Sunday, 20 November 2011

Lust, sex, original sin and war: Augustine and ‘Talking History’

Saint Augustine envisages the City of God

Patrick Comerford

This evening I was a panellist on Talking History on Newstalk FM. This programme takes a contemporary look at history and the lessons that can be learnt from it. The show challenges listeners to rethink their views and to deepen their understanding of history.

This evening, Talking History was examining the life and legacy of Saint Augustine (354-430), who popularised the concept of ‘original sin’ and the ‘just war’. The other panellists were Dom Mark Patrick Hederman, Abbot of Glenstal, Dr Salvador Ryan, Professor of Ecclesiastical History and secretary of the Faculty of Theology at the Pontifical University in Maynooth, and the Revd Dr Eoin Cassidy, Head of the Department of Philosophy in the Mater Dei Institute of Education in Dublin.

Many of us are familiar with Augustine’s famous prayer: “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.” But one of my favourite quotes from him is: “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”

Augustine was Bishop of Hippo Regius, present-day Annaba in Algeria, in the Roman province of Africa in the mid-fourth century. His writings influenced the development of Western Christianity, and his thoughts profoundly influenced the mediaeval worldview.

The American writer Thomas Cahill considers Augustine the first mediaeval man and the last classical man. Many Protestants, especially Calvinists, consider him to be one of the theological fathers of the Reformation because of his teachings on salvation and divine grace.

The Old Court in Corpus Christi College is the oldest surviving court in an Oxbridge college ... part of Corpus Christi College stands on the site of the Augustinian foundation in Cambridge, which may have dated from 1289 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Augustine’s early life

In his early years, Augustine was heavily influenced by Manichaeism and later by the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus. After his conversion to Christianity and his baptism in the year 387, he developed his own approach to philosophy and theology, accommodating a variety of methods and perspectives. He believed grace is indispensable to human freedom, and he framed the concepts of ‘Original Sin and the ‘Just War.’

As the Roman Empire fell apart in the West, Augustine developed his concept of the Church as a spiritual City of God, in his book of the same name, distinct from the material earthly, secular city.

Augustine was born in 354 in Thagaste (now Souk Ahras in Algeria) in Roman Africa. His father, Patricius, was a pagan, and his mother, Monica, was a Christian. His ancestors may have included Berbers, Latins and Phoenicians, and his mother, Monica, was probably of Berber descent.

At the age of 11, Augustine was sent to school at Madaurus (now M’Daourouch), a small Numidian city about 19 miles south of Thagaste. There he became familiar with Latin literature, as well as pagan beliefs and practices. At home in 369 and 370, he read Cicero’s lost dialogue, Hortensius, which left a lasting impression on him and sparked his interests in philosophy. At 17, he went to Carthage – now a suburb of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia – to continue his education in rhetoric.

Hedonist and Manichaean conflicts

Monica raised Augustine as a Christian, but much to her despair he left the Church to follow the dualist cult of Manichaeism, a synthesis of Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. Manichaean ways of thinking later influenced the development of some of his ideas, including the nature of good and evil, the idea of hell, the separation of groups into elect, hearers, and sinners, and his hostility to the flesh and sexual activity.

Meanwhile, Augustine was living a hedonistic lifestyle, and during this period he uttered his famous prayer: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet” (da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo). In Carthage, he began an affair with a young woman who remained his lover for over 13 years and together they had a son Adeodatus.

After teaching grammar in Thagaste and rhetoric in Carthage, he moved to Rome in 383 to establish a school of rhetoric. From Rome, he moved to Milan in 384 to teach rhetoric at the imperial court.

Conversion, baptism, ordination

In Milan, his life changed and he had begun to drift away from Manichaeism, partly because of a disappointing meeting with the Manichean bishop, Faustus of Mileve. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, then came to have great influence on Augustine. Ambrose was a master of rhetoric like Augustine, but older and more experienced.

