Constantine & the Church
October 2012 marked our first anniversary of the launch of Convivium, an important milestone in the history of the relationship between faith and our common life. Another anniversary also fell in October 2012—a rather more venerable one, and arguably one of greater impact on the intersection of those questions. Seventeen hundred years ago, Constantine looked up into the sky and what he saw changed history. He had a Christian vision—either of the cross or the Chi Rho, the Greek monogram for Christ—and it was accompanied by a message: In this sign, you will conquer. He did. The next day, Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius and the world was made safe for Christianity. The Battle of the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312, by which Constantine became emperor of Rome and its vast empire, shaped the world like few battles in history.
"Through Constantine, Europe was on its way to becoming a Christian continent. Few men, outside of Jesus himself and his immediate companions and contemporaries, can claim to have had such an extraordinary influence on the development and spread of the faith," writes Jonathan Kay in the National Post. "History is full of what-ifs. But some are more profound than others. On the cusp of his great victory at the Milvian Bridge… Constantine just as easily could have picked Manichaeism or Mithraism, two faiths that are now extinct but that were then just as popular as Christianity. Had he done so, the people we now call Christians might take their inspiration from the gnostic pronouncement of the prophet Mani or fixate themselves on the Mithraic Mysteries' seven grades of initiation. Who knows? Judaism might eventually have become the majority religion of Europe."
Christians would take a rather more providential view of Constantine's choice and hold that Christianity provided a more stable foundation for Western civilization than, say, Manichaeism because it is true. Yet the importance of Constantine's choice remains. His triumph was not the birth of Christianity, but it was the beginning of Christendom. How one views Constantine's conversion and victory depends very much on how one thinks about Christendom.
"There are, for example, those who take Constantine's conversion as the beginning of the end of real apologist. "Christianity, they argue, is the Christianity of the early Church, the Church before it became favoured and hence entangled with the Empire, the pure Church, the Church before Constantine, the Church of the martyrs."
Protestants more than Catholics are likely to be sympathetic to that view, namely that with Constantine's conversion came a worldliness that corrupted the purity of early Christian practice. Christendom did not serve Christianity well. There are Catholics, too, who advance that view, and there is much historical evidence to buttress it. Constantine built the first St. Peter's on the Vatican hill, and after a millennium of service, it was torn down and the current structure built. In the portico, at the foot of the royal stairs along which horse-drawn carriages conveyed kings and their courts past the Sistine Chapel and into the Apostolic Palace, is a great equestrian statue of Constantine, eyes looking up at the cross, and a banner in marble: in hoc signo vinces—in this sign you will conquer.
That kind of thing is not unrelated to the rise of the Reformation, and there are streams of Reformed thought that hold precisely that the purpose of the enterprise was to free the Church from Constantine's grip and return it to what Jesus intended it to be. The Catholic Church, circa 1500, was too much Constantine and not enough Church. There are not a few Catholics today who are grateful that the decorators of the new St. Peter's thought it best to keep Constantine close to, but not inside, the church proper.
"The problem with this romantic vision of the pure early Church is that it wasn't shared by the early Church. We owe it to them to take things, first of all, from their point of view," counters Wiker. "From very early on Christians were horribly persecuted by the pagan Roman Empire. When the great fire in Rome in 64 wreaked such destruction (whether it was caused by Nero or merely enjoyed by him), Nero blamed the Christians as scapegoats and made of them an imperial spectacle.… Persecutions continued under the emperors Domitian (81-96), Trajan (98-117), Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Septimius Severus (193-211), Maximinus (235-238), Decius (249-251) and Valerian (253-260), and then peaked in severity under Diocletian (284-305) and Galerius (305-311). Leading right up to Constantine's conversion in 312, Christians periodically suffered the most horrible treatment by the pagan Roman State. Christians were stripped and flogged with whips, put on the rack, scraped with iron combs used to card wool, and had salt and vinegar poured over their fresh wounds; they were slowly roasted to death over fires individually or thrown on great piles to be burned alive en masse (an entire town in Phrygia—men, women, and children—was set on fire by soldiers); they were strangled or run through with swords; they were tied hand and foot, put into boats and, once pushed out to sea, drowned; they were jailed and then led into the arena to be torn to pieces by panthers, bears, boars and bulls; they had their skin torn bit by bit with pottery shards or they were decapitated; women were stripped and hung upside down for public humiliation, and sometimes believers were hung this way over a fire so as to be choked by the smoke; Christians had their limbs tied to trees that were bent down and then let to snap, tearing their legs or arms from their bodies; sharp reeds were driven under fingernails, molten lead was poured down backs, genitals were horribly mutilated, eyes were gouged out and cauterized with a hot iron, and the list goes on. I document these very real atrocities in such detail so as to combat any no-tion of romanticism we might have about martyrdom. Christians then were no more romantic about such hideous treatment at the hands of a pagan State than were Christians in the 20th century, tortured and mowed down by the communist State."
