The theologian Fr. Edward T. Oakes, S.J., died on December 6 at the age of 65. An expert on the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Fr. Oakes was an immensely learned man. He could also write, as longtime readers of Commonweal will know. Among the many things he wrote for the magazine: this 2004 review of George M. Marsden's biography of Jonathan Edwards, this 2006 review of Reason and the Reasons of Faith (a collection of essays edited by Paul J. Griffiths and Reinhold Hütter), and this short response to a piece by Christopher Ruddy about the challenges facing young Catholic theologians. Oakes also wrote for Commonweal about Gnosticism, the Book of Genesis, Hamlet, and the philosophy of religion. Here he is on St. Augustine:
Nowadays most Christians labor under the impression that Saint Augustine was a rigorist. No doubt this was partly due to his strict sexual ethics, which arm-chair psychoanalysts too easily ascribe to an alleged “reaction formation” following his own mistress-filled past. But there is also his apparently harsh view of predestination and free will, with grace being absolutely necessary to salvation, yet restricted to the Christian dispensation—such an ironic and stingy position, it would seem, for the theologian who later became known as the Doctor of Grace.
But this is not how matters were perceived in Augustine’s own time: it was his opponent Pelagius who was seen as the rigorist, including by himself. In a famous letter to Demetrias, a wealthy Roman matron who had decided to forsake her wealth and become a nun, Pelagius said that “since perfection is possible for humanity, it is obligatory.” Frailty, then, is no excuse.
Augustine knew better. He saw (in his own life, to be sure, but also in the lives of the members of his diocese of Hippo) how much sin has infected the human soul, impairing our very ability to fulfill the moral law. Indeed, in his polemics against Pelagius he even compared the church to a hospital, where fallen humanity could recover its strength and find healing for its failings by growing in holiness through grace.