Augustine - Patron of State Catholic Conferences?
by Christopher Dodson
North Dakota Catholic Conference
Do state Catholic conferences have their roots in the work of Saint Augustine? Maybe not directly, but many parallels exist between the actions of the fourth century convert, bishop, and Doctor of the Church, and today's state Catholic conferences.
As the Christian Church grew in both numbers and acceptance in the Roman Empire, questions arose concerning the relationship between the church and the state. Church leaders, with persecutions a still recent memory, sometimes hesitated to publicly challenge affairs of state. Imperial leaders, meanwhile, went so far as to openly question whether the teachings of Christ were compatible with the realities of government.
Saint Augustine, however, saw it as his obligation as a bishop to challenge injustices carried out by the government. Most scholars agree that Augustine did not consider such actions as engaging in politics. Rather, he viewed them simply as a response to the Gospel. To him, society should be just and Christ was the truly Just Man.
For example, Augustine hated the slave trade and spoke against government policies that allowed slave traders to capture and enslave farmers. He actively intervened for the right of asylum and decried efforts to dehumanize enemies through rhetorical devices. Even enemies, he reminded others, are children of God.
Some of the injustices Augustine took on are still with us today. He frequently appealed to government officials to grant mercy and justice to the poor. He even called upon the emperor to appoint a defender of the poor in judicial and administrative matters. He called for penal reform and, like today's bishops, he called on government officials to refrain from using capital punishment and torture.
Also like today's bishops, Augustine received criticism from those that thought religion, and particularly clergy, should stay out of matters of state. Augustine, however, saw no choice in the matter. To him, such involvement was part of what it meant to be a bishop and a Christian.
It is not, however, just Augustine's “political activism” that gives rise to the comparisons to state Catholic conferences. Saint Augustine often pursued these in collaboration with his fellow bishops from North Africa. Indeed, some church historians consider these councils of African bishops involving Augustine as the precursors to today's regional episcopal conferences.
Today's bishop conferences, like the councils of North Africa, provide a way for bishops to work collaboratively, including in matters of public policy. The federal system of government in the United States gives states significant decision-making authority. This makes state bishop conferences uniquely suited to address public policy issues. This fact might explain why all but two of the states with more than one diocese have a state Catholic conference.
The similarities between Augustine's work and today's state Catholic conferences gets even more interesting. At one of their councils, the North African bishops agreed to send representatives to Rome to petition officials on behalf of the church and the poor. The representatives were probably laymen. I like to think of these representatives as the first state Catholic conference directors. We do not know who they were, but if they are in Heaven with Saint Augustine, maybe they are praying for today's bishops and today's state Catholic conference directors.