Monica followed her son to Milan, where she arranged a marriage for him. He abandoned the woman he had loved and lived with for so long, and later, in his Confessions, described how he was hurt by this, although claiming that over time the experience decreased his sensitivity to pain.

Yet, while waiting for his 11-year-old fiancée to come of age, he found another lover. Eventually, he broke off his engagement, never renewed his relationship with the woman he had lived with for so many years, and then abandoned his second lover too. He later said that he could not live a life in the love of wisdom if he married.

In 386, inspired by the Desert life of Saint Antony, Augustine had a deep personal crisis. He converted to Christianity, abandoned his teaching career in Milan, gave up any ideas of marriage, and decided to devote himself entirely to God, to the priesthood, and to celibacy. He said his conversion was prompted by a child-like voice telling him: “tolle, lege” (“take up and read”).

Ambrose baptised Augustine, along with his son, Adeodatus, at the Easter Vigil in Milan in 387. A year later, in 388, he returned to Africa. On the journey back, Monica died, and Adeodatus died soon after. Back in Africa, Augustine completed his apology, On the Holiness of the Catholic Church, sold property he had inherited and gave the money to the poor. He kept only the family house, but turned this into a monastic foundation for himself and a group of friends.

In 391, he was ordained priest in Hippo Regius (now Annaba in Algeria). There he became a famous preacher – more than 350 of his sermons may have survived – and he was noted for combating the Manichaean religion, to which he had once adhered.

Siege and death

In 396, he was made coadjutor bishop of Hippo, and became the diocesan bishop soon after, remaining there until he died in 430. Much of his later life was recorded by his friend Possidius, Bishop of Calama (present-day Guelma, Algeria). Possidius admired Augustine for his intellect and his gifts as an orator. He describes a man who ate sparingly, worked tirelessly, despised gossip, shunned the temptations of the flesh, and exercised prudence in the financial stewardship of his diocese.

Shortly before Augustine’s death, Roman North Africa was invaded by the Vandals, who had converted to Arianism. They besieged Hippo in the spring of 430, while Augustine was on his sick bed.

He died on 28 August 430, while Hippo was still under siege. He spent his last days in prayer and repentance, with the penitential Psalms hung on his walls so he could read them. Shortly after his death, the Vandals lifted the siege of Hippo, but they returned later and burned the city.

Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, stands on the site of an earlier Augustinian foundation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

A prolific writer

Augustine was a prolific author, and the list of his surviving works consists of more than 100 separate titles, including apologetic works against the heresies of the Arians, Donatists, Manichaeans and Pelagians, texts on doctrine, Biblical commentaries, sermons and letters.

He is probably best known for his Confessions (13 books), an account of his earlier life, and Of the City of God (22 books), written to restore the confidence of Christians badly shaken by the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. In his On the Trinity, he developed his ‘psychological analogy’ of the Trinity; this is seen by many as one of the greatest theological works of all time. He also wrote On free choice of the Will, considering why God gives humans free will that can be used for evil.

Augustine as philosopher:

In his philosophical and theological reasoning, he was greatly influenced by Stoicism, Platonism and Neo-Platonism, particularly the work of Plotinus. In addition, he was influenced by the works of Virgil, Cicero and Aristotle. Although he later abandoned Neo-Platonism, some ideas can still be found in his early writings. His generally favourable view of Neo-Platonic thought contributed to the acceptance of Greek thought among Christians and later in the European intellectual tradition.

Saint Thomas Aquinas took much of Augustine’s ideas while creating his own unique synthesis of Greek and Christian thought after the rediscovery of the work of Aristotle. Augustine’s thinking influenced Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, and Reformation theologians such as Martin Luther and John Calvin were inspired by him later.

Augustine’s early writings on the human will also inspired or challenged many philosophers, from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.

An interesting example of Augustine’s advanced philosophical thinking is found in his writings on the concept of time. Augustine believed that everything in the universe was created simultaneously by God, and not in six calendar days, as a literal interpretation of Genesis might require. He argued that the six-day structure of creation presented in Genesis represents a logical framework, rather than the passage of time in a physical way – it was a spiritual, rather than physical, meaning. One reason for this interpretation is a passage in Sirach 18: 1: “He created all things at once.” He took this as proof that the days in Genesis had to be taken non-literally.