Christians in the early 4th century likely looked upon Constantine's victory the way Christians behind the Iron Curtain looked upon the fall of the Berlin Wall, marvelling that the liberating hand of God was not limited to the Exodus from Egypt alone, for upon arriving in Rome, Constantine did not offer the customary sacrifices to the pagan gods; and he legalized Christianity.
Historian Rodney Stark argues that despite—or perhaps because of—this fierce persecution, Christianity grew rapidly in ancient Rome. By his estimate, Christians may have accounted for as much as two thirds of the population of Rome on the eve of the great battle at the Milvian Bridge.
So perhaps it was politically advantageous for Constantine to appeal to Christians. In any case, Constantine had at least the positive witness of his own mother, Helena, who was a devout Christian. Regardless of motivation, Constantine lavished the considerable resources of Imperial power on the Church. He began immediately after his victory, giving the Christian community a property and villa that became the Lateran complex, where the popes lived for a millennium before moving to the Vatican. In addition to the original St. Peter's over the 1st century grave of Peter himself—confirmed by archaeologists in recent decades—Constantine and Helena built the great churches of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Nativity in Bethlehem.
More than building physical churches, Constantine built up the Church itself. Nearly three centuries of clandestine life had impeded the Church's ability to resolve theological controversies. Constantine summoned the first great council of the Christian Church to formulate orthodox teaching on the divinity of Christ. The council was held in Nicaea, in present day Turkey, not far from what would become the new eponymous capital of Constantinople. The formula agreed to at Nicaea on the divinity of Jesus—God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God—is still prayed every Sunday at Catholic Mass throughout the world. Nicaea was an Imperial acknowledgment of the incompetence of the throne to make theological decisions, and therefore an important step in the liberty of the Church and in developing the concept of a limited State. Constantine asked the Church to clarify its doctrine rather than making the doctrinal decision himself. Still, there are those who decry "Constantinianism" (or the "Constantinian captivity" of the Church), arguing that Christianity suffered when Imperial patronage offered the Church the coercive power of the State. It's a perennial danger, and there is valid historical debate on whether the evangelical expansion of Christianity came at the cost of the purity of doctrine and practice.
Stark, for his part, judges that it would have been better if Constantine "had remained a pagan who opposed religious persecution." But he did not remain pagan, which from a Christian point of view was at least a blessing for Constantine. The historical judgment is that of a mixed blessing. The Constantinian settlement was better than what preceded it—the age of persecution—and enabled the rise of Christian Europe and Western civilization. Yet it also brought to the Church the capacity to impose, rather than to propose, the Gospel. In the 1,700 years since, the freedom to propose without the power to impose has been an elusive balance.
With the French Revolution and other developments that opened the door to totalitarianism over the subsequent two centuries, the Church returned to a preConstantinian age of brutal persecution in many places. At the same time, the rise of liberal democracy provided space for the Church to live as an evangelizer of culture rather than as a holder of power. Whether the rise of secular fundamentalism will permit that to continue is now a pressing question. The Church now seeks the liberty to proclaim the Gospel, and no longer a Constantinian settlement. The Church is now post-Constantinian, but he remains an indispensable step in her history.
