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Saint Augustine: Ever Ancient and Yet Ever New

I still remember the first time I encountered the writings of St. Augustine. I was taking a class called “Augustine and Aquinas” in college and had to read Augustine’s Confessions alongside Aquinas’ Compendium of Theology. The difference between the two was striking. Compare Aquinas and Augustine on man’s last end:

Our natural desire for knowledge cannot come to rest within us until we know the first cause, and that not in any way, but in its very essence. This first cause is God. Consequently, the ultimate end of an intellectual creature is the vision of God in His Essence. (Compendium, 104)

And now Augustine:

You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you. (Confessions, I.1)

Which one do you think captivated a college student in search of God?

Now, I admit that this is being a little unfair to St. Thomas; he was writing at a different time, to a different audience, with a different goal. In Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris, Augustine is credited with “wresting the palm” from all the early Church Fathers. “Of a most powerful genius and thoroughly saturated with sacred and profane learning, with the loftiest faith and with equal knowledge, he combated most vigorously all the errors of his age.” But it is St. Thomas who is said to gather together and increase with his own additions all Scholastic teaching such that “he is rightly and deservedly esteemed the special bulwark and glory of the Catholic faith.” Indeed, “reason, borne on the wings of Thomas to its human height, can scarcely rise higher, while faith could scarcely expect more or stronger aids from reason than those which she has already obtained through Thomas.” St. Thomas, not St. Augustine, is the theological master recommended by Pope Leo XIII to the entire Church.

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