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Benedict XVI, Francis, and St. Augustine of Hippo

By Miles Hollingworth

We have a new Pope: Francis — a name honouring St. Francis of Assisi, who venerated poverty and recommended it to his followers.

In the build up to his election, a good deal of attention was naturally directed to the challenges facing the Catholic Church. Not least of these is the question of social justice and the plight of the global poor. As Cardinal Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis had faced these with dignity, eschewing the trappings of office and choosing to live the example of a simple and humble lifestyle. The way he presented himself to the world on Wednesday night was no different. There was the same hint of an extempore independence of spirit.

Pope FrancisBut if these details seem to suggest a Catholic Church bringing itself up to speed with the world, they also offer a pause for reflection about continuity between the Pope Emeritus and this new Pope. And if poverty and a regard for the marginalized is the theme, then St. Augustine of Hippo might become the source of that reflection, as well as the link between the two men – Benedict, the Augustinian scholar and long time “doctrinal watchdog,” and Francis, the third world candidate of a modernizing Vatican.

Augustine was a sublime and prodigious scholar and a Defensor fidei. He wrote tirelessly against the major heresies and schisms of the early Church and promoted orthodoxy through that work. Yet he was also the Bishop of Hippo Regius in a declining province of Roman North Africa. The son of modest parents, he established a strict monastic discipline for himself and enforced it on his priests in the name of leadership and good example. It is often remarked upon by scholars how extraordinary it is that so much that remains foundational today in the Western Church – as indeed in the whole Western tradition of philosophy and ideas – flowed from so simple a pen in such a far-flung corner of the Empire. It does indeed make you think of Pope Francis’ words from the balcony on Wednesday night: “It seems that my brother cardinals went almost to the end of the world to choose a pope!”

St. AugustineBut to Augustine at least, these two aspects of his life were always united in a single conception that he was anxious should not be separated. For of course 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.

Although a marbled house does contain you, although fretted ceilings cover you, you and the poor man together have for covering that roof of the universe, the sky… In the bowels of your mothers you were both naked. [En. in Ps., LXXII, 13]

On Thursday, in a Sistine Chapel Mass, Pope Francis urged:

If we do not confess to Christ, what would we be? We would end up a compassionate NGO. What would happen would be like when children make sand castles and then it all falls down.

And similarly, on 27 February, in his last General Audience, Pope Benedict called the faithful back to this reality of the barque of Saint Peter:

But I always knew that the Lord is in this barque; and I always knew that the barque of the Church is something that belongs neither to me, nor to us, but to Him alone. And the Lord will not let her sink: for it is He Himself Who leads her. This happens through the men he has chosen, certainly – but only because this is how He wants it.

This is a distinctly Augustinian call. When Augustine became a bishop and chose a monastic poverty he saw it in these terms. Human ingenuity has added to the sophistications of life and created through them the concept of progress through time — as well as the yardsticks of that progress in the rich and the poor, the developed and the undeveloped world. But if the Church is not merely to become a “compassionate NGO” she must remember that she has been appointed to remain, in the first instance, above these distinctions. It is only by continuing as the Lord’s possession (and no human’s) that she can credibly draw true seekers to her incorporeal vision of Beauty.

Beyond count are the things made by various crafts in garments, shoes, utensils, and so on – not to mention the visionary creations of artists! Men have taken this course and added all these to the allurements of the eyes, outwardly pursuing the things they make, but inwardly forsaking Him by Whom they were made; and therefore actually destroying what they were made to be… For the beautiful visions transmitted through the artists’ souls into their hands all come from that very Beauty which is above their souls, and for which my soul sighs by day and by night. [Confess., X, 34, 53]

Miles Hollingworth is Research Fellow in the History of Ideas at St. John’s College, Durham University, in the United Kingdom. His writing on Augustine has won awards from the Society of Authors (2009 Elizabeth Longford Grant for Historical Biography) and the Royal Society of Literature (2009 Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction). He is the author of The Pilgrim City: St. Augustine of Hippo and his Innovation in Political Thought, which was shortlisted for the Royal Historical Society’s Gladstone History Book Prize, and St. Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography.

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Image credits: “Habemus Papam” – Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., has been elected Pope Francis I. Source: Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk via CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. St. Augustine and four States of a fraternity. Source: WikiPaintings.

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  1. […] 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 […]

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