Saturday, December 26, 2009

Thoughts Inspired by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, Part I

On this day, St. Stephen's Day, in 1790, one of the most damaging pieces of legislation in the Western world became law. France's revolutionary government required all clergy to swear loyalty to the civil constitution--and indeed, this was the revolution at its mildest, before Robespierre and the Terror. Certainly, allegiance of the Church to the sovereign or state had been something strongly promoted before the Revolution, during the age of "enlightened despotry" (Gallicanism, Febronianism, etc.), and we can of course not forget that so many Protestant Churches were state-churches.

However, the principle of ecclesiastical patriotism is profoundly un-Western, and quite alien to the practice of Christianity even in Biblical times. Pray tell, is not the Apocalypse of St. John a thinly veiled vilification of the Roman state as a false deity? Historically do not state-churches generally relegate into caesaropapism?

It can be argued that the schism between the East and the West was not so much a matter of theology, but rather that of a differeing conception of the state. It has been said that iconomachy (the destruction of icons) in action is monachomachy (the killing of monks). Note this from an Eastern Orthodox article about iconoclasm:

Constantine V is well-known for his cruel persecution of monasteries and monks. "Ever since he became emperor," writes Theosterictus, "his entire purpose and desire was to wipe out the entire monastic garb."[16] Constantine forced monks to parade in the hippodrome at Constantinople, each leading a woman by the hand. Upon finding out that the persecution carried out by the 'strategos' (i.e., army general) Michael Lakhanodrakon had left no monk in the Thracesian theme, the emperor wrote to him, "I found you a man after my own heart; you are acting as I wish."[17] Monasteries were taken away from the monks and transformed into public houses. Laymen were forbidden or prevented from entering monasteries. All this led to wide migration of monks to areas beyond the control of the emperor's persecutions.

It is worth noting, in this context, that iconophiles consisted mainly of monks and laymen, whereas the iconoclast faction usually comprised of the emperor, the civil service, and the army. Therefore, any persecution of iconophiles entailed a persecution of monks.[18] The latter (persecution of monks), however, could sometimes constitute the hidden agenda of the former, as actually occurred with Constantine V. The real target was, in some cases, the monk and not the icon.

What this reveals is not merely a desire for the dissolution of the Byzantine monasteries, but moreover a determination to break the power of 'the holy man' (ho hagios, who was usually a monk) in Byzantine society. The holy man of monastic background formed a locus of power that was independent and centrifugal: he met needs that were private, not collective; he was often situated in a non-urban environment (e.g., in a desert or provincial monastery); and his power or holiness was not invested by an appropriate authority, such as a bishop. Consequently, both emperor and bishop often felt their ecclesiastical and political authority threatened by the social influence exerted by the holy man. Thus, the monachomachy of Constantine V and the numerous bishops who followed him - which included the secularization of monastic property, the burning of books such as the Sayings of the Fathers, and forbidding people to visit an 'abba' or to receive communion from him - was aimed at severing the links between the monastic spiritual adviser and his clientele, links which were viewed as undermining the vested power structures of the church and empire.

The Byzantine Empire had maintained the apparatus and infrastructure of the old Roman Empire, while the West remained feudal and tribal. I don't doubt for a moment that it is largely in response to the persecutions in Constantinople that the Pope crowned another Roman Emperor in 800--this one subject to the Church.

To be continued...

(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia under a Creative Commons license)

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