Francis and Augustine

As I wrote in my second post inspired by the election of a new pope, there’s been much parsing of the choice of the name Francis. In a meeting with global media Saturday at which he called for a “poor church for the poor,” the pontiff himself confirmed the widespread assumption that he took the name in tribute to the medieval monk, preacher, and reformer Francis of Assisi. He recalled how a fellow South American bishop had “hugged me and kissed me and told me not to forget the poor. And that word went in here [his head]… I immediately thought of Francis of Assisi… Francis of Assisi for me is a man of poverty, a man of peace, a man who loved and protected creation.”

6th century image of Augustine
6th century image of Augustine from the Lateran Palace in the Vatican – Wikimedia

But for all the understandable interest in St. Francis that the papal election has generated, it’s noteworthy that at least two commentators found another point of comparison in the person of another, older saint: Augustine of Hippo.

First, and rather remarkably, David Brooks devoted an entire N.Y. Times column to the Donatist controversy that divided Christianity in the 4th and early 5th centuries. It’s not the most sophisticated summary of Donatism you’ll ever read, but in broad strokes, Brooks did identify the Donatist position and Augustine’s response. In the wake of the terrible persecution that preceded the legalization of Christianity under Constantine

Two rival reform movements arose to restore the integrity of Catholicism. Those in the first movement, the Donatists, believed the church needed to purify itself and return to its core identity.

The mission of the church, in the Donatist view, was to provide a holy alternative to a unclean world. The Donatists wanted to purge the traitors from the priesthood.

…another revival movement arose, embraced by Augustine, who was Bishop of Hippo. The problem with the Donatists, Augustine argued, is that they are too static. They try to seal off an ark to ride out the storm, but they end up sealing themselves in. They cut themselves off from new circumstances and growth.

…Far from being a stable ark, the church would be a dynamic, ever-changing network, propelled onto the streets by its own tensions. Augustine had this deep, volatile personality. His ideal church was firmly rooted in doctrine, but yearning for discovery.

Brooks finds similar tendencies in the present day. The first, “close ranks and return defensively to first principles,” he observed in crisis-ridden groups as diverse as the Republican Party, the labor movement, and humanities faculties. The second, Augustine’s, is what he urged for the Catholic Church: “…exploit a moment of weakness by making yourself even more vulnerable, by striking outward into complexity, swallowing the pure and impure, counterattacking crisis with an evangelical assault.”

While the second is “rare because it requires a lack of defensiveness, and a confidence that your identity is secure even amid crisis,” he found hints of such qualities in the former Jorge Bergoglio.

Hollingworth, Saint Augustine of HippoThen intellectual historian and Augustine biographer Miles Hollingworth argued that Augustine exemplified how the new pope might straddle the legacies of both his namesake (“the third world candidate of a modernizing Vatican”) and his predecessor, Benedict XVI (“the Augustinian scholar and long time ‘doctrinal watchdog'”).

Like Pope Francis, an intellectual monastic from “the end of the world,” Augustine was both “Defender of the Faith” and deeply concerned with the social problems of this world. Hollingworth’s description of Augustine (and so his model for Francis) seems like a welcome correction to those who are too prone to pin down the new pope on some modern left-right spectrum:

…one of the age-long challenges for Christianity and the Church has been to meet and overcome the world’s confidence when it claims that it understands realism best. This is not surprising: Christ proclaimed an otherworldly message on behalf of the spirituality of the human soul, and since then a critical purpose of the Church’s mission has been to preserve that otherworldly beauty in the integrity of its sacraments. At a time like now, when the world feels confident again to remind the Church that she should remain in touch with real problems, Augustine’s life and preaching offer a more nuanced perspective.

Poverty, injustice, and the general-case “problem of pain,” are not, he taught, proofs that the world should bring against the Church. The Church must of course move with the times and periodically reform herself, but the love and sympathy which alleviates suffering, one human reaching to another, is nobody’s possession but the God Who made all heaven and earth — and all men and women in His image. It is a subtle point of deep theology, threatened on either side by the ideologies that can just as quickly be made out of the cause of poverty as they can out of the cause of wealth. In Augustine’s teaching, both the rich man and the poor man prove a sacramental truth to each other before they join forces to make a better society.

Read Hollingworth’s full post here.

<<Read the previous post in this series on the election of Pope Francis

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