In the City of God, Augustine rejected the immortality of the human race proposed by pagans. He does not envision original sin as the origin of structural changes in the universe, and even suggests that Adam and Eve were already created mortal before the Fall. Augustine recognises that the interpretation of the creation story is difficult, and suggests we should be willing to change our minds about it as new information comes up.

The latter part of his Confessions consists of an extended meditation on the nature of time. Bertrand Russell said it is “a very admirable relativistic theory of time ... It contains a better and clearer statement than Kant’s of the subjective theory of time – a theory which, since Kant, has been widely accepted among philosophers.”

Augustine believed God exists outside of time in the “eternal present.” He said time only exists within the created universe because only in space is time discernible through motion and change.

His meditations on the nature of time are closely linked to his consideration of the human ability of memory. His descriptive approach to intentionality, memory, and language as these phenomena are experienced within consciousness and time has both anticipated and inspired the insights of modern phenomenology and hermeneutics.

Augustine’s theology of lust, sex, war and the Church

As a theologian, Augustine’s most controversial thoughts are in the areas of free-will, ‘Original Sin’ and pre-destination; his views on sex and lust; his ecclesiology or theology of the Church; and his foundational thinking on the ‘Just War’ theory.

Augustine, free will, lust and ‘Original Sin’:

Augustine’s concept of ‘Original Sin’ was developed in his works against the Pelagians.

Augustine taught that Adam’s guilt, which was transmitted to his descendants, much enfeebles their freedom of will, but does not destroy it. For Augustine, the ‘Original Sin’ of Adam and Eve was either an act of foolishness followed by pride and disobedience to God or the opposite: pride came first. The first couple disobeyed God, who had told them not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2: 17). The tree was a symbol of the order of creation. Self-centeredness made Adam and Eve eat of it, and so they failed to acknowledge and respect the world as it was created by God, with its hierarchy of beings and values. They would not have fallen into pride and lack of wisdom if Satan had not sown into their senses “the root of evil” (radix mali). Their nature was wounded by concupiscence or libido, which affected human intelligence and will, as well as affections and desires, including sexual desire.

Augustine’s understanding of the consequences of original sin and of the necessity of redeeming grace was developed in the struggle against Pelagius – who may have been of Irish birth – and his disciples, the Pelagians. They did not agree that libido wounded human will and mind, insisting that human nature was given the power to act, to speak, and to think when God created it. Human nature cannot lose its moral capacity to do good.

The Pelagians insisted that human affections and desires were not touched by the fall either, and that immorality, including fornication, is exclusively a matter of will. But Augustine argued that the apparent disobedience of the flesh to the spirit is one of the results of original sin, and the punishment of Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience to God. (see Against Two Letters of the Pelagians 1.31-32.)

By malum (evil), he was referring primarily to concupiscence, which he regarded as a dominant vice that causes moral disorder in men and women.

So, were Augustine’s beliefs in this area rooted in his long involvement with the Manicheans, who taught that the original sin was carnal knowledge?

Or was he influenced more by the neo-Platonist Plotinus, who taught that only through disdain for the desires of the flesh could one reach the highest state of humanity?

Or, as some writers suggest, was Augustine’s attitude to expressions of human sexuality and sex shaped by his need to reject his own highly sensual nature?

Augustine teaches that human sexuality has been wounded, together with the whole of human nature, and requires redemption. That healing is a process realised in conjugal acts. The virtue of continence is achieved through the grace of the sacrament of Christian marriage, which becomes therefore remedium concupiscentiae – a remedy for concupiscence. But, he says, the redemption of human sexuality is fully realised only in the resurrection of the body.

Augustine believed the sin of Adam is inherited by all humans and that ‘Original Sin’ is transmitted by concupiscence, which he regarded as the passion of both soul and body, making humanity massa damnata (a mass of perdition or condemned crowd). Because of ‘Original Sin’, he said, humanity’s free will was much enfeebled, though not destroyed.

