Understanding Our Faith

Christendom: the merging of society and Christianity

Last week in response to the publication of some results of Australia’s most recent census, I began to look at the fact that a great part of the Australian population no longer considers itself Christian. I suggested that to understand this fact, it was worth going back to the year 321 AD when the Emperor Constantine became a Christian. This may seem a long way back to go to get a perspective on our situation today. But we are all shaped by our history and the Catholic Church is shaped by a very long history!

The Emperor becoming Christian began a new age in the life of the Roman Empire and in the life of the Christian Church.

Beforehand the Church was made up of relatively small communities scattered over the whole Roman world and a little beyond it.  Once the Emperor began to favour Christianity, these small communities found themselves expanding to the sizes of the Roman cities and towns. 

Beforehand people became Christian by means of a long process of initiation rather like the catechumenate that we use today for adults who want to become Catholics. It took years of prayer, penance and instruction. This of course became not only impracticable but impossible in the new situation in which the greater part of the population was moving towards being Christian. What were they to do?

They came up with a new plan. That plan was to create a Christian society that would gradually make its citizens Christian. So gradually all the evidence of paganism was removed: statues of the gods, temples to the gods, the pagan festivals and the moral standards of Christianity were to replace those of ancient paganism, the law was to be reshaped according to Christian principles. So the understanding was that there would be a gradual osmosis between Christianity and the formerly pagan populace. 

In the ethos of the day, this seemed obvious to those involved. It was almost inconceivable to them that a ruler would be of one religion and the populace another. Religion – as the etymology of the word implies – is the binding agent. It was conceived as that which held a society together. So the emperor’s conversion was not conceived as a purely individual thing but it immediately involved the whole society!

Many of the Christians saw this conversion as God’s doing since by this means everyone would become disciples of Christ.

It was a very different world to our own. But this union of civil society and Christianity has been part of the European mentality – and not just its practice – for something like 1500 years. It became deeply ingrained! But now it has come to an end!

By Fr Frank O’Loughlin


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