In his blog last week for the Catholic Herald, Fr Ashley Beck invoked St Augustine of Hippo to argue that Britain should stay in the EU. St Augustine, wrote Fr Beck, was opposed to the kind of “view of the nation state put forward by the Leave campaign”.
This is a curious argument, as St Augustine is celebrated as the man who taught the West that it should not put its hope in vain promises of temporal unity. St Augustine wrote his greatest work On the City of God Against the Pagans in the wake of the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. The pagans blamed the Christians for this calamity. The Roman state had abandoned its traditional gods in favour of Christ and now the eternal city was in flames.
Augustine’s response was surprising. Although he certainly denied that Christianity was to blame for the decline of the Empire, the central plank of his argument was that the temporal unity of the human race was not even desirable.
Man’s unity was sundered when Adam sinned and henceforth and forever the human race is divided between those who share in his guilt (the City of the World) and those redeemed from this mass of perdition by the blood of Christ (the City of God). Just as its founder Satan sought to grasp the divine nature as of right instead of receiving it from God as an unmerited gift, so the earthly city hungers for a universal lordship over mankind that belongs by right to Christ alone.
The love of kinsman and countryman is a natural endowment; the love which sees every man as our neighbour is the gift of grace. It cannot be provided by and it does not need ingenious human structures. When such structures pretend to achieve this they are in reality but masks for brigandage. “This, which is God’s prerogative, the inflated ambition of a proud spirit also affects, and dearly loves that this be numbered among its attributes, to ‘show pity to the humbled soul, and crush the sons of pride’ … [T]he earthly city, which, though it be mistress of the nations, is itself ruled by its lust of rule.”
States which fulfil what Vatican II calls “the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” share in the unity given to the Church by grace, but this unity does not require temporal mechanisms or constraints. The unity of Europe in the Middle Ages was given by the Church; it was not achieved by the institution of a temporal legal authority overriding the autonomy of the kingdoms, republics and empires of Christendom. Individual states are a natural phenomenon which can be turned to good or ill as their rulers seek or spurn the will of God. Supranational unity is a gift of God; but when it is created by those contemptuous of the Divine Will it is necessarily a structure of sin.
Augustine compares a humble national state and the far-flung supranational empire to two men. The supranational state is like a rich man, the national state is like a man of moderate wealth:
“The rich man is anxious with fears, pining with discontent, burning with covetousness, never secure, always uneasy, panting from the perpetual strife of his enemies, adding to his patrimony indeed by these miseries to an immense degree, and by these additions also heaping up most bitter cares. But that other man of moderate wealth is contented with a small and compact estate, most dear to his own family, enjoying the sweetest peace with his kindred neighbours and friends, in piety religious, benignant in mind, healthy in body, in life frugal, in manners chaste, in conscience secure. I know not whether anyone can be such a fool, that he dare hesitate which to prefer.”
For Augustine, the state which is not happy to cooperate in peace with its neighbours but seeks to unite “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” in a temporal unity is inspired not by charity but by libido dominandi – the lust for dominion.
And this is just what Brexiteers object to about the EU. They do not object to the idea of cooperation among nations, not at all; what they object to are the trappings of statehood – specifically the supremacy of EU over national law.
The saintly Robert Schuman and many of the other founders of the European Union were pious men and faithful Catholics. They were painfully aware that the formal acknowledgement of the Catholic religion by the new European structures was an unrealistic expectation, but they hoped that the need for that bond of charity effected by the Church and her sacraments might establish a natural harmony between the Gospel and the European project and prevent it from turning into the devouring brigandage of Augustinian nightmare.
Schuman well understood, however, that he might be disappointed and he warned future generations that the European project of Christian Democracy, if it became anti-Christian, “would be a caricature which would sink into either tyranny or anarchy.” Alas, Schuman has been disappointed, and Augustine vindicated. Vote Leave.
Dr Alan Fimister is Assistant Professor of Theology and Church History at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver. He is the author of Robert Schuman: Neo-Scholastic Humanism and the Reunification of Europe