Saint Augustine of Hippo
The following is an excerpt from Dr. Robert Stackpole's book Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press):
"Though I am but dust and ashes, suffer me to utter my plea to Thy mercy; suffer me to speak, since it is to God's mercy that I speak and not to man's scorn. From Thee too I might have scorn, but Thou wilt return and have compassion on me. ... I only know that the gifts Thy mercy had provided sustained me from the first moment. ... All my hope is naught save in Thy great mercy. Grant what Thou dost command, and command what Thou wilt" (St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 6, 19).
The man who wrote these lines in his autobiography had reason enough to praise the infinite mercy of God.
Saint Augustine was born in 354 in a small town in what is now Algeria, North Africa. His father was a pagan, but his mother was a devout Christian believer who was later canonized and is known to the whole Catholic world as St. Monica. As a young man, Augustine prepared for a career as a teacher of Rhetoric and subsequently taught in Carthage and Rome. Unfortunately, despite having a saint for a mother, as his career progressed he wandered far from his Christian upbringing, and his life sank into an abyss of pride and lust.
Like many young pagan men of his time, he lived with a mistress and conceived a child with her out of wedlock. However, the Lord did not want to lose hold of this lost sheep altogether: thus, inspired by the writings of the Roman philosopher Cicero (and, no doubt, prompted by the Holy Spirit), Augustine began what would prove to be a lifelong search for wisdom. This search took him first to the religious cult called the "Manichees," a strange sect that believed the material world is the product of the powers of "darkness," while the spiritual realm is the realm of "light."
After becoming disillusioned with the bizarre theories of the Manichees, Augustine adopted the philosophy of the Neo-Platonists. This was a school of philosophy centered on the writings of the ancient philosopher Plotinus, who described the mystical journey that all people ought to undertake as "the flight of the alone to the Alone," in other words, as a mystical, solitary search for the ineffable Source of all things.
In 386, Augustine moved to Milan to a new teaching post, and there, by divine providence, he encountered the preaching of the archbishop of the city, the great theologian St. Ambrose. As a result of the example and preaching of this great saint, as well as the prayers and tears of his saintly mother, Augustine was quickly plunged into a profound inner struggle, wrestling with his sins of the flesh and with temptations to intellectual pride. The turning point of this struggle came in the summer of 386 when Augustine was sitting in a garden, recollecting his past life and gazing into the depths of his own soul. He describes what happened next in his autobiographical Confessions (written in 397):
Such things I said, weeping in the most bitter sorrow of my heart. And suddenly, I heard a voice from some nearby house, a boy's voice or a girl's voice, I do not know: but it was a sort of sing-song repeated again and again, "Take and read, take and read." I ceased weeping and immediately began to search my mind most carefully as to whether children were accustomed to chant these words in any kind of game, and I could not remember that I had ever heard any such thing. Damming back the flood of my tears I arose, interpreting the incident as quite certainly a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the passage at which I should open. ... I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the passage upon which my eyes first fell: "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its concupiscences" (Rom 13:13). I had no wish to read further, and no need. For in that instant, with the very ending of the sentence, it was as though a light of utter confidence shone in my heart, and all the darkness of uncertainty vanished away.
Then we [Augustine and his friend Alypius] went in to my mother and told her, to her great joy. We related how it had come about: she was filled with triumphant exultation, and praised You who are mighty beyond what we ask or conceive: for she saw that You had given her more than with all her pitiful weeping she had ever asked. For You converted me to Yourself ... (Confessions, 8.11-12).
1. ST. AUGUSTINE'S INTELLECTUAL LIFE AFTER HIS CONVERSION
Saint Augustine's intellectual development after his conversion can be divided into several phases. In the first phase, he was still a follower of the philosophy of Plotinus and sought to interpret and defend the Christian faith with the help of this philosophy (St. Clement of Alexandria in the East had tried much the same thing). After he became a bishop, however, he became more interested in Scriptural study, especially the letters of St. Paul and the Psalms. Divine Revelation became for Augustine more than just the mystical philosophy of Plotinus with the doctrines of Creation (creatio ex nihilo) and the Incarnation thrown in for good measure. Rather, in this period Augustine began to plumb the depths of what it means for God's grace to come to the aid of a sinful soul through prayer and the Sacraments.
