In the course of the fourth century, Christianity began to be tolerated by the empire; then it formally obtained freedom; finally, in the reign of Theodosius I, it became the official religion. The Christian Roman emperor convoked great assemblies of bishops – the councils – and the Church was able to organize territorial structures for pastoral government.

1. Introduction

Freedom came to Christianity and the Church when the echoes of the last persecution had hardly died away. Interestingly enough, it was Galerius, the main instigator of the last assault, who was the first to draw practical lessons from its failure. The successor to Diocletian as emperor, Galerius, when close to death, issued an edict from Sardica laying down new guidelines for state policy towards Christianity. This edict formally tolerated Christian practices: ‘let Christians have the right to exist again,’ it said, ‘and to set up their places of worship, provided always that they do not offend against public order.’

2. The edict of Galerius

The edict of Galerius, issued in 311, did not grant Christians full religious freedom. It simply tolerated them, in a cautious sort of way. Yet it was a very important milestone. For the first time Christianity ceased to be an ‘unlawful superstition.’ It had obtained citizenship. This was a victory of major significance; nothing like this had ever happened before. It is true that during the third century the Church had enjoyed periods of calm, and there had even been Roman emperors, like Philip the Arab (244-249) who were obviously well disposed to the Church; but at no time had the Church obtained any kind of formal recognition: she was always liable to new waves of persecution. This is why Galerius’ edict was so important.

3. The edict of Constantine

The transition from toleration to religious freedom happened very fast and was due mainly to Emperor Constantine. At the beginning of the year 313, Emperors Constantine and Liciniusissued what has come to be known as the edict of Milan. This was not a legal statute in the proper sense; it was more of the nature of a political directive based on full respect for the religious choices of all subjects of the empire, including Christians. Legislation discriminating against Christians was removed from the statute book, and the Church, now recognized by the civil authorities, was able to recover places of worship and other property previously confiscated. Constantine thus became the man who inaugurated religious liberty in the ancient world.

Within the context of religious freedom, Constantine himself was moving gradually towards Christianity. Even before theedict of Milan, when the fate of the city and empire of Rome was in the balance with Constantine’s army facing that of Maxentius, the former rode into the battle of the Milvian Bridge under the standard of the Christian cross.

Constantine always considered his victory a sign from heaven, but he delayed his definitive conversion – i.e. reception of baptism – until many years later, just before his death (337). In the meantime, his pro-Christian tendencies became more and more obvious. Immoral pagan practices or those involving the shedding of blood were declared illegal, and public magistrates were prohibited from taking part in traditional services of worship.

Whereas the Church was given positive assistance in a number of ways – the building of churches, granting privileges to the clergy, help in re-establishing unity of faith (endangered by the Donatist schism in Africa and by Arianism in the east). The moral principles of the gospel began to provide the inspiration behind civil legislation: this marked the beginning of what is known as Christian-Roman law.

4. A new expansion

The advance of Christianity was not interrupted by Constantine’s death – if one leaves asideJulian the Apostate’s unsuccessful attempt to restore paganism. All the other late emperors – even those sympathizing with Arianism – were resolutely opposed to paganism. Gratian, shortly after he became emperor in 375, rejected the official title of pontifex maximus which his Christian predecessors had consented to retain. A particularly significant confrontation between ascendant Christianity and debilitated paganism occurred in the most venerable scenario of Rome – the senate.

The altar of the goddess Victory, which presided over the chamber – a symbol of Gentile traditions – was removed on the decision of the Christian senators, now in a majority, despite opposition from their pagan colleagues. This religious evolution reached its final point before the close of the fourth century when Emperor Theodosius I promulgated an edict on 28 February 380 ordering all peoples of the empire to adopt catholic Christianity, now the only official religion of the empire.

5. The reorganization of the Church

Once it had obtained its freedom, the Church had to organize its territorial structures to cope with new pastoral demands: the world was now being Christianized rapidly. Applying what had been termed the ‘principle of accommodation,’ the Church used the administrative structures of Roman cities as the basis of its own administration. Thus, the civil province became the model for the ecclesiastical province. By the fifth century the empire had more than 120 provinces. On this territorial framework the provincial division of the Church gradually emerged.

