About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

Introduction to Church and State in Early Christianity | Hugo Rahner, S.J.

Print-friendly version

The first edition of this book appeared seventeen years ago when the struggle between Church and state in Nazi Germany was at its height. It then bore the title: The Liberty of the Western Church, Documents Concerning Church-State Relations in Early Christianity (Einsiedeln-Cologne: Benziger, 1943). Since then times have become more tranquil, but only in a superficial and impermanent way. Thus the question of the relations between Church and state remains as interesting as ever; it is a continuing problem in America and Russia and could at any moment reappear in Germany now that it has again become a world power. This alone would justify a new edition.

The book remains substantially unchanged in form and fundamental ideas. It provides the living witness of the early Church to the solution of the ever-recurring problem touching us as citizens of a state and members of the Church because all persons, in addition to the complex of influences affecting their personality and status as citizens, are in the Church or are called to her. For the Church is the "Kyriaké", the queen just as Christ is the King. She must, therefore, proclaim to all generations and to all states the revelation that Christ the Redeemer has brought to mankind in his power and majesty, And the state is called to listen to the Church. But both those who make the proclamation and those who hear it must do so in a way that neither exceeds nor blurs the limits of the mutual autonomy that God the Creator has set for the state, and God the Redeemer for the Church. Because citizens of the state and the members of the Church are the same individuals, the problem of the just relationship between Church and state remains a difficult and vital question for all.

The history of this problem has been a turbulent one right down to our own times. Its solution has risen out of struggle and death ever since Christ in masterly fashion drew a distinction between God and emperor while at the same time decreeing obedience to both God and emperor [1] –a fact that did not prevent the imperial procurator's condemnation of Christ to death on the cross. [2] The struggle continued at the time that Paul wrote from Rome during Nero's tyranny that the "existing authorities are instituted by God", [3] and Peter from that same "Babylon" advised the people of Asia Minor, especially prone to emperor worship, "Fear God, honor the emperor" [4] –efforts that did not hinder their being dragged before "kings and judges", as enemies of the state liable to capital punishment. Notwithstanding their loyalty to the head of state combined with adherence to Christianity, the principle-one must obey God rather than man-was understood by them in concrete situations as meaning that the Church is superior to the state any time a claim dangerous to the fundamentals of the Church demands such a decisive delimitation of authority. "God is greater than the emperor",[5] was the claim of the Church of the martyrs as she courageously faced the threat of death. Ambrose said frankly, before an imperial tyranny even when it had become Christian, in a phrase that was never forgotten in subsequent centuries and which became a classic formula: "The emperor is in the Church, not above her. A good emperor seeks to help the Church not to combat her. We say this with a humility equal to our determination, even when threatened with torture, execution or exile. As servants of Christ we put aside all fear."[6]

It seems then that from the beginning the relationship of Church to state consisted of a clash rising out of that "necessary sin of Adam" of which Augustine speaks, a necessary consequence of the fact that men, weighed down by original sin, fall into the prime sin of pride, a worship of their own creation as they build up a state. This can happen as well to the Church as she strives toward spiritual liberty and toward her supernatural goal yet is tempted in the course of her struggle to build a theocracy purely of this world. This is a necessary struggle, for only in the course of it do the combatants on either side, caught up in the unfolding of history, constantly tempted to excessive demands and enmeshed in the slow evolution of state and Church, come to recognize the limits which separate them, limits which are marked by a border not a wall. Their mutual relationship has its roots in the personal unity of the Creator and the Redeemer but it should not become confused resulting in the dominance of the state over the Church (caesaropapism) or of the Church over the state (papal theocracy).

The two-thousand-year history of the Church has revealed every facet of this relationship. From the days of the apostles to our own, the Church has been tried before kings and judges and has fought for freedom to pursue her other-worldly goals; but she has also run the risk of being king and judge over the people, from the period of late antiquity when Constantine called himself "the apostles' equal" and "bishop for external affairs"; from the reign of Justinian, the "priest-emperor" and of his tyrannous successors on the Byzantine throne to whom the Eastern Church was subservient to the extent of surrendering her own rights; from the Middle Ages when the Church, victorious in the mortal combat against imperial power, for a while regarded herself as possessing the "two keys" of spiritual and temporal power as an exclusive and inalienable right,

However, when we analyze the main phases of the history of Church and state down to our own days, we are forced to the conclusion that most frequently it has been the state which picked the quarrel with the Church, and as a result it was the Church that had to defend herself in a life or death struggle to maintain her freedom to fulfill her calling. This is true of the struggle between Church and state as it developed in Roman times even as Christ founded his Church; thus the story of this struggle between the Church and Roman imperial power, both in its pre-Christian and Christian periods, is well worth analyzing, even today. The texts which tell of the victories and defeats in this ancient struggle read as if they were written for our own age.

Our choice of texts has been designed to make the ancient Church's struggle for freedom live again. To do this we have to pull these historic events from the clouds of abstract principles and legalism and root them in a living context. So we have tried to evoke the various phases of the struggle with a variety of texts: sermons and prayers, apologetics, legal decisions, and papal letters.

