President Joe Biden speaks during his inauguration in Washington D.C., January 20, 2021 (CNS photo/Patrick Semansky, pool via Reuters).

My first instinct was to not watch the inauguration. Make no mistake, I was relieved at Trump’s departure. But I was concerned that the locked-down, buttoned-up Capitol, still bearing the scars of the insurrection just two weeks before, was a sign of a still-brimming crisis. Would there be a disruption? An attack? It seemed unthinkable, but then again, an insurrection had seemed unthinkable before January 6. I was afraid to tune in, but my wife wanted to watch, so I relented. To my astonishment and relief, I found myself in tears several times, not at any particular moment or gesture or speaker. It was rather the broader sense that some danger had passed, that some civility had returned. I exhaled in a way I hadn’t since 2016.

Biden’s speech was good, but not great. The new president is not a great orator, especially when he’s working from a teleprompter. But it was good. It had the hallmarks of the message that Biden rode to electoral victory: calls to honesty, truth, and unity against “anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, hopelessness.” It also shared a grace note that we’ve seen in several of Biden’s later speeches—an invocation of Biden’s own Catholic faith. In his first speech after the election in November, Biden quoted the late-twentieth-century Catholic liturgical staple “On Eagle’s Wings” by Michael Joncas. While it’s a song that liturgical aesthetes love to hate, it has an undeniable power in the U.S. Catholic Church. I learned afterward that it’s personally important to Biden because it was played at his son Beau’s funeral. I can’t hear it anymore without remembering my father’s funeral nearly a dozen years ago.

In his inauguration speech, Biden dove deeper into the Catholic intellectual tradition, quoting St. Augustine of Hippo’s City of God: “Saint Augustine, a saint of my Church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love. What are the common objects we love that define us as Americans?” 

It’s exactly the right question. In the sprawling twenty-two books of City of God, Augustine offers a profound reflection on the successes and failures of the Roman Empire in which Augustine was raised and in which he flourished. For many readers, it seems like Augustine’s intent is polemical, exposing the failures of a pagan Roman empire. In some ways, that’s fair. But such a reading can obscure the fact that Augustine is truly impressed with the virtue and strength of character of the Roman heroes he discusses. The tragedy of Rome is that such virtue and strength was devoted to something less than the fullness of life God offers us. This, says Augustine, is why the great Roman regime began to crumble: 

They took no account of their own material interests compared with the common good...they resisted the temptations of avarice; they acted for their country’s well-being with disinterested concern.... By such immaculate conduct they labored towards honors, power and glory, by what they took to be the true way. And they were honored in almost all nations...and today they enjoy renown in the history and literature of nearly all races. They have no reason to complain of the justice of God, the supreme and true. “They have received their reward in full.” (City of God V.15)

Because Rome was devoted to its own glory, says Augustine, its justice and virtue would always be slightly distorted, always falling short of the fullness of justice. Rome sought glory in this mortal world and received a mortal glory that would shine, but fade. The sack of Rome in 410 CE, for Augustine, may have been a sign that Rome’s era of earthly glory was passing. But “they have received their reward in full.” On this basis, Augustine decides that Cicero’s classic definition of a commonwealth, “a multitude united by a common sense of right,” doesn’t really work. Rome was not, ultimately, just, because any city devoted to anything less than the immortal glory of God will fall short of true justice. But Augustine knew that it would be silly to say that there was no such thing as a Roman commonwealth. His alternative definition, the one Biden quotes, is that a commonwealth is “a multitude united by a common object of their love.” The whole point of this definition is to widen it, to allow all sorts of regimes to be assessed as commonwealths, as political communities, whether or not they were rightly ordered to God. Even a community of thieves might be understood as a “commonwealth,” in the sense that they do, in fact, share a common object of love: their own profit. The definition, then, is neutral and diagnostic. And, if we ask it honestly and with integrity, it’s very illuminating. 

Perhaps the most important question a community can ask is “What is it that we love?”

Perhaps the most important question a human person can ask is “What is it that I love?” It’s our desire that directs all our powers of reason and calculation and risk. Perhaps the most important question a community can ask is “What is it that we love?” In our present circumstance, when we are all unsettled by the divisions among us, perhaps we need to back up even further to ask, “Is there a common object of our love? Can we muster the energy to ask what it is that we all desire, even if we may seek different paths to it?”

I was heartened by Biden’s question—what are the common objects of our love—but I wish he had let the question hang for a moment. He answered a bit too quickly: “I think I know: opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor, and yes, truth.” These ideas are a good start, but they may need some more spading to overturn the soil, to see the roots. Having lived through the last several years, I hope we let this question haunt us a bit. How do we find a common object of our love? If it is true that Americans love these things, how do we come to some shared understanding of what they entail? Can we come to a common love of dignity that acknowledges the dignity of the homeless, the working poor, the mass incarcerated, and the unborn? Can we find a way for “truth” to be something other than a polemical grenade? Isn’t the problem not that no one believes in truth, but that no one believes in a shared truth?

Critics of Biden’s invocation of City of God claim that he “misreads Augustine.” Writing in First Things, C. C. Pecknold rightly notes that the president’s words will ring hollow unless we come to a substantive understanding of what words like “respect” and “truth” mean. But he accuses Biden of elevating, as he puts it, these “qualities and aspirations” over proper objects of love. Biden’s list “deflates a realist account of our common good and leaves us with no objective moral standard by which to judge whether a commonwealth is ‘upside down.’” Pecknold concludes that “Biden gives us a very limp Augustine who delivers only vague liberal pieties of ‘peace, peace.’”

Pecknold seems to assume that these words can only be hollow platitudes unless they are directed to “the love of God and neighbor.” But Augustine’s definition of a commonwealth does not by itself offer a normative theological judgment; his point in adjusting the classic definition is to allow it to be applied to nations or communities of any sort, whether virtuous or vicious. What made Rome a world power was not the love of God and neighbor, but Rome or any commonwealth in crisis should still ask the question, “What do we love in common?”  Rome will likely die, Augustine knew very well. All earthly powers do. America will die too, eventually. But we still should ask, for however many years remain, what is it that we love? What is it that we can and should love, together? How do we bring that about? 

Biden would have “misread” Augustine only if we think that Augustine expected any earthly polity to be fully just. One thing Augustine knew for sure was that the heavenly city, that community of people devoted to the love of God above all things, is on pilgrimage here in this life, finding no set place to call their home. That city has no borders, no territories, no taxes, and no laws but God’s. They must make use of the peace of earthly cities—of actual regimes and governments—and so “a harmony must be preserved among them in the things that are relevant to this [mortal] condition.” Despite the assertions of the Pledge of Allegiance, and despite the longings of some recent “Catholic integralists,” our American polity is not united “under God”; the “love of God and neighbor” is not the common object of our love. We can lament that, but it is true, and a realist understanding of the common good begins from where we are, not where some few wish for us to be. If Biden’s first impulse is to ask us what it is that we love in common, he’s off to a good start. Are we willing to answer honestly, even when the answer may trouble us? Saint Augustine’s question is one worth pondering. 

Kevin Hughes teaches at Villanova.

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