Monday, January 5, 2015

Canterbury Tale, IV: Separation of Church and State, Christian Style


Last year (we couldn’t resist saying it that way) we looked at how the Romans viewed separation of Church and State.  We begin this year by looking at how things changed with the coming of Christianity.

The One, the Only ... Julius Caesar!
Formerly Caesar — the emperor — had been head of both Church and State. Christianity, however, shares a distinction with Judaism in that its God is a “jealous god.” That is, there is no question that a Christian or a Jew (or, later, a Muslim) could accept the head of another religion as head of his religion — which meant that Caesar as Pontifex Maximus had no authority to act as religious head of the Jewish people or, later, of any Christians.

That, as we know, caused problems. The Romans granted the Jews the special privilege of not having to recognize the Roman Pontifex Maximus as head of Judaism. This was, at first, extended to include Christians, considered initially to be nothing more than another type of Jew. When it became clear, however, that Judaism and Christianity had parted ways, Christians were considered traitors. Most Romans, even the emperors themselves, didn’t really believe that Caesar was a god (As the cynical Vespasian was dying, Suetonius (The Twelve Caesars) relates that he said, “Puto dues fio” — “I believe I am turning into a god.” De Vita Caesarum, Divus Vespasianus, XXIII, 3.) — but they believed that the social order could only be properly maintained by enforcing the cult of the emperor and worship of the Roman State, personified by the goddess Roma.

Refusing to burn a little incense to the emperor (whether or not you believed that the old fool on the throne really was a god) meant that you were an enemy of the social order, and thus an enemy of the human race. When we consider today that we are forced to accept widespread abortion or, formerly, slavery due to the effect that its unilateral abolition would have on the social order, we can understand why the early Christians were persecuted with such cruelty.



Pius XI, P.M.
Understand, yes — but not accept. Again, when faced with a condition of society in which intolerable wrongs are made possible by our institutions, the proper response is not to attack or destroy those institutions and, consequently, the social order that relies on those institutions for its maintenance. Instead, what we must do is precisely what Pius XI told us to do: organize for the common good, and reform (restructure) our institutions so that they once again function within acceptable parameters.



If that were not enough, Christianity claims to have its own chief priest, the successor of Saint Peter, the personally named Vicar of Christ on Earth. The pope is thus in Christian belief divinely appointed — that is, holding the office of Pontifex Maximus by divine right, not because the Legions had elected him and the Senate and the People of Rome had confirmed him.



That meant that Caesar, whatever his claims with respect to other religions, could not be head of the Christian religion. Not being head of the Christian religion, Caesar had no authority whatsoever in purely Church affairs. As far as Christianity was concerned, however many titles and earthly honors a man might have, it meant nothing for either Church doctrine or discipline.



We were going to use the statue of his foot, but this looks better.
Naturally this did not sit well with the Caesars. Constantine the Great evidently couldn’t help interfering in Church affairs. He did this to such effect that when the center of Roman power shifted to Byzantium and was further infected with eastern civil and religious despotism, so-called Caesaro-papism became a serious problem.



In the west, with its claim to be the legitimate heirs of the Roman regnum (especially from the days of Charlemagne) the problem was not quite as serious, but still bad enough. The only check on the drift to Caesaro-papism in the west was the fact that the western emperors (the “Holy Roman Emperors”) usually needed the support of the pope against the active hostility of the Byzantine Emperor — whose claim to the Roman regnum was at least as valid as theirs.[1]

The Beginning of the End: Manzikert, 1071.
When the power of the Byzantine Empire began its rapid decline after the Dreadful Day of Manzikert in 1071, the Holy Roman Emperors no longer needed the support of the papacy quite as much — and not at all after 1453, when the “Queen City” of Constantinople fell to the Turks. As we might expect, civil rulers in the west began asserting the supremacy of the temporal order over the Church. This, as we already hinted, reached its immediate climax with the Guelph and Ghibbeline struggle. The other princes of the earth were quick to follow the lead of the emperor, considered the temporal head of Christendom, as the pope was the spiritual head.

The ultimate climax, of course, was the Reformation. Because of his authority in matters of faith and morals, the primary target of all the reformers was the pope, regardless of the specific point of disagreement. Unfortunately for the cause of human liberty, the pope (who at times might be a very bad man indeed) also happened to be the only effective counter to the claims of civil rulers over the whole of society, whether civil, domestic, or religious. All the polemics about the presumed tyranny of the popes begin to sound a little hollow once we realize that the princes of men — the rulers of civil society — desperately wanted absolute power, and (in classic form) had to make the only thing standing between them and the realization of their goal sound more evil than the goal.

Henry VIII: Spent 1,000 years of wealth in 5 years.
Ranking close after the pope, of course, were the rights, privileges, and immunities of the Church herself. Naturally the most obvious manifestation of this was the property of the Church. Without property, the Church would have had no power to protect itself against the inroads of the civil authority. “Power” as Daniel Webster observed, “naturally and necessarily follows property,” and nowhere was this more evident than in Medieval Europe. In order for the princes of men to reign supreme on earth, the Church must be stripped of its power — and that meant stripping it of its property. The fact that this meant that the civil rulers got a delightful little dividend in the form of an immense influx of wealth (usually squandered within the space of a few short years) simply moved things along more rapidly.

It was against this background and with this history in mind that the drama related in Benson’s short book was acted out. An attack on any right, privilege, or immunity of the Church was not only an attack on the social order, but could (and did) lead to the virtual overthrow of a sanely ordered society — or so a man like Archbishop Thomas of Canterbury would have believed as firmly as it is possible to believe anything. The actual right was unimportant; what mattered was the fact that it was a right — and the civil authority had no power whatsoever to interfere in that right.

#30#


[1] The Venetian Republic attained the status of world power by playing the claims of the Holy Roman Emperor off against the Byzantine Basilius — and vice versa.

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