Constantine, the true founder of the church!
presiding at the sadly famous Council of Nicea, in the year 325
RACHEL We continue our broadcast from Banias, the site of what in Jesus’ time was Caesarea Philippi. The nonstop calls from our startled audience have prevented us from leaving the place. Mr Christ?
JESUS Yes? Rachel?
RACHEL I see that you’re a simple person and don’t take yourself too seriously. The greatest proof of that is that our little network, Emisoras Latinas, has gotten these exclusive interviews with you without paying anything. All the same, one church that claims to represent you – I’m referring especially to the Catholic Church – is quite pompous and ostentatious. It has palaces, estates, communications media, banks – it’s an empire.
JESUS As I told you before, I have no part in all that. I announced the coming of the Kingdom of God, but I’m realizing that what really came was the church.
RACHEL Well, that’s my question. How could “all that” come about? How is possible that something so grandiose could emerge out of the preaching of a simple peasant?
JESUS What don’t you put that question to that fellow Pepe, the one who called the other day? He has the same name as my father and seemed to know a lot about these matters.
RACHEL Hold on a minute while I call him … Pepe Rodri’guez? Yes, here we are calling again from Emisoras Latinas. We find ourselves with lots of questions. If you allow me, today I’m going to ask you some classical journalistic questions.
PEPE Go right ahead.
RACHEL Tell us, if Jesus Christ did not found the Church, then who founded it?
PEPE The Roman emperor Constantine.
RACHEL And when did he found it?
PEPE In the fourth century, the year 325.
RACHEL And where did he found it?
PEPE In his house, in his residence at Nicea, to the east of Constantinople.
JESUS Rachel, give me a chance to ask a few questions now. Tell me, Mr Pepe, how did that fellow Constantine go about setting up such a church?
PEPE After your death, Mr Christ, some Christian communities arose. Since you had said that the world was going to end soon, they sold all that they had, they shared it among the poor, and they prepared for the end. They shared everything; they were united in one heart and one soul.
JESUS If that’s what they did, then they really understood what the Kingdom of God was about.
PEPE Yes, but since you delayed your second coming so long, they had to get on with their lives. It’s a long story. The Jerusalem community disappeared when Rome burned the Temple. Christianity kept spreading through the whole Roman empire. That empire, which you had some experience of, persecuted the Christians.
JESUS Just as they persecuted me.
PEPE Up to that point, at least, all was going well.
JESUS And what happened? At what point did the lamp get hidden under the bushel basket?
PEPE In later centuries the Roman empire was growing weaker. When Constantine took command, even though he was not a Christian, he made up the story that he had seen the sign of the cross in the sky and that he had gained the throne thanks to you.
JESUS Thanks to me?
PEPE Yes, and he also said that he wanted to convert to Christianity.
JESUS And did he convert?
RACHEL Constantine was a chameleon He realized that Rome’s power was declining and needed a strong ideology to shore it up. For him the Christian religion, which by then was extended throughout the empire, served that purpose well.
JESUS And tell me, what did that man actually do?
PEPE He made a pact. He called the principal bishops and told them if you obey me, nobody will persecute you any more. If you just declare that the murderers of Jesus were the Jews and not the Romans, then I will declare Christianity to be the official religion of the empire.
JESUS But how could that be? The man who condemned me to death was Pontius Pilate, a Roman.
PEPE You’re wrong, Mr Christ, it was not Pontius Pilate. The one who killed you was Constantine.
PEPE Yes, Constantine. He’s the one who murdered you.
JESUS Go ahead, keep talking…
RACHEL No, no more now, because my phone card is out of minutes. I’ll call you back in a short while, Pepe. Friends of Emisoras Latinas, stay tuned and don’t miss out on this fascinating history. This is Rachel Perez, reporting from Banias, the site of the ancient Caesarea Philippi.
ANNOUNCER Another God is Possible. Exclusive interviews with Jesus Christ in his second coming to Earth. A production of María and José Ignacio López Vigil, with the support of the Syd Forum and Christian Aid.
