What does Saint Augustine have to say about Social Justice?
by Jeremy Hiers, O.S.A.
Poverty, war, oppression, inequality, mass incarceration, and discrimination are some of the many social justice issues that were as present in the time of Saint Augustine as they are today.
As a pastor and Bishop, Augustine frequently preached and wrote on what the Bible has to say about social justice issues. He begins the Rule he wrote for those who chose to follow his way of life with an exhortation referencing Matthew 22:36-40:
“Before all else, dear brothers, love God and then your neighbor, because these are the chief commandments given to us.”The Rule I, 1
He almost always included at the end of his preaching an exhortation to not reject the poor (e.g., Sermon 41:6, Sermon 25:8, Sermon 122:6). Augustine is known for having even selling off sacred vessels in order to raise money to help the poor. Augustine’s commitment to the poor is clear.
The ancient wisdom of Saint Augustine can still guide Christians today in following the command of Christ to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40) and Church teaching.
The fourth principle of Catholic Social Teaching emphasizes that Christians are called to place primary emphasis on those who are poor and weak:
Whatever you did to one of the least of these, you did it to me.Matthew 25:40
Christ calls his followers to pay special attention to those without food, shelter, clothing, and other basic necessities. We are called to pay attention to those who are more vulnerable to neglect and discrimination than others: the elderly, women, children, minority populations of people, and those who suffer from mental illness (including addiction). We are called to question the truth behind why some go without affordable housing, medical care, education, or justice. We are called to examine why some are more impacted by damage to the environment and other crises such as COVID19. The list of issues goes on. Each issue is complex and the question of how to address any of the aforementioned issues is not an easy one to solve.
Click here to watch a video on how the life and teachings of Saint Augustine relate to all the principles of Catholic Social Teaching
While the answers are not easy, the wisdom of Saint Augustine points us to a single question that can serve as the starting point for a individual and communal examination on what an appropriate Christian (and Augustinian response) to any social justice issue may be. That question is:
Which approach most supports the common good of ALL people?
Call nothing your own, but let everything be yours in common … For so you read in the Acts of the Apostles that they had all things in common and distribution was made according to each one according to each one’s need (Acts 4:32-35).The Rule of Augustine I, 4
When one seeks what is good for all people (especially those who are often neglected) in a spirit that is free of possessiveness, they grow in the type of charity (Caritas) towards neighbor that Christ calls his followers to:
So whenever you show greater concern for the common good than for your own, you may know that you are growing in charity.The Rule V, 31
When people are united (Unitas) towards this same goal of seeking what is good for all people (rather than individuals or select groups of individuals), then societies grow in charity. When societies grow in charity, we begin to build what Augustine called the City of God, a world based on justice and equality oriented towards the God who transcends all human division and distinction. It is in this endeavor, united around love, that we discover the God of truth (Veritas).
Yet, truth, unity, and love are not easy to achieve as individuals, communities, or as societies. The human tendency to seek power and possessiveness at the expense of others will no less continue to be hurdles on the human journey today as much as it was with Ananias in the early Church community found in Acts (Acts 5:1-11).
However, Augustine’s Rule provides 12 principles that we can use to examine our lives and generate discussion in our families, neighborhoods, parishes, schools, associations, workplaces, etc., to work together towards a more just and peaceful world.
Principle #1: Unity & Harmony
Let all of you then live together in oneness of mind and heart, mutually honoring God in yourselves, whose temples you have become.The Rule I, 9
To seek unity and harmony through respect for differences in community. Differences in needs, gifts, talents, personality, culture, skin color, socioeconomic background, etc. Read more here.
Principle #2: Stewardship
“Call nothing your own, but let everything be yours in common.”The Rule I, 4
To have a willingness to generously share our time, our talents, and our treasures as if those things belonged to everybody rather than ourselves for the sake of ensuring that nobody goes without. Read more here.
Principle #3: Care and Respect
“Each person should be given what he personally needs.”The Rule, I, 4
To be truly open to the needs of others. It is easy to identify with those who have backgrounds and needs similar to our own, but what about those who are different than us and may have needs that we cannot completely understand? What about those with different political, educational, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds than our own? It is often tempting to help people only in the way we want to help and/or to minimize the complaints or stated needs of others who are different than us. Read more here.
Principle #4: Prayer and Worship
“When you pray to God in psalms and hymns, think over in your hearts the words that come from your lips.”The Rule II, 12
In our prayer and worship, are our hearts and minds along with our motivations and actions aligned with the God who shows love and concern for even the most vulnerable and impoverished of people (Matthew 25:40)? Read more here.
Principle #5: Moderation and Self-Denial
“As far as your health allows, keep your bodily appetites in check by fasting and abstinence from food and drink.” The Rule III, 14
Do we keep our appetites in check in such a way that we are free to give from our surplus to help those who go without? While Augustine writes here of food, the principle applies to all areas of life, especially those areas where we tend to become so attached that we neglect attention and care for those who are vulnerable and poor. Such areas can include careerism, consumerism, biases, hobbies, the desire for accolades and recognition, etc. Read more here.
