Divine Mercy 101: St. Augustine on Divine Mercy

A weekly series by Robert Stackpole, STD, the Director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy

WEEK 16: St. Augustine on Divine Mercy

Let us return to the writings of the Patristic scholar Henry Chadwick and his summary of St. Augustine's fully developed doctrine of salvation. Chadwick writes in The Early Church (Pelican edition, 1967, p. 232): 

According to the doctrine that Augustine opposed to the Pelagians, the entire [human] race fell in Adam.... The transmission of hereditary sinfulness is bound up with the reproductive process. The general belief that virginity is a higher state than marriage proved for Augustine that the sexual impulse can never be free of some element of concupiscence. In any event, the practice of infant baptism for the remission of sins presupposes that infants arrive polluted by sin; since they have committed no actual sin, remission must be for the guilt attaching to a fault in their nature. Therefore, if babies die unbaptized, they are damned, even though [Augustine says] it will be a "very mild" form of damnation. Mankind is a lump of perdition, incapable, without redeeming grace, of any act of pure good will, and all the virtues of the good pagan are vitiated by sin....

If all humanity were consigned to hell, that would be nothing but strict justice. Nevertheless, God's mercy is such that, inscrutably, He has chosen a fairly substantial minority of souls for salvation by a decree of predestination, which is antecedent to all differences of merit. To complain that this election is unjust is to fail to consider the gravity of the guilt attaching to original sin, and yet more to actual sin.

A necessary corollary of this doctrine of predestination is that [saving] grace is irresistible. If man is so corrupt that he no longer has free will to do good, grace must do all; and that this power is irresistible is a plain deduction from the divine decree of predestination, which otherwise would be frustrated. It is the purpose of God to bring His elect, infallibly, to a certain end. Accordingly, the empirical test of the operation of grace lies in man's consistent goodness of character right through to the end of his life, a "final perseverance" which is a foreordained gift of God, independent of merit.

Suffice it to say that no theologian in the Catholic Church would subscribe to this full-blown Augustinian doctrine of salvation today (that is, assuming that Chadwick has accurately reported the teachings of the elderly St. Augustine here, which may be open to scholarly dispute). Nor did the Church ever officially endorse it. For example: 

(a) The Church has never taught that the corruption of original sin is transmitted to each infant by the inordinate passions involved in the sexual intercourse that conceived it (see Catechism, 402-406). 

(b) The Church has certainly defined that the baptism of infants is a good ecclesiastical tradition because it pours sanctifying grace into the child's soul right from the start of its earthly pilgrimage, the grace that enables the infant to overcome the effects of its inheritance from Adam: that inner corruption of the human heart called "original sin" (Catechism, 1250). But the Church has never taught that the inheritance of original sin ascribes to each new generation the kind of "guilt" that involves personal moral responsibility for that state of original sin, and therefore it would in no way be just for God to condemn unbaptized infants even to a mild form of "damnation" on account of an inherited sin that involved no voluntary fault on the part of the infants themselves (Catechism, 1257-1261). 

(c) The Church has always taught that in order for us to be saved, our sinful souls, weakened and corrupted by original and actual sin, must be prompted, assisted, and strengthened by divine grace before we can do any good thing at all that leads toward salvation. But the Church has never taught that God's saving grace is irresistible. As the Council of Trent clearly taught, salvation is a work of grace, but it does not happen without the free consent of the souls of the elect (Catechism, 1993 and 2002). 

(d) The Church has never taught that the solid majority of the human race is destined for hell. The most one could say with any confidence is that only very few enter heaven immediately upon their death (Mt 7:13-14) and therefore vast numbers must have their purification completed in purgatory, by God's great mercy, before they are ready for heaven (Catechism, 1030-1032).

God's Merciful Love
Despite the extremes of St. Augustine's teaching in his later years, however, we can still trace within his theology a deep appreciation for the merciful love of God. After all, since he sincerely believed that all human beings (apart from divine grace) are worthy of eternal damnation (even unbaptized infants), and since none of us has any capacity at all on our own to repent of our sins and seek divine aid and forgiveness, the fact that anyone at all repents and is saved can only be the work of God's merciful love, pouring out His saving grace upon those who do not deserve it.

Augustine's mature doctrine can be found in his Enchidrion (Handbook of Christian Doctrine on Faith, Hope, and Love) written between 419 and 422 A.D. He starts out the section entitled "Faith in Christ the Redeemer" by apportioning credit (and blame) for the human condition: "We must in no way doubt that the only cause of good things that come our way is the goodness of God, while the cause of our evils is the will of changeable good falling away from the unchangeable good, first the will of an angel [Satan], and then the will of a human being [Adam]." God alone is the source of the regeneration and sanctification of the elect. Augustine quotes St. Paul in Romans 9:16: "so it comes not from the one who runs, but from God who shows mercy." St. Augustine comments (section 32):

Since there is no doubt whatever that a man, if he is already old enough to have the use of reason, cannot believe, hope, or love unless he wills to do so, nor can he win the reward of God's high vocation unless he runs it willingly, how can it depend not upon human will or exertion, but on the God who shows mercy unless the will itself is prepared by the Lord?...

It remains for us to recognize that the words "So it comes not from the one who wills or runs, but from the God who shows mercy" are said truly, that all [glory] may be given to God, who makes the good will of man ready for His help, and helps the will He has made ready.... For in sacred scripture we read both "His mercy shall go before me" (Ps 59:10) and "His mercy shall follow me" (Ps 23:6): it goes before the unwilling that they may will, and it follows the willing, that they may not will in vain.

For Augustine, the sending of Christ into the world was a gift of pure, undeserved grace (section 75): "That one great sin [the fall of Adam] which was committed in a place and state of life of such happiness with the result that the whole human race was condemned originally and, so to say, at root in one man, is not undone and washed away except by the one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus, who alone was able to be born in such a way that he had no need to be reborn."

This series continues next week on the theme, "The God of Both Justice and Mercy." 

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of The John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy.

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