St. Augustine, vice and the criminal law – Part 1

ST. AUGUSTINE, BORN IN 354 A.D, WAS BISHOP OF HIPPO IN NORTH AFRICA. He is best knwon for his autobiography Confessions  (398 A.D.) and his later work, The City of God.

St. Augustine taught that mankind is divided into two groups or “cities,” the City of God and the City of Man. Inhabitants of the City of God have their will and reason turned toward communion with God. The City of Man looks to purely earthly ends, yet these groups are “commingled” in this life, just as the wheat and the chaff grow in the same field until the Judgment Day.

This creates a pluralism of moral and religious values that will persist until the end of the age. There can be no common agreement as to every right and wrong, except for a common desire for “the sweetness of peace which is dear to all,” and the “tranquility of order.” [City of God, XIX:11, 13]

Here again, one sees that same common ground inherent in the non-aggression principle. Augustine wrote that, “peace is a good so great, that even in this earthly and mortal life there is no word we hear with such pleasure, nothing we more strongly desire, or enjoy more thoroughly when it comes.” [City of God, XIX:11.] The citizens of both cities have a common interest in peace. They can agree, at a minimum, upon a secure and orderly society that lets them pursue their goals, be they spiritual or material.

When laws truly protect us from harming one another, we respect those laws so unanimously that even criminals will agree (at least as those protections apply to themselves). On the other hand, when we cannot agree on moral values that do not impinge directly on others, we lose respect for the law. It seems brutal, rather than just and leads to contempt for the law.

Libertarians, along with St. Augustine, see the wisdom in limiting government (of whatever sort) to a least common denominator between the City of God and the City of Man; i.e. the protection of life, liberty and property. St. Augustine—along with St. Thomas, as noted above—believed vices must be tolerated because governmental suppression would only result in more evils:

What can be mentioned more sordid, more bereft of decency, or more full of turpitude than prostitutes, procurers, and the other pests of that sort? Remove prostitutes from human affairs, and you will unsettle everything because of lusts; place them in the position of matrons, and you will dishonor these latter by disgrace and ignominy. This class of people is, therefore, by its own mode of life most unchaste in its morals; by the law of order, it is most vile in social condition. [De Ordine, 2.4]

In condemning prostitution, St. Augustine makes it clear that just because we do not punish these sins does not mean we approve of the conduct. In his letter to Macedonius (413-14 A.D.), he uses the example of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery (whom Jesus saved from stoning). Augustine recommends that believers of his own day adopt Jesus’ merciful example: “Impious Jews yielded to his pronouncement; may pious Christians do so too.” He also notes that “[God] punishes very few offenses in this life, in case no one believes in divine providence; and he keeps most of them back for the final assessment, in order to remind us of that future judgment.” [“Letter 153: to Macedonius,” ¶ 4, 11]

[Read Part 2 here]

Thomas Aquinas: Should all vices be crimes?

Should all vices be crimes? This a question St. Thomas addresses explicitly in his Summa, wherein he objects to the criminalization of most vices on the ground that it would make criminals of most people. St. Thomas argues that “human law rightly allows some vices, by not repressing them” and with good reason:

[Virtuous conduct] is not possible to one who has not a virtuous habit, as is possible to one who has. Thus the same is not possible to a child as to a full-grown man: for which reason the law for children is not the same as for adults, since many things are permitted to children, which in an adult are punished by law or at any rate are open to blame. In like manner many things are permissible to men not perfect in virtue, which would be intolerable in a virtuous man.

Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of oth-ers, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.

What St. Thomas is teaching is nothing less than the non-aggression principle: that human law should limit its punishments to acts that hurt other people or their prop-erty. He goes on to assert that criminal punishment “belongs to those sins chiefly whereby one’s neighbor is injured.”

St. Thomas also cites God’s own unwillingness to prevent earthly evils, often times because the cure would be worse than the disease:

Human government is derived from the Divine gov-ernment, and should imitate it. Now although God is all-powerful and supremely good, nevertheless He al-lows certain evils to take place in the universe, which He might prevent, lest, without them, greater goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue. Accordingly in human government also, those who are in authority, rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred: thus Augustine says (De Ordine ii, 4): “If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust.”

Elsewhere, St. Thomas repeats this truth that suppressing vices can lead to greater evils: “[Human law] does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous . . . Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils.

As St. Thomas foresaw (along with St. Augustine), the criminalization of other moral evils–drunkenness, drug abuse, sexual immorality and other vices which are not directly harmful to others or their propertyis unjust and results in greater sins.