From Hope and Change to the Summer of Hate
I was present when the bloom came off the Obama rose. It was Inauguration Day in 2009, and I was there amid the great throng waiting for America's first black president to take office. It was a moving sight, especially the tens of thousands of black Americans, many of the women in their Sunday best—black America still knows how to dress up for church—beaming with pride. And then the new president spoke, and even then, at the height of his powers as the mellifluous messiah, he had nothing memorable to say.
I wrote then, on the first day of Obama's presidency, that "his surprisingly flat inaugural address was a long way from the Obama we had seen before. Disappointments must come in time, but the inauguration is sooner than expected. Amid the crowd, there was a palpable desire to be lifted up, but the rhetoric seemed just that, rhetoric untethered from any substantive argument. For those not Obama partisans—which would be a very small group on such a day—there was a strange emptiness at the heart of this inaugural address. Pretty words about a "new era of responsibility" abounded, but almost identical words appeared in the first inaugurals of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Indeed, the whole of the inaugural address, minus the racial references, could have been delivered by John McCain.
No one expected Lincoln's second inaugural, but President Obama's historic moment fell short of Bush's second inaugural address four years earlier, which made a bold argument for liberty as the heart of America's mission to the nations. It was not a wasted day. The sight of a black man being inaugurated, with his hand on Abraham Lincoln's Bible, was a symbol rich in history and emotion. And to hear Aretha Franklin sing on the steps of the Capitol was worth the trip all by itself.
Nearly four years later, President Obama was re-elected more narrowly than the first time around—the first time that has ever happened—against an ineffectual challenger. Mitt Romney is an evidently decent and competent man, but deficient in both political principles and political charisma. The campaign was a dispiriting affair. Romney argued that the economy was bad so the President should be thrown out. The President argued instead that Romney was a bad man who wished bad things upon the American people.
Indeed, the vacuous uplift of 2008—hope, change and healing the planet—were gone. Andrew Coyne, as sober a commentator as we have in Canada and whose post-election column said the Republicans were acting like "yahoos," characterized Obama's re-election advertising in swing states as a "summer of hate," featuring "millions of dollars in harshly negative and unusually personal attack ads" on Romney. Remember your mother telling you that if you have nothing good to say, better to say nothing at all? In 2012, such advice would have rendered both campaigns largely mute. But in the President's case, it was a shocking contrast from a figure of historic reconciliation to a bitter partisan given over to destructive politics, so much so that his final rallying cry was that "voting is the best revenge."
Hope, change. Hate, revenge. It is small consolation that the President got fewer votes this time. Americans have re-elected their president, as they usually do. But they were offered a rather different choice than four years ago. A smaller man offered them a smaller vision, and they returned him with a smaller margin. This time, at least, no one will be disappointed on inauguration day.
Our Game is Sick
At press time, the NHL lockout is approaching the two month mark, and even if resolved, has wrought fresh damage to a game. Self-inflicted wounds heal in time, too, but one wonders about a league that repeatedly thinks the road to robust health requires regular blood-letting. Yet the fall of 2012 has brought to mind another sickness in our game, perhaps getting more attention because the NHL has gone dark. The culture of junior hockey ought to be a national concern, and it appears that little is likely to change.
Just before the season began, there was a sordid scandal in the Ontario Hockey League. Three players from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds were charged with sexually assaulting a woman. Occasionally the veil is lifted on the morally debauched culture of junior hockey—one thinks of the revelations in coach David Frost's trial a few years back. The revelations were timely in that efforts emerged over the summer to establish a players' union for junior hockey. The concern is not moral formation but that the various issues our young men—boys—face are entangled, one with the other. At the same time as the Soo Greyhounds were charged, the Globe and Mail editorialized about the nascent union:
"They leave home as teenagers, putting school on the backburner to chase dreams of a professional career the vast majority of them won't achieve. They endure the risk of brain injuries and other tolls on their bodies while placing trust in coaches who—on occasion—have been known to exploit them. They are not paid, though the teams they play for make considerable profits, and they can be forced abruptly to move from one community to another. If hockey players badly need representation, it is not the ones making millions of dollars to play in the NHL; it is the youths playing in junior leagues across Canada. It is welcome that members of the hockey world are talking about providing them with it. It is not clear who is behind the current effort; apart from a spokesperson, Derek Clarke, the only person publicly associated with the effort is former NHL enforcer Georges Laraque, who would reportedly serve as the first executive director. Neither have details been provided on what form the union would take. At the least, however, the fledgling CHLPA has been forcing discussions that are overdue. Mr. Clarke proposed, for instance, that teams be required to set aside more money for players' educations and to allow more flexibility in how it is used after their junior hockey careers are over. Mr. Laraque also spoke about providing more of a support system to help players deal with the pressures they face."
