History clarifies and history challenges for the Catholic Church

May 25, 2021

It was a strange conversation. A friend who was, at that time, an American archbishop had congratulated me on an academic promotion. He slapped me on the back in his customary gung ho way and said: “You are a smart guy, a theologian, but remember that I have something you don’t have.”

“I have sacred power,” he continued. “I say the words over bread and wine. At once, bingo, Jesus Christ is right there on the altar in front of me. We bishops call it apostolic succession. I have power over bread and wine. I have power over people as well. I can fire laymen, even theologians like you, if I think they are heretics or disobedient. Just like that, I say the word and bingo they are out and finished.” He slapped me on the back again and laughed. I was flabbergasted…and very happy I didn’t work in his diocese. The archbishop’s sense of power resonated far more with Constantine the Emperor than with Jesus the Christ.

Constantine & Helena:

Constantine (c.272 – 337) and his mother Helena (c.246 – c.330), also known as “Saint Helena,” left big marks on Christianity. Most of those marks were hardly blessings. Thanks to Constantine, authority and power in the church took on a very different meaning – very far from what they had meant for the historical Jesus.

Jesus never exercised power over people. He empowered people to live and act responsibly: loving God and loving their neighbors. Jesus exercised authority; but his authority was not one of control but one of influence: an invitation and an encouragement for people to believe and live as compassionate and caring people.

During the thirty years of Constantine’s reign as Roman Emperor (306 – 337) more changes took place in the status, structure, and beliefs of the Christian Church than had occurred in its first three centuries. Ironically in 306 when Constantine became Emperor, the Roman imperial government had been involved in a major effort to remove all traces of Christian presence from the empire. By the time Constantine died in 337, however,  Christianity was well on its way to becoming THE religion of the empire. Christian leaders had assumed the rank, dress, and duties of the old Imperial Roman civil elite.

Before the 4th century ended, the tables had been turned completely. Traditional  pagan sacrifices had been outlawed and the old Roman state cults forbidden. Constantine’s mother Helena did her best to go shopping for Christian artifacts and pilgrimage sites for the new imperial Christian religion. Constantine appointed her the Augusta Imperatrix and gave her unlimited access to the imperial treasury in order to locate important Christian objects and places.

Thanks to Helena’s efforts and her well-paid enterprising “researchers,” she discovered all kinds of amazing things. In Egypt, for example, she located and ordered the construction of a church at the site of Moses’ legendary Burning Bush. There in the 13th century BCE God had asked him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and into Canaan, the Promised Land. (Exodus 3:1 – 4:17)

Helena’s expertise however was primarily in Christian discoveries, many of which are now considered mistaken or simply imaginative suppositions. They did indeed have a powerful impact back then. Powerful impact was exactly what the imperial son, Constantine, wanted and needed to establish his Imperial Christianity

Helena found, for example, the exact location of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. It became a major pilgrimage site. Most of today’s biblical scholars, however, would strongly suggest that Jesus was more likely born in Nazareth. It was the belief that Jesus was a descendant of King David that led to the development of the creative biblical narrative about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.

Foremost among the religious artifacts that Helena discovered were the bones of the legendary “three wise men,” Jesus’ crown of thorns, and the “true cross” on which Jesus was crucified. Her tour guides, probably with a good tip from Helena,  helped her discover, as well, the exact location where Jesus’ body was buried and the exact location in Jerusalem where the Resurrected Jesus ascended into heaven.

Historians in the fifth century claimed that Helena had also found the nails used in Jesus’ crucifixion. To use their miraculous powers to aid her son, she had placed one nail in Constantine’s helmet and another nail in his horse’s bridle.

Constantine a Believer:

Getting back to Helena’s son Constantine, one really needs to ask how “sincere” Constantine’s conversion had been. Was he in truth a devout son of the church, or was he rather a political mastermind who grabbed the power he could gain by subordinating and using a well-organized and doctrinaire institutional church? He certainly had a powerful influence over the bishops at the Council of Nicaea. Many contemporary scholars would suggest Constantine’s main objective was to gain unanimous approval and submission to his authority from all classes, and therefore chose the growing and widespread population of Christians to conduct his political campaign. Scholars debate whether Constantine adopted his mother Helena’s Christianity in his youth, or whether he adopted it gradually over the course of his life. Some doubt that he was ever really a Christian. He was not baptized until on his deathbed.

Imperial Christianity:

In 313 Constantine had issued the Edict of Milan. The edict stopped the persecution of Christians and launched a period in which Constantine began granting favors to the Christian Church and its members. He truly created what one could call “Imperial Christianity.” After his death in 337, Constantine’s influence continued to grow and was strongly felt.

It came as no great surprise, therefore, in 380 when the Emperor Theodosius (347 – 395) made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire. The Bishop of Rome, starting already with Pope Damasus I in 366, had already become an authoritarian monarch. The institutional church took over the Roman governmental structure, with dioceses, and the Roman imperial court liturgy, remnants of which one still finds in Vatican ceremonials.

Imperial Christians forgot the message of Jesus the Prince of Peace. Christian militarism became strong and fearsome. Under Imperial Christianity, bishops adopted as well a changed ministerial focus. The compassionate service and humility of the historical Jesus were replaced by a hardened framework of entrenched, and occasionally cruel, authoritarianism.