Principle #6: Mutual Care
“In your walking, standing, and every movement, let nothing occur to give offense to anyone who sees you, but only what becomes your holy state of life.” The Rule IV, 21
Do we live what we believe? Do we model Jesus’ concern for the “least among us” (Matthew 25:40) only in private, or do we seek opportunities to invite others to join us in the search for opportunities to work for the common good and help those in need? Are we apathetic or silent on the injustices we see in the world around us, or do we challenge individuals, institutions, governments, and leaders to work for the common good? Are we open to change when others challenge us in this way? Read more here.
Principle #7: Humility
“… let them rather lift up their hearts and not seek after what is vain and earthly”The Rule I, 7
In our works for justice, are we trying to replace God with ourselves? Do we sometimes refuse to help some people because they are different than us? Are we only willing to help others in the way we want to help them rather than in the way they actually need? Are we willing to only help others who are similar to us or are we open if God were to invite us to share our gifts in other ways? Read more here.
Principle #8: The Common Good
“Whenever you show greater concern for the common good than for your own, you may know that you are growing in charity.”The Rule V, 31
In what areas of our life are we looking more towards promotion or protection only of ourselves or our families or group of friends rather than the common good of all? How might this blind us to the needs of the least among us (Matthew 25:40). Read more here.
Principle #9: Reconciliation
Whoever has injured another by open insult, or by abusive or even incriminating language, must remember to repair the injury as quickly as possible by an apology, and he who suffered the injury must also forgive, without further wrangling.The Rule VI, 42
Social justice issues are often controversial issues (e.g., the issue of Racism or the Environment) with varying viewpoints across society about the extent of the issue and how to address it. As we express our own beliefs and/or work for justice in the way that we feel is the right way, it is often easy to offend others through our words and actions (or inactions). No issue can be solved by any one individual, unity in purpose and action is paramount to solving the issues of our day. Without reconciliation with those whom we offend (or are offended by), we cannot achieve unity, we cannot love God and neighbor (Matthew 5:23), and therefore will not be able to focus on the common good. Read more here.
Principle #10: Authority as Service
“The superior, for his part, must not think himself fortunate in his exercise of authority but in his role as one serving you in love.”The Rule VII, 46
By virtue of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) all Christians are called to leadership in one way or another by living in word and deed the Gospel values that Christ calls us to as a way to model and influence the world around us to adopt those values. Servant leadership is the model that Christ gave us and invites us to adopt ourselves. Are we in our words and actions modeling the heart and mind of Christ towards the issues of our day? Are we inviting others to join us in working for a more just and peaceful world through our words and our example? Read more here.
Principle #11: Openness to Ongoing Conversion
And that you may see yourselves in this little book, as in a mirror, have it read to you once a week so as to neglect no point through forgetfulness. When you find that you are doing all that has been written, give thanks to the Lord, the Giver of every good. But when one of you finds that he has failed on any point, let him be sorry for the past, be on his guard for the future, praying that he will be forgiven his fault and not be led into temptation.The Rule VIII, 49
As stated before, the issues of our day are complex and the answers are not always clear, especially when it comes to developing (let alone achieving) unity around concrete solutions. Do we give up or turn apathetic towards the issues that are not easy? Do we persist in working towards solutions? Are we open to discern promptings we feel from the Spirit to get involved in an issue we are presently not involved in, even if it means stepping outside of our comfort zone? Are we open to admitting that we may need to learn more about certain issues and hear the perspectives of the people impacted by those issues before developing and communicating an opinion? Read more here.
Principle #12: Freedom Under Grace
The Lord grant that you may observe all these precepts in a spirit of charity as lovers of spiritual beauty, giving forth the good odor of Christ in the holiness of your lives: not as slaves living under the law but as men living in freedom under grace.The Rule VIII, 48
Even the most humble people among us are not excempt from the possibility of occasionally being blinded by their own biases, misconceptions, and ignorance. The issues of our day are no exception and their complexity does not help. As part of our ongoing conversion, are we enslaved in any way to certain biases or ignorance of an issue that may prevent us from authentically seeking the common good through a priority towards the most vulnerable and poor among us? While this is the last principle mentioned in this post, perhaps it is what will invite us to continue to reflect on the prior 11 principles. What enslaves us from authentically seeking unity and harmony (Principle #1), from being a good steward of our time, talent, and treasures (Principle #2), etc? Read more here.
The Rule of Augustine, from which these principles emerge, guides and governs the way of life of Augustinian Friars today, to include our ministries and the life we share by living together. We believe the Rule provides a way of life for all vocations: lay, religious, and ordained alike.
We therefore invite all people to join us in examining the Rule, our lifestyles, and the structures of our society with a special eye towards the poor and vulnerable. In this way, we can discern together how we can work together to create create a more just and peaceful world for all people.
Here are some next steps to consider:
- Engage with us online in an Augustinian style dialogue about a particular issue of our day that you are passionate about.
- Learn more about the Augustinian spirituality and how it may relate to the issue that you are passionate about.
- Invite others to dialogue with us online by sharing a particular post or discussion thread that touches you.
- Consider engaging with us in works of charity and works of justice.