to God in repentance and love. We repent because we are a society of sinners and we love because God commands it. How did St. Paul put it?
"Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law" [Rom 13:10]
And with what words did Jesus begin his public ministry? "Repent and believe in the Gospel" [Mk 1:15]. If we, as a society, obey this timeless command of our Lord we will see the coming of the City of God. This is why the Church constantly preaches that its primary task is one of evangelization, and why all Christians are called to join in this effort. We are called to do God's work in the world, to bring about the Holy Society Augustine foresaw so long ago. No politician will do this for us.

Pray for our nation.

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