Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Canterbury Tale, III: Separation of Church and State, Pagan Style


As we saw in yesterday’s posting, the whole issue of separation of Church and State is key to understanding why — whether he meant to or not — Henry II had Thomas à Becket killed.  The first thing for someone of the twenty-first century to understand, however, is that “separation of Church and State” may not mean what the secular politicians and history books tell you it means.

Not lyin', have a friend for lunch.
The ancient doctrine of separation of Church and State is rooted firmly in the Roman civilization that was Christian Europe. The Romans — at times to modern eyes seeming to drift between being the quintessential individualists and the perfect collectivists — carefully divided human society into three discrete forms.

To most people today, the only “society” that exists is the civil order: the State. As far as the Romans were concerned, this was only one form of society and, in a sense, the least important of the three. Civil society was concerned with the body politic, the Res Publica (the “Public Thing”), and was supposed to stay out of the other two forms of society, the family and the temple.

Then there was, first and foremost in Roman eyes, domestic society, ruled over by the Pater Familias, the “Father of the Family.” Domestic society — the family — in Roman society was the basis for everything. The family was both a civil and a religious body distinct from the State and the temple. A family had its own “household gods” — its domestic religion (making the “domestic church” more than a catch phrase) — and its own legal code, almost inevitably unwritten, but very real and supported by an immense weight of tradition.

The Pater Familias was thus, within the confines of the family, both head of a mini-State and the chief priest. In theory the power of the Pater Familias was so great that he could assemble a “domestic court” and try members of his familia (the nuclear family, ancillary relations, and slaves) for crimes against the family, whether domestic or religious (there frequently being no real difference between the two).

Until the influence of Christianity and, to some degree, Stoicism, became pervasive, the Pater Familias could act as accuser, judge, jury — and executioner. Some of the most famous stories in Rome’s admittedly somewhat mythical history involved the Pater Familias executing a disobedient son or daughter, while the punishments meted out to “bad” slaves were often ferocious in their savagery. The only check on the power of the Pater Familias was social pressure.



The Divine Augustus
Nor could the State or religious authorities interfere. Once while attending a banquet, Augustus Caesar — head of both Church and State — was only able to stop the execution of a slave who had accidentally broken a valuable goblet by instantly doing the same thing himself. The owner had the domestic right to do anything he liked to his clumsy slave — but Augustus’s quick thinking made it clear that the owner would no longer be a “friend of Caesar” if he did so.



Next was “religious society,” that which over the gods ruled directly, which we understand today as “Church.” As far as the Romans were concerned, anything that came directly under some god or other was the purview of the priests, the heads of each discrete religious society or “temple.” The games, for example, had to be opened by a priest, because they were ostensibly in honor of the gods. Foreign relations, because they involved relations between the people of one god to the people of another god, were handled by a special class of priests, as were a host of other things that we today simply assume should come under the State.



Crimes within religious society in the Roman view properly came under the jurisdiction of the temples. If someone committed what would ordinarily be considered a civil crime within the precincts of a temple, he was tried in a temple court. Similarly, if a priest committed a crime, he was either tried in a temple court, or stripped of his priesthood and tried in civil court.



A plethora of priests in procession.
Because certain functions of the head of State were thus construed as “religious,” the head of State had to be a priest. Since he was civil head of the Roman people, it made sense (to the Romans) that he should also be religious head of the Roman people. Hence Caesar was usually named Chief Priest of the Republic, or Pontifex Maximus — “Great Bridge Builder” between the gods and man, and primary intercessor for the common good and the needs of the “Public Thing,” the Res Publica. Oddly enough to modern understanding, most of the Caesars tried to keep religious and civil affairs separate — civil society and religious society were considered two distinct things, and the orderly Roman mind refused to mix them.

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