The period we have chosen to study is not delineated by merely arbitrary limits. We have attempted to trace the relations between the Church and the Roman empire, the introductory chapter of the Church's history, a paradigm of all the future relations between Church and state, the importance of which ought not be forgotten and the consequences of which retained their fundamental value from the early Middle Ages to the Second Vatican Council. By the Roman Empire, we mean both the pagan state of Augustus' successors (from Decius to Diocletian aggressively pagan) and the empire converted to Christianity under Constantine and become radically Christian under Theodosius, a state which declined in power in the West during the second half of the fifth century but flourished in the East under Justinian.

In this political atmosphere, during a period of eight hundred years, the Church arrived at an ever clearer conception of her relation to the state. in the varied circumstances of her existence from the time of Pope Clement I, who had known the apostles, to that of Pope Nicholas 1, who lived through the beginnings of the break between Eastern and Western Churches, the Church groped toward a just balance, oscillating between two poles: the recognition that the institution of the state is willed by God, to which the Church conformed and from which she sought protection; and the defense of her own autonomy and of her superiority in origin and goal to the purely worldly nature of the state.

The history of this struggle has always been a lively but sad series of divisions. Thus the Church, always maturing as she groped for a just balance in her relations with the state for eight hundred years, finally broke in two, each part exhibiting a possible alternative solution to the problem.

In the Eastern half of the Christian empire, in the new Rome founded by Constantine, divided from the West by her inheritance of Hellenistic culture and continuing the division of the empire into two blocks existing from the time of Diocletian to that of Theodosius, the Church succumbed to the state. Or would it be more exact to say that the state succumbed to the Church? The difference between the two formulas depends on one's judgment – are we faced with an imperial Byzantine Church or a theocratic state? However, if we look at the actual result, the two are identical, however we analyze the identification of Church and state. After Justinian, this political situation lasted for a thousand years, continuing the confusion between the spheres of the religious-ecclesiastical and the nationalpolitical. That this type of organization was fundamentally flawed became clear in the successive five hundred years as the Holy Russian Empire inherited the Byzantine system, leaving the Church defenceless before the state and before the onslaught of atheism. [7]

The other alternative has had even a greater historical role to play. In the Latin West, the Church, under the guidance of the Pope and her bishops, vindicated her freedom before the state. In this she was helped by a variety of external developments. Not the least of these is the fact that in the West, the Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century, and the papacy remained the only rock of cultural unity among the states that rose in the aftermath of the invasions. It is often said that the freedom of the Western Church was built only on the ruins of the civil power; but the Church had in fact defended her freedom against Emperor Constantius and later against Byzantine despotism, which weighed heavily on Rome and the West from the sixth to the eighth century, What favored the Western Church's victorious struggle for her freedom was, above all, the fact that in Latin culture the sense of human freedom, especially religious freedom, had deeper roots than in the East. When Ambrose, a noble Roman citizen, launched his attacks against the tyranny of an empire that threatened to enslave the Church, one can detect what E. Caspar describes as: "The freedom of a Christian and the libertas of the ancient Roman citizen fused in a single concept, which must have sounded strange to the heir of the orientalizing and despotic system of Diocletian." [8]

But the most important internal resource from which the Western Church drew renewed strength in her struggle for freedom was the guiding role of the papacy, growing increasingly conscious of the rights granted to it by Christ as it sought to respond to the needs of a Church basically solid but ever struggling even in a Christian empire. It is a fact grasped not only by faith but also seen in history that all the churches who wish to withdraw from the unity of the Church dogmatically first of all seek refuge with the state but soon are absorbed by the state and fall with it. As proof we can cite the Arians settled in the Germanic states of the West or the Eastern Greek church and those who seceded from her because of christological differences, whose sad remnants are still to be found in the Near East.

It was precisely in the midst of its struggle with the late Roman Empire that the papacy arrived at the almost definitive expression of its own nature and was able to spread the freedom of the Church among the Germanic peoples who entrusted their future to that Faith of which the See of Peter is the guardian, though they would find it necessary in the course of another struggle prolonged through several centuries of the Middle Ages to discover a more nuanced relationship between Church and state. Even in this medieval conflict, the arms used were those forged by Popes Gelasius, Leo, and Nicholas. So the relation between Church and state during the early Christian era stands for successive centuries as an example which is worth studying if one wishes to understand the problems still with us.

The justification and historical importance of the documents presented here are furnished in rather detailed introductions. By means of them we have tried to situate the conflicts, the outcome of which was far from certain, in the rich and lively context of each period giving birth to these texts which have acquired a permanent historic importance. Like considerations have determined the choice and order of the selections.

The first introduction traces the history of the relations between Church and state of the age of martyrs before the peace of Constantine. A solid grasp of this first period is necessary for any understanding of the succeeding conflicts. In the course of these three centuries, each side took the measure of the other, estimating the strength and determination of its adversary, The Roman Empire embodied the ancient Italic concept of the head of state as the "supreme Priest", "king of the sacrifices", gradually absorbing too the influences of the imperial cult current in the East. It stubbornly insisted on treating religion as an exclusively political factor. On the other hand, the Christian Church, profoundly religious in outlook though accepting the institution of the state as willed by God, remained on the defensive in order to protect her freedom from any stifling embrace of the state, even at the risk of death.

