Yea Constantianism! Part 1

Yea Constantianism! Part 1

Part of Cluny’s mission is to remind the world from time to time that life did not begin with Super Bowl I, and that much can be learned from history. We often hear people say that the Bishops and other Catholics should stay out of politics and the public square. In a recent email conversation, someone shared with me a paper on Constantianism written by a graduate student. The paper is quoted here in part, with permission and without footnotes. Two more parts will follow:


The Edict of Milan in 313 and the subsequent intimate ties between the Church and the Roman Empire mark a watershed moment for Christianity’s relationship with secular political powers. Indeed, the far-flung implications and attendant controversies of “Constantinianism” continue to fascinate, bemuse, and provoke even today the question whether engagement with government is “good for the Church?” In other words, is “entanglement” is conducive to the telos, the goal or perfection, of the Church’s mission: the evangelization and salvation of all peoples, according to Christ’s command in Matthew 28:19. Put differently, what does Constantianism tell us about whether cooperation between the Church and the State contributes to or hinder the Church’s evangelization and salvation of all peoples?


As Robert Louis Wilken noted in First Things long ago, “In the years before Constantine took the throne, Christianity was rapidly winning the hearts and minds of millions of Roman citizens, including the most gifted thinkers,” so that as the fourth century began, “the Church was too large, its way of life and institutions too well established, its leaders too resourceful, for Christianity to be halted with the sword.” Constantine’s conversion simultaneously resolved the imminent conflict and provided Rome with much-needed religious justification and support. As Wilken observed, “In granting the Church legitimacy, Constantine not only diffused a tense situation, he harnessed Christian energy in service to the state.”


Of course, Rome was never neutral with regard to religion. Rather, religion and public policy were by definition interwoven the Emperor was divine. Constantine’s conversion, then, was not purely a matter purely personal to Constantine, but involved the entire political machinery of the Empire in the life and destiny of the Christian Church, and vice versa. The resulting affiliation of State and Church was prodigiously fruitful for the Church. By giving Christianity distinct rights and privileges, Constantine enabled the Church to expand its efforts to tend to the needs of the poor, the sick, and the marginalized in a systematic and revolutionary manner. Christianity was also influential at the civil and legal level. For example, after his conversion Constantine enacted laws to discourage infanticide, and to protect abandoned children.


Moreover, the Church was now able to own property, and, thanks to Constantine’s building projects, developed a visible and even prominent architectural presence in cities across the Empire. There was also a great flowering of Christian expression in art, architecture, literature and learning. The Constantinian revolution also affected the development of the Church’s doctrine. Because Christianity is a confessional faith, its early stages were marked by great debate as the Church labored to articulate doctrinally the truths she possessed and lived. Imperial funding and support helped bring bishops together and pressured them to reach consensus when disagreements on matters of faith were threatening to divide the Church and consequently the Empire as well.


Additionally, the Edict was a sort of imperial stamp of approval on the Church’s passport, endorsing and accelerating Christianity’s spread to the outskirts of the Empire and beyond. The effects of this evangelical explosion on surrounding cultures were enormous because conversion to Christianity changed the barbarians’ approaches to political institutions and social mores, including their laws, calendar, architecture, and marriage customs. In short, as a result of Christianity’s association with the Empire, no aspect of familial, social, or political life escaped the leavening, formative influence of Christianity.

To be continued . . .

[Image, The Vision of Constantine, courtesy of Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.]