By November, the whole union effort collapsed amidst questions about the characters behind it. Laraque resigned, and it seems that the idea of a players' union has died. Yet the discussion about junior hockey needs urgent attention. Our development of elite hockey players requires teenage boys to move away from home to an environment in which professional, educational and moral formation is manifestly lacking. Spend any amount of time around junior hockey and a picture emerges of young men spending their lives alternately playing hockey and being idle, neglecting schoolwork and getting into mischief.
When the dream of an NHL career dies, as it does for most, a young man at 20 might lack a high school education as well as any professional prospects, and too many are lacking the character adequate for adult responsibilities. Junior hockey, by which we develop the players for our national game, fails the very men we demand so much from.
It's not just a hockey problem, but our solution is worse than most alternatives. A teenage boy prodigiously talented in any sport is always tempted to chase the dream of professional advancement to the neglect of other aspects of his life, particularly education. His parents may often encourage that, even living vicariously through their son. The whole family pursues the dream. The question is: What incentives are placed before the boy, and the family, so inclined? The Canadian junior hockey model offers a system in which everything, from family ties to education, is secondary to hockey. The obvious alternative is that employed in football and basketball. In those sports, both in Canada and in the United States, for young men (and women, in the case of basketball), the path of advancement is in school sports, not principally junior leagues. Teenagers play football and basketball in high school, and then aspire to do the same at a college or university with a good team. The boy who is utterly committed to athletic advancement and cares not a whit about studying still has to pay at least minimal attention to his education. The development system insists upon some academic attainment. The result is that the vast majority of excellent football players that never make it to the CFL or NFL are not bereft of academic credentials and career prospects when their draft day comes and goes.
Even in the scandalous world of bigtime American college sports, the whole system is oriented toward getting marginal students into and through university. The goal is naked enough—to preserve their eligibility to play. The consequence though is that there are coaches and professors who are concerned about academic advancement; and there is all sorts of assistance provided. It is not a system without flaws, but it is far superior to the Canadian junior hockey model in which educational priorities do not even rise to the level of benign neglect.
The question of character formation is more difficult, and all sports have unlovely aspects of the lockerroom culture. What young men need are challenges to excel, and the discipline to achieve. The university environment provides at least a loose structure and some minimal expectations. The junior hockey culture does not provide even that. Teenagers away from home, left largely to their own devices, with lots of free time on their hands—this is not a recipe for cultivating a noble model of manhood. A debauched culture is the sure result of abandoning our best hockey players to a licentious environment largely free from adult supervision. That such a debauched culture should occasionally veer into criminal behaviour ought to surprise no one.
Over the past 30 years, American college hockey has emerged as a viable path to the NHL. There are toplevel prospects who opt not to play in the Canadian junior leagues and play instead, on athletic scholarships, for American colleges. It would be a welcome development if Canadian university hockey could aspire to a similar level, perhaps with scholarships provided by professional hockey. That would undermine the Canadian junior hockey system, but in this case that would be a feature not a bug.
After Christmas, a nation hungry for hockey will turn to the world junior hockey championships with special intensity. Already there is much talk about how the NHL lockout, by freeing up the youngest players, may produce an exceptionally talented Canadian junior team. When we watch, though, and cheer our Canadian boys on, we ought to remember that their excellence on the ice has come at a high price for many of them, a price that ought to prompt a reexamination of the junior hockey system. We need a place for the development of excellence in hockey. It ought not be a place of exploitation.