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§ 14. Rights and Privileges of the Church. Secular Advantages.


The conversion of Constantine and the gradual establishment of Christianity as the religion of the state had first of all the important effect of giving the church not only the usual rights of a legal corporation, which she possesses also in America, and here without distinction of confessions, but at the same time the peculiar privileges, which the heathen worship and priesthood had heretofore enjoyed. These rights and privileges she gradually secured either by tacit concession or through special laws of the Christian emperors as laid down in the collections of the Theodosian and Justinian Codes.135135   Comp. § 18. These were limited, however, as we must here at the outset observe, exclusively to the catholic or orthodox church.136136   So early as 326 Constantinepromulgated the law (Cod. Theodos. lib. xvi. tit. 5, l. 1): “Privilegia, quae contemplatione religionis indulta sunt, catholicae tantum legis observatoribus prodesse oportet. Haereticos autem atque schismaticos non tantum ab his privilegiis alienos esse volumus, sed etiam diversis muneribus constringi et subjici.” Yet he was lenient towards the Novatians, adding in the same year respecting them (C. Theodos. xvi. 5, 2): “Novatianos non adeo comperimus praedamnatos, ut iis quae petiverunt, crederemus minime largienda. Itaque ecclesiae suae domos, et loca sepulcris apta sine inquietudine eos firmiter possidere praecipimus.” Comp. the 8th canon of the Council of Nice, which likewise deals with them indulgently. The heretical and schismatic sects without distinction, excepting the Arians during their brief ascendency under Arian emperors, were now worse off than they had been before, and were forbidden the free exercise of their worship even under Constantine upon pain of fines and confiscation, and from the time of Theodosius and Justinian upon pain of death. Equal patronage of all Christian parties was totally foreign to the despotic uniformity system of the Byzantine emperors and the ecclesiastical exclusiveness and absolutism of the popes. Nor can it be at all consistently carried out upon the state-church basis; for every concession to dissenters loosens the bond between the church and the state.

The immunities and privileges, which were conferred upon the catholic church in the Roman empire from the time of Constantine by imperial legislation, may be specified as follows:

1. The exemption of the clergy from most public burdens.

Among these were obligatory public services,137137   The munera publica, or λειτουργίαι, attaching in part to the person as a subject of the empire, in part to the possession of property (munera patrimoniorum). such as military duty, low manual labor, the bearing of costly dignities, and in a measure taxes for the real estate of the church. The exemption,138138   Immunitas, ἀλειτουργησία. which had been enjoyed, indeed, not by the heathen priests alone, but at least partially by physicians also and rhetoricians, and the Jewish rulers of synagogues, was first granted by Constantine in the year 313 to the catholic clergy in Africa, and afterwards, in 319, extended throughout the empire. But this led many to press into the clerical office without inward call, to the prejudice of the state; and in 320 the emperor made a law prohibiting the wealthy139139   The decuriones and curiales. from entering the ministry, and limiting the increase of the clergy, on the singular ground, that “the rich should bear the burdens of the world, the poor be supported by the property of the church.” Valentinian I. issued a similar law in 364. Under Valentinian II. and Theodosius I. the rich were admitted to the spiritual office on condition of assigning their property to others, who should fulfill the demands of the state in their stead. But these arbitrary laws were certainly not strictly observed.

Constantine also exempted the church from the land tax, but afterwards revoked this immunity; and his successors likewise were not uniform in this matter. Ambrose, though one of the strongest advocates of the rights of the church, accedes to the fact and the justice of the assessment of church lands;140140   “Si tributum petit Imperator,” says he in the Orat. de basilicas non tradendis haereticis, “non negamus; agri ecclesiae solvunt tributum, solvimus quae sunt Caesaris Caesari, et qum sunt Dei Deo; tributum Caesaris est; non negatur.” Baronius (ad ann. 387) endeavors to prove that this tribute was meant by Ambrosemerely as an act of love, not of duty! but the hierarchy afterwards claimed for the church a divine right of exemption from all taxation.

