Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Thursday, March 31, 2005

It's All About Love 

In this coming Sunday's Gospel, tightly wedged between our Lord's post-resurrection appearance to the disciples and the famous 'Thomas incident' (which will probably get the bulk of the homily), we have the sparse two sentences which constitute, according to our scholastic tradition, the dominical institution of the sacrament of penance (John 20:22-23):

"And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
'Receive the Holy Spirit.

Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained'."

This bestowal of authority to 'control', if we may use that word, the sanctifying operation of the Spirit, to 'bind and loose' the gift of heaven, to be indwelt with the awesome creative power of the same Spirit who hovered over the waters of creation, would have been interpreted by many ancient readers as nothing other than magic, something along the lines of conjuring or sorcery. It is little wonder that Simon Magus, himself a street magician, sees the apostles as fellow practitioners, and offers to buy their secrets (Acts 8:9-24). And of course, in the apostolic narratives in the Book of Acts, the apostles wage a continual struggle to dissasociate their miraculous ministry from the work-a-day activities of sorcerers or channelers of the pagan divinities.

The Manichees, who, at least according to their Christian opponents, were the spiritual descendants of Simon Magus himself, held the same caricature of the Christian sacraments. According to Faustus, the 'public face' of Manichaeism in the late fourth century, the Christian rituals merely provided superficial justiciation for private dissolution. He mocked Christians for their allegedly low moral standards: Christians, he said, waltzed through the perfunctory rituals of sacramental initiation, and then lived as they pleased. Their private vices could be 'covered over' by the 'magical' purification of baptism and penance, and their sacramental worthiness required no parallel, and especially no conscious effort, on the personal level.

The charges are not obscure. St. Paul had to respond to them within years of Christ's death, and Christian apologists respond to them still today. St. Augustine found the charge compelling enough to merit a small library of literary works, directed specifically against Faustus and the charges mentioned above. For the 'doctor of grace', this charge was not one to be taken lightly, but one which cut to the very heart of the Christian message.

Augustine's writings on this passage in the Gospel, where Christ promises the Holy Spirit to his disciples, give us only one sentence of commentary on the relevant verses:

"The Church's love, which is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, discharges the sins of all who are partakers with itself, but retains the sins of those who have no participation therein."

The sentence is scant but loaded, and anyone who has read Augustine at any length at all will immediately recognize the inclusion of the ubiquitous Augustinian allusion to St. Paul in Romans 5:5, almost certainly the most oft-quoted verse in all of Augustine's works. It is a verse used frequently in his anti-Faustian works (cf., e.g. On the Morals of the Catholic Church 13.23), usually with reference to baptism, but also in discussions of the Eucharist or penance. St. Augustine's casual usage of this rather peculiar Pauline phrase - 'the love shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit' - to describe the apostolic prerogative of absolving sins strikes us as rather odd. Paul was certainly not using this phrase to describe the ecclesial forgiveness of sins. What, after all, does love have do do with the sacraments of the Church?

Everything. For St. Augustine, man's union with God, even his sacramental union, can come about through nothing less than an infusion of divine charity, an outpouring of supernatural love. Therefore, he will argue against Faustus, a life of charity is the 'outer mark' of membership in the Church, just as the reception of the sacraments establish the 'inner mark'. Self-giving charity is symptomatic of the life of the Christian just as self-love is symptomatic of the life of the unregenerate. The multitude of Christians from whose lives charity is noticeably absent - the brunt of Faustus' mockery - have stained their baptismal purity, and, until they experience a change of life, possess a membership in the Church which is purely nominal, and not authentic. The sacraments of the Church have one sole purpose, and that is to penetrate, permeate, and perpetuate divine love in the hearts of her members.

Augustine will also turn this argument against another heretical sect, the Donatist party. These African Christians, who had severed themselves from the Catholic communion, carried out the Christian sacraments in schism. Yet for Augustine, these sacraments - even if valid in themselves - amounted to nothing outside the Church, since they were carried out in the absence of charity (for what charity can exist when the unity of the Body is shattered by hatred?), and - as we have noted above - the efficacy of the sacraments lies precisely in the infusion of charity:
"[W]e should understand thereby what the apostle says, 'Because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.' For this is that very love which is wanting in all who are cut off from the communion of the Catholic Church . . . and consequently we are right in understanding that the Holy Spirit may be said not to be received except in the Catholic Church . . . [As for those within the Catholic Church, it] is understood that invisibly and imperceptibly, on account of the bond of peace, divine love is breathed into their hearts, so that they may be able to say, 'Because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us."
"But there are many operations of the Holy Spirit, which the same apostle commemorates in a certain passage at such length as he thinks sufficient, and then concludes: 'But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as He will.' Since, then, the sacrament is one thing, which even Simon Magus could have; and the operation of the Spirit is another thing, which is even often found in wicked men, as Saul had the gift of prophecy; and that operation of the same Spirit is a third thing, which only the good can have, as 'the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned': Whatever, therefore, may be received by heretics and schismatics, the charity which covereth the multitude of sins is the especial gift of Catholic unity and peace; nor is it found in all that are within that bond, since not all that are within it are of it, as we shall see in the proper place. At any rate, outside the bond that love cannot exist, without which all the other requisites, even if they can be recognized and approved, cannot profit or release from sin." (On Baptism Against the Donatists 3.16.21)

Thus Augustine places the reception of the Spirit, which is according to Christ the cause of the forgiveness of sins, within the context both of lifegiving love, and of ecclesial integrity. It is not that sacramental efficacy depends upon the prevenient presence of charity, or even upon perfect membership in the Church - rather, perfection both in charity and in ecclesial participation derive from the gift of the sacrament, and are impossible without it. The sacrament is a gift of love, given in the bosom of ecclesial unity, and he who does not love has no share in it:
"If any one, therefore, wishes to receive the Holy Spirit, let him beware of continuing in alienation from the Church, let him beware of entering it in the spirit of dissimulation; or if he has already entered it in such wise, let him beware of persisting in such dissimulation, in order that he may truly and indeed become united with the tree of life." (Ibid., 3.11.50)

# posted by Jamie : 10:57 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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