St. Augustine and right/wrong

Wrong is wrong, even if everyone is doing it. Right is right, even if no one is doing it.

Attributed to St. Augustine (and also to William Penn, but not recently on Facebook that I’ve seen). It’s actually a modification of a quotation from G. K. Chesterton:

Right is right, even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong even if everybody is wrong about it.

Illustrated London News, May 11, 1907, or Collected Works, 27:463.

It’s not impossible that St. Augustine and/or William Penn said it and GKC took it from one of them, but I can’t find any evidence for that.

St. Augustine’s name seems to have been attached to it only recently. The earliest Google Book reference I can find is 2002.


I did find one person who claims it’s a summary of Ennarations on the Psalms 145:7. Here’s what that passage says:

Right and wrong are contraries. Right is what is just. For not all that is called right, is right. What if a man lay down for you unjust right? Nor indeed is it to be called right, if it is unjust. That is true right, which is also just.

Try as I might, I can’t see that as saying what the alleged quotation says (though it does contain “right is right” as long as you don’t mind an intervening comma.)

I have also been told it’s in City of God. That’s a loooooong book, but I can say that the phrase “right is right” does not appear in the version on Project Gutenberg (and yes, I checked both volumes).

I’m standing by my verdict.

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Augustine: He who sings prays twice

He who sings prays twice.

Widely attributed to St. Augustine, even in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which even gives a citation. I remember it as a poster on the wall of the choir rehearsal room in the church where I grew up. Unfortunately, as Fr. John Zuhlsdorf documents in this blog post, the saying doesn’t appear in Augustine where the CCC says it does. (I have seen Fr. Z cited as saying that St. Augustine said, “I can still say with the oft quoted citation: ‘He who sings well prays twice’, so long as it is from love.” This is Fr. Z’s own phrase, waxing poetic. St. Augustine didn’t say it, and Fr. Z didn’t claim he did.) Wikiquote gives the same citation as the CCC.

The complete works of Augustine are searchable online. I searched for qui canit bis orat, and, for good measure, qui bene cantat bis orat. It’s not there under either phrasing. So I’m about as confident as can be that it’s not from St. Augustine. (I am not going to get into edit wars on Wikiquote.)

Which raises the question … where did it come from and how did it get attached to St. Augustine? I tried Google Books with custom date ranges. I can’t find it at all before 1940, when it shows up The Downside Review, Vol. XLIII. Unfortunately that publication is available in snippet view only and the viewable snippet doesn’t show it. The search page showed this as an excerpt:

St Gregory’s response to the ‘power of darkness’ was pre-eminently the answer of prayer. This is also the answer of our recent … Is it not St Augustine who tells us that he ‘prays twice who sings his prayer’ ? St Gregory provided the classic form …

It shows up again in 1949 in Musart, Vols. 1-5, again sadly available only in snippet view that doesn’t show the quotation. The excerpt from the search page:

St. Augustine somewhere wrote that he who sings his prayer prays twice. But before this praising of God in song can be truly prayerful, the spirit of praise must run high in the soul. The song of the lips must first have been a song in the soul.

Both references speak of it in ways that sound as if it is already well-known quotation, but these are the earliest print references I could find, so I’m not sure what the original source is. I am confident that the original source is not St. Augustine.

Real quotation(s) for the week

My Lord Jesus Christ, two graces I beg of you before I die: the first is that in my lifetime I may feel, in my soul and in my body, as far as possible, that sorrow which you, sweet Jesus, endured in the hour of your bitter passion; the second is that I may feel in my heart, as far as possible, that abundance of love with which you, Son of God, were inflamed, so as willingly to endure so great a passion for us sinners.

Attributed correctly to St. Francis; it’s in The Little Flowers, On the Third Consideration of the Sacred Holy Stigmata. I was pretty sure it was legit–this is not a motivational speaker tree-hugger saying–but I checked anyway for practice.


Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that thou mayest understand.

Attributed correctly to St. Augustine; it’s in Tractate XXIX on the Gospel of John. Wikiquote mentions in passing that St. Anselm said something similar, but it’s not on his Wikiquote page. I knew about its attribution to St. Anselm and so checked this attribution to St. Augustine. It turns out that the St. Anslem one is the iffy one.

C. S. Lewis, Body and Soul

You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.

Attr. (falsely, not to give the end away or anything) to C. S. Lewis.