For Augustine, the evil was not in the sexual act itself, but in the emotions that accompany it. He contrasts love and lust: “By love I mean the impulse of one’s mind to enjoy God on his own account and to enjoy oneself and one’s neighbour on account of God, and by lust I mean the impulse of one’s mind to enjoy oneself and one’s neighbour and any corporeal thing not on account of God.” (See Confessions 3.37).

Proper love, he says, exercises a denial of selfish pleasure and subjugates bodily desire to God. Chastity, he says, is “a virtue of the mind, and is not lost by rape, but is lost by the intention of sin, even if unperformed.” His life experience led him to consider lust to be one of the most grievous sins, and a serious obstacle to the virtuous life.

He speaks of members of the Church being divided into “the roses of martyrs,” “the lilies of virgins,” “the ivy of married people,” and the “violets of widows.” (see Sermon 304.2). This reflects Augustine’s Platonic approach to hierarchies in creation and in life. But it sounds ugly to my ears to speak of married people as weeds and martyrs, virgins and widows as flowers.

Augustine saw the human being as a perfect unity of two substances: soul and body. In his late treatise On Care be Had for the Dead (section 5, 420 AD), he said the body should be respected because it belonged to the very nature of the human person: “In no wise are the bodies to be spurned … for these pertain not to ornament or aid which is applied from without, but to the very nature of man.”

Augustine’s favourite image to describe body-soul unity is marriage: caro tua, coniunx tua – your body is your wife. Initially, the two elements were in perfect harmony. Since the Fall, though, they are now experiencing dramatic combat between one another.

He said the body is a three-dimensional object composed of the four elements, whereas the soul has no spatial dimensions. Augustine did not go into detail to explain the metaphysics of the soul-body union. They are metaphysically distinct, but to be human is to be a composite of soul and body, and the soul is superior to the body. This is grounded in his hierarchical classification of things into those that merely exist, those that exist and live, and those that exist, live, and have intelligence or reason.

Augustine’s doctrine about liberum arbitrium or the free will and its inability to respond to the will of God without divine grace is interpreted in terms of Predestination: grace is irresistible, results in conversion, and leads to perseverance.

Augustine taught that the eternal fate of the soul is determined at death, and that purgatorial fires of the intermediate state purify only those who die in communion with the Church.

Thomas Aquinas offered a more optimistic view of humanity than that of Augustine and his ideas about original sin leave the reason, will, and passions of fallen humanity with their natural powers even after the Fall. However, Luther and Calvin argued that ‘Original Sin’ completely destroys liberty.

Both Lutherans and Calvinists claim that, according to Augustine, human beings are utterly depraved in nature. According to them, humans are spoiled by the original sin to the extent that the very presence of concupiscence (fomes peccati, incendiary of sin) is already a personal sin.

The Calvinist view of Augustine’s teachings rests on the assertion that God has fore-ordained, from eternity, those who will be saved. The number of the elect is fixed. God has chosen the elect certainly and gratuitously, without any previous merit on their part.

Baptism and ‘Original Sin’:

The concept of ‘Original Sin’ as put forward by Augustine would turn the Sacrament of Baptism into a necessity and a rite for washing the soul free of sin, rather than it being the Sacrament of regeneration and of incorporation into the Body of Christ. It became a ‘pass card’ to heaven, rather than entrance to membership of the Church.

Arguing against the Pelagians, Augustine stressed the importance of infant baptism. However, when it comes to the question of whether baptism is an absolute necessity for salvation, Augustine refined his beliefs during his lifetime, confusing later theologians about his position.

In one sermon, he said: “God does not remit sins but to the baptised” (A Sermon to the Catechumens on the Creed, par 16.) But in his City of God, he indicates he believes in an exception for children born to Christian parents, arguing that in the final days or at the Apocalypse there could not be a scenario where some Christian children have not yet been baptised and whose parents could not “find some way of bringing them to the laver of regeneration.” (see City of God, 20.8.)

