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A fateful anniversary

A brief story from Vatican Radio notes that a meeting of Catholics and Orthodox will take place this week in Istanbul to mark the 1,700th anniversary of the so-called Edict of Milan in which the emperors Constantine and Licinius ordered that all citizens be permitted to worship God as they saw fit. The instruction freed Christianity from the threat and reality of persecution and ordered that confiscated Christian buildings be restored. A translation is provided below. It will be noted that the toleration is granted to all religions. It does not represent an establishment of Christianity, which would come later in the century with the edict of Theodosius I, also given below.Constantine himself, however, certainly favored the Church with his patronage; and before the year 313 was over, he would be asked by Donatist bishops in northern Africa to intervene in their disputes with Catholic bishops, and he showed no reluctance to include arbitrating such disputes among his imperial duties and rights. A fatal entanglement ensued.

The "Edict of Milan " (313)When I, Constantine Augustus, and I, Licinius Augustus, fortunately met near Milan and were considering everything that pertained to the public welfare and security, we thought that, among other things which we saw would be for the good of many, regulations pertaining to the reverence of the Divinity ought certainly to be made first, so that we might grant to Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred so that any Divinity whatsoever in the seat of the heavens may be propitious and kindly disposed to us and all who are placed under our rule. And thus by this wholesome counsel and most upright provision, we thought to arrange that no one whatsoever should be denied the opportunity to give his heart to the observance of the Christian religion [and] of that religion which he should think best for himself, so that the Supreme Deity, to whose worship we freely yield our hearts, may show in all things His usual favor and benevolence.Therefore, your Worship should know that it has pleased us to remove all conditions whatsoever, which were in the rescripts formerly given to you officially, concerning the Christians, and now any one of these who wishes to observe the Christian religion may do so freely and openly, without molestation. We thought it fit to commend these things most fully to your care that you may know that we have given to those Christians free and unrestricted opportunity of religious worship. When you see that this has been granted to them by us, your Worship will know that we have also conceded to other religions the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases ; this regulation is made so that we may not seem to detract from any dignity or any religion.Moreover, in the case of the Christians especially we esteemed it best to order that if it happens that anyone heretofore has bought from our treasury from anyone whatsoever, those places where they were previously accustomed to assemble, concerning which a certain decree had been made and a letter sent to you officially, the same shall be restored to the Christians without payment or any claim of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception. Those, moreover, who have obtained the same by gift, are likewise to return them at once to the Christians. Besides, both those who have purchased and those who have secured them by gift, are to appeal to the vicar if they seek any recompense from our bounty, that they may be cared for through our clemency. All this property ought to be delivered at once to the community of the Christians through your intercession, and without delay. And since these Christians are known to have possessed not only those places in which they were accustomed to assemble, but also other property, namely the churches, belonging to them as a corporation and not as individuals, all these things which we have included under the above law, you will order to be restored, without any hesitation or controversy at all, to these Christians, that is to say to the corporations and their conventicles: providing, of course, that the above arrangements be followed so that those who return the same without payment, as we have said, may hope for an indemnity from our bounty.In all these circumstances you ought to tender your most efficacious intervention to the community of the Christians, that our command may be carried into effect as quickly as possible, whereby, moreover, through our clemency, public order may be secured. Let this be done so that, as we have said above, Divine favor towards us, which, under the most important circumstances we have already experienced, may, for all time, preserve and prosper our successes together with the good of the state. Moreover, in order that the statement of this decree of our good will may come to the notice of all, this rescript, published by your decree, shall be announced everywhere and brought to the knowledge of all, so that the decree of this, our benevolence, cannot be concealed. Edict of Theodosius (380)It is our desire that all the various nations which are subject to our Clemency and Moderation, should continue to profess that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition, and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict.

 

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Very interesting - so the Decree on Religious Liberty had about 16 1/2 centuries of precedent.

these Christians are known to have possessed not only those places in which they were accustomed to assemble, but also other property, namely the churchesDid they not gather in churches? Where did they gather, and what were churches used for if not to gather?

Was there religious liberty? Weren't the Arians being persecuted back then?

The reason for religious liberty, "so that any Divinity whatsoever in the seat of the heavens may be kindly disposed", is one I have not heard before. It's not about conscience but about trying to game the (maybe) gods. Very Greek...

Ms. Baldwin: No, the Arians weren't being persecuted in 313.

