NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 18.1
Tom Lee's series of commentaries gets more gripping with each instalment. Today's excerpt is particularly packed with interesting history from that early phase under Constantine when the bishops began to learn the value of patronage in a big way.
Consolidation of Church and State – Part 18.1
The Donatist bullyboys...
A disastrous schism had originated in North Africa. The appointment of Caecilian to be bishop of Carthage was opposed by a powerful party who came to be known as Donatists because of their leader, a black Numidian named Donatus. Of mixed Bantu and Semitic blood, he was bishop of a small town on the edge of the Sahara. Like many religious zealots he seems to have had a fundamentally malicious disposition. To support his fierce beliefs he recruited a riotous rabble of muscular acolytes who enforced his decisions by violent means. Like the Melitians in Alexandria, they represented the extreme rigorists who condemned all who had compromised during the persecution. A sinister lunatic group they thrived on fundamentalist hysteria and attracted precisely the kind of acolyte most likely to be destroyed by it. They proved that those who wear their supposed orthodoxy like a chip on their shoulder do not hesitate to sacrifice principle to score a point against those they consider lax. They put dogmas above human beings.
A synod of seventy bishops, intimidated by the murder of one of their number, slashed to death in the council chamber by Donatist bullyboys, elected a rival bishop of Carthage. They contended that they were the Catholic Church of Africa. When they found themselves ignored by the officers of the emperor they lodged an appeal directly to Constantine to have the issue judged, witnessing to the fact that the emperor was now considered the ruler of the Church as well as the State. They requested that judges be sent from Gaul, probably because they were the closest bishops likely to be impartial outsiders.
Constantine acceded in part to their request. He appointed bishops from Gaul and Italy to hear the case and gave the chairmanship to Bishop Miltiades of Rome. But the terms of the imperial decree exclude any conception of the Bishop of Rome having either peculiar authority or sole power to adjudicate. Constantine's letter is addressed to Miltiades, Bishop of the Romans, and to Merocles, Bishop of Milan. It tells of the evils of the commotion in the African Church, where the bishops are at variance among themselves. The Emperor ordered Caecilian of Carthage, with ten bishops of his side and ten of his opponents, to proceed to Rome, "that there a hearing may be granted you in the presence ... of your colleagues, whom I have ordered to hasten to Rome for this purpose."
This Council met at Rome, October 313. Fourteen Italian bishops were added. They decided that the charges against Caecilian were baseless. Constantine treated the decision as that of all the bishops, but the Donatists appealed it. Constantine must have been annoyed but he acceded to the protest by calling a larger Council of the West which met at Arles in August 314. The assembled clerics agreed with the prior decision. Even the British church was represented by three bishops.
Laws regulating sexual behaviour...
In the same year a synod at Ancyra (Ankara) in Asia Minor, concerned mainly with penalties for Christians who had deserted during the persecutions, issued two canons whose wording was not absolutely clear, against persons called alogeusamenoi, literally, "those who are guilty of irrational behavior". Modern scholars believe that they were concerned only with zoophiliacs; those who had fornicated with animals. But in the western church they were taken to refer also to homosexuals. As a result, penances designed to punish bestiality were taken as a basis for the treatment of homosexual offenders. In the east the church treated sodomy on the same basis as adultery. Punishment varied according to age; under or over twenty; single or married; and whether the offense was habitual. A regular offender over fifty years old and married was excluded from receiving the sacrament unless he was dying. This decision became the authority for all later ecclesiastical laws pertaining to the subject.
Bishop Miltiades died in January and his priest-secretary Sylvester was the new bishop of Rome, arbitrarily appointed by the emperor who announced to the elective assembly "We have chosen to approve of Sylvester as successor to Miltiades and to Peter the Apostle, as representative of Jesus the Christ". The assembled bishops were invited to endorse the emperor's choice. No objections were recorded.
Presumably at the emperor's suggestion, Sylvester was crowned like a temporal prince, the first in a long line. There followed lengthy discussions, including the emperor's supposed confession to the pope, though the story of the pope curing the emperor of leprosy is a much later fanciful conflation with no veracity.
A deal was struck. From now on the state would protect the church if the church would support the state, by becoming involved with its administration. Sylvester must have seen it as a golden opportunity, in more ways than one. So did many opportunists who joined the faith only because of the worldly opportunities afforded to those who adhered to the emperor's new belief.
Sylvester may have genuinely believed that Jesus had converted Constantine, so that the emperor could in turn convert the world. Christian baptism would flow along Roman aqueducts. Constantine himself, however, resisted baptism until he lay on his deathbed, twenty-four years later.
As James Carroll says in his book, Constantine's Sword (Houghton Mifflin 2001): "When the power of empire became joined to the ideology of the church, the empire was immediately re-cast and re-energized, and the church became an entity so different from what preceded it as to be almost unrecognizable."
Central to this perverse transformation was the image of the cross, which under Constantine became both the static instrument of Christian self-affirmation and the idolatrous symbol of deadly state power that murdered all that would not accept its salvific efficacy.
Work begins on the Vatican...
Work was begun on the Vatican hill. The Stadium of Caligula and the temple of Apollo were leveled; their stone and marble to be used for the new basilica of St. Peter. Peter's memorial was encased in blue-veined marble and covered by a canopy of stone supported by four white spiral columns. It would become the centerpiece of the basilica.
The emperor decided that all slaves could be legally freed within the sanctuary of any Christian church. All anti-church laws were revoked. Crucifixion as the supreme capital punishment was abolished. No criminal would henceforth die in the same way as Jesus the Christ had died for men's sins. Criminals were no longer to be branded on the face "because man is made in God's image".
Sunday was declared a public holiday in honor of Jesus' resurrection. Constantine offered Bishop Sylvester the imperial villa at Alba Longa outside Rome. Though Sylvester at first declined, it soon became a papal summer home, now known as Castel Gandolfo.
A supreme pontiff...
Throughout the West, Constantine decided to utilize the bishops of the church just as former Roman emperors used the pontiffs of the old Roman College of Pontiffs, the civic priests and magistrates, with the pope of Rome being supreme pontiff. All bishops were to take on civil jurisdiction and Pope Sylvester and his successors, it was decided, would have supreme civil jurisdiction over all localities in the south of the Italian peninsula.
Later a forged document purporting to be the Donation of Constantine would claim for the Pope jurisdiction over the entire western half of the empire. From this time bishops and presbyters in Rome wore the long white robes of the Roman civil service. Sylvester was suddenly the administrator of properties, wealth and estates so large that much of his time was taken up by mundane business. This was the beginning of many Papal problems of the future, when administrative, political and even military affairs often outweighed spiritual and theological concerns. The anterooms of the Lateran palace were continually full of petitioners, what we'd call lobbyists.
Too busy consolidating his position in Rome to attend the Council of Arles, Pope Sylvester sent deputies. It was the first truly representative council of bishops from several countries. Marinus bishop of Arles presided over the assembly. The Council condemned the Donatists and issued a number of canons on various points of church discipline. But the Donatists noisily went their own way, establishing rival churches. They did not recognize the emperor's appointment of bishops and held that clerical acts when performed by unworthy priests were not valid. Most bishops maintained that if the validity of the sacraments depended on the character of the officiating priest, the laity could have no assurance that they were receiving a true sacrament; and as saving Grace was believed to reach men through the sacraments, uncertainty could not be tolerated.
NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 18.1
IMAGE CREDITS: The image of St Anthony the Great used in the footer quote, part of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch was sourced from Wikipedia. The headline image was sourced from a wonderful website of mosaics: www.classicalmosaics.com/ Clicking on the images in the body of the article will take you to the original source.
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