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The Kingdom of God, not a Church
Jesus did not found any church. In fact he never once used the word “church” (the Greek word in the New Testament is ekklesia, meaning “assembly”). It was never his intention to organize a church or any institution. He led a collective movement of men and women who proclaimed the arrival of God’s Kingdom, which meant a world of just and equitable relations, where poor people ceased to be poor; a world of communities that included women and cared for and healed the sick.
Some years after Jesus died, it was Paul who transformed Jesus’ movement, originally just Jewish and rural, into an urban religion that was capable of becoming “universal” and attracting adherents very different from the Jews among whom Jesus of Nazareth moved. It can therefore be said that the one who actually “founded” the church was Paul, since he organized the movement of Jesus along doctrinal and practical lines that allowed it to appeal to the non-Jewish “gentiles” who inhabited the vast Roman empire.
“Christian” communities, “Catholic” Church
In the earliest period the small, spirited communities of the movement started by Jesus called themselves “the people of the Way”. Only later, in the church at Antioch (a city in what is now Syria), did they begin to be called “Christians”. By the beginning of the second century, also in Antioch, a hierarchy with three grades was established within the communities: bishops, presbyters (priests), and deacons.
When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire in the fourth century, the word “church” began to be used to designate both the communities of the followers of Jesus and the places where they met together. It was at this time also that Latin became the official language of the liturgy, the theology, and the incipient legislation of the western church. Until then Greek had been the language that predominated in the Christian rites, although the communities in Jerusalem and Galilee spoke Aramaic, which was also the language Jesus spoke. The dominance of Latin was one of the factors that contributed to the Roman church’s ascendancy over the other churches.
The expression “catholic church” was used for the first time by Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, in the first century, but he used the term not to give primacy to any particular church, much less the Roman one. For Ignatius the expression meant “the totality of the church” and referred to all the communities that then existed and to the unity among them all.
A variety of Christian churches
Although Jesus did not found a church, the Christian churches proclaim and teach that he did. These include the Catholic Church; the various Orthodox churches, which separated from the Catholic Church in the 11th century; and the numerous churches which were born of the Protestant reformation in the 16th century and which in turn have, in the last century, given rise to evangelical, Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal churches. Each of these Christian churches claims to be a “creation” of Jesus Christ, an institution founded by him or authorized to him, since (they claim) he would have desired them to exist and to function as they actually exist and function today.
Ecumenism is a movement that seeks unity among all the Christian churches. It seeks unity in diversity, since in the course of the centuries all these churches, though they claim to have common objectives, have diversified the contents of their faith in Jesus and have been in rivalry with one another, even to the point of shedding blood.
Outside the church (the Catholic church!) “there is no salvation”
In the first chapter of the document of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) which condemns the Albigensians, there appears this clause: There is only one universal Church of the faithful, and outside it absolutely nobody is saved. In 1302, after the eastern churches had broken away from Rome, Pope Boniface VIII ratified that same doctrine in his bull “Unam Sanctam”, which begins: Outside the Catholic, Apostolic Church there is no salvation and no pardon of sins.
This doctrine prevailed during the following centuries, even after the separation of the churches that arose out of the Protestant reformation. In 1854 Pope Pius IX repeated the teaching: By faith we must hold that outside the Roman Apostolic Church no one can be saved, that this is the only ark of salvation, and that anyone who has not entered it will perish in the flood.
Among the Christian churches, it is the Catholic Church which has always insisted on being the one truly “founded” by Jesus Christ, the “only one” that guarantees the plenitude of “salvation”. After the Church had adamantly affirmed this for centuries, the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s recommended a more ecumenical posture and recognized the values that could be found in non-Catholic Christian churches.
Nevertheless, in more recent decades the Roman Catholic hierarchy has regressed to the arrogant, exclusivist idea of being the “one true church”. This was expressed clearly in the year 2000 by Cardinal Ratzinger, then head of the Sacred Congregation of the Faith, in the document “Dominus Iesus”, which was widely criticized everywhere by both Catholic and non-Catholic theologians. Contradicting the ecumenical movement that was gaining ground throughout the world, this Vatican document reaffirmed that the faithful are obliged to profess that a historical continuity rooted in apostolic succession exists between the Church founded by Christ and the Catholic Church. This is the only Church of Christ.
