Calling attention to specific dates, such as 1789 and 1914, is a necessary means of underlining major developments in the history of the world. Nevertheless, further study regularly indicates that men require much more time before they can properly digest the changes that such dates do indeed foretell. Rather than summing up the full import of the intellectual, spiritual, political, and social revolutions to follow, what they really point to is the end of the beginning of a new era long in preparation and still pregnant with many more questions for the future.
Such is the case with the so-called “Edict of Milan” of the Christian Constantine and the pagan Licinius in 313, issued hot on the heels of their joint victory over their rival, the persecutor Maxentius. The exact form this measure took is presented to us in somewhat different ways by the early Christian historians Lactantius (c. 240-c. 320) and Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263-339). Whatever its shape actually was, it confirmed that liberation for Christians that had begun two years earlier with Galerius’ resigned admission of the failure of the policy of harassment in the eastern part of the Empire. Freedom to worship and to possess property for Christian purposes was awarded the faithful, while goods that had been confiscated were ordered returned. But what this all really meant was going to take a long time to grasp. In fact, if the truth be told, it still is not fully appreciated in the Year of Grace 2013, and by believers and non-believers alike.
Still, as indicated above, the Edict of Milan did clearly mark the end of the beginning—the beginning of that radically new phenomenon called a “relationship” between Church and State. This was so startling an innovation—and how could it not have been so, brought about as it was by the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity as Jesus Christ, the God-Man—that the Roman State had fumbled for almost three hundred years trying to figure out some coherent way to respond to it.
In many respects, the Empire did not tackle its task that badly. The imperial authorities recognized the dependency of the commonwealth upon the good will of religious-minded men and women, and wanted no troubles with the gods as such. Once they understood that Christians were distinct from Jewish zealots in full revolt against Roman rule, they recognized that believers were actually law-abiding individuals upon whom no ordinary criminal accusations could be pinned. Many of the state authorities’ best instincts told them to leave these wretches to their “superstition” without interference.
But the new reality the Christians represented was just too much for the pagan community as a whole peacefully to bear. How could pagan magistrates easily comprehend the idea of a religious force organized in a supranational body of an army-like quality truly separate from the State and eager to evangelize not just a single city or ethnic group but the whole of the imperial population? How could they grasp the mentality of a Faith that would not accept and enjoy nature “as it really was ,” but wished to judge its “flaws” and supposedly correct them? And how could they consistently resist the pressure to crush these “haters of mankind” that came from defenders of “the ways of the ancestors,” Roman and non-Roman, high born and low, the Empire over? Hence, the periodic outbursts of persecution that struck at believers whom magistrates knew to be the easiest of men to rule in every normal respect.
With the Edict of Milan all this centuries long fumbling came to an end. That end was a dramatic one not because it called a halt to the persecution of Christians, welcome though this cessation of hostilities obviously was to those who had suffered from its ravages. It was really dramatic because it gave official state recognition to the existence of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, as a legitimate and different kind of social entity. Something “other,” claiming to have its roots in a world beyond and above nature, was given droit de cité. A greater theoretical blow to the entire earth-bound pagan mentality cannot be imagined.
Very swiftly, many of the longer-term consequences of this death knell began to be felt, apparently demonstrating the growing influence of the Christian “body” and mentality upon the State. Not only was the Church allowed to own property; the Emperor Constantine himself began to augment her holdings considerably, as, for example, through the grant of the properties around the Lateran. Not only did bishops now become respected imperial personages, with highborn men from the senatorial aristocracy gradually aspiring to enter the ranks of the episcopacy; diocesan courts and the validity of their judgments were soon given imperial approval as well. Even ordinary priests were awarded the privileges of local notables. Not only was the weekly Christian holy day made into an Empire-wide festival, but, belying the Edict of Milan’s claim to offer a general “religious liberty,” pagan religious practices began, bit by bit, to be circumscribed as “superstitions,” and all this in Constantine’s own lifetime.
Unfortunately, other things were happening during the reign of that same Emperor indicating that the full significance of the existence of a truly “separate,” supernaturally grounded Christian body and mentality had by no means yet been digested by the State. Constantine’s support for a revision of the Council of Nicaea’s anti-Arian definition of the Son as being of the same substance as the Father is, of course, the chief case in point. It was one thing granting the clergy special benefits when they could be handed secular administrative responsibilities that laymen in the late Empire were fleeing as intolerable burdens along with them. It was quite another treating prelates with respect when they might use their supposedly favored and independent positions to oppose the imperial will. For as real as the recognition of the separate role of the Mystical Body of Christ in the Edict of Milan may have been on the theoretical level, that separate function was still looked upon as one that must be guided by the State and for the narrowly perceived political well-being of the State.
To give to Constantine and his successors down to 2013 their proper due, this attitude is understandable and, in effect, “comes along with the job.” Weighing, measuring, and submitting to supernatural guidance always requires serious effort for all of us in each and every one of our natural daily activities. This can be especially problematic when we realize that that guidance that we as believers must acknowledge comes at the hands of men who themselves have their own temptations to misuse their vocations and can therefore badly muddle their work as transmitters of Christ’s message.
