wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Norman Cantor

The Meaning of the Middle Ages

The ideas and opinions of a few great thinkers of the fourth and early fifth centuries molded the outlook of the medieval western (Latin) Church. The term is old fashioned, but St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine were in a real sense 'Fathers' of the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages. In the same period Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, friend and advisor to the Emperor Constantine, and one of the Fathers of the Greek Church, also exercised a strong influence on the development of western Christianity.

Medieval Christians did not always follow the teachings of the fourth-century Fathers (although most of them claimed that they did), but the authority of these men remained second only to that of the Bible. Among thirteenth-century scholars, for example, a reference to St. Augustine was almost as unimpeachable as a quotation from Scripture, although (like Biblical quotations) it might be answered by reference from the same source that proved the opposite. The Church Fathers were men of great sophistication, and their writings wove various strands of thought into the Christian synthesis. Their ideas were not always consistent: they could be arranged along a spectrum more easily than a closed circle, but they shared a great many important assumptions.

Any society has groups that can be identified with prevailing social patterns and institutions and others which oppose or defy the Establishment. The Roman Empire of the third century had its critics and enemies, including Jews, nationalistic groups from the eastern Mediterranean, and certain Romans of ancient aristocratic families who had never accepted the rule of the Caesars. The largest and most important group in opposition to the Empire (or at least unconvinced that it was the best of all possible worlds and the end of history) was that of the Christians, who had serious reservations about Roman morality and political philosophy.

The differences between Christianity and imperial Rome were implicit from the beginning of the Christian era, but churchmen tended to avoid direct confrontation with the imperial authorities—partly because they lacked the wherewithal to defy the Empire, and partly because they believed sincerely that the end of the world was at hand. Christ said 'Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's,' and the early Christians avoided challenging Roman ethics, believing that Caesar would not be able to enjoy his worldly Possessions very long. St. Paul was concerned that Christians should have the opportunity to proselytize, to gain converts, under the Empire; he did not want to risk the destruction of his infant Church by a direct challenge to Caesar. 'The powers that be are ordained by God, and be ye in subjection to the higher powers.'

By the end of the second century A.D., however, Christians were no longer convinced that the end of the world was necessarily imminent and that pagan culture could be ignored. Tertullian (a North African bishop) uttered statements of serious dissent from Roman power and classical culture. Confrontations increased, and in the third century there were great persecutions of Christians throughout the Empire.

Very suddenly, with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine early in the fourth century, the once-persecuted became the victors and the religious, social, and intellectual atmosphere of the Empire underwent rapid and profound transformation. Constantine became the great benefactor of the Christian Church—now a prosperous, fashionable institution with flocks of new adherents. Church membership was dangerous to an ambitious man in 300; by 315 (in the West at least), it was advantageous. Significant intellectual adjustment was required, as churchmen moved into positions of influence where they were supported and protected by the emperor and the imperial family. Understandably, certain clerics saw the emperor as a man of destiny who came from the North to conquer Rome and redeem the Church from persecution. These men regarded the conversion of Constantine as the most wonderful event since the Resurrection, and they were not likely to criticize the Christian Empire. Their attitude was one of accommodation: they believed in the identification of Church and Empire. Christians had always preached that the individual soul was all-important, that the kingdom of God was within—and their cooperation with the state was in one sense a betrayal of their highest ideals. In the light of the events of the fourth century, however, it is understandable.

Eusebius, advisor to Constantine and chief spokesman for the newly-established Church, explained that Christ's birth in the reign of Augustus proved that Church and Empire were partners. Born at the same time, the two institutions would coexist in triumph until the Second Coming. Eusebius and his colleagues sanctified the Empire, and they were as lavish in support of the state as the Christian emperor had been generous to the Church. These fourth-century churchmen gave moral and religious sanction to imperial rule; priests and bishops preached the divine appointment of the emperor and his representatives to rule Christians. The emperor was regarded as the image of God in this world, as close to God as anyone on earth can be, and this made it difficult for a Christian to criticize the emperor or his lieutenants. All the conservative implications in the political teachings of St. Paul were revived and stressed in the doctrine that opposition to the established authorities is religious error as well as treason: to resist the ruler is to resist God. This became the predominant belief of fourth-century churchmen, and it still is expressed by churchmen who appear at public functions to sanctify and bless the power and prestige of the state. From this turning-point in the fourth century grew sixteen centuries of tradition, so that it is still the norm of priestly conduct (and also of ministerial and rabbinical conduct) to support, serve, and sanctify authority.

Churchmen such as Eusebius, who actually lived through the period of persecution before Constantine, showed real fervor in the sanctification of the Christian state. Opposition or indifference to the state would have required a view of public authority as immoral or amoral machinery, but the men who committed the Church to identification with the state believed that the Christian Empire was ordained by God. They certainly did not have the point of view (or the necessary fanaticism) to refuse the imperial favor until they could be sure that the emperor ruled according to the precepts of Christianity. Constantine did, in fact, establish a degree of peace and order, but he was also a violent and angry man who had his own wife and son put to death during a fit of anger. Churchmen asked God to forgive the emperor, but they did not renounce his gifts or step forward in public dissent. The Church was joined to the state without regard to the personal character of the emperor or his public policy, and even when churchmen like St. Ambrose quarrelled publicly with the emperor later in the fourth century, they did so when the ruler hurt the Church and not when he hurt ordinary people.