This is the period in his life that produced written works that "moderate Augustinians" would refer to so often. Here Augustine emphasizes that God in His mercy always takes the initiative with the sinner, because the sinner is too weak even to stretch out his hands to God in prayer on his own. Augustine taught that salvation cannot be gained merely by the soul receiving proper moral and doctrinal instruction and by following the example of Jesus and the saints. Rather, salvation involves the entire inner renewal of the soul by divine grace, received as a free gift from God through prayer and the Sacraments of the Church. The teachings of this period of St. Augustine's life, such as his treatise "On Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants," became standard fare for theology in the West, both Catholic and Protestant, and were largely endorsed by the Western Council of Orange in 529.
Reflections on Divine Mercy can be found in St. Augustine's writings that come from this period of his life. For example, here is his commentary on Psalm 58, from the phrase in the Latin Vulgate version of the Psalm, "My God is my mercy":
Lastly, considering that every type of good thing we may possess — either as gifts of nature, or through education or social relationships, or through the gifts of faith, hope, and charity, or moral goods such as justice, or fear of God — are nothing but [God's] gifts, [the Psalmist] concludes thus: "My God is my mercy."... Now, since none is better than You, none more powerful than You, and none is more generous in mercy than You from whom I received that I exist, from You I received [the grace] that I [can] be good.
Later in his life, however, St. Augustine's view of human nature and its corruption took a more pessimistic turn. It is not hard to see the roots of his discouragement with the human species. For example, as Bishop of Hippo he had to contend first with the Donatist schism, which split the North African Church for over a century. The Donatists taught that only Sacraments administered by pure and holy priests were valid — which meant that no Christian could ever be sure he was receiving valid Sacraments and the grace those Sacraments contain, since no one can have an in-depth knowledge of the hearts of the priests performing them. In essence, the Donatists undermined the confidence of Catholics in the Sacraments as means of grace. In the end, imperial military force was called in to support the Catholic side in the dispute.
Augustine's attempts to deal with this ecclesiastical conflict were long, tiring, and largely futile. In the end, he reluctantly agreed to support the imperial policy of coercion, as long as it was limited to the use of pressure and "rebuke" rather than crude physical force. However, no sooner was the Donatist situation under control than Augustine faced another mounting heresy, the Pelagian heresy, which denied the need for inner regeneration of the soul by God's invisible, divine grace. This controversy would involve St. Augustine in theological labors that would last most of the rest of his life.
In addition to these ecclesiastical and theological trials and tribulations, Augustine had to contend with the horrors of the barbarian invasions. The whole of Western Roman civ- ilization was rapidly crumbling around him. In 407, barbarian tribes overran Roman Gaul, then crossed into Spain in 409, bringing pillage, rape, and murder wherever they went. In 410, the city of Rome itself was sacked by Alaric and the Goths. Refugees poured into North Africa and the safer Christian East. To gain an appreciation of what Augustine and his fellow bishops had to face in those dark times, here is a passage from the historian Henry Chadwick's book The Early Church that vividly describes the scene:
Augustine's last letters dealt with the problem of conscience whether clergy might join with the refugees and flee [the oncoming barbarian armies]. In Gaul and Spain the bishops of many cities, such as Toulouse, had been the principal organizers of resistance to the invaders; but some bishops had gone with those who fled before the murdering, plundering hordes. What were the African clergy to do? Augustine did not want all the best priests to be lost in the oncoming massacre. Yet there was a clear duty to be there to minister to those who would be clamoring for baptism or for the last rites before the cruel invaders cut their throats. Augustine recommended that some should go and some should stay, and that to avoid invidious decisions the clergy should cast lots. He himself stayed in Hippo for the Vandal siege, but died on August 28, 430, before the barbarians broke through the defenses (Pelican edition, 1967, p. 24).
