In the late fourth century St Augustine was coping with the mixed blessing of the Christian Church becoming the established religion of the Roman Empire.
As a theologian, philosopher and bishop it fell to him to correct three particular heresies which were infesting the church at the time, and all three were the result of the church becoming established. As it became the established religion these three heresies grew like an ugly cancer as a result of the church’s establishment.
The first heresy is one that Augustine himself fell into in his youth. It was Manichaeanism. Manichaenism was the brainchild of a Persian teacher Mani in the third century. He blended strains of Judaism occult teaching with Christianity and Zoroastrianism. Other mystical gnostic teaching also crept in from the various gnostic sects.
Manichaeism had two problems. First it was syncretistic. It was a blend or mish-mash of various philosophies, occult practices, theologies and worldview. As the old paganism was dying this seemed a sophisticated and attractive religion. The cities of the Roman Empire were sophisticated, cosmopolitan places with travelers from many countries meeting and mixing. This blended religion was therefore attractive to people who wanted to be open minded, but engaged in religion and involved in a high philosophy and occult practices. It seemed to gather what was best from the old paganism with what was best from Judaism and Christianity.
Secondly, Manichaeism was dualistic. Physical world was bad. Spiritual world was good. This is also an easy religious mistake to make. In fact, if you were inventing a religion it is exactly the mistake you would make. However, Christianity with its doctrine of the Incarnation refuses to go there. We do not teach that the physical world is bad and the spiritual realm is good. Both are good because God not only created both. He deemed to take on physical flesh himself from his Blessed Mother.
Manichaeism is, of course, every present today with the tendency towards the wrong kind inter-faith relationships, New Age beliefs and a general “I’m spiritual but not religious” mentality. This sentimentalism and syncretism is always deadly fro authentic Christianity because it now only waters down the faith, it assumes that Christianity is simply one religion among many and puts Christianity on an equal footing with every other religion. This, however, is obvious nonsense for anyone who has taken a moment to think things through.
If anyone suggests that all religions are equal ask how they think the Aztec religion is equal to Buddhism or how paganism animism is equal to Christianity or Buddhism is equal to Islam. Anyone who says such a thing has not studied world religions even a little.
So Manichaeism is still with us. Heresies are like weeds. They come back.
The second heresy Augustine corrected was Plagiarism. This was started by a British monk named Pelagius. Here’s a video about Augustine and the Pelagian heresy. Pelagius taught that original sin did not affect our ability to achieve perfection. Augustine insisted that we could only be saved and perfected through the action of God’s grace.
Is Pelagianism around today? Ask any ten people in the street how to get to heaven and nine will probably say, “By being good enough.” Again, like dualism, it is the obvious answer, but the obvious answer is not always the right answer. Pelagianism today is especially prevalent in the Catholic Church. Of course nobody says explicitly that they are Pelagians, but the assumption is widespread that the Catholic faith is really all about being nice, respectable, kind and good and somehow working to make the world a better place.
Of course good works are great and we all are in favor of peace and justice and helping the poor and housing the homeless, but that is the result of our faith and God’s grace at work in us. It is not the core of the faith.
Pelagianism is so widespread in the Catholic Church that it seems to have taken over. Ask yourself how often you hear Catholic leaderss talk about social issues compared to how often you hear them talk about theological truths. Ask how often you hear a sermon about salvation of souls, trust in God, reliance on grace and living in state of grace compared to how often you hear sermons about our social responsibilities. Again, social responsibilities are real and important, but good works will not get you into heaven.
The third heresy Augustine battled against was Donatism. During the persecutions of the church in the late third century some Christians and some Christian leaders compromised the faith. In an act of submission they handed over the church’s holy books and thereby avoided persecution. These compromisers were called traditors. The Donatists said the traitors could not be reconciled to the church, or if they could be they would have to endure harsh public penance. Furthermore, they said the bishops and priests who had compromised (and the priests ordained by such bishops) had orders that were invalid. They then set up their own church with their own bishops and clergy.
Do we suffer from Donatism in the church today? If any Catholics are going around declaring this bishop or that priest, this pope or that cardinal to be invalid then they have fallen into Donatism. Sedevacantists are obviously in this error because they have declared validly elected popes to be invalid.
However there are some who do not claim the name, but are still headed in that direction. Do you read bloggers and writers who refer to the pope as “Bergoglio” or “Frank” or “George”? Do you read writers who refer to Pope St John Paul II as “Wojtyla” or Benedict XVI as “Ratzinger”? These disrespectful people may not call themselves Donatists, and they may deny that they are declaring these popes invalid, but have they not done so by their actions?
Do you know Catholic friends who have beetled off to some “Catholic” sect to get church just the way they like it? Have they formally say the other priests and other Catholics are not real Catholics? Some do, but more will avoid the explicit statement and drift into Donatism by their own decisions and actions.
It is easy to block out the reality that it is possible to fall into heresy and schism by being overly rigorous as much as it is to fall into heresy and schism by being too lax.
St Augustine corrected the Donatists also and called those who had fallen into heresy and schism back into the unity of the Catholic Church.
Do we need the intelligence, grace and brilliance of Augustine today?
We sure do.