Because of those prayer sites I run, I spend a fair amount of my day studying Church history, art, architecture, theology and the like. I love pictures of cathedrals, statues and paintings of saints; studying these priceless works is like studying the history of Western art. But for a long time I’ve wondered, How did the Church get so rich?
What does this wealth mean for us today? Does it help us or hurt us in carrying out Christ’s mission? In particular, what are we supposed to do with these magnificent old buildings, where the visitors are many but the worshipers are few?
This problem first hit me over Christmas in 1971, when I went to Evensong at Westminster Abbey on the first Sunday after the Nativity. I’d been to midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the American Cathedral in Paris a few nights before, where I got to see a church packed to the rafters with believers, but there in London, at one of the most famous churches in the world, I was one of only a dozen worshipers rattling around in that giant old nave, while tourists traipsed around gawking and talking.
I learned a lot about the irrelevance of the Church of England that night, and I didn’t want my Episcopal Church to emulate its folly in any way. Still, the questions were obvious. Who built this place? Where’d they get the money? How much does it cost to maintain it? Shouldn’t we be feeding the poor with that money instead?
How did the Church get so rich? Lately I’ve started to come up with some answers. See what you think of my quick runthrough.
When the Roman Emperor Constantine, son of Helena, who ruled 306-327, converted to Christianity, ended the persecutions and replaced the old Roman paganism with Christian worship, he began to build many basilicas and endow them with lands, and even built a new imperial capital in the East, Constantinople, as a Christian city (with churches inside the walls, unlike Rome).
He seems to have been motivated both by piety (he saw a vision of the cross before the major Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, had the cross painted on his soldiers’ shields, and won the battle) and by power.
In pre-Christian Rome emperors were worshiped as divine. Constantine took on a different role as protector and patron of the divine. (He also instituted charitable works, which the old pagan religion hadn’t included, and which proved to be a popular form of piety.) These reforms marked Constantine as modern and progressive, while detaching him from the obvious illogic that equated the Emperor with God. The net result was that he consolidated power, co-opting the Church in the process. Whether his intentions were good, bad or mixed, the Church found itself rich and powerful from this alliance, where before it had been poor and outcast.
As historian Will Durant pointed out, politicians have always sought to harness the power of religion for their own purposes, and religions have always sought to assert power over politicians. (See Billy Graham and Nixon, JFK’s speech, American Bishops vs. John Kerry.)
The Church became the charity to give to, for the Roman nobility, politicians and the poor alike. The Church used this wealth to glorify God by building magnificent cathedrals, patronizing the arts, giving bread to the poor—and enriching the Bishops.
When Rome fell in the 6th century to the barbarians, who threatened it like today’s Tea Party, and who had guns like the Tea Party, the bishops and popes assumed the political power formerly held by the emperors. There was no one else to turn to; no other institution in society continued to function. Popes used grain from their estates to feed people.
Where did they get their estates? From Constantine and all his wealthy followers who paid to play – especially since it might also save their souls.
Thus today Popes remain the successors to the Roman emperors, at least in how their administration functions. It’s all top-down, an ancient model of monarchy.
Popes justify this by claiming responsibility for preserving the orthodox faith against heresies. Popes can now speak infallibly for this purpose, even though it leads back to the same illogical conclusion Constantine faced, that the Emperor is God.
Cathedrals thus are the showpieces of imperial power, modified for the worship of God.
The replacement of religious monarchy with religious democracy is a development of the Reformation.
We now live in a world that still has absolute monarchs, strongmen and dictatorship. But the trend, even in South America and Eastern Europe, is toward democracy. We lived until fairly recently in a world with Biblical slavery, but the trend is toward emancipation.
Meanwhile the Papacy is threatened by new barbarians – not “at the gate” but inside its own walls: an army of filthy pedophiles. The current Pope is slow to recognize the danger, the same tragic mistake that enabled the Huns to sack Rome repeatedly so long ago. The elites couldn’t bring themselves to get down and dirty fighting the barbarians, any more than Barack Obama knows what to do with Fox News, Sharron Angle or the governor of Wisconsin.
While the arc of history today seems to be bending toward democracy, other trends present rising dangers: the increased power of corporations, marketers and oligarchs threaten self-government, while endangering Earth’s ecosystems by pollution and global warming. It’s a good thing NASA sends spaceships to other planets, because our time on this one looks increasingly short.
If so, our cathedrals, fancy parishes and great artworks will end up in ruins like the Acropolis and the Colosseum, while the poor go hungry as always.
Perhaps Christ will come again right before the Earth explodes and is reabsorbed into the Sun. “Watch, for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning, lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.” Mark 13:35-36++
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