It was in the midst of this dreadful situation that St. Augustine finished writing his most famous work, The City of God, in which he tried to show that although human history is a record of war and strife, still, by the mercy of God, the city of God (the kingdom of heaven) endures, and it is built up through the means of grace that God gives to us in the Church, which will abide forever, and whose duty it is now to convert the barbarian invaders to the Christian faith.
This was also the time in Augustine's life when he put the final form on his doctrine of salvation as a manifestation of the mercy of God. Whether or not Augustine's doctrine in this regard truly manifests God's merciful love in the way that he intended, however, remains a contentious theological point in the Christian world to this very day.
2. SALVATION AND PREDESTINATION
Let us return to the writings of the Patristics scholar Henry Chadwick, and his summary of St. Augustine's fully developed doctrine of salvation. Chadwick writes:
According to the doctrine that Augustine opposed to the Pelagians, the entire [human] race fell in Adam. ... The transmission of hereditary sinfulness is bound up with the reproductive process. The general belief that virginity is a higher state than marriage proved for Augustine that the sexual impulse can never be free of some element of concupiscence [that is, of disordered passion, lust]. In any event, the practice of infant baptism for the remission of sins presupposes that infants arrive polluted by sin; since they have committed no actual sin, remission must be for the guilt attaching to a fault in their nature. Therefore, if babies die unbaptized, they are damned, even though [Augustine says] it will be a "very mild" form of damnation. Mankind is a lump of perdition, incapable, without redeeming grace, of any act of pure good will, and all the virtues of the good pagan are vitiated by sin. ... If all humanity were consigned to hell, that would be nothing but strict justice. Nevertheless, God's mercy is such that, inscrutably, He has chosen a fairly substantial minority of souls for salvation by a decree of predestination, which is antecedent to all differences of merit. To complain that this election is unjust is to fail to consider the gravity of the guilt attaching to original sin, and yet more to actual sin.
A necessary corollary of this doctrine of predestination is that [saving] grace is irresistible. If man is so corrupt that he no longer has free will to do good, grace must do all; and that this power is irresistible is a plain deduction from the divine decree of predestination, which otherwise would be frustrated. It is the purpose of God to bring His elect, infallibly, to a certain end. Accordingly, the empirical test of the operation of grace lies in man's consistent goodness of character right through to the end of his life, a "final perseverance" which is a foreordained gift of God, independent of merit (p. 232).
While Chadwick's summary is true as far as it goes, he does not give St. Augustine sufficient credit for seeking to preserve the reality of human free will in the process of salvation, or for recognizing that this whole matter of predestination is a deep and unfathomable mystery. Patristics scholar Richard Price rounds out the picture for us:
[According to Augustine,] man in his fallen state is only capable of evil, but God is able to rescue him not by overriding his free will but precisely by empowering it. Evil is not something concrete and positive, but a mere deficiency, an absence of the good. Every created being in virtue of his mere existence has some share of the good; every conscious and rational being has some potential to respond to the grace of God. In fallen man this potential is so weakened as to be wholly dormant. But divine grace is able to bring this potential to realization, to reawaken and reanimate the natural powers within the soul of every human being: this it does by acting through both external stimuli [for example, preaching, the Sacraments, and the good example of Christ and the saints] and inner assistance within the will itself. As beings endowed with free will, we could choose to resist the healing action of God; but God can so work on us that we have not the faintest incli- nation to exercise this freedom. ...
Since [Augustine] was sure that God is able to save whomever he pleases, and yet believed that not all are saved, he concluded that God does not wish to save everyone. How is this compatible with the Christian doctrine that God is love? Augustine argued that because of the guilt of original sin everyone deserves eternal damnation. The amazing thing is not that many are damned but that any at all are saved. While the damnation of the many is required by the justice of God, the salvation of the few is proof of the depths of his mercy. God does not choose to damn anyone: in the case of the majority he simply allows the effect of sin to take its natural course.
Meanwhile, he shows his love by rescuing the few; he uses all the resources of his grace to ensure their salvation, despite the effects of original sin. ...
He insists that God must have good reasons for making the selection he does, even if these reasons are for us an inscrutable mystery, hidden in the secret abyss of divine wisdom (Augustine. Liguori Press, 1996, pp. 52, and 56-57).
