Fathers of the Church
by Augustine of Hippo in 405 | translated by J. G. Cunningham
TO MY LORD ALYPIUS MOST BLESSED, MY BROTHER AND COLLEAGUE, BELOVED AND LONGED FOR WITH SINCERE VENERATION, AND TO THE BRETHREN THAT ARE WITH HIM, AUGUSTIN AND THE BRETHREN WITH HIM SEND GREETING IN THE LORD.
1. The sorrow of the members of the Church at Thiave prevents my heart from having any rest until I hear that they have been brought again to be of the same mind towards you as they formerly were; which must be accomplished without delay. For if the apostle was concerned about one individual, "lest perhaps such an one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow," adding in the same context the words, "lest Satan should get an advantage of us, for we are not ignorant of his devices," how much more does it become us to act with caution, lest we cause similar grief to a whole flock, and especially one composed of persons who have lately been reconciled to the Catholic Church, and whom I can upon no account forsake! As, however, the short time at our disposal did not permit us so to take counsel together as to arrive at a mature and satisfactory decision, may it please your Holiness to accept in this letter the finding which commended itself most to me when I had long reflected upon the matter since we parted; and if you approve of it, let the enclosed letter, which I have written to them in the name of both of us, be sent to them without delay.
2. You proposed that they should have the one half [of the property left by Honoratus], and that the other half should be made up to them/by me from such resources as might be at my disposal. I think, however, that if the whole property had been taken from them, men might reasonably have said that we had taken the great pains in this matter which we have done, for the sake of justice, not for pecuniary advantage. But when we concede to them one half, and in that way settle with them by a compromise, it will be manifest that our anxiety has been only about the money; and you see what harm must follow from this. For, on the one hand, we shall be regarded by them as having taken away one half of a property to which we had no claim; and, on the other hand, they will be regarded by us as dishonourably and unjustly consenting to accept aid from one half of a property of which the whole belonged to the poor. For your remark, "We must beware lest, in our efforts to obtain a right adjustment of a difficult question, we cause more serious wounds," applies with no less force if the half be conceded to them. For those whose turning from the world to monastic life we desire to secure, will, for the sake of this half of their private estates, be disposed to find some excuse for putting off the sale of these, in order that their case may be dealt with according to this precedent. Moreover, would it not be strange, if, in a question like this, where much may be said on both sides, a whole community should, through our not avoiding the appearance of evil, be offended by the impression that their bishops, whom they hold in high esteem, are smitten with sordid avarice?
3. For when any one is turned to adopt the life of a monk, if he is adopting it with a true heart, he does not think of that which I have just mentioned, especially if he be admonished of the sinfulness of such conduct. But if he be a deceiver, and is seeking "his own things, not the things which are Jesus Christ's," he has not charity; and without this, what does it profit him, "though he bestow all his goods to feed the poor, and though he give his body to be burned"? Moreover, as we agreed when conversing together, this may be henceforth avoided, and an arrangement made with each individual who is disposed to enter a monastery, if he cannot be admitted to the society of the brethren before he has relieved himself of all these encumbrances, and comes as one at leisure from all business, because the property which belonged to him has ceased to be his. But there is no other way in which this spiritual death of weak brethren, and grievous obstacle to the salvation of those for whose reconciliation with the Catholic Church we so earnestly labour, can be avoided, than by our giving them most clearly to understand that we are by no means anxious about money in such cases as this. And this they cannot be made to understand, unless we leave to their use the estate which they always supposed to belong to their late presbyter; because, even if it was not his, they ought to have known this from the beginning.
4. It seems to me, therefore, that in matters of this kind, the rule which ought to hold is, that whatever belonged, according to the ordinary civil laws regarding property, to him who is an ordained clergyman in any place, belongs after his death to the Church over which he was ordained. Now, by civil law, the property in question belonged to the presbyter Honoratus; so that not only on account of his being ordained elsewhere, but even had he remained in the monastery of Thagaste, if he had died without having either sold his estate or handed it over by express deed of gift to any one, the right of succession to it would belong only to his heirs: as brother Aemilianus inherited those thirty shillings left by the brother Privatus. This, therefore, behoved to be considered and provided for in time, but if no provision was made for it, we must, in the disposal of the estate, comply with the laws which have been appointed to regulate in civil society the holding or not holding of property; that we may, so far as is in our power, abstain not only from the reality, but also from all appearance of evil, and preserve that good name which is so necessary to our office as stewards. How truly this procedure has the appearance of evil, I beseech your wisdom to observe. For having heard of their sorrow, which we ourselves witnessed at Thiave, fearing lest, as frequently happens, I should myself be mistaken through partiality for my own opinion, I stated the facts of the case to our brother and colleague Samsucius, without telling him at the time my present view of the matter, but rather stating the view taken up by both of us when we were resisting their demands. He was exceedingly shocked, and wondered that we had entertained such a view; being moved by nothing else but the ugly appearance of the transaction, as one wholly unworthy not only of us, but of any man.
5. Wherefore I implore you to subscribe and transmit without delay the letter which I have written to them in name of both of us. And even if, perchance, you discern the other course to be a just one in the matter, let not these brethren who are weak be compelled to learn now what I myself cannot understand; rather let this word of the Lord be remembered in dealing with them: "I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now." For He Himself, out of condescension to such weakness, said on another occasion (it was in reference to the payment of tribute), "Then are the children free; notwithstanding lest we offend them," etc.; and sent Peter to pay the didrachmae which were then exacted. For He knew another law according to which he was not bound to make any such payment; but He made the payment which was imposed upon Him by that law according to which, as I have said, succession to the estate of Honoratus behoved to be regulated, if he died before either giving away or selling his property. Nay, even in regard to the law of the Church, Paul showed forbearance towards the weak, and did not insist upon his receiving the money due to him, although fully persuaded in his conscience that he might with perfect justice insist upon it; waiving his claim, however, only because he thereby avoided a suspicion of his motives which would mar the sweet savour of Christ among them, and abstained from the appearance of evil in a region in which he knew that this was his duty, and probably even before he had known by experience the sorrow which it would occasion. Let us now, though we are somewhat behind-hand, and have been admonished by experience, correct that which we ought to have foreseen.
6. I remember that you proposed when we parted that the brethren at Thagaste should hold me responsible to make up the half of the sum claimed; let me say in conclusion, that as I fear everything which may make my attempt unsuccessful, if you clearly perceive that proposal to be a just one, I do not refuse to comply with it on this condition, however, that I am to pay the amount only when I have it in my power, i.e. when something so considerable falls to our monastery at Hippo that this can be done without unduly straitening us, — the amount remaining after the subtraction of so large a sum being still such as to provide for our monastery here an equal share in proportion to the number of resident brethren.
Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (NPNF I/I, Schaff). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.