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Augustine's Church of Sinners

Augustine believed that a complete uniformity of opinion existed only among angels but that the Church needed to exclude ideas that were contrary to fundamental Christianity. Early in his career as a bishop he combated the view among Christians that God was everywhere and everything and that God was nature rather than a unifying force at the apex of reality. He also came into conflict with those Christians who believed that the Church should be restricted to those who maintained the purity they had acquired at baptism, that those who believed that the Church was a source of holiness and that no sinner should have a part in it and that the Church should expel those who were guilty of mortal sins. These were the Donatists, the descendants of those North Africans who had been for a stricter standard of readmission to the Church following the great persecutions of Christians a century before. Donatists had their own congregations and churches, and in many places in North Africa they had outnumbered other Christians.

Augustine had helped convince the emperor of the west, Honorius, to outlaw Donatism, and in 405 the Church deprived the Donatists of bishops and funds. In 409 the Donatists were decreed heretical and were ordered to give up their churches. Their meeting together for religious purposes was declared punishable by death. Donatists could not hold public office, protect their property in the courts, nor pass their property to their heirs. Under such duress, some Donatists, especially those with property, joined Church orthodoxy. For a few years some others resisted. They terrorized the countryside, plundering villages and rich farms, forcing non-Donatist Christian landowners to trade places with their slaves, and they enjoyed the sight of the landowner's humiliations. It was the terrorism of the defeated. Under continued persecution the Donatists would remain poorly organized. They would rebound a bit when the Arian-believing Vandals conquered what had been Roman North Africa, and the Donastists would celebrate the Vandals suppressing Trinity-believing clergy. But in centuries to come the Donatists would disappear.

Another deviation that Augustine had to contend with was headed by a Christian from Britain named Pelagius, whom contemporaries called a monk. He was among those who fled from Rome to North Africa after the Visigoths sacked Rome. There he joined in discussions and debates with Christian intellectuals whose confidence in Roman society had been shattered. Pelagius had been disturbed by the moral laxity he had found among Christians in Rome when arriving there some thirty years before, and now, following the fall of Rome, he spoke of people being able to make choices between good and evil, and he advocated a stricter morality for all Christians.

The ideas of Pelagius spread to provinces that had been overrun by invasions: Britain, southern Italy and Gaul. This spread disturbed Augustine, and he led the attack against the Pelagians. Once again his argument involved inner feelings and patience, a belief that people should merely try to do right while convalescing within the Church. Augustine spoke of freedom of choice as limited – the result of the original sins of Adam and Eve. People, he believed, could not overcome their faults through will and education. He believed that if they could choose righteousness through their own ability to choose rather than through God and his agents, they would not need the Church's rituals. He complained that the Pelagian interpretation of freedom suggested that virtue was possible outside of Christianity.

With Augustine there was nothing of the belief by Socrates of people doing wrong only because of not knowing truth. Augustine believed that one's inner-self was so complex and mysterious that no one could ever know one's whole personality and no one could be certain that all of oneself would live up to the standards that he or she had adopted.

Although Augustine saw the world that God had created as overwhelmingly good, he believed that humanity was destined to envy and to lust for power. Though he had been extraordinarily active sexually in his younger days, now in his old age he saw humanity as gluttonous. Augustine described infants at the breast as filled with lust, jealousy and other vices. Adam and Eve could have had sex without lust, he wrote, but they chose instead to have it with lust. A carpenter moved his hands without lust, he added, and so too could people in sexual intercourse. Virtue, claimed Augustine, demanded complete control over one's body, but absolute control was impossible, he claimed, because of Adam's fall.

Some Christian intellectuals complained that Augustine made it seem as if the devil were the maker of humanity. They found it absurd to claim that infants were already cursed by guilt in the wombs of their mothers, and they believed that this contradicted God's love of justice. Some saw a Manichaean influence in Augustine's view of evil and the body. Pelagius argued that sin was something of the soul and not the body, and they asked how sin could be passed from the soul of parents to the body of an infant. Augustine answered that sin was passed down from Adam and Eve and from generation to generation through semen, with Jesus having escaped sin by having been born of a virgin.

The Pelagians, as greater advocates of virtue, clashed with Augustine over wealth and sharing, asserting that a rich man was surely damned. Augustine replied that the Church had to find room both for its higher civil servants and its taxpayers, including the rich landowners on whose endowments and influence the monks and clergy had come to depend. Augustine preached against rich men ruining themselves by distributing their land among the poor. Instead, he called upon them to leave their land to Catholic monasteries.

Opinion within the Church went more to an agreement with Augustine than to the Pelagians. Bishops who had spent years upholding the necessity of baptizing infants were inclined to reject the Pelagian argument about the innocence of infants, and many Christians were inclined to believe more in human frailty than humanity's ability to perfect itself. Many believed that people should be humble about their virtues rather than dare to work toward their own righteousness.

Pelagians tried to defend themselves by street demonstrations, and this led to violence in the streets of Rome. The Pelagians were viewed as disturbers of the Catholic faith and accused of considering themselves above the rest of the Christian community. In 416, largely in response to Augustine and his followers, an African Church council met and condemned Pelagius, and the following year the Bishop of Rome, Pope Innocent I, concurred with the condemnation and excommunicated Pelagius. Pelagius responded with a book titled A Brief Statement of Faith. Innocent I died in March, 417, and his successor, Pope Zosimus, who hated muddles and was impressed by Pelagius, pronounced Pelagius innocent of heresy.

The western half of the empire was ruled by Honorius, and Augustine and other anti-Pelagians appealed to him. In April, 418, Honorius responded by denouncing Pelagius as a disturber of the faith. Pope Zosimus fell into line and declared Pelagius a heretic and had him exiled back to Britain.

Augustine had triumphed. He called the Pelagians windbags and restated his belief that it was not how people lived that made them right in the eyes of God but whether they had faith in Jesus Christ.

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