The Catholic Church has never endorsed some aspects of this full-blown Augustinian doctrine of salvation and predestination — and for good reason, for it is hard to see how it entirely fits with the Church's faith in the merciful love of God. For example:
(a) The Church has never taught that the corruption of the soul from original sin is transmitted to each infant by the inordinate passions involved in the sexual intercourse that conceived it (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 402- 406). Saint Augustine's view here contradicts God's mercy because it seems to imply that He has permitted sin completely to corrupt the natural process by which He brings new life into the world.
(b) The Church has certainly defined that the Baptism of infants is a good ecclesiastical tradition because it pours sanctifying grace into the child's soul right from the start of its earthly pilgrimage, the grace that enables the infant to overcome the effects of its inheritance from Adam: the inner disorder and inclination to sin in every human heart coming from "original sin" (Catechism, 1250). But the Church has never taught that the inheritance of original sin ascribes to each new generation the kind of "guilt" that involves personal moral responsibility for that state of original sin, and therefore it would in no way be just for God to condemn unbaptized infants even to a "mild form of damnation" on account of an inherited sin that involved no voluntary fault on the part of the infants themselves (see Catechism, 1257-1261). Saint Augustine's view here contradicts the Church's understanding of God's compassion for our fallen condition and His merciful love for unbaptized infants.
(c) The Church has always taught that in order for us to be saved, our sinful souls, weakened and corrupted by original and actual sin, must be prompted, strengthened, and assisted by divine grace to enable us to take any and every step on the road to salvation. But the Church has never taught that God's saving grace is irresistible. As the Council of Trent clearly taught, salvation is a work of grace, but it does not happen without the free consent of the souls of the elect (Catechism, 1993 and 2002). Saint Augustine's view here seems to contradict God's merciful love because it seems to imply that in some way God compels certain sinners — the elect — to repent and be saved.
Again, we need to acknowledge that St. Augustine had no real intention of entirely eliminating human free consent in the salvation process. As he said in one of his sermons: "He who created you without your cooperation does not justify you without your cooperation. He created you without your knowing it, He does not justify you without your wanting it" (Sermon 11, 13). The paradox in Augustine's theory is that our "wanting it" (if we are among God's "elect") is somehow solely the result of divine action on our will without violating our freedom. The great Augustine scholar Agostino Trape, OSA, explains that behind this aspect of St. Augustine's theology lies the principle of "the omnipotence of the divine action which, although no one can be saved who does not wish to be, can transform every person, without violating his freedom, from one who does not wish to be saved into one who does. ... God always has in reserve a grace which no heart, no matter how hard, resists, since it is given precisely for taking away the hardness of the heart" (De praed. s. 8, 13). This is the doctrine of "irresistible grace" (to use Chadwick's phrase) that the Church has hesitated to endorse. One reason for the Church's hesitation here is that "love" as we know it in human personal relationships is not "irresistible": when authentic love is offered, it always respects the real freedom of the beloved not to return that love. A love that irresistibly causes a free response of love, therefore, might be a contradiction in terms. Moreover, the idea of irresistible grace inevitably raises another question. Trape explains:
The question then arises as to why [God] does not use this grace for all, but permits that some be lost? This is the torturous question which Augustine asks himself, and to which he confesses that he does not know how to respond. ... He therefore bows humbly to the mystery (Serm. 27, 7) ... adding "Grace cannot be unjust, nor can justice be cruel" (De Civ. Dei 12, 27) ("Saint Augustine," in Johannes Quasten, Ed., Patrology. Westminster, Maryland, Christian Classics, 1992, p. 443).
(d) The Church has never taught that the solid majority of the human race is destined for hell. The most one could say with any confidence is that only very few enter heaven immediately upon their death (Mt 7:13-14) and therefore vast numbers must have their purification completed in purgatory, by God's great mercy, before they are ready for heaven (Catechism, 1030- 1032). Again, St. Augustine's view seems to contradict God's merciful love, for God's mercy would be weak and ineffective if the great mass of humanity is eternally lost.
