Did Saints Augustine and Monica pray for the dead, or to the dead?

Upon further reading of Augustine, it appears we may confirm our speculations here that Monica offered prayers for the dead to God and not specifically to the saints themselves. Augustine writes in the Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love in Chapters 109-110:

During the time, moreover, which intervenes between a man’s death and the final resurrection, the soul dwells in a hidden retreat, where it enjoys rest or suffers affliction just in proportion to the merit it has earned by the life which it led on earth.

Nor can it be denied that the souls of the dead are benefited by the piety of their living friends, who offer the sacrifice of the Mediator, or give alms in the church on their behalf. But these services are of advantage only to those who during their lives have earned such merit, that services of this kind can help them. For there is a manner of life which is neither so good as not to require these services after death, nor so bad that such services are of no avail after death; there is, on the other hand, a kind of life so good as not to require them; and again, one so bad that when life is over they render no help. Therefore, it is in this life that all the merit or demerit is acquired, which can either relieve or aggravate a man’s sufferings after this life. No one, then, need hope that after he is dead he shall obtain merit with God which he has neglected to secure here. And accordingly it is plain that the services which the church celebrates for the dead are in no way opposed to the apostle’s words: For we must all appear before the judgment-seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he has done, whether it be good or bad; for the merit which renders such services as I speak of profitable to a man, is earned while he lives in the body. It is not to every one that these services are profitable…When, then, sacrifices either of the altar or of alms are offered on behalf of all the baptized dead, they are thank-offerings for the very good, they are propitiatory offerings for the not very bad, and in the case of the very bad, even though they do not assist the dead, they are a species of consolation to the living. And where they are profitable, their benefit consists either in obtaining a full remission of sins, or at least in making the condemnation more tolerable. 

These remarks are rather cryptic by Augustine. For one, he contradicts himself mid-paragraph. On one hand, he asserts that one can only enhance his or her merit when in the present life. Yet, on the other hand, for the “not very bad” the offerings have a “propitiatory” effect. Further, earlier in the book, Augustine is not certain that purgatory even exists, which would make the propitiatory effects of prayers for the dead doubtful.

So, what is going on here? Being that this was written years ago we do not know with certainty. First, Augustine can simply be contradicting himself as men are known to do that from time to time. Second, a later scribe could have corrupted what Augustine originally written. Third, the translation we have is making what Augustine writes sound more “Roman Catholic” than what Augustine intended.

Being that I am not a fan of calling every manuscript into question and from my reading of Augustine have found him quite systematic, I would say that the latter of the possibilities is the most likely when compared to the former two. Most likely, Augustine is saying that the prayers are nice and in accordance with the mercies of God that directs the hearts of those that pray, they avail a man because in God’s grace and purposes it is His wish to extend such a mercy. Therefore, it is not in man’s ability to help the “not very bad” after death, but God can so be merciful to those Christians who did not walk as spiritually as others, using man’s prayers as the means to accomplish greater mercies for them.

While I myself would have issues with this practice, and would find it a matter of debate such as Augustine found purgatory to be, I am confident that the Scriptures settle the matter. And, being that the Scriptures say that Christ pays the full penalty for our sins, then I don’t think prayers after we are dead or good works in this world really negate sins.

Augustine’s system, when the believer after baptism has to maintain a right status before God in order to be righteous, is more Roman Catholic than it is Protestant. It is with great pains I would have to disagree with Augustine.

Of course, much of our differences may be semantics. If God is the operative force behind every righteous act a man does, as Augustine argues, then it is not man who maintains his right status before God, but rather God giving that man the gift of perseverance in the faith. It is in this way, then, men are made righteous. It is all times the work of God.

However, I think it takes away the power of the cross, and our union with Christ, to make us righteous. Who’s right? I guess we will have to find out in heaven.