Augustine, the Church and Sacraments:

Augustine followed Cyprian in teaching that the bishops of the church are the successors of the apostles. Augustine developed his doctrine of the Church principally as his response to the Donatist schismatics. He taught a distinction between the “church visible” and “church invisible.” The former is the institutional body on earth which proclaims salvation and administers the sacraments; the latter is the invisible body of the elect, made up of genuine believers from all ages, and who are known only to God.

Augustine says the visible church will be made up of “wheat” and “tares,” or good and wicked people (see Matthew 13: 30), until the end of time. This concept countered the Donatists’ claim that they were the only “true” or “pure” Church on earth.

In his City of God, he speaks of the Church as a heavenly city or kingdom, ruled by love, which finally triumphs.

Reacting against the Donatists, Augustine developed a distinction between the “regularity” and the “validity” of a sacrament. Regular sacraments are performed by the bishops and priest of the Church, while sacraments performed by schismatics are considered irregular. In this, Augustine differs from Cyprian, who taught that converts from schismatic movements must be re-baptised.

For Augustine, the validity of the sacraments does not depend on the holiness of the priests who perform them (ex opera operato). He accepts that irregular sacraments are still valid, provided they are done in the name of Christ and in the manner prescribed by the Church.

Augustine’s thinking is reflected later in the 39 Articles, which say that the worthiness of the minister does not affect the validity of the sacrament:

“Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.” (Article 26)

Augustine was convinced of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist: “Christ was carried in his own hands when, referring to his own body, he said, ‘This is my body’ [Matthew 26: 26]. For he carried that body in his hands.”

Augustine explicitly describes the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ: “That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ.

“What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the body of Christ and the chalice is the blood of Christ. This has been said very briefly, which may perhaps be sufficient for faith; yet faith does not desire instruction.”

Augustine and the ‘Just War’ theory:

Augustine agreed strongly with the conventional wisdom of the time that Christians should be pacifists in their personal lives. But he argued that this did not apply to the defence of innocents. In essence, the pursuit of peace must include the option of fighting to preserve peace in the long-term. Such a war could not be pre-emptive, but defensive, to restore peace.

Later, Thomas Aquinas developed Augustine’s thinking to define the conditions under which a war could be deemed to be just:

1, War must be for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain or as an exercise of power.

2, War must be waged by a properly constituted authority such as the state.

3, Peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence.

Augustine and education:

Augustine is an influential figure in the theory of education. Teachers should respond positively to questions from students, no matter how much they interrupt teachers. He identified three categories of students, and thought teachers should adapt their teaching styles to each student’s learning style.

The three types of students are: those who have been well-educated by knowledgeable teachers; those who have had no education; and those who have a poor education but believe themselves to be well-educated.

Augustine stressed the importance of showing the third type of student the difference between having words and having understanding, and of helping the student to remain humble with his acquisition of knowledge.

Was Augustine a heretic?

The shrine of Saint Gregory Palamas in Thessaloniki ... some Orthodox theologians argue that Augustine was in error, if not a heretic (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Augustine was canonised by popular acclaim, and was later recognised in the West as a Doctor of the Church in 1298 by Pope Boniface VIII. But most of his works were not translated into Greek until around 1360 by Demetrios Cydones.

Generally, Orthodox theologians see Augustine as a saint whose doctrines have been deformed or distorted by the West and that he erred on certain teachings. Many Orthodox Christians identify errors in his theology – especially his thinking that gave rise to the addition of the filioque in the Nicene Creed – and regard him as one of the major factors in the Great Schism. Although there has never been any conciliar condemnation of Augustine nor of his writings, some Orthodox theologians regard him as a heretic and have excluded him from the list of saints.

The most important doctrinal controversy surrounding his name is the filioque. Other doctrines that are not acceptable in the Orthodox Church are his views on original sin, on the doctrine of grace, and on predestination.