Despite the extremes of St. Augustine's teaching in his later years, however, we can still trace within his theology a deep appreciation for the merciful love of God. After all, since he sincerely believed that all human beings (apart from divine grace) are worthy of eternal damnation (even unbaptized infants), and since none of us has any capacity at all on our own to repent of our sins and seek divine aid and forgiveness, the fact that anyone at all repents and is saved can only be the work of God's merciful love, pouring out His saving grace upon those who do not deserve it.
Moreover, while St. Augustine did call the human race a "lump of perdition" ("massa damnata"), Fr. Trape points out that he also wrote of the human race as, in essence, a lump of redemption ("massa redempta"): "Through this Mediator [Jesus Christ] there is reconciled to God the mass of the entire human race which is alienated from Him through Adam" (Sermon 293, 8). In fact, St. Augustine's sermons are filled with passages that vividly portray for us God's compassionate, healing love for sinners. For example, he takes the parable of the Good Samaritan as an allegory of God's healing, sanctifying love for weak and sinful souls:
There are people, ungrateful towards grace, who attribute much to our poor and wounded nature. It is true that man when he was created was given great strength of will, but by sinning he lost it. He fell into death. The robbers left him on the road half-dead. A passing Samaritan lifted him onto his beast of burden. He is still undergoing treatment. ... You will remember, beloved, the man half-dead who was wounded by robbers on the road, how he is consoled, receiving oil and wine for his wounds. His sins, it is true, were already forgiven; and yet his sickness is cured in the inn. The inn, if you can recognize it, is the Church. While in the inn, let us submit to treatment; let us not boast of health while we are still weak. ... Say to your soul, say this: you are still in this life, the flesh is still weak; even after complete forgiveness [in baptism] you were prescribed prayer as a remedy; you still have to say, until your sickness is cured, 'Forgive us our tresspasses.' (S. 131.6.6) (As quoted in Price, Augustine, p. 60).
Indeed, throughout St. Augustine's writings there are passages that show us how the Lord seeks to establish an intimate, personal union with the human soul, so that even the first taste of that intimate union in the soul's depths leads to an insatiable hunger and thirst for more. In his Confessions, St. Augustine offers himself as a paradigm of this mysterious courtship of the human soul by the merciful God:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! And behold, you were within me and I was outside, and there I sought for you, and in my deformity I rushed headlong into the well-formed things that you have made. You were with me, and I was not with you. Those outer beauties held me far from you, yet if they had not been in you, they would not have existed at all. You called, and cried out to me and broke open my deafness; you shone forth upon me and you scattered my blindness; you breathed fragrance, and I drew in my breath and I now pant for you; I tasted and I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burned for your peace (Confessions 10.27).
Saint Augustine's mature doctrine can be found in his Enchidrion (Handbook of Christian Doctrine on Faith, Hope, and Love) written between 419 and 422. He starts out the section entitled "Faith in Christ the Redeemer" by apportioning credit (and blame) for the human condition: "We must in no way doubt that the only cause of good things that come our way is the goodness of God, while the cause of our evils is the will of changeable good falling away from the unchangeable good, first the will of an angel [Satan], and then the will of a human being [Adam]." God alone is the source of the regeneration and sanctification of the elect. Augustine quotes St. Paul in Romans 9:16: "So it comes not from the one who runs, but from God who shows mercy." St. Augustine comments:
Since there is no doubt whatever that a man, if he is already old enough to have the use of reason, cannot believe, hope, or love unless he wills to do so, nor can he win the reward of God's high vocation unless he runs it willingly, how can it depend not upon human will or exertion, but on the God who shows mercy unless the will itself is prepared by the Lord? ... It remains for us to recognize that the words "So it comes not from the one who wills or runs, but from the God who shows mercy" are said truly, that all [glory] may be given to God, who makes the good will of man ready for His help, and helps the will He has made ready. ... For in sacred scripture we read both "His mercy shall go before me" (Ps 59:10) and "His mercy shall follow me" (Ps 23:6): it goes before the unwilling that they may will, and it follows the willing, that they may not will in vain (no. 32).