  1. It might sound like Lewis because he approached Christianity from a Platonist viewpoint. He was in good company, because Platonism was the dominant view (not the only view) for much of the first millenium. St. Augustine was a huge fan of Platonism. But I even before I went looking for the first time (I first saw this fauxtation a few years ago), I was almost certain that it wasn’t Lewis because it’s wrong, very fundamentally wrong. I’m not sure how Platonic-style Christianity handles the body-soul issue, but there is no doubt in Catholic teaching (in most ways Lewis was Catholic-minded) that you are neither soul alone nor body alone but a single being composed of body and soul together.
  2. But, okay, let’s say that Lewis could be wrong (as he was about some things). Wikiquote has it in the Misattributed section of CSL’s page. Here’s what they have to say about it:

    Commonly attributed to Mere Christianity, where it is not found. Earliest reference seems to be an unsourced attribution to George MacDonald in an 1892 issue of the Quaker periodical The British Friend.

  3. A generic Google search turns up countless hits, unsourced of course. Sigh.
  4. Google books turns up countless hits, too, but none from CSL’s actual works, which are (as I found out a few days ago) all there on Google Books to be searched.
  5. Here are a couple of blog posts from people who’ve done the same search. Link one. Link two.  Both of them explain in some detail what’s wrong with the saying, too.
  6. And Lewis wasn’t wrong on this point. In his essay “Priestesses in the Church” (found in God in the Dock), he wrote:

    And as image and apprehension are in organic unity, so, for a Christian, are human body and human soul.

C. S. Lewis and hardship

Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.

—attr. C. S. Lewis

  1. It sounds suspicious to me, but by now my ear is so cynical that nearly everything sounds suspicious, so I kept looking, especially because it’s not horribly suspicious.
  2. A Google Web search turned up all the popular quotations web sites. Bah, humbug.
  3. Wikiquote has it in the “Unsourced” category on the discussion page.
  4. Google Books found it in secondary sources, one of which even gives a footnote. Alas, the footnote isn’t included in the preview. Since I can’t find a primary source, I’m suspecting the footnote refers to a secondary source.
  5. Google Books does have most (probably all) of Lewis’s works available. I tested by feeding it several CSL quotations known to be authentic, and it found them in primary sources. It doesn’t find the quotation in question.

Verdict: Fauxtation.

St. John Paul II and children as a gift

I’m working on a presentation and want to use this alleged quotation from St. John Paul II:

And what is the best gift you can give your children? I say to you: Give them brothers and sisters.

It also comes in a variant form:

The greatest gift you can give your child is another sibling.

But did he actually say either one?

One place that gave the quotation claimed that it’s from his visit to Washington D.C. in 1979, so I scurried over to the Holy See’s website and looked at everything they had there from that visit. The closest thing was from his homily for the Mass on the Mall:

Decisions about the number of children and the sacrifices to be made for them must not be taken only with a view to adding to comfort and preserving a peaceful existence. Reflecting upon this matter before God, with the graces drawn from the Sacrament, and guided by the teaching of the Church, parents will remind themselves that it is certainly less serious to deny their children certain comforts or material advantages than to deprive them of the presence of brothers and sisters, who could help them to grow in humanity and to realize the beauty of life at all its ages and in all its variety.

I know of several other places where he talked about children as a gift (e.g., his Letter to Families), but none of them are phrased in the way the first two quotations are.

I did Google searches of the Vatican website for both of the first two alleged sayings and found nothing. (Well, thanks to Google’s penchant for searching for related words, I found lots of things, but none of them was one of the quotations in question.) Google Books was not helpful. I even tried Bing (the web search, not the singer).

My last hope is that what he actually said in DC varied from the prepared version on the Vatican website, but I can’t find a recording of that homily on YouTube.

I really don’t want this to be a fauxtation, but I’m afraid it is.

St. Francis and doing the impossible

Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.

This saying is widely attributed to St. Francis (e.g., by Nancy Pelosi in the Congressional Record for April 26, 2006, of all places), but it sounds like him only if your idea of St. Francis is a 13th Century Zig Ziglar. In other words, it fails the “sounds right” test.

A basic Google search for it turned up the usual suspects (brainyquotes, goodreads) and this blog post from a Franciscan who thinks it’s not by Francis either. Wikiquote has it on their “removed for lack of a source” list. It was placed on that list in 2010 and no one has come up with a source since.

I searched Google Books for it and the oldest hit I found was (I am not making this up) the Fall 1993 issue of Jewish Communal Service. From what I can see in the search snippet, they quote it as a well-known saying, so there is likely a source before then, but I can’t find it.

I checked all appearances of the word impossible in the EWTN copy of The Little Flowers of St. Francis (yes, I checked the pages linked from that page too) and didn’t find it.

I can find no evidence that St. Francis said it and therefore confidently say that it is a fauxtation.