A major Orthodox theologian, Saint Photios, also argues that Augustine erred, but goes on to say that a saint who erred on a doctrine that was instituted after his death is not guilty of heresy and that the holiness of the person was not lessened. He says that while Augustine, Ambrose and Jerome use the filioque, they did not intend to include it in the Creed.

During the debates on Hesychasm in the 14th century, Augustinian theology was condemned as presented by Barlaam, a Calabrian monk who caused the controversy. This resulted in the ultimate condemnation in the councils of the 14th century of western Augustinianism as it was put forward by Barlaam.

Saint Gregory Palamas, who was the principal figure in this debate, maintained that God’s essence is totally transcendent, and he emphasised that we cannot know or comprehend God’s essence. He rejected the Augustinian view of revelation by created symbols and illumined vision, and Augustine’s view that the vision of God is an intellectual experience.

Because of Barlaam’s arguments, the East rejected Augustinian theology, seeing Augustine as accepting the Neo-Platonist presupposition that a saint is able to have a vision of the divine essence as the archetype of all beings. Saint Gregory Palamas calls this the Greek pagan error and maintains that humans attain theosis through participation in the divine energies.

At the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438, bringing together theologians of the Latin West and the Greek East, the authority of Augustine was debated. There, Saint Gennadios Scholarios claimed: “We [the Orthodox] believe in the Church; they [the Latins] in Augustine and Jerome.” He argued that no-one is a “saint” in isolation; if that were the case, the Church would be subservient to the teachers and change according to the whims of strong personalities.

Stating that even saints may err, Scholarios argued against those who based false doctrines on the validity and holiness of Augustine.

Scholarios traces Augustine’s philosophical approach to revelation to the Manichean phase in his life. His pagan and Manichean training remained with him all his life, so that Scholarios says: “Lord deliver us from the Augustinian dialectic.” Scholarios is critical of Augustine’s theology because he feels that he has not discarded the influence of his pagan Greek philosophical training before his conversion to Christianity.

The 18h century Orthodox theologian, Nikodemos the Hagiorite, included the name of Saint Augustine in the synaxaristes or the book of the saints on 15 June. But some Orthodox theologians have condemned Augustine recently as an innovator of heretical teachings. Those who are extremely critical include Father John Romanides and Father Michael Azkoul.

In his doctoral dissertation at the University of Athens, Father Romanides dismissed Augustine as the source of all the western heresies and deformation of dogma. In his Franks, Romans, Feudalism and Doctrine, Father Romanides severely attacks Augustine as heretical. He points to the thrust of Augustine’s theological errors on the filioique, and says his basic mistake lies in his rejection of the “distinction between what persons are and what they have (even though this is a biblical distinction) and identified what God is with what He has.”

Father Romanides says Augustine “never understood the distinction between 1, the common essence and energies of the Holy Trinity; and 2, the incommunicable individualities of the divine hypostases.” He criticises Augustine for speculating on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and claims he confuses “generation” and “procession,” and identifies them with the divine energies.

He says Augustine ignores the Patristic tradition, making presuppositions based on philosophical hermenuetics and not on the Church Fathers. He says Augustine completely misinterprets the Scriptures because he identifies the Divine Essence with the Divine Energies.

Father Michael Azkoul, a conservative, old-calendarist theologian, also attacks Augustine’s theology and his works as heretical. He points out that Augustine was not known in the East and had not, until recently, been listed in the list of saints. He states: “His writings lie at the basis of every heresy which now afflicts the religion of the West.”

Father Azkoul argues that Augustine fell into several heresies and became the source for the heretical West. So he blames Augustine for the deformation of the theology of the West.

The Augustinian legacy in Ireland

Saint John’s ... a mediaeval Augustinian foundation in Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Whatever Orthodox theologians think of Augustine, there is a great Augustinian legacy in Ireland. The remains of Augustinian friaries and houses are to be found throughout the island. These were great centres of study, hospitality and the mediaeval equivalent of great hospitals too.

