Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Wednesday, July 27, 2005

On Stocking Groceries . . . the Catholic way. 

Over at Disputations, Tom is discussing a 'Catholic grocer' (btw, Tom, if you'd let us know where this guy works, I'm sure we could send a lot of customers his way). Some selections:

More strictly, "Catholic grocer" could mean a person who traffics in groceries in a manner consistent with the Catholic faith; in this case, "Catholic" modifies the way in which the traffic in groceries is conducted.

There seems to be plenty of stuff in being a grocer that can't really be modified by being Catholic. A grocer order his goods, stocks his shelves, prices his merchandise, receives payments, keeps his books, and so on. These can be done in accord with the Catholic faith, but they are essentially natural, material acts.

And if it's the case that the content of the ideas of Catholic intellectuals are thoroughly Catholic, then might it even be the case, somehow, that the content of the stores of Catholic grocers are thoroughly Catholic? Does that actually mean anything, and if so, what?

The discussion is meant to clarify the meaning of 'Catholic intellectual', and more broadly, I think, exactly what is the scope of that which can be 'qualified' ('modified'?) by grace. It's an intriguing question, and I think it goes further than whether or not a Catholic grocer's groceries are any different than the pagan grocer's groceries. More importantly, is the way a Catholic grocer goes about his work, say, stocking shelves, distinct in any way from the way a pagan does it? Putting aside the question of supernatural virtues, are his 'natural' actions qualified in any way by the fact that he is a Catholic?

As it is always encumbent upon me to offer the unsolicited Augustinian take on anything and everything . . .

St. Augustine has plenty to say on the moral evaluation of human acts, but I'll restrict myself here to a few comments. Of course, St. Augustine and St. Thomas would agree that man can do 'such good as is natural to him' without the help of superadded grace, though still requiring the 'help of God moving him to act' (the in/famous auxilium dei). So there is no question of the pagan grocer's ability to stock groceries in the absence of superadded grace, nor is there a question of this stocking of groceries being a good, though not without qualification.

What I will now dub, with apologies to the Pontificator, 'Ad Limina's First Rule', is this: 'You can't hide from grace', perhaps rephrased better as 'With regard to grace, there can be no neutrality.' Any element in the Augustinian system which attempts to evade the piercing gaze of grace will be found out, and once found out, weighed in the balance. Seemingly morally neutral acts, then, can only seem neutral, for nothing can be neutral in the light of grace. The rub is this, with reference to the grocery-stocking of the pagan grocer: Apart from the question of his grocery-stocking's being a natural good, we must ask the further question of whether or not his grocery-stocking will please God. If yes, it becomes a virtue; if not, a vice. It can only be one or the other.

From De civitate dei XIX, 25:

For though the soul may seem to rule the body admirably, and the reason the vices, if the soul and reason do not themselves obey God, as God has commanded them to serve Him, they have no proper authority over the body and the vices. For what kind of mistress of the body and the vices can that mind be which is ignorant of the true God, and which, instead of being subject to His authority, is prostituted to the corrupting influences of the most vicious demons? It is for this reason that the virtues which it seems to itself to possess, and by which it restrains the body and the vices that it may obtain and keep what it desires, are rather vices than virtues so long as there is no reference to God in the matter. For although some suppose that virtues which have a reference only to themselves, and are desired only on their own account, are yet true and genuine virtues, the fact is that even then they are inflated with pride, and are therefore to be reckoned vices rather than virtues.
Augustine's language of 'virtue' and 'vice' here should not be misleading - he is speaking here about pre-Christian Rome, and specifically about the 'natural' accomplishments of the earthly empire - overcoming unruly enemies, establishing peace, generating a thriving culture, etc. The stocking of groceries can be considered as one element of this larger human industry. And the evaluation of such an act turns upon whether or not it is carried out 'with reference to God', which is to say, whether or not it is done for the glory of God. If it is, it gives God pleasure. If not, it can only be a veiled attempt to exalt human pride. There can be no 'neutral' act from an Augustinian perspective, since an act is always judged according to that to which it has reference. Hence, the well-known reference to St. Augustine's concept of pagan virtues as 'splendid vices' (vita splendida). A grim view of human nature? Perhaps. St. Augustine, as is often pointed out, is nothing but a realist. From another perspective, St. Augustine has a dark view of man's capabilities without God, but a glorious perspective on man's capabilities when assisted by Him.

# posted by Jamie : 12:41 PM


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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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