Saint Augustine Explains Collective Chastisement
The great Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in Northern Africa, and Doctor of the Church, lived during the barbarian invasions that brought about the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Indeed, the Vandals were storming at the city gates as he died.
During this troubled period, pagans blamed the Church for the collapse of Empire and civilization. If the Empire had not become Christian, they argued, Jove and the other gods of Rome would have saved it from destruction. Moreover, they added, the God of the Christians was no god at all since He had not spared the Christians from the barbarians.
Saint Augustine wrote The City of God to defend the Church and shore up the faith in hearts. In his masterwork, he explains the reason for collective chastisements. His reasoning can be summed up as follows:
1. Since nations as such do not pass to eternal life, they are rewarded or chastised in this life for the good or evil they practice; good and bad alike feel the effects of both reward and chastisement.
2. As for the good, the chastisement purifies their love of God, and may even take them from the tribulations of this life to the eternally happy life of Heaven; “Job’s case exemplifies that the human spirit may be proved, and that it may be manifested with what fortitude of pious trust, and with how unmercenary a love, it cleaves to God.”
3. On the other hand, very often the good are justly chastised for a certain selfishness, a lack of courage and apostolic fervor, that prevents them from pointing out to the bad, the evil of their ways: “Because they weakly relish the flattery and respect of men, and fear the judgments of the people, and the pain or death of the body; that is to say, their non-intervention is the result of selfishness, and not of love.”
4. As for the bad, they are chastised by “Divine Providence, which is wont to reform the depraved manners of men by chastisement.”
Such is also the teaching of Saint Thomas who says: “Justice and mercy appear in the punishment of the just in this world, since by afflictions lesser faults are cleansed in them, and they are the more raised up from earthly affections to God. Likewise, Saint Gregory says: ‘The evils that press on us in this world force us to go to God.’”