Claire, I'm not sure of my grasp of history, but I don't see the need to talk about a Greek tendency to "game the (maybe) gods. Why should a sensible political ruler claim to know just what to say about the gods or God? It's the Edict of Theodosius that is problematic, to say the least.

istm that the Edict of Theodosius was the precursor to the many varieties of "Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus" that remains with us even today, albeit in a watered-down version:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extra_Ecclesiam_nulla_salus

To answer my question from 5:52pm: I wonder if it is possible that "namely the churches" is a mistake? It's a detail, but I am wondering if my understanding of the English might be faulty, and I am puzzled.Here: And since these Christians are known to have possessed not only those places in which they were accustomed to assemble, but also other property, namely the churches, belonging to them as a corporation and not as individuals, all these things which we have included under the above law, you will order to be restored, In another translation:http://www.earlychurchtexts.com/public/edict_of_milan.htmAnd because it appears that, besides the places appropriated to religious worship, the Christians did possess other places, which belonged not to individuals, but to their society in general, that is, to their churches, we comprehend all such within the regulation aforesaid, and we will that you cause them all to be restored And for those who are able to read Latin (not me):http://webu2.upmf-grenoble.fr/DroitRomain/Constitutiones/ed_tolerat1.htmEt quoniam idem Christiani non [in] ea loca tantum ad quae convenire consuerunt, sed alia etiam habuisse noscuntur ad ius corporis eorum id est ecclesiarum, non hominum singulorum, pertinentia, ea omnia lege quam superius comprehendimus, citra ullam prorsus ambiguitatem vel controversiam isdem Christianis id est corpori et conventiculis eorum reddi iubebis, supra dicta scilicet ratione servata, ut ii qui eadem sine pretio sicut diximus restituant, indemnitatem de nostra benivolentia sperent.

Bernard: sure, but look at the contrast between the motivation given in the first sentence of this text and the one given in the introduction of the Vatican II decree on religious freedom: A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty. The demand is likewise made that constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations. This demand for freedom in human society chiefly regards the quest for the values proper to the human spirit. It regards, in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society.

From 313 to 380, a mere 67 years: so the same person could have witnessed, in their childhood, a time when people were persecuted because they were Christians, and, and their old age, a time when people were at risk of persecution because they were not Christians!

It is important to note that this period, especially with the decree, of Theodosius, has been called by many Catholic historians and theologians, as the Triumph of Christianity. The message was lost, at least officially, as Empire became more important than the Gospel. More accurately this was the Decline of Christianity.

The meeting is, appropriately, in Milan, not Istanbul. I don't know how Vatican radio got it wrong.http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pope-highlights-religious-freedom...

Claire, I suspect the first justification is in lieu of boilerplate language asking the Gods to look favorably on the edict. The second justification, which is about freedom, is probably more accurate:"we have also conceded to other religions the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases ; this regulation is made so that we may not seem to detract from any dignity or any religion."

Jim, you're right.

Claire @6:10 pm,I think "any Divinity whatsoever" may be an echo of the inscription that Paul saw on an altar in Athens: to an unknown God. (Acts 17:23) The Greeks had plenty of shrines and temples for gods and goddesses, including relative newcomers like Dionysus, but they were worried that they might have omitted, and therefore offended, some deity they hadn't even heard of. Christian prayers for intercession do something analogous when they end a long list of named saints with "and all the saints," lest they leave out the one who might be most disposed to help on a given day.Although Constantine favored Christianity, adherents of the old religion were still quite numerous and influential in the early fourth century, and even emperors would not have wanted to stir up trouble with them. Their gods had always gotten along tolerably well with each other (except for occasions like the Trojan War, when they took opposite sides), and I suppose it was hoped that Christianity would just settle in comfortably alongside the other beliefs. But monotheism is inherently intolerant, and without a healthy dose of secular and far-in-the-future "live and let live," it was bound to stamp out its rivals as soon as it could.It has taken us a very long time to grasp, even as imperfectly as we have so far, the huge difference between a license granted, and therefore revocable, by imperial edict (or any government fiat) and inviolable rights inhering in the individual conscience.

Things I thought I'd never see: Bill Mazzella and George Weigel, who has been a great promoter of a "post-Constantinian church," on the same side of an argument!But there has been some interesting revisionism going on, led I believe (I don't have comprehensive knowledge by any means) by Peter Leithart's "Defending Constantine," which Robert Louis Wilken reviewed at First Things:http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/02/giving-caesar-his-due

David: It's really a revision of the revisionism, no? From "the triumph of Christianity" to "the end of the Constantinian era" to "he wasn't so bad after all."

David, it does not appear that you understood me correctly. I noted that Constantine brought on the decline of Chistianity. So I do no promote, as you say Weidgel does, the post Constantinian Church. Au contraire.

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.