Merging Church and State: Day 3 in Rome

On our third day in Rome, we visited the following sites:

  • Vatican: Having spent eight years in South Bend, Indiana, and having earned two doctoral degrees at the University of Notre Dame, we have come to deeply appreciate the Catholic tradition. So we were delighted to learn that our visit to Rome coincided with one of Pope Francis’s papal audiences that he holds every Wednesday at 10 a.m. in St. Peter’s Square—at least when he’s in town. Even though we’re not Catholic ourselves, it felt like we could legitimately include this as part of our pilgrimage.
  • Milvian Bridge: Our next stop was at Milvian Bridge. The historical context is that Rome had twenty-six rulers in forty-nine years. Most of them met with violent ends. Diocletian introduced the idea of tetrarchy in order to stabilize conditions. He divided the empire into two halves, each governed by a senior emperor and a junior emperor. But rivalries and ambition derailed the system, and Constantine, one of the young aspiring emperors, moved his army of 40,000 Gauls toward Rome from the north to engage the 100,000 soldiers of Maxentius.

Maxentius could have easily outwaited Constantine’s siege. But he misapplied an oracle. Wrote the historian Lactantius. “He ordered the Sibylline books to be inspected; in these it was discovered that ‘on that day the enemy of the Romans would perish.’ Led by this reply to hope for victory, Maxentius marched out to battle.”

Constantine too felt inspired by the divine. According to Lactantius, “Constantine was advised in a dream to mark the heavenly sign of God on the shields of his soldiers and then engage in battle. He did as he was commanded and by means of a slanted letter X with the top of its head bent round, he marked Christ on their shields. Armed with this sign, the army took up its weapons.” (44.5) He was, he said, wondering to himself what the manifestation might mean; then, while he meditated, and thought long and hard, night overtook him. Thereupon, as he slept, the Christ of God appeared to him with the sign which had appeared in the sky, and urged him to make himself a copy of the sign which had appeared in the sky, and to use this a protection against the attacks of the enemy” (1.28).

The historian Eusebius narrated it like this: “About the time of the midday sun, when day was just turning, he [Constantine] said he saw with his own eyes, up in the sky and resting over the sun, a cross-shaped trophy formed from light, and a text attached to it which said, ‘By this conquer’. Amazement at the spectacle seized both him and the whole company of soldiers which was then accompanying him on a campaign he was conducting somewhere, and witnessed the miracle.”

Then the battle happened. On October 28, 312 CE, Maxentius’s forces attempted to retreat across the Tiber by way of the Milvian Bridge, but the bridge quickly became overcrowded. As Lactantius records in De Mortibus Persecutorum, or The Deaths of the Persecutors, “the army of Maxentius was seized with terror, and he himself fled in haste to the bridge which had been broken down; pressed by the mass of fugitives, he was hurtled into the Tiber” (44.9 ). According to Eusebius, Constantine then “rode into Rome with songs of victory, and together with women and tiny children, all the members of the Senate and citizens of the highest distinction in other spheres, and the whole populace of Rome, turned out in force and with shining eyes and all their hearts welcomed him as deliverer, savior, and benefactor, singing his praises with insatiate joy.” (HE 294)

Given my own theological orientation, I question whether God enabled Constantine’s military career or victory. But there is no question of this battle’s significance: It merged church and state. Given some things I learned in my research, I’ve softened my critique somewhat. The moderating influence of Christianity, for example, tamped down the excesses and atrocities at the Colosseum. And according to the historian Edward Gibbon, Christianity “instilled “patience and pusillanimity” until the “last remains of the military spirit were buried in the cloister.” And the Edict of Milan in 313 CE did not mandate Christian faith, as I had thought. Instead, it proclaimed that “Christians and all other men should be allowed full freedom to subscribe to whatever form of worship they desire, so that whatever divinity may be on the heavenly throne may be well disposed and propitious to us, and to all placed under us.”

Nevertheless, the new Christendom, in my opinion, was not a positive development on balance. Many sectors of the Church lost their peace tradition and deemphasized ethics taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The “Constantinian shift,” as I heard it termed in my Anabaptist childhood, was at the least unfortunate—and at most, catastrophic. As a believer in invitational, not coercive, religion—along with the free exercise and establishment clauses in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution—I hold that state and church should be separate. Clergy should not be relieved from paying taxes, as Constantine decreed. Grand basilicas should not be funded by the empire. Christian prayer should not be privileged in schools or at city council meetings. And crosses belong in churches, not on water towers.

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