Great Augustinian houses in Ireland included Saint Thomas’s Abbey in Dublin, Grace Dieu in Donabate and Holmpatrick in Skerries, Co Dublin; Callan, Duiske, Kells and Inistioge in Co Kilkenny; Saint John’s, Kilkenny; Adare Priory in Co Limerick; Clonmines, Ferns and Taghmon in Co Wexford; and Saint Peter and Saint Paul or Selskar Abbey in Wexford. Local people in Wexford claim the first Anglo-Irish treaty was signed at Selskar Abbey in 1169, and it is said that Henry II spent Lent 1172 doing penance at Selskar Abbey for ordering the murder of Thomas a Becket of Canterbury.

But it is important to distinguish two separate, unrelated groups of religious orders that have inherited the name Augustinian after Augustine of Hippo, the canons regular and the friars.

The ruins of the Augustinian Chapter House on the south side of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin ... a house of Augustinian Canons Regular from 1146 to 1537 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

1, The Canons Regular follow the Rule of Saint Augustine, but predate the friars. Although they also follow the Rule of Saint Augustine, they differ from the friars in not committing themselves to corporate poverty. Unlike the friars, the canons are generally organised as one large community to which they are attached for life with a vow of stability. Their houses are called abbeys, and from these the canons serve surrounding towns and villages. Famous Canons Regular included Adrian IV, the only English Pope, the mystic Thomas a Kempis, and the humanist Erasmus.

2, There are several mendicant orders of friars who follow the Rule of Saint Augustine. The largest and best-known, originally the Hermits of Saint Augustine (OESA, Ordo Eremitarum sancti Augustini), is now simply known as the Order of Saint Augustine (OSA). They date from the 12th or 13th century. The Dominicans also follow the Rule of Saint Augustine, and they predate the arrival of the Augustinian friars in Dublin.

The non-mendicant or Canons Regular of Saint Augustine and their female counterparts – the canonesses – were in Ireland from as early as the 12th century. The principal house of canonesses was the Convent of Saint Mary de Hogges in Dublin from as early as 1146. Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, had a Benedictine community until 1163, when Archbishop Laurence O’Toole introduced the Augustinian Canons Regular to the cathedral.

The English Province of the Order of Saint Augustine founded its first house or convent in Dublin around 1260-1280. By 1300, the English Augustinian friars had settled at four other Irish centres by 1300: Dungarvan, Co Waterford (1290), Drogheda (1295), Cork and Tipperary (1300). Prior to the Reformation, the English province of Austin friars provided 30 bishops to the Church both in England and Ireland, including Robert Waldby, who was Archbishop of Dublin in 1391 and then Archbishop of York in 1396.

The first house of Augustinian friars in Dublin was the Priory of the Holy Trinity or All Hallows, east of the city walls. This was the first monastic house in Ireland dissolved at the Reformation. The Augustinians surrendered the house in 1538, when it was transferred to Dublin Corporation, and it was used two generations later for the foundation of Trinity College Dublin.

The Augustinians and the Reformation in England and Ireland

Martin Luther … was an Augustinian of the observant congregation in Saxony

Martin Luther was a member of the observant congregation in Saxony, and three influential Augustinians also supported the Reformation in England and Ireland: Robert Barnes, Miles Coverdale and George Browne.

Robert Barnes (d. 1540) was a friend of Luther, a protégé of Thomas Cromwell, and was martyred during the reign of King Henry VIII. He first came across Lutheran ideas when he was an Augustinian student in Louvain. He returned to England as the Prior of the Augustinian house in Cambridge, where he was one of the first Englishmen to agree openly with Luther. When he preached in Saint Edward’s Church, Cambridge, on Christmas Day 1525, he was jailed by Cardinal Wolsey for two months until he recanted.