The real problem arose only later when the Roman Empire converted to Christianity. Constantine, and his successors even more, still harboring the pagan idea of caesar-as-priest, attempted to fit the Church into their political programs. The struggle for freedom began at this point. It ended in victory for the Church: Theodosius the Great accepted Christianity as the only religion recognized by the state while the Church escaped total submission to the state.

But this victory carried in it the seeds of a new danger. This became clear in the fifth century in "separation of powers". While the Church in the East succumbed to the power of the state without prolonged resistance, the Western Church defended her freedom, guided by the growing strength of the papacy. At the height of this struggle Pope Gelasius I formulated the principle "of two powers by which mankind is ruled". The speculations of Augustine and the policies of Pope Leo I combined in the ideal of the papacy aimed at by all succeeding occupants of Peter's See even during its periods of worst decline.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, there still remained an adversary of immense strength-the Eastern Empire and its absolute master, Justinian, who again wanted to unite Pontifex and Imperator in a single person. The struggle was now against a state Church, and the Church's freedom had its ups and downs. But the very violence of the state's blows against the Church raised up thinkers whose courage has yet to be surpassed. The Church relearned during the vicissitudes of history the prime principle of her Master: she triumphs through suffering.

The last chapter is entitled "Rome and Constantinople"; it shows the Church's freedom dying in the state prisons of Constantinople. Nevertheless, the victory lay with the papacy, with the West, from which the modern world stems. The ecclesiastical policies of the suffering Church of this period resulted in a historic victory. Pope Gregory II looked to the new Germanic states on their way to a future of immense importance and left the East to its own resources. Pope Nicholas I, at the dawn of the Middle Ages took up again the old struggle for the Church's freedom which further strained the slender ties between the Eastern and Western Churches. With his letter which is redolent of the spirit of Rome embued with Christianity, we bring our series of texts to an end. It is an epilogue by a Roman Pope to the history of Roman freedom baptized Christian resounding with the ideas of Pope Gelasius.

It echoes the words of one of those defenders of liberty during the struggle with Emperor Justinian: "Let us listen to the song of Christian freedom, calling to us, ringing all about us from times past."


[1] Mt 22:21; Lk 20:25.
[2] Jn 19:15-16; Mt 27:26.
[3] Rom 13:1.
[4] 1 Pet 2:17.
[5] Acta Saturnini, II (T. Ruinart, Acta Martyrum, Regensburg, 1859), p. 419.
[6] Sermo contra Auxentium 36 (PL 16, 1018b).
[7] H. Rahner, Vom ersten bis zum dritten Rom (Innsbruck, 1950).
[8] E. Caspar, Geschichte der Papttums, I (Tubingen, 1930), p. 274.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Book Excerpts, and Interviews:

The Essential Nature and Task of the Church | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
On the Papacy, John Paul II, and the Nature of the Church | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Peter and Succession | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
"Primacy in Love": The Chair Altar of Saint Peter's in Rome | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome | Stephen K. Ray
Papal Authority in von Balthasar's Ecclesiology | Raymond Cleaveland
Church Authority and the Petrine Element | Hans Urs von Balthasar
Motherhood of the Entire Church | Henri de Lubac, S.J.
Mater Ecclesia: An Ecclesiology for the 21st Century | Donald Calloway, M.I.C.
The Papacy and Ecumenism | Rev. Adriano Garuti, O.F.M.
The Church Is the Goal of All Things | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
Excerpts from Theology of the Church | Charles Cardinal Journet
Authority and Dissent in the Catholic Church | Dr. William E. May
St. Ignatius of Antioch and the Early Church | Kenneth D. Whitehead
A Short Guide to Ancient Heresies | Kenneth D. Whitehead
Studying The Early Christians: The Introduction to We Look For the Kingdom | Carl J. Sommer
The Everyday Lives of the Early Christians | An interview with Carl J. Sommer
Church and State in Early Christianity | Hugo Rahner, S.J.
His Story and the History of the Church | An Interview with Dr. Glenn W. Olsen

Father Hugo Rahner, S.J., was born in 1900 at Pluffendorg-Baden. His younger brother was the influential theologian Karl Rahner. Entering the Society of Jesus in 1919, he completed his theological studies at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, and from 1931 to 1934 pursued doctoral studies in Church history in Bonn under J. Dölger. Professor of Church history and patristics at Innsbruck in 1937, he was forced the next year into exile until the end of the Second World War. In 1945 he returned to Innsbruck as dean of the theological faculty and then from 1949 to 1950 as rector of the university. Ill health forced him to retire from teaching in 1962. He wrote numerous books, including Our Lady and the Church. He died in 1968.

If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about every 2 to 3 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances, please click here to sign-up today!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright © 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius