This is Part 3 of a discussion of the tension between Church and State known as Constantianism. Part 1 explained the source of Constantianism, its effects and a justification for the engagement between Church and State. Part 2 considered the most common argument against this phenomenon and presented a response proposed by Robert Louis Wilken. This Post discusses the course of Constantianism after the demise of the Roman Empire.
If, as “Yoderians” argue, an alliance with political power is necessarily a corruption and betrayal of the Church’s identity, then one would expect to see the early Church begin to accommodate, to yield to imperial pressures in order to ensure its own security and institutional survival. Yet, according to Wilken, in the “Constantinian settlement” of the following centuries, society accommodated the Church, socially as well as religiously, not the other way around. Even though the Church was in a constant struggle with the State, she was far from being neutralized or dominated by the force of political fashion. In fact, the opposite is true: led by her bishops and inspired by the martyrs, the Church exerted a tremendously potent influence on society, as can be seen from the effects outlined earlier. Thus, the historical evidence actually undermines Yoder’s argument.
Because the nature of the Church is to evangelize, she is a culture-forming institution that necessarily acts in the public square. The Church is “successful” when she fulfills her mission to bring all peoples to Christ. It is because the Church takes seriously this universal call to holiness that the evangelical impulse of Christians moves them into the public square and even into the difficult terrain of political alliance. This is why the yea and nay of the Church to the world must be appropriately nuanced. Her yea is not an affirmation of the world’s pretensions to ultimate meaning; it is instead an affirmation of the legitimate goods in human society and political institutions, an affirmation of the basic goodness of their pursuits and objects despite the distortions and abuses that plague them.
Far from compromising the Church’s identity, Constantinianism allowed Christianity to transform and evangelize society from within. While there were undoubtedly failures and corruption in the Church as a result of Constantinianism, the alliance itself was no mistake. In fact, invoking examples of ecclesial corruption by power can no more demonstrate the intrinsic evil of political engagement than they can prove the intrinsic evil of money. Better to look for an explanation in fallen human nature, in habitual human weakness in the face of the temptations of power, wealth, and ambition. Of course, politics is notorious for its corruptive influence, but it must be stressed that the Church is inspired by the example of Christ who came to call all peoples, righteous and sinners alike. She is thus impelled to invade every area of human life and culture, leaving no stone unturned in her pursuit of humanity. It is in this light, then, that the Constantinian alliance can be seen as a significantly positive development for the Church.[Image, Victory at Lepanto! courtesy of Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.]