For Augustine, the sending of Christ into the world was a gift of pure, undeserved grace (no. 75): "That one great sin [the fall of Adam] which was committed in a place and state of life of such happiness with the result that the whole human race was condemned originally and, so to say, at root in one man, is not undone and washed away except by the one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus, who alone was able to be born in such a way that he had no need to be reborn."
Saint Augustine tells us in his Enchidrion that God's mercy is expressed especially in the practice of penance:
But we should not despair of God's mercy for the forgiveness of actual crimes, however great, in the holy Church for those who do penance, each in a way appropriate to his sin. But in works of penance, when a sin has been committed of such a kind that he who committed it is also cut off from the Body of Christ, time should not be measured so much as sorrow, since God does not despise a broken and contrite heart (no. 65).
He continues in the same work:
Penance itself, when there is a good reason for doing it according to the custom of the Church, is often neglected because of weakness, for shame brings with it a fear of being ill thought of when we care more for the good opinion of others than for the righteousness that leads a person to humiliate himself in penance. So we need God's mercy not only when we do penance, but in order to do penance (no. 82).
In fact, Augustine writes, forgiveness of sins is so readily available in the Church that the only unforgivable sin — the sin against the Holy Spirit — is not to believe that sins are forgiven in the Church (see no. 83).
The only unfortunate aspect of St. Augustine's treatment of Divine Mercy in his Enchidrion comes in his discussion of predestination. Saint Paul says in Romans that God's will is to "have mercy on all" (Rom 11:32), and in his first epistle to Timothy he writes: "His will is for all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth" (2:4). It is hard to see how this scriptural teaching about God's offer of mercy to "all" fits with what St. Augustine writes here:
God makes out of the mass of perdition [that is, out of fallen humanity] that has flowed from [Adam's stock] some vessels of honor and some of dishonor; the vessels of honor he makes through his mercy, those of dishonor through his justice, so that nobody may boast of humanity and consequently nobody may boast of himself. ... That is, he has mercy in his great generosity, and he hardens the heart without any unfairness, so that one who has been set free should not boast of his merits, nor should one who has been damned complain, except of his lack of merits. For grace alone distinguishes the redeemed from the lost, who have been formed into one mass of perdition by a cause common to all from which they draw from their origin. ... So, almighty God either in his mercy shows mercy to whom he will or through justice hardens whom he will, and never does anything unfairly or unwillingly, and does everything that he wills (Enchidrion no. 107, 98, 102).
The underlying thought here is that God wills to have mercy on some sinners, but not on all of them. Original and actual sin has left all people worthy only of damnation. By His eternal decree, however, and as an act of sheer mercy, God has elected some sinners to be the objects of His mercy, objects of His (evidently irresistible) saving grace, while others His mercy has simply passed by. They are treated solely as objects of His justice, for he leaves them wallowing in sin and its con- sequences. They have no right to complain, however, because they are only receiving what they deserve.
What has happened here is that St. Augustine has treated God's justice and God's mercy almost as alternatives, almost as if they are two distinct "sides" of God's nature, so to speak. He reaches out to some sinners with His mercy-side, while other sinners encounter only His justice-side. Yet it is not at all clear how God could be said to will the gift of mercy for "all" (Rom 11:32) or will "all to be saved" (1 Tim. 2:4), as St. Paul clearly taught, if God in fact bestows His mercy only on some, while others are completely passed by. The damned may indeed only receive in the end what they truly deserve, but how can God be said to desire to have mercy on them if He never gave to them, at some point in their lives, grace sufficient for them to be saved, if only they would have received and cooperated with it?
This brings us to the centuries-long conflict between the Jesuits and the Dominicans (and in another way, in the Protestant world, between the Arminians and the Calvinists) regarding the whole doctrine of predestination. We certainly do not have the space to unfold that theological controversy here. Suffice it to say that the Dominicans generally held to the view of St. Augustine, while the Jesuits objected to their formulation of the doctrine. Both points of view are permissible within the Catholic Church, according to the Magisterium. Quite apart from the technicalities of that debate, however, is the danger of seeing God's justice and mercy as alternative ways in which He relates to His creatures — opposite sides of His "character," so to speak.
