Augustine, Property, and Converting to Catholicism

Millennial writer Elizabeth Bruenig has a new article at America on her conversion to Catholicism:

As a student, I became increasingly aware of the problems these textual knots posed for the way I had been taught to relate to God: How could I read my way to God by the light of my own conscience if I was not even entirely sure of the meaning of what I was reading, much less my ability to read it reliably? And in the course of all that confusion, as if by divine providence, a professor assigned St. Augustine’s Confessions in one of my classes….

Tradition provides a chain of provenance beginning with the original biblical texts and extending down into our present year, with scholars and clerics reading their predecessors and puzzling out how to apply their thinking about God and his people to new questions that arise with time. Instead of leaving a single conscience to the knotty business of making sense of ancient texts, the tradition offers Christians a chorus of helpful coreligionists passing down insight over time. An individual’s conscience plays a role, of course, in her own interpretation of the tradition; but the weight of time and expertise are instructive, and they whisper through space and centuries that you are not alone….

As a Protestant, I had learned that commentaries on Scripture were just that: the ephemeral striving of mere mortals, bereft of meaning in their own right, useful only insofar as they happened to be correct according to one’s own judgment. But more and more I was convinced I could not carry out a Christian life by myself. I did not want to read and draw my own conclusions; I wanted guidance, clarity, authority. God had not seen it fit to leave Adam alone in Eden, nearer to God than we are now. He needed help, and God gave it to him….

Part of the reason I found Catholicism’s challenge to modernity so compelling was that it critiques aspects of our world that mostly go unquestioned, even by those who have disputes with liberalism in sexuality, marriage and so on. For me, the case in point was property ownership, the underlying question beneath all our current debates about poverty and wealth.

Early Christian writers, Augustine among them, thought deeply about the nature of creation. God made our material world, of course, but what for? Knowing what the bounty of the earth was meant to achieve would help them figure out how to use it rightly, that is, in accordance with God’s will for it and for us. In the view of the early church (and indeed, in the view of the church today), the world had been made and given to all people to hold in common to support their flourishing. “God made the rich and poor from the one clay,” Augustine wrote, “and the one earth supports the poor and the rich.”…

And while it is impossible to speak for all Protestants—and important to note there exists a vast array of opinions on property ownership within the Protestant tradition, some hewing close to the Catholic view—the Catholic Church, at least, bases its position on property in a moral universe far more stable than that which has been constructed since the Reformation. And by the time I neared the end of my time in college, I had become convinced it was the only firm ground from which a Christian could fight back against the domination of the poor by the rich, against poverty, against the destruction of families and communities at the hands of businesses and their political lackeys, against a world stripped of meaning.