Why Be So Quick to Affirm Religion Freedom? St. Augustine’s Rationale for Suppressing Religious Liberty
Given the outrage against international religious liberty, numerous public intellectuals are crying out for justice. The notion of religious freedom, however, must be soberly examined. The Christian Church began facing these questions of religious liberty when it ascended to a position of political authority 1,700 years ago and ultimately determined that persecution could be a pastoral necessity. The medieval age is often thought of as a barbarous time but many publications in the recent decades have attempted to abolish the inquisition as the symbol of counter-witness and scandal. Given that the medieval Church drew much of its inquisitorial warrant from Saint Augustine’s thoughts and writings, this essay serves as a preface to these texts as it traces Saint Augustine’s developing philosophical justification for Church-enforced persecution.
The official doctrinal promulgation of Church-enforced oppression came at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 with the declaration, “Those condemned, being handed over to the secular rulers or their bailiffs, let them be abandoned, to be punished with due justice.” This statement should be understood to be equally pastoral and inquisitorial, and, as I shall argue, we must not forget that the first developments of this doctrine began roughly 800 years prior with the same concern for the care of souls. Though Constantine established the Edict of Milan in 312, orthodox Christianity did not find greater stability within the empire until the reign of Theodosius I (347-395) and the Council of Constantinople in 381. Hostility toward Christians continued through the interim, and the Donatists, a dissenting group that arose during the Diocletian persecutions, grew alongside oppression. The Donatists argued that the mediation of grace “through the church and the sacraments was vitiated when the administrator of the sacraments had lost his Christian perfection through a serious fall into sin.” Thus, Donatists concluded, “He who received the faith from a faithless priest, received not faith, but guilt.” Saint Augustine originally submitted to the principle of Saint John Chrysostom, “It is my custom to be pursued and not to pursue,” thinking that authentic faith stemmed from a free and unconstrained decision to obey God. After all, Saint Augustine himself had belonged to the Manichaean sect for nine years before converting to the Catholic Church without the slightest external pressure. He exercised his alliterative principle of non vincit nisi veritas, victoria veritatis est caritas in regards to the heresies against which he battled tirelessly, until he “accepted the view of his fellow bishops that the civil power should be called in to repress the dissidents.” What changed his mind? Tierney and Schaff suggest that it was a new exegetical justification—but a closer consideration of Saint Augustine’s intellectual development provides a more robust explanation.
Around 380, a faction of the Donatist dissenters, the agonistici (holy fighters), as they referred to themselves, were doing much more than creating disturbances on the streets.  The Circumcellions, as the Church labelled them, began vandalizing property—principally basilicas, shrines, houses of the clergy, and other ecclesiastical properties. Their aggression intensified and ultimately targeted individuals. They resorted to beating with clubs, gouging out eyes, cutting out tongues, and even scalping those who disagreed with them. In a particularly gruesome instance, Bishop Maximianus of Bagaï, a former Donatist bishop who had converted to Catholicism, was thrown from the top of a building—a symbol of his falling from grace. Even their presence induced fear; Saint Augustine considered them not the “soldiers of Christ” they believed themselves to be, but rather of Satan, and as such, he found their ritualistic and rhythmic chanting of Laudes Deo to be “a roar more frightening than that of a lion.”
These paradigms, held with equally strong convictions, both appealing to biblical warrants to justify their beliefs, warred against one another. The growing tension led to an instability that drove Emperor Honorius to pass his edictum de unitate in 405. The Donatists required those who had renounced Christ to be rebaptized, a sacramental scandal in Catholic eyes, and this edict allowed for the enforcement of proper baptism, no doubt in part to warrant action against the terrorizing Circumcellions. After this legislation passed, Saint Augustine effectively ceased correspondence with Donatists. Earlier he had written letters and manifestos, but this time he seemed willing to promote coercive tactics. According to Peter Brown, the circumstances engendered by the edict “merely crystallized an attitude [in Saint Augustine] which had been evolving for a long time.” Yet, his developing orientation toward compulsory conversions would not mirror that of those in the medieval Church.
Saint Augustine may be the first theorist of inquisitorial acts, but he was no Grand Inquisitor. Unlike Dominicans and Franciscans of the Middle Ages, he was not bent on maintaining the status quo in a primarily Christian society. He was faced not by a small sect feared and hated by the whole community, but by a body of Christians as large as his own congregation.
Saint Augustine’s change of mind regarding the fittingness of oppression came in large part from discovering a number of people who wished to convert and yet feared the outcome if they did: “Every day we witness a son who thinks of his father as a persecutor—and a wife her husband, a slave his master, a colonus the one who owns his lands.” He ultimately realized that the fear of the violent tactics used by the Circumcellions had become a significant obstruction to conversions; he therefore sought a legal framework to eliminate this fear and provide people with the opportunity to attain salvation. Restricting religious freedom for some, Saint Augustine reasoned, could not only promote freedom for Catholic citizens but paradoxically could also promote religious freedom among the terror-bound Donatists. In the words of Flavius Marcellinus, a friend of Saint Augustine and the man who chaired the official hearing of the Circumcellions in 411: “It is as much a part of respecting Catholic law as it is of the public peace that a stop should be put to the madness of these men.” Saint Augustine found further support for this decision in his analysis of the Old Testament: just as the fickle in Israel needed disciplina, so did the fallen men of his day. This disciplina was an active process of corrective punishment, a “softening-up process,” a per molestias eruditio.
What were the coercive measures Saint Augustine suggested? Clergy were banished from the country, fines were imposed on the laity, and churches were confiscated. Many of the new policies imposed external “inconveniences” that would make respectable people think twice about remaining Donatists. Many dissenting bishops and priests were brought before the court, but Saint Augustine’s characteristic charity expressed itself in each of these cases as he urged clemency from the magistrate and thereby continued to practice his maxim: Non vincit nisi veritas, victoria veritatis est caritas.
The number of dissenters did not diminish immediately, but the number of converts did gradually arise. Unfortunately, many Circumcellions committed suicide; they chose martyrdom by their own hand to avoid the temptation of conversion through subtle—and not-so-subtle—pressures wooing them to Catholicism. This was not Saint Augustine’s intent. Rather, he wished for the dissenters to be properly catechized in the faith and to become fully aware of that which they were rejecting: “For if they were being terrorized and not instructed at the same time, it would appear a wicked tyranny, improba dominatio, on our part.” Indeed, he wished for them to make an educated dissent.
Saint Augustine’s position shifted from one that affirmed un-coerced conversions to one that sanctioned an entire religion in the name of charity. What he sought was political stability and religious piety. Religion provides a transcendent source of virtues. As different religions engendered different values, the medieval Christian world determined to rear its children in its own religiously informed virtus so as to be suitable citizens. Such a shared vision was understood to be critical for cultural stability.
Saint Augustine, however, never understood this as ideal. He begrudgingly reoriented his opinion of how best to bolster the truth within the Catholic Church as he realized the inevitability of an unfavorable outcome. Ultimately, his eschatology molded and reformed his view of the ideal polity. In a well-known statement, he reflects, “Cain built a city, while Abel, as though he were merely a pilgrim on earth, built none. For the true city of the saints is in heaven, though here on earth it produces citizens in whom it wanders as on a pilgrimage through time looking for the kingdom of eternity.” Given this future ideal, pragmatism played an important role in Saint Augustine’s political theories concerning the present world order. Perhaps we ought to follow his lead.