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Meditation 711
Augustine's Confessions

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Several months ago, I read The Confessions of St. Augustine. I've had the book[1] in my library for several years, and as it is regarded as one of the Great Books of Western Literature, I decided I should read it rather than just let it take up shelf space. I had intended to write about it, but never got around to it. But occasionally I encounter something that reminds me of what Augustine had to say.

In yesterday's newspaper, there was an obituary of the artist Claude Théberge. Théberge showed artistic promise as a child and told his parents he wanted to formally study art. Quoting from the obituary:

His mother later expressed misgivings when her son expressed a desire to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Quebec City.

"Oh, there was resistance, but they stemmed from the influence of the clergy," Mr. Théberge told Ms. Tardiff. "My mother began to object when the priest told her he feared the Beaux-Arts because I would be required to draw nudes. This was unthinkable, and it was not only the priest who placed pressure. Even the bishop of Edmundstun got involved."[2]

Where did the priest and the bishop get their fear of nudity? The Catholic obsession with Augustine's Confessions.

In the third discussion to Reflection 76, I quoted a passage in Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana in which a priest told the story of a young girl who had just died and at her funeral sat up and said ""Father, do not pray for me! Last night I had an impure thought, a single thought - and now I am damned."

Where would the priest have gotten such an idea about a single impure (i.e. sexual) thought? The Catholic obsession with Augustine's Confessions.

John Banville, in the February edition of Playboy, wrote:

"I vividly remember a priest assuring our class of small boys preparing for confirmation that a husband who looks upon his wife with lust is committing a sin."[3]

Where would the priest have gotten such an idea? The Catholic obsession with Augustine's Confessions.

As far as I am concerned, through this book Augustine shows himself to be an extremely contemptible human being. contemptible not for the sins he confesses to, but the wrongs he seems entirely blind to. Here's someone who has a mistress (by today's standards, a common-law spouse) for some 15 years, the mother to his son, and when he decides it is time to marry, he abandons her. He reports gloatingly that she says she will never see another man.

And who does he determine to marry now he is in his 30s? A girl his mother has found for him - a child who will not be of marriageable age for two more years. So, at most, his bride-to-be is 10.[4] Fortunately for her, he chose celibacy before the marriage took place.

Augustine's Confessions exult celibacy above all else and denigrate normal sexual relations. Oh, there is the famous quotation "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet." But this is uttered in disgust, not as a joking aside. Disgust with sex permeates Confessions, and has had a malign effect on Christian teaching, and more specifically Catholic teaching for nearly 1600 years.

Is there anything good in Confessions.

Well, Augustine denounces astrology pointing out the different fates of two children born at the same time and in the same place, one born a slave and one born into a rich family. Of course, he does not take the opportunity to denounce slavery. He is completely blind to this particular evil even though his example depends on it..

Also, he identifies one of the reasons that he abandoned Manichaeism as the movement of the sun and moon did not match Manichee teachings. If only he were to have lived in the time of Galileo and Copernicus to see that the movement of the sun and moon did not match Christian teachings either.

This is not an uplifting tale of faith triumphing over sin, as the Catholic Church would have you believe. It is a tragedy of ruined lives through obsession with repressing natural human sexuality.

Footnotes:

  1. The version I have from The Great Books Foundation contains only Books I - VIII. However, the complete text contains 5 more books.
  2. The Globe and Mail, Thursday, July 17, 2008 p R5, Claude Théberge, 73, Artist
  3. My Apostasy, by John Banville, Playboy, February 2008
  4. Any Catholic who wants to criticize Mohammed for his child bride should first be aware of Augustine's intentions.