Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"In hoc signo vinces"

Benjamin Wiker, on a recent anniversary: "Constantine’s Gift to Christianity":
On October 28, 312, Emperor Constantine met Emperor Maxentius in battle just outside the city of Rome at the Milvian Bridge, spanning the Tiber. ....

As is well known, the previous day Constantine experienced a vision of a cross of light in the sky, with the words “By this sign you shall conquer”.... That night, so we are told, Constantine had a dream wherein he was told to paint the cross on the shields of his soldiers.

He did. And so it happened, as the vision said.

The next day, October 28, 312, Constantine defeated Maxentius. Interestingly enough, Maxentius could have stayed within the walls of Rome. He was plentifully stocked to endure a siege. Inexplicably, he decided to go out and engage Constantine. His troops were defeated, and Maxentius himself drowned in the Tiber trying to escape.

Such was the beginning of Constantine’s embrace of Christianity, and such was the beginning of the transformation of the Roman Empire from paganism to Christianity. ....

There are...those who take Constantine’s conversion as the beginning of the end of real Christianity. Christianity, they argue, is the Christianity of the early Church, the Church before it became favored and hence entangled with the empire, the pure Church, the Church before Constantine, the Church of the martyrs.

The problem with this romantic vision of the pure early Church is that it wasn’t shared by the early Church. We owe it to them to take things, first of all, from their point of view. ....

If you think about what these Christians actually endured at the hands of the pagan state, you will realize with what jubilation, what extreme thankfulness to God, what declarations of it all being miraculous, Christians 1,700 years ago greeted the news of Constantine’s conversion. ....

With Constantine’s favor, the Church began to blossom, and was free to spread out all over the Western, and then Eastern, parts of the Empire, thereby shifting its civilization from pagan to Christian moorings.

This was no small shift—it entailed a vast moral and political transformation that laid the foundation and built the structure of Christian civilization.

To take some poignant examples, the pagan Roman culture happily affirmed contraception, abortion, infanticide, suicide, homosexuality, homosexual marriage, euthanasia, pornography, prostitution, concubinage, divorce, pederasty, and the mass killing of human beings for entertainment in gladiatorial combat. Once the emperors became Christian, both the Church and the Christian imperium engaged in the moral transformation of pagan society, and the Christian moral understanding was incorporated into law in the various imperial codes. And also, quite unlike Rome, both the Church and Christian state began to care for the poor and destitute, the widows and orphans. ....

...Constantine did not actually, officially, really become a Christian until very near his dying day. Like so many of the time, he held off on being baptized until the threshold of his departure. Feeling the approach of death, he very piously laid aside the royal purple, took upon himself the humble white robes of the to-be-newborn Christian, and entered the waters of regeneration.

The bishop doing the royal baptism was one Eusebius, an Arian, that is, heretical, bishop. ....

Such is the danger of royal patronage: the Church, and even its doctrine, can be defined by the state.

No doubt, that is why many who rue Constantine’s conversion do not wish to celebrate its 1,700th anniversary. It is a sobering thought, very sobering. The Church must not, cannot, be subordinate to the state. Otherwise, it becomes a mere instrument of politics. .... [more]
Benjamin Wiker: Constantine’s Gift to Christianity: Catholic World Report