Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Friday, July 16, 2004

St. Augustine the Berber 

When Elliot Bougis, who is currently standing in for Mark Shea at 'Not Quite Catholic but Still Enjoying It' (formerly 'Catholic and Enjoying it'), off-handedly made a post claiming that Augustine was 'Black and Catholic,' he got a handful of corrections in response - from Sandra Miesel, myself, and others - noting the complexities involved in calling St. Augustine 'black' (for the record, he was half-Berber, half-Roman).  This touched a nerve for Elliot, who posted in reply:

"But it's precisely this reflexive, I dare say smug, sense of incongruity between Augustine and a black Augustine that led me to post the headline I did. As the comment thread for this dust-up revealed, the explicit claim of most (presumably) white Catholics (at least in the vicinity of CAEI/NQCBSEI) is that Augustine was not black. Well and good. What is not so clearly stated, however, is the ingrained corollary: since he certainly wasn't black, Augustine was white."
Now, as Elliot showed, he knows as well as anyone that Augustine is not 'black' in the modern sense of the term.  But his response touched off another storm of responses, including my own, which I re-post here:
"In my study of Church history, one of the problems I frequently come across is the reading of modern academic preoccupations (whether they be Marxist class struggle or racial identity) into ancient modes of thought.  St. Augustine, who spent many years reflecting upon the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire, would have been very confused to hear about the role of the dislocation and disenfranchisement of the plebian class in this fall, and yet that is exactly the light in which many studies read the City of God.  Not that St. Augustine would have disagreed; it just simply wasn't his interest. T he same with Medieval contemplative female monastics and mystics, who, if told that their real motivations involved a struggle for authority and voice in a male-dominated secular realm, would have looked a little confused and left the room.  Now, I'm not claiming that the same thing is involved in feminist/Marxist revisionist history and African-Americans taking pride in the presumed skin color of St. Augustine.  But I do think we have to be very self-conscious of the lenses through which we view the ancient Christians.  Otherwise, these lenses can end up -- through 'zeal without knowledge' -- distorting the reality.  The feminist historian who is frustrated by the actual LACK of interest among Medieval nuns in gender empowerment is often tempted to pretend that it is there.  In the same way, one preoccupied with the skin color of some of the saints might be tempted to pretend that St. Augustine was black when he wasn't.  I'm not interested in claiming St. Augustine for whites. I'm interested in claiming him for St. Augustine."

Again, the whole dispute is quite silly.  The very fact that this discussion is going on reflects an an anachronistic reading of modern concerns into the past, which is precisely the thing I want to avoid.  Most of us are just too touchy for this sort of thing, and should have just let Elliot's comment be taken for what it was -- a joking, tongue-in-cheek reference.  But again, I get involved in discussions on St. Augustine on principle alone.

# posted by Jamie : 9:22 AM


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Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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