The bishop of the capital of the civil province gradually acquired somewhat more weight than his colleagues in the other cities of the province. He was the metropolitan, the bishop of the metropolis, and the other bishops were his suffragans. In the sphere of law, the metropolitan was the court of appeal from other diocesan tribunals. And it was the metropolitan who ordained the new bishops of his province. It was also he who presided over the provincial councils – the assembly of bishops of the region – which the first council of Nicaea laid down (though it was something not very well kept) had to meet twice a year.

6. The Christianization of the Empires

The division of the empire into two parts – east and west – which occurred towards the end of the fourth century and which was later to lead to the formation of two separate empires, had deep effects on the life of the Church. The western part – which more or less coincided with regions Latin in culture and language – had only one Apostolic see, that of Rome. Consequently the bishop of Rome was also known as the patriarch of the west. In the eastern part (Greek, Syrian and Coptic in culture) there were a number of great sees founded by Apostles (Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem) and these headed up patriarchates, that is, very extensive ecclesiastical jurisdictions.

First council of Constantinople raised the see of the city to the rank of patriarchate and attributed to its bishop a primacy of honor in the Church immediately after the bishop of Rome, the reason being, it said, ‘that this city is the new Rome.’ On this basis (non-ecclesiastical in character, but rather, political: the fact that it was the imperial capital) a new patriarchate was established which was destined to acquire undisputed pre-eminence among all the eastern patriarchates, especially after the council of Chalcedon.

Freedom, allowed the Church to structure itself in a more organized way, and it also allowed the primacy of the popes over the whole Church to operate more effectively. The great popes of the fourth and fifth centuries – Damasus, Leo the Great, Gelasius – strove to specify exactly the dogmatic basis of the Roman primacy – the primacy granted by Christ to Peter, whose only legitimate successors were the popes. From the fourth century onwards, the Roman primacy was exercised very energetically over the churches of the west: the popes intervened time and again, through decretal letters or via legates and vicars.

In the east, a great council (that ofSardica, 343-344) recognized the right of any bishop in the world to have recourse to the bishop of Rome as final court of appeal. But the general tendency was towards a strengthening of the jurisdictional autonomy of the patriarchates, especially that of Constantinople. The attitude of the Christian east towards Rome after the council of Chalcedon might be summed up this way: attribution to the bishop of Rome of the primacy of honor in the whole Church; recognition of his authority in the area of doctrine; but a lack of awareness of any papal disciplinary or jurisdictional authority over the eastern churches.

Under the Christian Roman empire it was possible to hold great ecclesiastical assemblies (a genuine expression of the catholicity of the Church), which were given the name of ecumenical (world-wide) councils. Eight such synods took place between the fourth century and the ninth century, the first four of which are recognized as being particularly important – First Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381),Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451). All the councils were held in the Christian east, and most of the bishops who took part in them were from the east.

Normally, the councils were convoked by the emperor, the only authority capable of providing the facilities needed for huge gatherings of this type; in some cases the emperor convoked the council at the pope’s request and the papal legates occupied a position of honor in the council hall. Recognition of the ecumenical character of a great council was based on its reception by the Church as a whole as expressed particularly by papal confirmation of its canons and decrees.

The freedom of the Church and the conversion of the ancient world brought on to the scene a new factor which was to be particularly important in the future – the Christian emperor. Although he was simply a layman in the hierarchical order, the Christian emperor was keenly conscious of his role as defender of the Church and fosterer of Christian order in society – a role which Constantine attributed to himself when he assumed the title of ‘bishop of the outside world’.

The Christian emperors undoubtedly rendered great services to the Church, but they also interfered in ecclesiastical affairs to such extent that abuses occurred; extreme abuse of this type was termed ‘caesaropapism.’ These abuses were particularly serious in the churches of the east. In the west, the authority of the papacy, the weakness of western emperors and the distance between them and the east helped safeguard the independence of the Church. The relationships between the spiritual power and the temporal power, their harmonious cooperation, and the mission of the Christian emperor were discussed by many Fathers of the Church and especially by Pope Gelasius I in a letter to Emperor Anastasius.

The Christian emperor’s role as protector of the Church was regarded as so necessary during the centuries of transition from the ancient world to the middle ages that, when the emperors of the east ceased to provide the bishops of Rome with this protection, the popes looked to the kings of the French to take over this role.  


Source: Jose Orlandis (A Short History of the Catholic Church, 2001)