A surface reading of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska's Diary also might lead us to believe in this two-sided God. For example, St. Faustina heard Jesus say that those who run away from His merciful Heart will fall into the hands of His justice (see Diary, 1728) and with regard to purgatory, our Lord told her, "My mercy does not want this, but justice demands it" (Diary, 20). On the other hand, there are plenty of passages in her Diary where she records Jesus' words of comfort, words that show He is reluctant to punish sinners, tempers his justice with mercy, and withholds the full rigor of His justice until the Judgment Day, giving humanity the maximum opportunity for repentance (see Diary, 848, 1160). One of the most poignant of these passages is Diary entry 1588. Jesus said to her:
I do not want to punish aching mankind, but I desire to heal it, pressing it to My Merciful Heart. I use punishment when they themselves force Me to do so; My hand is reluctant to take hold of the sword of justice.
Passages such as these suggest that our experience of the rigors of divine justice is largely self-inflicted, just as a man who leaves the warmth of a fire grows cold through no fault of the fire itself. In Diary entry 1728, Jesus said to St. Faustina that when sinful souls "bring all My graces to naught, I begin to be angry with them, leaving them alone and giving them what they want."
In the Church today, much of liberal, dissident theology denies the justice (in the sense of the commutative or penal justice) of God. Thus, there is no hell, no purgatorial punishment, nor does God ever chastise anyone in this life, nor is anything owed to God on the scales of justice because of our sins. It follows that Jesus may have done great things for us, but He did not need to die for our sins in the sense of making "satisfaction" for them, or paying the penalty for them on our behalf.
On the other hand, much of conservative, traditionalist Catholicism falls into the trap of seeing God's mercy and justice as two distinct sides of His nature. The trick is to activate or respond to His good side and avoid His bad side.
Some of the greatest saints and theologians in the Catholic Tradition, however, have struggled to find a way to fuse together, in a single vision, the justice and mercy of God, without denying either one. How God's justice and mercy are one in the absolute simplicity of the infinite divine nature is, of course, a mystery that we can never completely fathom in this life. It is beyond the capacity of our finite minds, and of our fallen nature, fully to comprehend. Even in this life, however, we can begin to see that God's justice — His occasional chastisements of us in this life, and His purgatorial punishments of us in the next — are also, at one and the same time, expressions of His mercy toward us. If He sometimes chastises us by permitting us to suffer, it is only to "wake us up," and summon us back to repentance and faith ("Those whom the Lord loves, he chastises," Heb 12:6), and purgatory is not only a place of temporary punishment for half-repented sin; it is also, at the same time, a "purging" that mercifully sanc- tifies and heals the soul (see Catechism, 1030).
More difficult to fathom is how the final damnation of a soul is also, in another way, God's final act of mercy toward that soul. (See the Appendix at the end of this book.) And yet we can know, right from the start, that it must be so: Philosophy shows us that God's nature is absolutely simple and indivisible, so that His justice must always be an expression of His mercy (The simplicity and indivisibility of the divine nature is a truth solemnly defined at the First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Chapter One). Moreover, the Psalms clearly say that God's mercy is over all His works (see Ps 145:9). Most of all, the Cross of Jesus Christ, as Pope John Paul II clearly taught, is the supreme exposition of both the mercy and the justice of God, at one and the same time (see Dives in Misericordia, no. 7-8).
Throughout the rest of this book, we will continue to explore this great mystery of the just Mercy and the merciful Justice of the infinitely perfect God. Meanwhile, let us not be too hard on St. Augustine for his doctrine of predestination. As we have seen, it forms only one aspect of his teaching on the merciful love of God, and he never claimed to have exhausted the mysteries of divine election, saving grace, and human free will:
Here also is a lamentable darkness in which the capacities within me are hidden from myself, so that when my mind questions itself about its own powers it cannot be assured that its answers are to be believed. For what is in it is often hidden unless manifested by experience, and in this life described as a continuous trial, no one ought to be overassured that, though he is capable of becoming better instead of worse, he is not actually becoming worse instead of better. Our one hope, our one confidence, our one firm promise is in your mercy (Confessions 10.32).
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. Visit our online gift store to purchase Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).