Quite frankly, as far as I am concerned, the biggest obstacle to digestion of the full meaning of the Edict of Milan and the consequences this should have for the transformation of all things in Christ—right down to the present—has always been the failure of the episcopacy to do its job properly. From the very outset, all too many prelates whose chief “job hazard” and flaw ought to have been that of exaggerating the power of the Church have dedicated themselves to weakening ecclesiastical authority.
Some of these “court bishops,” such as that Eusebius of Nicomedia (d. 341) who stirred up the Arian revision movement in the first place, may have been fundamentally concerned with heretical principles. Nevertheless, they clearly understood how the State machinery could be mobilized against the free action of the Church as a whole. They provided a model for that horde of prelates who joined in the ecclesiastical destruction game for the sake of personal riches and glory and made the whole of the fourth century one long and unnecessary battle to return (admittedly in enriched form) to the original Nicaean formula.
Particularly disturbing is the damage done by more well-meaning court bishops. Eusebius, the Bishop of Caesarea (c. 263-339) and the first great Church historian, stands at the head of the list of offenders in this regard. He, whatever his personal Arian convictions, seems to have been motivated much more by awe before the fact that a Roman Emperor with the age-old majesty of the Imperial State behind him, now called himself a Christian. This awe led him to create an aura surrounding the “Christian Emperor” that was crucial to the transformation of his responsibility from one of simple protection of the Pax Christi—a difficult enough task—to that of playing an unacceptable “apostolic” role in shaping it. Eusebius expressly rejected discussing anything in his Vita of Constantine that could be unedifying from a Christian standpoint, even though the full story might have sent the orthodox believer hunting for a much more certain shield and buckler. Having assured us of Constantine’s beneficence by suppressing any evidence that might contradict its validity, he then moved on, in the Laudes, delivered on the thirtieth anniversary of the Emperor’s reign in 335, to set a tone in praise of the faith-friendly ruler destined for a long history of imitation down to the present day. One passage from Johannes Quasten’s Patrology reveals the attendant problems neatly:
“Eusebius begins with the assurance that he intends to avoid any display of rhetoric. He believes that the Emperor is a human being set apart from other human beings in that he is ‘perfect in wisdom, in goodness, in justice, in courage, in piety, in devotion to God: the Emperor truly and he alone is a philosopher, for he knows himself, and he is fully aware that an abundance of every blessing is showered on him from a source quite external to himself, even from heaven itself.’ Eusebius compares him to the sun: ‘Thus our Emperor, like the radiant sun, illuminates the most distant subjects of his empire through the presence of his Caesars, as with the far piercing rays of his own brightness.’ His Empire is ‘the imitation of the monarchical power in heaven,’ because he has consciously modeled his government after that in heaven” (Johannes Quasten, Patrology, III, 326-327).
To paraphrase a line from the old film Cool Hand Luke, “what we have here is a failure to communicate”—in this case, a failure to communicate the true path to that corrective and transformative impact of the Church on the State that the Edict of Milan ought to have made possible in practice as well as in theory. Eusebius of Caesarea was a “court bishop” of the most dangerous sort—most dangerous because he actually believed in the error that he was communicating. He told the imperial State that called itself Christian that its mere “words” ensured the victory of the Word Incarnate. Unfortunately, he was but the first of many such prelates. Future court bishops would serve the interests of national monarchies on the one hand and democratic “Catholic” political parties on the other, granting the same twisted “apostolic powers” to their “Most Christian Systems” that Eusebius awarded to his. In our own time and place similar prelates promote the cause of supposedly God-fearing Founding Fathers who were really servants of the anti-Catholic Whig Enlightenment.
The Edict of Milan was indeed only “the end of the beginning” in terms of the history of the complex relationship of Church and State. Still, let us not allow a recognition of the problems that continued to trouble the interaction of these two institutions after A.D. 313 to tempt us to the conclusion that the collaboration of the earthly political authority with that of the Mystical Body of Christ necessarily weakened and corrupted the Church’s liberating spiritual mission. One might just as well use recognition of the inevitable difficulties of harmonizing the exercise of parental and ecclesiastical authority as an excuse for calling for the separation of Church and Family.
No, the Edict of Milan was “the end of the beginning” of something more than a simple revelation of the pains involved with struggling towards eternal life in a sin-stained valley of tears. It was also “the end of the beginning” of the construction of that magnificent society that we call Christendom. Construction of that new social order had begun the moment that the Apostles, Apostolic Fathers, and their successors understood that our earthly environment was meant to be corrected and transformed through the message and grace of the Incarnation, thereby providing us a training ground for Heaven as opposed to Hell. Plans were laid intellectually and even carried through practically, to a certain narrow degree, within the precarious Catholic enclaves of the pre-Constantinian world. But the Edict proved to be the crucial step by means of which “Christendom” left its parochial clubhouse to conquer the public spaces of the world at large. And the rest is history.