Papacy – Post 1
Since I could delay this forever, I suppose I should start to deliver on my promise to write some reviews of the 2011 Angelus Press Conference on the Papacy by offering some very general remarks on Professor John Rao’s opening lecture, “The Catholic Church as Heir of the Roman Empire.” Please keep in mind these comments are very general and I am sure if I went back to the lecture again, I could find a lot more to write on it.
The short and the long of Rao’s thesis is that not only the Catholic Church, but the Eastern Church as well, became the “heir(s) of the Roman Empire” to the extent that they were uniquely positioned to appropriate—and then apply—the administrative heritage of Rome. Indeed, the very constitution of the Church after the Edict of Milan began to increasingly reflect imperial structures, albeit with noticeable modifications. This is what Rao, it seems, is really concerned to get across. To the extent that the Catholic Church (or the Eastern Church) appropriated, revised, and then applied the administrative heritage of Rome (along with, I should add, the intellectual heritage of Hellenism), Rao sees nothing wrong. It is, however, during those periods of “conceptual slippage” (my term, not his) that bothers him. That is, when ancient Rome qua Rome became the model by which the Church and, eventually, individualized States ought to model themselves on, at the unfortunate expense of the Gospel. Rao identifies a certain genius in the Catholic Church insofar as it worked diligently, over many centuries, to appropriate and modify the Roman-Hellenic tradition. On the other hand, Rao is deeply critical of the Eastern tradition to the extent that it simply stopped the modification; that is, it simply accepted what had come from “old Rome” and then, where conflicts arose, invoked the murky concept of oikonomia to justify the retention of “old Rome” when, in fact, a “new Rome” or a “Christianized Rome” ought to have reigned.
That’s a very general overview, and if it is vague, I apologize. In my defense, I think Rao is, at points, unduly vague in his assessments, particularly of the Christian East. Without denying for an instant the East’s susceptibility to be too deferential to the imperial heritage of Rome and, from there, attempt to institute a radical centralization in Byzantium that effectively gave primacy of place to its rites, theology, spirituality, political orientation, etc., it’s possible that Rao undersells the extent to which such troublesome phenomena occurred in the West. But, if one wants to be charitable (and I certainly do), then one has to pay attention to the reality that for many, many centuries, the West had nothing comparable to Constantinople. The actual city of Rome was a shell of itself for at least the first millennium of Christendom, and even after there arose in the West alternate outposts of secular political power that certainly defied any possibility of the centralization the East “enjoyed” up until the degeneration and eventual collapse of the Byzantine Empire. After listening to the lecture, I did wonder whether or not Rao believes, somewhere in his heart, that the stultification of Byzantium was part of its collapse. I wouldn’t be surprised.
Another point that jumps out from Rao’s lecture is his belief that the concept of symphonia, so often associated with the Christian East, was better actualized in the West to the extent that the Western Church’s centralization in Rome, with the heir of St. Peter at the helm, better maintained something of the “balance” or the “harmony of the dance” with secular authority than the East did. Rao depends, it seems, on the thesis that the Eastern Church (at least the Greek Eastern Church) was effectively the handmaid of the State almost from the beginning and that, due to political and theological controversy, it never positioned itself to be anything more than a nominal force in Byzantine society except to the extent that the Imperial authority found some utility in allowing the Church to be such. Then, of course, there is also the sticky matter of whether or not the East, in the name of symphonia, collapsed Church and State into one institutional expression, thus eradicating the independent authority of the Church altogether while bolstering the authority of the State—a State that was now vested with not only earthly power, but spiritual absolutism. Certainly there are many Orthodox historians who, today, would contest such a view. But they contest the view on the basis of historical pockets, that is, moments in time where perhaps there was a Patriarch (or two) who had the temerity to stand up against the Byzantine State. When such temerity didn’t result in bloodbaths, it certainly resulted, in the end, with the weakening of the Church. Or, at least, that’s how one story goes.
Many eyes—spiritual and secular—are fixed on the happenings of contemporary Russia, and certainly there is no shortage of commentators who want to weave in the history of the Christian East when they offer their assessment of the quasi-confessional State that is Russia. Whether there is any merit to such claims or not is a matter for another day. What cannot be denied, it seems, is that Russia’s history can be read as a recapitulation of the history of the “second Rome,” where the Church attempted something like symphonia only to wind up, by the end of the 17th C., playing second fiddle to the State. (And, for the record, I am not ignoring the reality that the Catholic Church, in various places in the West, fell under the same dilemma.) Even though certain trends in Russian thought wanted to see Russia, or more specifically Moscow, as the “third Rome,” the harder truth is that it never had the political power or sophistication to be anything close. 17th C. visions of a vast, reinstituted Eastern (Roman) Empire with Moscow at the helm yielded a severe schism in the Russian Church and, from there, the aforementioned belittling of the Church as a major presence in Russian political life. The revival of Russian Orthodoxy in the latter part of the 19th C. was, as we know, cut drastically short at the dawn of the 20th. What it is today, in its concrete manifestation, is open for serious debate, albeit a debate few Orthodox living in the West want to actively engage in. For we shouldn’t forget that the idea of “Russian Orthodoxy” is akin to the idea of a mothership that those few Orthodox living in the West can look to and feel something akin to the strange pride some Catholics feel for the fact there is but a single head of their Church in Rome who, as the story goes, “governs” 1.1 billion believers. Both viewpoints have, to say the least, serious defects.
While I recognize that this observation borders on the banal, I still think it’s worth iterating that the histories of East and West, particularly during their period of ecclesial union, are so fundamentally different as to make the sort of easygoing comparison that Rao attempts more harmful than helpful. Rao pays only passing attention to the fact that after Constantinople fell, it was the “Roman heritage” preserved in the East which made its way West and, from there, kickstarted a series of socio-political upheavals that resulted (in Rao’s mind at least) with the rise of the “will to power” as the expression of the Western political mind. For what it’s worth, Rao lays the blame at the feet of two Westerners, Marseilles of Padua and William of Ockham. But neither man’s thought, nor the learning that surrounded them, would have likely been possible had the Eastern preservation of “old Rome” (and its literary corpus) made its way West. Moreover, Rao’s lecture—had he the time—could have been fleshed out further with a more detailed examination of how the influx of Roman law, as meditated through Justinian’s Corpus Iuris Civilis, impacted both the governance of the Church (which, up to that time, had its own canonical legal tradition that, arguably, represented a reformulation of the Roman inheritance) and the governance of civil society across the various States that had arisen in the West at that time.
Still, I think Rao is on to something insofar as he raises the question of symphonia for the West. It is all-too-common for Christian historians and commentators to accept the thesis that symphonia is an “Eastern thing” and that something altogether different was pursued and actualized in the West. The harder reality may be that both “sides” attempted their own form of this “dance” and both, in the end, failed to keep it moving along in a harmonious, coherent fashion. Who was “better” is, as I noted, an open question. Then again, I have to wonder whether the answer has any substantial meaning any more. Doesn’t it just seem like scorekeeping?