by Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
The 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan came and went with hardly a notice.
A most important event in Church history, promulgated February 3, 313, the Edict of Milan granted Christians freedom from three centuries of persecution. Thereafter the Christian faithful, for the first time, enjoyed the same religious liberties that other religious groups had. The Christians gained legal protections that allowed them to build houses of worship and had their confiscated possessions restored.
The signing of the Edict of Milan by Emperor Constantine heralded the official recognition of Western Christian civilization and the free societies we enjoy today.
The extent and severity of the persecution suffered by the early Christians are practically incomprehensible to the modern mind. Countless Christians were tortured and killed under the emperors Nero (who had Peter crucified in 64), Domitian, Marcus Aurelius, and Septimus Severus. The atrocities abated under Severus Alexander (208-235) who was sympathetic to Christians, only to flare up again under the emperors Maximus Thracian, Decius, and Valerian (253-260).
With Diocletian (299-311) and his contemporaries, Galerius and Maximian, the persecutions peaked. Under Diocletian alone an estimated half million Christians were killed. The last persecution occurred under Licinius (308-324), but the move toward greater liberty had begun. In 311 an Edict of Tolerance was issued. Although property was being confiscated, this was corrected by Licinius and Constantine, then Roman emperors of East and West respectively, with the Edict of Milan in 313.
Diocletian's intent was to transform society following years of ineffective leaders, wars, foreign attacks, and deep-seated economic problems. However, he was criticized by the Christian author Lactantius for assuming monarchical powers not granted him by the Roman constitution.
Diocletian's persecution of Christians began after his pagan priests blamed Christian court officials for making the Sign of the Cross in a court ceremony. Then the emperor ordered all Christians in government and military service to sacrifice to pagan gods or be dismissed. Ordinary civilians were excluded.
Eventually the death penalty was inflicted against Christian bishops and priests. Churches and Bibles were confiscated and burned. Then ordinary citizens were forced to violate their Christian beliefs or suffer martyrdom.
Life in the post-Constantine Church was not all smooth sailing. but it was not subject to the corruption myths that emerged during the Renaissance and Reformation and Enlightenment.
Questions about whether the Roman Empire surrendered to Christianity, or whether Christianity prostituted itself to the empire have long been disregarded by competent historians, except in fictitious potboilers like Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.
Constantine was far from perfect, but neither was he a corrupter of the Church nor an intolerant zealot who obliterated all worship that was not Catholic. Paganism was not rapidly stamped out by state repression, but gradually disappeared as people abandoned the pagan temples in response to the superior appeal of Christianity.
Constantine conferred secular powers and privileges on bishops, but this was in the interests of justice and liberty. The bishops had reputations for honesty and resistance to bribery.
In later times close involvement between State and senior Church officials led to abuses, but the blame for this can hardly be laid on Constantine.
Constantine is to be remembered for being the protagonist in fostering the advent of Christian civilization in the West. The path for Christians was never smooth. Persecutions continued. But the liberty Constantine won allowed the Church to flourish for centuries to come. Actually the Christians were the first to develop the notion of religious liberty.
As society becomes increasingly secular, will future
anniversaries of the Edict of Milan -- and similar important events -- be so blithely overlooked?