Augustine: Beggars in the City of God

St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City has been hailed as the greatest church in all of Christendom. It has significance for all of Christianity as both a religion and a culture or society. Drawing on Augustine’s image of the City of God, we might refer to St. Peter’s as the town hall. At the same time, St. Peter’s was partially funded by the sale of indulgences, which, to all intents and purposes, preyed on the faith of the people. This abuse led to protests from Martin Luther, and the eventual birth of Protestantism. As an example, St. Peter’s highlights a certain tension in the Christian faith. On the one hand, we want to affirm the goodness of the Church as a social and cultural force – as the City of God on Earth. On the other, it must be acknowledged that the Church (and, arguably, all governmental bodies throughout history) has marginalised and abused certain groups, failing to live up to the confession of identity as the City of God. That’s what I’d like to talk about today. 

The first point is that it is insufficient to theorise abuses within the Church as merely the aberrant isolated actions of individuals within a structure that is, by and large, well-made. These are not renegade Christians abusing the Church – it is the Church abusing its position as the City of God. The abuses at hand are institutional and systematic, rooted in and supported by the structure of the Church. In other words, yes, individual abuses do exist, but we’re not talking about those right now. We’ll stick with the example of abusing indulgences, because it’s a useful and largely uncontroversial example: everybody agrees that indulgences were abused, and everybody agrees that it was an issue stemming from the structure of Christianity.

So when the Basilica was being built, Christianity was structured in a way that allowed for the oppression of the people. The priests could sell indulgences, which meant that your folks could spend less time in Purgatory. We’ll leave aside the theological argument of whether or not Purgatory is even a thing, or whether indulgences have any real effect, and simply make the point that everybody can agree on: when the theological motivations are overtaken by monetary ones, there is a serious problem. The theology is co-opted to support Mammon, and the faith of the congregation is exploited for financial gain. The structure of the Church then becomes compromised: to put it very simply, it stops being about God and starts being about money. Again, this isn’t about the actions of individual leaders within the Church, but about the way the Church functions as an institution. If the structure of the Church is co-opted into this oppression, then the structure of the Church is compromised. That’s what the Protestants in the Reformation believed, and it’s what the Catholics believed when they cleaned up indulgences at the Council of Trent.

Given that the structure of the Church can clearly be compromised, what are we as Christians to do? Christ Himself always spoke out against the abuses of institutional religion: he repeatedly condemned the false faith of the Pharisees, who clothed themselves in the skin of religion for social prestige. He defended the marginalised: in John 4, his disciples are surprised that he’s willing to lower himself to talk to a woman – because that’s the culture of the day. Jesus doesn’t give a shit about their stupid culture, and he just keeps doing what they’re doing – so he actively upsets the established order. The Gospel of Matthew is all about the different ways in which Christ overthrew certain cultural norms – in Matthew 5, we have a repeated structure where Jesus says “The Scriptures command X, but I say to you that you have to be even better than that.” Matthew is also full of paradoxical statements: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”; “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave”; “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted”.

So on the one hand, we affirm the Church as the City of God, the Body of Christ. That’s crucial: for Christians, salvation only takes place through Christ, who proclaims Himself as the way, the truth, and the light – “nobody comes to the Father except through me”. The Christian life is life in community – there’s no conception in the New Testament authors of a Christian life outside of a church community. In Hebrews 10, we find the instruction to not neglect meeting together, and in 1 John 1 we find fellowship with other Christians as a de facto result of relationship with Christ. For the Christian, the City of God must be affirmed as both good and necessary in our relationship with God. However, at the same time, when the Church systematically beggars people, we are bound to confront it. The Church is the City of God; the Church is fallible. There’s the tension.

Fast-forward to today. Does the Church still marginalise and exploit certain people? Surely it’s hypothetically possible – and if it’s hypothetically possible at any given moment, which it is, then we as Christians ought to be actively and permanently interrogating the shape of the institutions of the Church, if only to ensure against it. That process invokes a fine line between vigilance and mistrust, the latter of which seems to lead towards a certain bitterness. No doubt some would argue that the distinguishing factor is the love borne towards the City and its inhabitants; bitterness and mistrust both stemming from a lack of love. Forgiveness is similarly paramount, which is to say that the difficulty of maintaining love for the Church seems roughly equivalent to the frustration and anger felt over the injustices of the Church. At the same time, frustration and anger seem to be entirely righteous in this situation: Jesus was hardly in a good mood when He was flipping tables in the Temple.

I suppose more than anything this highlights the gap between the theoretical and the practical. In theory, we affirm the Church as the eternal City of God – but in practice, we compose ourselves with a certain reservation towards the mixed bag of Christians we have to deal with.

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