The Truth Prism

Posted on June 4, 2012


Since the relationship between the Church (or Christianity broadly) and the State (or the government) is rising to the status of major issue in the forthcoming presidential election, we need to face this head on.

But, more important, we need to employ a special prism or filter that always renders the truth when the evidence is fed through it.

Some might call it a “bs filter” in the more vernacular, but call it what you may, how do we arrive at the truth, for the truth is a commodity in short supply among politicians and pundits.

How to do this?

We feed today’s issues into the historical gristmill. Or, to paraphrase it, how have peoples and nations in the past dealt with these same issues? And just as important, what have been the outcomes?

Nothing repeats itself exactly. If so, we historians would not only be celebrated for our insights into the past, but also hired as soothsayers and prognosticators, crystal ball gazers and omen readers, studying the entrails of chickens and goats and telling all what is to come.

There are plenty of those around, especially during an election year. You will find many of them on television, a great deal more telegenic and presentable than a witch doctor practicing his trade, but, in fact, both doing much of the same.

No, what I am suggesting we do from now until the election in November is take certain specific issues—such as the relationship and dynamic between Church and State—and examine them when they surfaced in the past.

Kind of a backward look at current drama: “Mr. Obama and the Catholic Church” for example. What happened when the Pope and the Emperor locked horns a few centuries ago?

Each threatened the other with dire consequences, lines were drawn in the sand, the Almighty was invoked by one—usually the Pope—and the sword of reality and power was drawn by the other—usually of course the Emperor.

In 390 A.D. the Roman emperor, Theodosius I, faced with the murder of his Roman governor and a revolt in the city of Thessalonica, ordered the killing of a 7000 men, women, and children to quash the uprising. Roman justice was hard, and so was the Roman army.

But there was a new power rising in the empire, and it was not of the sword, but of the spirit.

When Theodosius passed through Milan, he was blocked from entering the church by the Bishop of Milan, Ambrose. What followed is remarkable.

Ambrose told Theodosius that he could not partake of the Mass and was thus barred from the holy rites. The Emperor must repent—like King David of the Bible—and do penance for his sins, having ordered the murder of so many thousands unjustly and tyrannically.

Ambrose lectured the Emperor. “You must not be dazzled by the splendor of the purple you wear…. Your subjects, O Emperor, are of the same nature as yourself, and not only so, but are likewise your fellow servants; for there is one Lord and Ruler of all, and He is the maker of all creatures, whether princes or people….How could you lift up in prayer hands steeped in the blood of so unjust a massacre?”

Theodosius was broken by the rebuke from the Bishop. He begged the Bishop to allow him back into the Church and “not to shut the door which is opened by the Lord to all that truly repent.” After a few months Ambrose allowed the Emperor back into the Church.

In the late eleventh century, the Pope, now Gregory VII, and the Emperor, now Henry IV, got into it again, this time in a long dispute over investiture, or who appointed church officials such as archbishops, bishops, abbots. This had traditionally fallen to the Emperors since a lot of power and money was at stake.

Gregory, known as one of the greatest reforming Popes in the entire history of that institution, took issue with this practice, which often degenerated into simony, or the selling of offices, and the appointment of relatives, minors, incompetents and others flourished and undermined the integrity of the Church.

Gregory excommunicated Henry who was obdurate and unwilling to bow the secular knee of authority to this pious and presumptuous Pope.

But the excommunication also freed all of Henry’s lords and vassals from obedience to the Emperor. Faced with revolting subjects and separated from the Church, the wily Henry caught up with Gregory at the fortress of Canossa in northern Italy in the middle of winter, January 1077.

Henry came to Gregory as a penitent, having walked across the snowy Alps barefoot in a penitential hair shirt. He begged for forgiveness and after three freezing days at the gates to the Canossa castle, Gregory allowed Henry in and forgave him.

Henry’s “road to Canossa” journey became symbolic in later European history for both German and Italian nationalism, and was used during the Protestant Reformation to symbolize German freedom from Rome, and, later by such leaders as Otto von Bismarck and Adolph Hitler.

In the short term, Henry basically reneged on his promise, removed Gregory as Pope, replaced him with a usurper, and kicked off another war in Italy when Norman knights came to Gregory’s support.

We see the Papacy today as a solemn and dignified office, tending to the Catholic sheep in the world, but also speaking out—as Benedict XVI does—on many issues that cut across the religious and secular worlds, from abortion to birth control, marriage, and defending the traditional freedoms and authority of the Church within the secular world.

After the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church ceased being the principal expression of Christianity in the West. The Pope no longer spoke for all Christians, now arising in new denominations and entities such as the Puritans, Lutherans, Anabaptists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, Moravians and others too numerous to mention here.

The issues that cut across the religious-secular divide, however, persist. As western civilization, and one could argue all civilization, has become increasingly secularized, the traditional prerogatives and authority of the church—all Christians, from the sixty+ million Catholics in this country through the smallest and newest evangelical, Pentecostal communities across the world—have been pared back or systematically eliminated in favor of secular precepts and principles.

At issue is not only power, but also something deeper that is about the soul and the ultimate verdict on each individual’s existence.

When these two visions of what is truly important clash, titanic struggles have ensued.

As noted at the beginning of this little commentary, nothing in history ever repeats itself exactly. But beneath the smoke and mirrors of the political campaigns now underway, one can discern the struggle for some things larger than jobs, benefits, privileges, entitlements, and material securities.

This article published in The Tuscaloosa News Sunday June 10, 2012

Posted in: History, Truth