Bishops began to stress that disobedience to them amounted to disobedience to God. The official sanction for disobeying a priest or a judge was death. Bishops were both priests and judges. Christian bishops in fact became regional judges, ordering the execution of those who were disobedient or criminals. A clerical culture anchored in strong clerical power became well established.

Women under Imperial Christianity were edged to the sidelines and denigrated. It was all so clearly contrary to the life and witness of Jesus of Nazareth and the important roles women had played in his life and in the lives of first century Christians.

A great many Imperial Christian “Church Fathers,” became outspoken misogynists. Consider, for example, St. John Chrysostom (c. 347 – 407) who became the Archbishop of Constantinople in the autumn of 397. Called the “golden mouthed” he said: “It does not profit a man to marry.” Then he explained why: “For what is a woman but an enemy of friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a domestic danger, delectable mischief, a fault in nature, painted with beautiful colors?…The whole of her body is nothing less than phlegm, blood, bile, rheum and the fluid of digested food … If you consider what is stored up behind those lovely eyes, the angle of the nose, the mouth and the cheeks you will agree that the well-proportioned body is only a whitened sepulchre.” Golden mouthed?

Today:

Today we still experience the reverberations of Imperial Christianity. Clericalism remains a problematic issue. (Sometimes I think many of the younger clergy are more rigidly clerical than the older generation.) We have a church hierarchically and qualitatively divided into laypeople, at the bottom, and the ordained, on top.

Thinking about ”lay” and “ordained,” I found Pope Francis’ May 11th Apostolic Letter, titled Antiquum Ministerium (“The Ancient Ministry.”) very interesting. The letter establishes the “lay ministry” of catechist. I am not certain whether the document accurately reflects Pope Francis’ theology or that of his Vatican-approved ghost writer. It sends, however, a mixed message.

Antiquum Ministerium begins with a welcomed reminder that Christians in the early apostolic communities operated with great creativity in exercising and sharing ministerial roles. They formed one egalitarian community that promoted a variety of ministerial roles. Everyone sharing an equal status as members of the Body of Christ.

I was surprised to see that by the end of Antiquum Ministerium, however, one of the concepts that the new papal document clearly safeguards is the strict dualism of clergy and laity, that had been codified with great institutional rigidity in the 16th century Council of Trent.

Rather than make all the baptized faithful co-sharers in the work of catechesis, as was the practice in the early Christian communities,  Antiquum Ministerium reinforces the segregation of clerical (sacred) ministry and “lay ministry.” The bishop is still explicitly designated as the “primary catechist.” Lay people are seen once again as helpers of the clergy. They are called to engage in “cooperation in the apostolate of the hierarchy.”

In reality, the ministry of catechist does not need to be defined as a “lay ministry.” It is simply a form of Christian ministry shared and exercised by all members of the church. We are all catechists, some more specifically engaged in that ministry than others. For a good fifteen years, I was once upon a time a very actively engaged catechist in high school and parish ministry. As an historical theologian today my catechetical ministry continues but in a different form and context.

Changing Structures:

In today’s church we need to not just say nice words. We need to make changes in structures. We will not move beyond the virus of Constantine’s Imperial Christianity, with its distorted ecclesiology, until we shift from a polarizing authoritarian leadership model to a dialogical communitarian model. It can happen.

We need to understand and affirm an important clarification about ordination. The historical Jesus did not establish ordination. No one at the Last Supper was ordained. The early men and women who presided at celebrations of Eucharist were not ordained. Ordination, starting somewhere around the year 100, began as a way for Christians to insure and promote qualified and credible leaders. One could say it was a form of quality control. It was created by the church not by the historical Jesus.The ordained had community approval. They were competent and trustworthy.

Under Imperial Christianity, however, ordination gradually came to be understood as a power and control mechanism, in a segregated society of “ordained” and “lay.” As the archbishop, mentioned above, liked to remind me, I have a doctorate in theology but remain “just a layman.” He had sacred powers which in the hierarchic society elevated him above the common “layperson.”

The words laity and lay come from the Middle English lai, meaning “uneducated.” They ultimately come from the Greek lāikós, meaning “of the common people.” Perhaps we really should just stop using these words. I am a theologian not a “lay theologian.” And there are catechists not “lay catechists.”

Fortunately, understandings do change. History does clarify. History does challenge. People today should be encouraged to move forward. Our encouragement comes from knowing that the Spirit of Christ has not abandoned us and that the challenge is now in our hands — to study, to collaborate, to structure, to reform, and to re-structure according to changing human needs and growth in human understanding.

Early Christians did a lot of structuring and restructuring in the days before Constantine. We can do it today as well. We do need to work together. Praying and working for unity and reconciliation for all in the church.

A contemporary perspective is important. We are not in an ecclesiastical doom scenario. Restructuring is already happening. New church configurations ARE evolving. We may not yet have a clear idea of where the development will take us. I believe it will be good.

On this Pentecost 2021 weekend, I suggest we also need to remember that unity does not mean the uniformity and rigidity, which was Constantine’s approach. The Spirit of Christ gives simultaneously unity and diversity within that unity. In Acts 2:5–11 we read about Christians from a variety of countries, speaking a variety of languages and yet “we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Unity and diversity are not a contradiction. They are our richness.

There is great diversity among Christians today. There will be great diversity tomorrow. May we all be supportive collaborators: removing walls of polarization in our churches that protect misogyny, clerical hegemony, homophobia, racism, and antisemitism.

This article first published in Jack’ May 21, 2021 blog, Another Voice.

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