Master Catechist: The Mystery of Man

One of Fr. Hardon’s greatest contributions to those of us searching for the Truth was to compile a book list called The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan. His favorite author, St. Augustine, is one of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity. Augustine framed the concepts of original sin and just war; and as the Roman Empire was starting to implode he taught that the Church is the spiritual City of God, distinct from the material City of Man. His writings profoundly influenced the Christian worldview and continue to do so today! —Michael Mohr

St. Augustine (354–430 AD) is the greatest doctor of the Church. He has left us a library of writings that should be familiar to every self-respecting Catholic.

[H]is two best-known works are the Confessions and the City of God. Surely the most popular autobiography in world literature, the Confessions are merciless in their admission of the author’s guilt for his willful refusal to submit to the divine will. But they are mainly a chronology of grateful prayers in praise of the mercy of God.

Augustine’s problem before his conversion was not only that he was steeped in sin. It was that his mind defended his commission of sin. Therefore, in order to return to God, he had first to be convinced that he was a sinner. “My sin was all the more incurable because I thought I was not a sinner . . .” (Confessions, 5, 10).

To return to God, Augustine had to overcome two vices, the habit of wrong thinking and the habit of wrong doing. Yet both habits had a strong hold on his proud and passionate nature. . . . “The law of sin (he confesses) is the fierce force of habit, by which the mind is drawn and held even against its will, and yet deservedly because it had fallen willfully into the habit” (Confessions, 8, 5).

In order to justify his misconduct, Augustine had become a Manichaean. This was the convenient heresy of claiming there were two gods. The evil god is responsible for all the evil that we do, and the good god is the only cause of everything good in our lives. On these premises, Augustine could attribute his life of sin to the evil deity and not feel guilty for all the wrong doing in his life.

He dates his conversion to the discovery he made that he, Augustine, had a free will. Once it dawned on him that he had the power to control his mind in what to think, and the power to control his will in what to choose, he was on his way back to the service of God.

On this level of his teaching, Augustine is a prophet for our times. There is so much learned justification of sin that whole philosophies have been created to defend man’s misconduct by shifting the blame on heredity, or environment, or education. Anything, and anyone that human ingenuity can devise is said to be responsible for the evils in the world today—except the real agent of evil, which is man’s free will refusing to submit to the demanding will of God.

Augustine’s City of God laid the foundations for a Christian understanding of history. It has given all generations of believers since his day the grounds on which to explain the mysterious hand of divine Providence in guiding the destiny of nations. No one has improved on Augustine’s analysis of the two kinds of society in the world. There are two kinds of human society, which we may justly call two Cities according to the language of our Scriptures. The one consists of those who want to live after the flesh, the other of those who wish to live after the spirit (City of God, 14, 2).

If we look still more closely, we discover that, at root, what produces these two cities is how the members in each of the two societies use their wills. It all depends on whom and how deeply they love and what they are willing to pay as the price of their love.

These two Cities are made by two loves: the early City by love of oneself even to the contempt of God; the heavenly City by love of God even to the contempt of self. The one glories in itself, the other glories in God (City of God, 14, 28).

If Augustine could so divide the human race in his day, how much more can we do so in our day. No doubt, the co-existence of these two cities is a mystery, and their final explanation known only to God. But for those who believe in Christ, it helps immensely to know that part of God’s mysterious providence is the fact that there are two kinds of people at any given period of world history: those who abuse their free will and refuse to surrender their liberty to God and those who use their freedom for its noblest purpose, to sacrifice everything they have, including themselves, to the loving will of God.