G. K. Chesterton was a master at making plain the paradoxical character of Christianity. He knew that to stray too far to one side or another was to leave the path of orthodoxy far behind. To stay on that road was exciting, racing past the hulks of discarded heresies. “The heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.” Nowhere are these paradoxes more in evidence than in our belief in the Incarnation, that Christ is both fully God and fully man. Embracing this difficult conviction frees us from the puritanical ignominy of dualism, that subtle temptation to kick the dust from our feet of this dirty, bad, sinful world, and look only to the pure realm of the spirit. Conversely, it liberates us from an enervating utopianist materialism that sees nothing but the here and now. Our Incarnational view makes us neither cowering pessimists, nor facile optimists. It makes realists of us, knowing full well that the fruits of our faith must be made present in this material world so as make it, as far as we are able, an ally of the eternal world to come. That our salvation comes to us through matter—water, bread, wine, oil, human bodies—leads to a singular conclusion: we cannot turn our backs on this world. It is we who are called to be the material leaven in the lump.
It is with this truth in mind that we should celebrate the 1700th anniversary of the publication of the Edict of Milan by Emperor Constantine, along with his less-than-enthusiastic comrade Licinius, in February of 313, bringing toleration to the young Church. Sporadically and sometimes violently persecuted throughout the whole of its existence, Christianity had emerged miraculously victorious with Constantine’s triumph at Saxa Rubra (Milvian Bridge) in 312. Capitalizing on this achievement, the emperor wasted no time. He formally promulgated this edict of toleration, ending the persecutions in the Roman west, and rescinding the Neronian edict which had been in effect for 250 years. Constantine moved at the same time to restore all of the property stolen from the Christians, and began to build churches in North Africa. To top it off, he donated lands and buildings to the Roman Church, notably the Lateran basilica. It would be this historically-rooted truth that would underlay the later forgery called the “Donation of Constantine.”
Many throughout history have alleged that the Church made a massive error at this very moment. By consenting to the assistance of the state, it was believed that the Christians had irredeemably compromised their mission. In some circles, the Church was accused of having lost the true faith. Constantine and the nearly silent Pope St. Sylvester came to be seen as corrupt, venal, and altogether unchristian. Such a view hews close to the spiritualizers of Christianity, the open (or closeted) dualists who occasionally punctuate Church history. Conversely one is confronted with the contention of some eastern Christians that Constantine was a saint. While he could not have been more important in the course of Church history, many of his later civil and religions actions certainly give one pause. Once again we have to hew to the middle.
What can we say then about such a momentous figure? With Constantine’s victory an immense aperture was opened for access to salvation and the sacraments. The “loss of fervor” that may have accompanied the increased Christianization of the empire was greatly offset by a new army of monks and confessors, Fathers and Doctors, spreading throughout the Old World, evangelizing as they went. Such men as these brought the rites of grace to places that before were impossible to reach. Toleration by the Roman state allowed the young Church to emerge into the light, to participate in civic life, to care for the needy openly, and most of all to have the leaven of the Gospel mature in the governance of society itself.
Aided by his trusted advisor, the Spanish bishop Ossius of Cordoba, Constantine began a wholesale integration of Christianity into the public life of late antique Rome. Rome had long been a bastion of much of what was best in the human condition. Roman law stood as a monument to the virtues of equity and justice among the nations of the ancient world. Having passed through the winnowing fork of Christian principles, it remains today the basis of all law for the vast majority of the world’s peoples. What it possessed in absolute justice however, it sometimes lacked in humanity. The Christian recognition of the dignity of persons had to be amalgamated with Roman law. This is precisely what Constantine and Ossius set out to do. The authority of life and death granted to the paterfamilias (though rarely exercised) was abolished. For the first time tenants were given substantial rights against their landlords. Major physical abuse of children was forbidden. Abuse of prisoners was curtailed, including the horrible practice of branding them on the face with a hot iron. Later the emperor established Sunday as a mandatory day of rest, a law which has endured in many forms even up to the present time. Constantine also abolished the right of life and death over slaves, and encouraged their liberation by developing a simple process of manumission before the altar of a Christian church. That the emperor did not abolish slavery is true, but this issue needs the justice of a fuller consideration beyond this short article. Christianity had breathed life into the judicial forms of the Romans, so carefully worked out over centuries. Such can be the salutary effect of the Gospel on public order.
No matter how well intentioned cooperation with the civil authorities can be, sometimes it can yield mixed results. Constantine was scandalized at the divisions among Christians after his conversion. After receiving the decision of the Pope and the Council of Arles, he moved with physical force against the Donatist schismatics of North Africa, ejecting them from the churches they had illegally occupied. This was the first instance of the state intervening in favor of the Christian Church with the temporal sword. Such a precedent certainly had mixed results throughout history (with the uncomfortable converse that the temporal sword can and would be used against the Church as well). But the State and the Church must live in the same world, ideally with the state focused on the temporal goods of its people, and the Church on their spiritual good. No fundamental disjunction need exist between the two orders. The wheat and chaff are mixed until the end of time; it is our particular mission to negotiate that mystery.
Finally there can be unwarranted action by the state, brought about by an immoderate or improper reading of Christianity. Such is often the unfortunate outcome of caesaropapism (the Church subordinate to the state) which can produce a very dangerous and unbalanced situation. For some reason the great Bishop Ossius fell out of favor with Constantine in the latter 320s. After that, Constantine came more and more to be dominated by ambitious Arian bishops. During this period the emperor suffered a great personal tragedy. His young wife Fausta accused the son of his first marriage, a man named Crispus, of trying to seduce her. In a fit of rage the emperor ordered the execution of his own son and heir. Constantine’s holy mother, the great St. Helena, clearly saw that Fausta was only maneuvering for the succession of her own children. She brought Constantine clear evidence that Fausta had deceived him. Mad with grief, Constantine ordered his own wife to be suffocated to death in her bath. He then enacted a series of brutally repressive laws, in which one can see a spark of Christianity taken to terrible and inhumane levels. All brides had to be virgins. If someone seduced a virgin he was to be executed by having molten hot lead poured down his throat. Adultery was made a capital offense. Such laws, which did not endure, demonstrate the necessity of the Church in giving prudent counsel to the lawgiver, informing the law with the spirit of temperance and forgiveness. It is no wonder that St. Helena abandoned Constantine for the Holy Land after that, or that the emperor himself turned his back on Old Rome forever, and began the construction of his new capital on the Bosporus.
Constantine’s mixed history demonstrates that cooperation with the state is not an evil in itself, for both good and bad can come of it. Though Augustine was ringingly clear that the Church is not bound to any particular human society, wherever it finds itself it can and must exercise a salutary effect on the state. What we celebrate with this anniversary of the great Edict, is the beginning of the very possibility of such a beneficial symbiosis. After Constantine, Christian lawmakers and lawgivers become possible, formed by the Word of God, and schooled in the virtues and wisdom of the classical world, at the same time “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”