A blue plaque on Chetwynd Court in King’s College, Cambridge, marks the site of the White Horse Inn, the meeting place to discuss Lutheran ideas. The group of dons who met here were nicknamed 'Little Germany' and included Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, Robert Barnes, Miles Coverdale, Matthew Parker, William Tyndale and John Bale (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

When he continued to hold his Lutheran views, Barnes was condemned to be burnt at the stake. He escaped to Germany, and he met Luther in Wittenberg. Under Luther’s protection, he wrote a critical history of the Papacy. When Barnes returned to England, Thomas Cromwell employed him as an intermediary between Henry VIII and Luther.

Barnes later negotiated the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves. But he fell out of favour with Henry VIII, was jailed in the Tower of London in 1540, and was burned at the stake without trial.

Miles Coverdale was also an Augustinian friar. He came under the influence of Barnes while he was a student at Cambridge, where he was Barnes’s most talented student. Coverdale was ordained an Augustinian priest at Norwich probably in 1524, at the unusually late age of 34.

He spent his time in exile in Flanders and Germany translating the Bible into English. When his translation was first printed in Zurich in 1535, it was the first complete English Bible. It was reprinted in 1537 and 1538, and Coverdale’s translation of the Psalms was used in the Book of Common Prayer.

Under Thomas Cromwell’s patronage, Coverdale helped to prepare the Great Bible that was published in 1538 and reprinted in 1550, 1553 and 1560. He returned to England in 1548, and became chaplain to the king and then Bishop of Exeter in 1551. He survived Mary I, and died in London in 1569.

George Browne was the third Augustinian to take a prominent role in the Anglican Reformation. By 1532, he was the Prior of the large Augustinian convent in London and the English Augustinian Provincial. He is said to have officiated at the marriage of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in 1533, and he proclaimed Anne as Queen of England at the Austin Friars’ Church, London, on Easter Day that year. In 1536, he was one of the royal commissioners sent to all mendicant houses to have each friar swear an oath of allegiance to the king.

Browne became Archbishop of Dublin in 1536, and Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, moved from being a Priory of Regular Canons to being a secular cathedral, with a dean and chapter. Robert Castle or Paynswicke, who became the last Augustinian Prior in 1537, became the first dean of the cathedral in 1539, and the cathedral clergy are still known as the canons.

Browne failed to win the support of the English-speaking people of Dublin for the Reformation, despite having the support of Richard Nangle, then Prior of the Augustinian house in Dublin and Vicar-Provincial. Nangle became Bishop of Clonfert in 1536, but was rejected by local people and returned to Dublin. For his part, Browne outlived Henry VIII and Edward VI, and was deprived by Mary Tudor in 1553.

After the Reformation:

From the mediaeval period, the great Augustinian houses in Ireland were centres of learning, provided hospitality and the equivalent of hospital care, and provided clergy for many of the parishes that otherwise would not have been staffed by the dioceses.

Although the houses of the Augustinian canons outnumbered those of the friars in Ireland until the Reformation, when Patrick Comerford, an Augustinian Canon, became Bishop of Waterford and Lismore (1628-1652) and Vicar General of the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine, the Augustinian canons had effectively died out in Ireland.

A separate Irish Province of the Order of Saint Augustine, separate from the defunct English Province, was established around 1620, and so Augustinian life as we now find it in Ireland, found new beginnings.

The chapel in the Augustinian Retreat House in Orlagh, near Rathfarnham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Many of the historical Augustinian houses in Ireland are in ruins today. But the Irish Augustinians are involved in running four parishes, Ballyboden, Finglas and Meath Street in Dublin, and Galway City, as well as a major inner city church in Dublin, Saint Augustine and Saint John (“John’s Lane”). They have a retreat house at Orlagh in the Dublin Mountains, and run schools in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, and New Ross, Co Dublin.

The popular practices associated with the Augustinians are identified with Saint Rita and Our Lady of Good Counsel. The historian and activist Professor FX Martin (1922-2000) was an Augustinian priest.

Well-known Irish Augustinians today include Father Michael Mernagh, who has been publicly critical of the abuse scandals in the Church, Father Kieran O’Mahony, Biblical scholar, the poet Father Pádraig Daly, who is Parish Priest of Ballyboden, and the theologian Father Gabriel Daly.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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