I have been reading Augustine’s letters. They reveal a lot of how his mind works; they also contain the good and bad things that he embedded in the Western Church.
Augustine interpreted all Scriptures passages and Church practices so as to narrow the scope of salvation. Humanity was a massa damnata, from which a few of the elect were saved. The universalizing passages in Scripture Augustine interpreted as tautologies: “God will have mercy on all [of those on which he has mercy- who are very few].
Because the Church baptized infants, Augustine was determined to interpret this practice to mean that unbaptized infants went to hell. This unsatisfactory doctrine was softened into the idea of Limbo, a place of natural happiness without the vision of God, and it has taken the Western Church a millennium and a half to escape Augustine on this matter. Benedict has indicated that Limbo was always a theological speculation, that God has not told us what happens to unbaptized infants, but that we may trust in His mercy and love for all he has created.
Augustine insisted that it was not contrary to justice to punish unbaptized infants in hell, that we could not say that God was unjust. But the idea of damning unbaptized infants is so contrary to any human notion of justice that to say that God is just when he damns unbaptized infants is to use the word equivocally. This explains why the Jansenists were voluntarists: things are right and wrong purely because God wills them. There is no rational basis for the divine actions: the divine omnipotence creates justice: might makes right.
Since baptism and membership in the invisible Church were essential for salvation, Augustine also accepted the use of the civil arm to compel heretics to enter the Church. The Emperor confiscated all Donatist property and gave it to the Catholic Church. The Donatists complained that the apostles never compelled anyone to believe – Augustine replied that the apostles did not have Christian kings to enforce the laws of the Church.
Because he believed that explicit penitence was necessary for the forgiveness of sins Augustine pleaded with Imperial officials to be humane in treating criminals, not to use torture or execute criminals, even Donatists who had maimed and murdered Catholic priests. Augustine wanted criminals to be shown mercy, so that that hearts would be touched, and that they be given time to repent, because the unrepentant faced the everlasting fires of hell. So Augustine’s narrow views of salvation led him to advocate humane practices in this world.
When reading his letters, I often feel like arguing,” “O Augustine Aurelie, does not the desire to receive to bestow baptism have the same effect as baptism? Do unbaptized catechumens who doe or are martyred go to hell because water has not been poured over them? Why does not the Church baptize infants the second they or born, or catechumens the second they express desire for baptism? Christ said “Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you.” Why does not the Western Church communicate infants when they are baptized, as the Eastern Church does?” And so on. But then Augustine’s meditations on time, and how all the scattered leaves of the universe are gathered into the single book of love, make one humble before the light of one the greatest geniuses of the Western Church, a light that is shot through with mysterious darknesses.