Wednesday, February 17, 2010

St. Augustine, the uses of things, and motives

In the past I have pointed out the rational and moral illegitimacy of the charges brought by psychics against Catholics with regard to kneeling before statues. The rational person acknowledges that worship is a matter of the heart, and that therefore whether kneeling before a statue constitutes an act of worship is dependent upon the intentions of the one kneeling. The irrational person agrees that worship is a matter of the heart, and then says that all kneeling before a statue is worship without regard to the intentions of the one kneeling. And then this same irrational person demands that we take his worthless criticism (worthless because it is irrational) seriously. I would laugh in his face if this wasn’t the Internet :-)

St. Augustine has the following to say about things, their uses, and motives:

18. Those things, again, whether only sayings or whether actual deeds, which appear to the inexperienced to be sinful, and which are ascribed to God, or to men whose holiness is put before us as an example, are wholly figurative, and the hidden kernel of meaning they contain is to be picked out as food for the nourishment of charity. Now, whoever uses transitory objects less freely than is the custom of those among whom he lives, is either temperate or superstitious; whoever, on the other hand, uses them so as to transgress the bounds of the custom of the good men about him, either has a further meaning in what he does, or is sinful. In all such matters it is not the use of the objects, but the lust of the user, that is to blame. Nobody in his sober senses would believe, for example, that when our Lord's feet were anointed by the woman with precious ointment, it was for the same purpose for which luxurious and profligate men are accustomed to have theirs anointed in those banquets which we abhor. For the sweet odor means the good report which is earned by a life of good works; and the man who wins this, while following in the footsteps of Christ, anoints His feet (so to speak) with the most precious ointment. And so that which in the case of other persons is often a sin, becomes, when ascribed to God or a prophet, the sign of some great truth. Keeping company with a harlot, for example, is one thing when it is the result of abandoned manners, another thing when done in the course of his prophecy by the prophet Hosea. Hosea 1:2 Because it is a shamefully wicked thing to strip the body naked at a banquet among the drunken and licentious, it does not follow that it is a sin to be naked in the baths.

19. We must, therefore, consider carefully what is suitable to times and places and persons, and not rashly charge men with sins. For it is possible that a wise man may use the daintiest food without any sin of epicurism or gluttony, while a fool will crave for the vilest food with a most disgusting eagerness of appetite. And any sane man would prefer eating fish after the manner of our Lord, to eating lentils after the manner of Esau, or barley after the manner of oxen. For there are several beasts that feed on commoner kinds of food, but it does not follow that they are more temperate than we are. For in all matters of this kind it is not the nature of the things we use, but our reason for using them, and our manner of seeking them, that make what we do either praiseworthy or blameable. [On Christian Doctrine, III.xii.18-19; emphasis added]

Yes, he’s talking about food in 19; but he is talking about all “transitory objects” in 18. But the principle is the same: i.e., extending charity to our fellow man when it comes to questions of his actions and intentions. When we do not know the other man’s intentions it is rash to impute sin to him; when we do know his intentions are not sinful, it is wicked to ignore what he says and impute sin anyway: it is to lie or willfully believe lies about another. I sincerely wish that the anti-Catholic mind-readers who pretend St. Augustine was crypto-proto-Protestant would follow his advice here. Honest disagreement is one thing; irrational dishonesty is another, and simply foments disunity.

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