Covid-19 and Saint Augustine’s Perspective of Personal Responsibility

Although history in Augustine Theocentric (God centered) or Christocentric (Christ centered), although history is guided by divine providence, the human person is not just helpless with regard to history, but truly brings something new into it through his freewill. Consequently, this brings us to the table of our responsibilities of precaution and solidarity in the face of the Corona Virus Pestilence.

a. Precaution

Saint Augustine wrote that although: “God created us without our help, He will not save us without our help” (Dialogues 23). This spells the responsibility of the human person even in the face of divine providence. At a time like ours when the Corona virus is spreading, the human person must take precautions by not dismissing the counsel of health officials, especially in such a situation when our country hasn’t the wherewithal to manage real situations of outbreaks. The difficulties that world powers are going through in managing the situation should speak to us. We must recognize that religious leaders are not health officers. In spite of faith, the Jews were instructed to quarantine leprous people at a time when there was yet no medical cure (Lev. 13:1-4). Jesus had faith in His Father; yet he answered the demon that was tempting him into rascality or a foolish show of faith: “Do not put the Lord Your God to the test” (Matt 4:7). Having faith in God does not mean that you don’t have to take precautions. When the Biblical flood was coming, Noah was asked to build an ark (Gen 6:9,17); when famine was immanent, Joseph stored grains (Gen 41:49); when Herod wanted to kill Jesus, Mary and Joseph fled with Him to Egypt (Matt 2:13-23); when Paul was to be killed, he escaped through an opening in a wall in a basket (Acts 9:23-31). It is better that we make mistakes on the side of caution without any outbreak occurring than be careless and unfortunately have an outbreak. In reality, the virus does not move. People move the virus. If it stops moving, it dies.

St. Augustine holds that God’s actions are mediated through the will of beings endowed with a rational will. Such that even though God intervenes in creation, He intervenes through the cooperation of the freewill of rational beings, even of those which oppose Him (Civ. Dei, 8,17-18). At this time of the Corona virus disease, when we have been asked to take some precautionary measures like the reception of Holy Communion in our hands rather than tongue, removal of holy water from the entrance of the church, prohibition of hand shake during the kiss of peace, lock down of churches, etc., some are apt to understand this as an expression of lack of faith. Contrary to a lack of faith, through these precautionary measures, we are not only cooperating with God through our freewill but expressing the indispensable works that give meaning to our faith. Moreover, Jesus came to heal and save and gave the Church the same responsibility. Thus, the Church cannot by a misguided faith and religious zeal, contribute to people being infected and dying for lack of care and prudence. This is the God-fearing faith that is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God. You cannot ask God to protect you while you do what you want or nothing at all.

b. Christian Solidarity

A second responsibility is solidarity with the sick and bereaved. For Augustine, “What is love but a kind of life that unites or seeks to unite two beings, namely the one who loves and that which is loved” (De Trinitate, 8, 10, 14). This has a great implication for our understanding of solidarity, a necessary congruent of Christian social responsibility and a basic principle of Catholic social teaching. Solidarity is also called ‘being-with,’ indwelling in which two persons in relation are both subjects and drawn into one another. It stems first from God’s action with humanity through the giving of His Son – the Incarnation and is also used sometimes as a synonym of love. This is illustrated in this phrase Augustine puts in the mouth of God: “Love itself makes Me present to you” (Sermon 1 John, 10.4). Therefore, God’s presence in the human being becomes both the reason why we touch God by loving our fellow human being, and also the propellant for such love.

Augustine further illustrates his thought with the concept of Totus Christus, the ‘total Christ’ which means that Christ includes all human beings on account of the reading of Paul’s presentation in Romans 8: 22, which allots the groaning for salvation to the whole creation (van Bavel, 1986, 175). This responsibility must include the entire universe within this scope since today the call to compassionate solidarity urges us to extend our Christian responsibility to other components of creation, together with which we form the one common body of God’s gift. The final case for the theology of Totus Christus comes from Augustine’s elucidation of Christ’s saying in Matt. 25, “whatsoever you do to the least of these [brothers and sisters] of mine you do to me.” Augustine writes, “Each of you expects to receive Christ seated in heaven. Turn your attention to Him lying in the street. Direct your attention to Christ who is hungry and suffering from the cold, Christ in need and a stranger.” (Sermon, 25.8.8)

Saint Augustine uses this analogy to further convey his message of love:

“When the deer have to cross a river, each one of them carried on its back the preceding deer. In that way, supporting and helping each other, they are able to cross safely wide rivers until they reach together the stability of the land.”(Miscellany of Eighty-three Questions,71,1)

In bearing one another’s burden in love, Saint Augustine foresees the reward of eternal blessedness:

“The responsibility of love is that we are to bear one another’s burden, but this responsibility, which is not an eternal one, leads doubtless to an eternal blessedness in which there are no burdens for us that we will be required to care for one another. Now, how-ever while we are in life, that is, on this journey, let us bear one another’s burden so that we can achieve that life which is free of every burden.” (Miscellany of Eighty-three Questions,71,1)

As families all over the world go through pain and loss during this period of pestilence, we owe them solidarity in every way possible and too diverse to mention.

KANU Ikechukwu Anthony, O.S.A

Professor of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Tansian University

Consultant, Civil Society Network on Migration and Development

Rector, Villanova Polytechnic, Imesi Ile, Osun State

President, Association for the Promotion of African Studies

Our Motto: "United in Research for Positive Change", summarizes the objectives of this great institution. IRI is an international organization that is registered (RC1621015) under the Laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

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