Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Hating the body

Recently some family members came across, in a Catholic circle (we'll leave it at that for the sake of anonymity), the idea that St Augustine is "anti-body," meaning he essentially espouses a "soul=good, body=bad" theology.

My family members were bothered. Isn't Augustine a doctor of the Church? they asked. How could he be so wrong on an essential teaching of the faith? Emails went back and forth, and I remained silent...until today! I finally weighed in on the matter. He's the effort, for what's it worth. Next time you hear someone trash-talk Augustine, remember this entry. I'll include the email to my family in it's original form.

Dear Fam,

I don’t know if you’re still thinking about the recent discussion over St Augustine. If you are, read on! I thought I’d make my own contribution to the discussion.

The basic question at stake, it seems, was whether St Augustine’s teaching is anti-body, perhaps tainted by the remnants of his former manicheism, whether implicitly or explicitly. Should we be suspicious of his teaching on the body?

It is good to remember that St Augustine wrote over a span of many decades, and in response to many different situations. But for my purpose here, I’m going to ignore the complexities of the development of his thought. It is true St Augustine was a disciple of the philosophy of manicheism before his conversion. This philosophy was strongly dualistic, meaning the universe was seen as divided into two great principles: light and dark, good and evil, spirit and body.

Later, Augustine was a disciple of Neo-Platonism, which saw the universe as a great chain of being, with the material reality of physical bodies being on the lower end of the chain. Death was an escape from the body, and entrance into the purely spiritual, and therefore better, realm.

But only a cursory reading of St Augustine’s Confessions, his autobiography, shows that he saw these philosophical forays as just that—dead-end paths from which he had been saved when he discovered Christ and the Church.

A theologian I once heard said, “Aquinas reads like a freeman; Augustine reads like a freed man.” Augustine was always conscious of his liberation from the bad tendencies. Still it is fair to ask if those tendencies (in this case, anti-body ones) remained in his thought despite himself, even into his years when he was a bishop.

As far as I can tell, Augustine’s teaching on the body reflects a nuanced and properly ordered understanding. He writes in his famous and fundamental Christian Doctrine:

“And when some people say that they would rather be without a body altogether, they entirely deceive themselves…For as, after the resurrection of the body, having become wholly subject to the spirit, will live in perfect peace to all eternity; even in this life we must make it an object to have the carnal habit changed for the better, so that its inordinate affections may not war against the soul.”

In writing this, Augustine draws claims that the body is in fact good, but unruly, inveterate. It is to submit to the spirit and so become what it is meant to be, which is fulfilled in the resurrection of the body. This whole section is set in the context of Augustine’s reflection on St Paul’s words, “No man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourishest and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the Church.” (Christian Dotrine, Chapter I, book 24).

Augustine teaches that we are to learn to “love the body”, provided it is in the proper way. He writes, “[Man] is to be taught, too, in what measure to love his body, so as to care for it wisely and within due limits.” (Christian Doctrine, Chapther I, book 25).

Augustine even sees the body as ingredient in the command to love God and neighbor “as thyself.” He writes, “Now, if you take yourself in your entirety—that is, soul and body together—and your neighbor in his entirety, soul and body together (for man is made up of soul and body), you will find that none of the classes of things that are to be loved is overlooked in these commandments….it is evident that our love for ourselves [including the body] has not been overlooked.” (Christian Doctrine, Chapter I, book 26).

From Augustine’s own words, it seems clear to me that his understanding of the body is consonant with the bulk of the great Christian tradition. The body is good, but not the highest good; it is an essential element of the human person, and destined for glory, albeit through the discipline of the cross.

From where comes the notion that St. Augustine is somehow anti-body?

I recently read an article from the scholar Eamon Duffy (in "Beyond the Prosaic", a collection of essays) in which he points out that much of the theology of the late 1960’s failed to understand Augustine’s very biblically rooted notion of the relationship between temporal and eternal things, between nature and grace. He claims that for these inadequate schools of theology any hint of ordering (or, God forbid, denying) the natural order of things or appetites to the supernatural, demands an automatic verdict of Manicheism. These strains of thought continue, no doubt, in thinkers today, including those within the Church.

Still, to be fair, the thought of St Augustine, though he is a doctor of the Church and a great saint, is not without some limitations. Joseph Ratzinger once wrote that Augustine did exhibit a tendency toward a “spiritualizing theology” which “caused him [St Augustine] great torment;” this spiritualizing, while in no way manicheism, prevented Augustine “from carrying their insights through consistently” (Ratzinger, Feast of Faith, 112).

In other words, the biblical principal that Catholic theology describes as “grace presupposes and perfects nature,” which runs like a thread from creation to incarnation to resurrection to the Church to the “new heavens and new earth,” deeply informs Augustine’s thought. We saw it above in his writings on the body. Still, he hesitates at times, and doesn’t carry this thread “all the way through” in some areas of thought. Ratzinger sees this inconsistency in Augustine’s thought, for example, evidenced in Augustine’s highly suspicious attitude toward music (and the senses) in Christian worship.

Nonetheless, this occasional “spiritualizing tendency” should not make us lose sight of the bulk of Augustine’s teaching on the body’s basic goodness and capacity for redemption and glorification.

Afterall, St Augustine is a saint and a doctor of the Church, meaning that he was a holy man and that his writings are trustworthy. We should trust his teachings, and not be dismayed by lesser theologians who can't understand him and presume to insult him. It is never a good idea to be suspicious of a doctor of the Church.

Augustine understood well the potential problems that his previous philosophical loyalties posed against the Christian faith, and, as a Bishop and a teacher, he sought diligently to always follow the Scriptures and the Church’s teaching, wherever a conflict arose.

I hope this “paper” helps to rehabilitate the great Augustine, the Doctor of Grace, if his name was besmirched in any way in our little circle.


  1. I write letters to my family like yours sometimes. They're so much better than the essays I write for class. Go figure. I'm happy to know someone else writes things that require citations as an ordinary activity too.

  2. Father, what great timing! Just yesterday I was having a discussion about Augustine's views of the body with my two teens. My oldest loves Augustine and was defending his stance to my second child. Now I will have something for both of them to read.

    God bless!

    PS: I remember you as a seminarian at STA. I am adding you to my blog roll!

    Leila Miller