2. The enrichment and endowment of the church.

Here again Constantine led the way. He not only restored (in 313) the buildings and estates, which had been confiscated in the Diocletian persecution, but granted the church also the right to receive legacies (321), and himself made liberal contributions in money and grain to the support of the clergy and the building of churches in Africa,141141   So early as 314 he caused to be paid to the bishop Caecilian of Carthage 3,000 folles (τρισχιλίους φόλεις£18,000) from the public treasury of the province for the catholic churches in Africa, Numidia, and Mauritania, promising further gifts for similar purposes. Euseb: H. E. x. 6, and Vit. Const. iv. 28. in the Holy Land, in Nicomedia, Antioch, and Constantinople. Though this, be it remembered, can be no great merit in an absolute monarch, who is lord of the public treasury as he is of his private purse, and can afford to be generous at the expense of his subjects. He and his successors likewise gave to the church the heathen temples and their estates and the public property of heretics; but these more frequently were confiscated to the civil treasury or squandered on favorites. Wealthy subjects, some from pure piety, others from motives of interest, conveyed their property to the church, often to the prejudice of the just claims of their kindred. Bishops and monks not rarely used unworthy influences with widows and dying persons; though Augustine positively rejected every legacy, which deprived a son of his rights. Valentinian I. found it necessary to oppose the legacy-hunting of the clergy, particularly in Rome, with a law of the year 370,142142   In an edict to Damasus, bishop of Rome. Cod. Theod. xvi. 2, 20: “Ecclesiastici ... viduaram ac pupillarum domos non adeant,” etc. and Jerome acknowledges there was good reason for it.143143   Epist. 34 (al. 2) ad Nepotianum, where he says of this law: “Nec de lege conqueror, sed doleo, cur meruerimus hanc legem;” and of the clergy of his time: “Ignominia omnium sacerdotum est, propriis studere divitiis,” etc. The wealth of the church was converted mostly into real estate, or at least secured by it. And the church soon came to own the tenth part of all the landed property. This land, to be sure, had long been worthless or neglected, but under favorable conditions rose in value with uncommon rapidity. At the time of Chrysostom, towards the close of the fourth century, the church of Antioch was strong enough to maintain entirely or in part three thousand widows and consecrated virgins besides many poor, sick, and strangers.144144   Chrys. Hom. 66 in Matt. (vii. p. 658). The metropolitan churches of Rome and Alexandria were the most wealthy. The various churches of Rome in the sixth century, besides enormous treasures in money and gold and silver vases, owned many houses and lands not only in Italy and Sicily, but even in Syria, Asia Minor, and Egypt.145145   Comp. the Epistles of Gregory the Great at the end of our period. And when John, who bears the honorable distinction of the Almsgiver for his unlimited liberality to the poor, became patriarch of Alexandria (606), he found in the church treasury eight thousand pounds of gold, and himself received ten thousand, though be retained hardly an ordinary blanket for himself, and is said on one occasion to have fed seven thousand five hundred poor at once.146146   See the Vita S. Joannis Eleemosynarii (the next to the last catholic patriarch of Alexandria) in the Acta Sanct. Bolland. ad 23 Jan.

The control of the ecclesiastical revenues vested in the bishops. The bishops distributed the funds according, to the prevailing custom into three or four parts: for themselves, for their clergy, for the current expenses of worship, and for the poor. They frequently exposed themselves to the suspicion of avarice and nepotism. The best of them, like Chrysostom and Augustine, were averse to this concernment with earthly property, since it often conflicted with their higher duties; and they preferred the poverty of earlier times, because the present abundant revenues diminished private beneficence.

And most certainly this opulence had two sides. It was a source both of profit and of loss to the church. According to the spirit of its proprietors and its controllers, it might be used for the furtherance of the kingdom of God, the building of churches, the support of the needy, and the founding of charitable institutions for the poor, the sick, for widows and orphans, for destitute strangers and aged persons,147147   The πτωχοτροφεῖα, νοσοκομεῖα, ὀρφανοτροφεῖα, γηροκομεῖα and ξενῶνες or ξενοδοχεῖα, as they were called; which all sprang from the church. Especially favored was the Basilias for sick and strangers in Caesarea, named after its founder, the bishop Basil the Great. Basil. Ep. 94. Gregor. Naz. Orat. 27 and 30. or perverted to the fostering of indolence and luxury, and thus promote moral corruption and decay. This was felt by serious minds even in the palmy days of the external power of the hierarchy. Dante, believing Constantine to be the author of the pope’s temporal sovereignty, on the ground of the fictitious donation to Sylvester, bitterly exclaimed:


“Your gods ye make of silver and of gold;

And wherein differ from idolaters,

Save that their god is one—yours hundred fold?


Ah, Constantine! what evils caused to flow,

Not thy conversion, but that plenteous dower

Thou on the first rich Father didst bestow!”148148   Inferno, canto xix. vs. 112-118, as translated by Wright (with two slight alterations). Milton, in his prose works, has translated this passage as well as that of Ariosto, where he humorously places the donation of Constantinein the moon among the things lost or abused on earth:
   “Ah, Constantine! of how much ill was cause,

   Not thy conversion, but those rich domains

   That the first wealthy pope received of thee.”



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