by Andrew R., 2L
“The one sun has put out the other’s light;
the sword is now one with the crook – and fused
together thus, must bring about misrule,
since joined, now neither fears the other one.”
– Purgatorio XVI.109-112.
Basilica di Sant’Agostino, July 10, 2012.
During summer school at least, hours of class time and lectures are best punctuated with the occasional class trip. This time, in tandem with our subject matter for Prof. Moreland’s State, Society, and Economics class, we went out to the Basilica di Sant’Agostino, about a fifteen minute walk north of John Cabot, just off the Piazza Navona.
The Church is home to Caravaggio’s painting of the Madonna di Loreto (also known as Our Lady of the Pilgrims), an image known to raise an eyebrow or two in its day. Crowned with a halo that’s hardly even noticeable and holding a child against what could be a door at the end of any alley in Rome, the Mother of God is adored in the painting not by angels or saints, but by the poorest of the poor. Kneeling and barefoot like her, the figures draw the mind (in the typical Caravaggian style) to the intersection of grace and earthly life on the simplest of levels. Sanctification comes into the world, as it were, from the bottom up. The grand and stately things of the Church must, like the Basilica itself, be founded interiorly on the simplicity of the Madonna of Loreto – or at least, so thought Augustine.
Known for his quick words and even quicker wit, an intellectual as prolific as Augustine isn’t normally associated with the ideals of Christian simplicity. But it is in his sense of political philosophy, of all things, that this becomes most apparent.
Writing in a time when the secular world was rebelling against institutional Christianity, Augustine, who as Bishop of the diocese of Hippo even held certain temporal power himself, would often decline to use it in favor of another approach. Centuries before the notion of “separation of Church and State” was even a glimmer in the minds of the American Fathers, Augustine conceived of a relationship between ecclesial and civil authorities that preserved the integrity of both. God would enter the public sphere not by the decree of any cardinal or bishop (as a temporal authority might make), but through the graces unlocked to all by scripture, prayer and the sacraments.
This approach keeps the Church and the State out of each other’s spheres and into doing what they do best. As the temporal authority, the State has the power to coerce, but only as regards the right order of society as a whole. It can mandate action, but not virtue, of which both are needed to arrive at a just society (or at least as just a society as one can hope for in this world).
But is the latter of these two necessities that belongs to the Church. In Augustine’s view, it is the power of the Gospel as the source of wisdom, justice, and mercy forms the bedrock of a truly moral society. The institutional Church therefore, is charged primarily with the responsibility of establishing both the citizens and leaders of society on that very bedrock. Though the State can command and exact obedience, it belongs solely to the Church to transform the hearts and minds of the people themselves into those vessels that can bring God into the smallest corners of the world.