After that lamentable document’s release, a group of European theologians commented on it as follows: “Outside the Church there is no salvation,” claimed Saint Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, in the third century. The only true Church is the Catholic, declares the Roman pontiff in our day. But the Second Vatican Council nuanced these principles in 1965 when it proclaimed religious liberty to be one of the fundamental human rights. This bold thesis opened the way to interreligious dialogue and facilitated important advances toward a convergence of the many churches which trace their origin to a Jew who was crucified by the Romans two thousand years ago.
Despite the criticism that this document aroused, the idea that the Roman Catholic church is the one true church was ratified again in July, 2007, by the same Ratzinger, now made Pope Benedict XVI. This was done through another document of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which states that the Catholic Church is the only church of Christ; [furthermore,] the only church established by Christ on earth subsists in the Catholic church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him.
The unity of all Christians will never be attained through the ideas and attitudes reflected in documents such as these.
First Christian Roman emperor
Constantine was convinced that the Roman empire was in crisis and needed to be unified under a single philosophy and a single chain of command, and also under a single religion. With his keen sense of political opportunism, the emperor decided to attribute a major military victory to the God of the Christians and to the sign of the cross, which he claimed to have seen in dreams. In the year 312 his army had defeated that of his rival Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, which crossed the Tiber River into Rome. This victory, which made him the Roman emperor of the west, supposedly came through the sign of the cross: In hoc signo vinces.
The following year, 313, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, establishing religious liberty throughout the empire. In 315 he abolished crucifixion as a punishment for crimes. Starting in that same year he began to “Christianize” the Roman laws, to donate land to Christian bishops, and to transfer civil powers to them as well. He also undertook the construction of Christian temples, all of them worthy of our love for the grandiose, as Pope Eusebius wrote to him. Many of the new temples were built on the ruins of the temples of the Roman religion, which he ordered destroyed. The only temple of ancient Rome that survived and was not made into a Christian temple was the Pantheon (a temple to all the gods), which had been built in the first days of the empire. This building of angelic, not human, design, as Michelangelo described it, even today amazes tourists who visit it.
In the year 321 Constantine introduced Sunday as a religious holyday and allowed the Christian church to possess patrimonial properties. In 325 Constantine became the single emperor of both the western and the eastern empires. He then convoked the Council of Nicea, which gave Christianity juridical legitimacy in the Roman empire and also “defined” the “creed” of the official religion, including the correct doctrine concerning the nature of Jesus Christ. Constantine died in the year 337, after being baptized a Christian on his deathbed.
When his successor, the emperor Theodosius, in the year 380 issued the Edict of Thessalonica, prohibiting all pagan cults and sacrifices, Christianity become the state religion, the church of Rome became the state church, and heresy against the church of Rome was deemed a crime against the state. It was consummated: the church had been founded.
“Jesus will rise up from the tomb of this church”
Millions of Christians around the world hope and pray for a change in the Church; they believe that “another Church is possible”. But will a Church founded on the basis of power be able to change? Will it be able to recover its origins in the movement led by Jesus of Nazareth?
In his book, Religion without Magic (Ediciones El Almendro, 2006), Spanish theologian Juan Luis Herrero del Pozo introduces his reflections with these bold words: Magical ways of thought become ingrained in the religious sensibilities of all times. They are like the insidious advance of termites: by the time they are noticed, they have already destroyed thousands of galleries and hollowed out the beams of the building to the point of collapse. The entire organization of the Christian churches, the whole framework of their dogmas, sacraments, laws and structures is being gnawed away by the rot of magic; it has no future. The inevitable collapse of the Church inspires us to hope that we will see blooming again in the desert the revolutionary witness of the Teacher of Nazareth. To paraphrase theologian Paul Tillich, “Jesus will rise up from the tomb of this church.