Lamenting Our Necessities

I’m in Norman, Oklahoma for the fifth annual gathering of the Conference of Catholic Legal Thought, an association of law professors interested in exploring how the Catholic philosophical and theological tradition impacts our thoughts about the law. Since the group includes many dear friends, it is always a joy for me when we gather.

Yesterday was our opening session and our focus was The Essential St. Augustine for 21st Century Lawyers and Law Professors. Paul Griffiths of the Duke Dinivity School gave a wonderful talk, followed by several respondents.

Of the many things that stayed with me from Griffiths talk, the one I woke up reflecting on was the phrase de necessitatibus meis erue me, deliver me from my necessities, a phrase taken from Augustine’s commentary on Psalm 24.

The phrase recognizes that there are consequences of the fall – that we live in a world that is not “the city of God.” A world where we are compelled at times to do things that are not ideal. For Augustine, the appropriate attitude in such situations is to lament our necessities.

Thus, for example, there may be times when war is called for, when we must send off our young men and women to fight battles. We do so because we must, but, says Augustine, the proper stance when we do is one of lament – we lament the necessity. The same is true for our need to inflict punishment on criminals.

I don’t hear much lamenting of our necessities in public affairs these days and I think it would be good if we recovered a sense of lament. Thus, to use a recent example, it may have been necessary for the US to kill Osama bin Laden, but we lament the need to take a human life.

Perhaps when we pray for our service men and women at Mass, as we often do during out petitions, we might include a lament that we need to send them off to war at all.