The Catholic Church in Pagan Rome

Jesus the Good Shepherd – Mosaic in Ravenna

More than by words, Christianity was served by the actual renewal of life which appeared in the Christian community and was in the final analysis alone capable of proving the life-giving force of the Gospel. ~ Fr. Alexander Schmemann

In 1941, the liberal biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann asserted, “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.” To Bultmann, one must get beyond this primitive worldview to its timeless core message, for who, in our time of science and technology, could accept the mythological universe it describes? Yet many pagan Romans found the Gospel equally bizarre in their time.

Pliny the Younger, writing to the emperor Trajan from Pontus sometime between 111-113 A.D., discovered that Christians met “on a fixed day” to sing “a hymn to Christ as to a god” and vow “not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, [and] not falsify their trust.” He still didn’t know what crime they had committed, however. So he sought “to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But,” he reports, “I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.” That said, as “those who are really Christians” refused to denounce Christ and worship the emperor and pagan gods, Pliny judged their disobedience worthy of execution.

Based on Bultmann’s reservations, one might expect ancient pagans, whose religion rested on literal myths, to more readily accept “the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament,” rather than dismissing it as “depraved, excessive superstition” and seeking to exterminate its adherents. The hinge on which all objections turned, unbeknownst to the objectors, comes down to a single reality: catholicity. Many rival, Gnostic “Christianities” claimed apostolic authority, but there was only one Catholic Church. Catholicity bound together the worldview of ancient Orthodox Christians, their faith in Jesus Christ, the hierarchy and sacraments of the Church, and their service to the needy. Thus, it must shape our social thought today. Of course, being Orthodox, I don’t mean Roman Catholic. What, then, does “Catholic” mean?

Just a few years before Pliny, on the road to martyrdom in Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch warned the Church in Smyrna against the Gnostics: “They care nothing about love: they have no concern for widows or orphans, for the oppressed, for those in prison or released, for the hungry or the thirsty. They hold aloof from the Eucharist … because they refuse to admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ … which, in his goodness, the Father raised [from the dead].” Ministries of love for the materially impoverished necessarily follow from our paschal confession that “Christ is risen.” Even our bodily needs matter to God, and our care for others witnesses to Christ’s resurrection. “By this all will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus taught, “if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

St. Ignatius goes on to clarify, “You should regard that Eucharist as valid which is celebrated either by the bishop or by someone he authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” As Christ is to the whole Church, so the bishop is to his congregation. Considering the context, then, this first known use of the phrase “the Catholic Church” inseparably unites the Incarnation and resurrection, the mystical presence of Christ in the Eucharist, care for the poor and oppressed, and the unity of the Church under episcopal authority.

The Greek for “Catholic” here is katholike, from kata, meaning “through,” and olos, meaning “[the] whole.” Many today define Catholic as “universal,” meaning “throughout the whole world.” That’s true, but for St. Ignatius, “holistic” might fit better. As Vladimir Soloviev put it, “The catholicity of the church … is the conscious and deliberate solidarity of all the universal body’s members….” Catholicity is the loving communion in Jesus Christ between Creator and creation, heaven and earth, spiritual and material, bishop and laity, even rich and poor, for “you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

According to historian Peter Brown, in Jesus’s teaching on “treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21), “The primal joining of heaven and earth was mirrored in society itself. The starkly antithetical poles of rich and poor were brought together, through almsgiving. Through these two primal joinings, the greatest gulf of all—that between God and humankind—was healed.” The cosmic catholicity of the Gospel includes our social world. The first Christians contrasted with Greek philosophy by universalizing many social norms pagan philosophers commended only to the Roman elite. As Brown elsewhere concluded, “The surprisingly rapid democratization of the philosophers’ upper-class counterculture by the leaders of the Christian church is the most profound single revolution of the late classical period.”

The ancient philosopher and physician Galen even remarked in amazement, “There are among them [i.e., the Christians] those who possess such a measure of self-control with regard to food and drink and who are so bent on justice, that they do not fall short of those who profess philosophy in truth.” Christians outdid ancient philosophers most of all by their ascetic mastery over the fear of death through faith in the resurrection. This, too, Galen noticed: “fearlessness of death and the hereafter is something we witness in them every day.” Nevertheless, the early apologists wrote to the Roman authorities in order to persuade them to stop killing Christians. They didn’t fear death, but unless it seemed unavoidable, ancient Christians didn’t want it either.

By the second century, baptism put one’s life in danger. Compounding this risk, terrible rumors spread: “Three charges,” wrote St. Athenagoras, “are brought against us: atheism, Thyestean feasts [i.e., cannibalism], and Oedipean intercourse [i.e., incest].” Why? Christians refused to worship the pagan gods. Thus, pagans assumed, they must be atheists. Furthermore, in their own worship Christians gathered to eat flesh and drink blood (the Eucharist). So they must be cannibals, too. Last, they referred to each other as “brother” and “sister” and took part in a weekly “love feast” (the agape meal), which, pagans figured, must be some kind of incestuous orgy.

The healing of a bleeding woman, Rome, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter.

In apologies like that of St. Athenagoras, written to refute these misconceptions, we glimpse how the Catholic Church viewed the hostile pagan world. The Epistle to Diognetus claims that Christians “live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners…. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require.” They viewed themselves in the mode of Israel’s Babylonian exile, where the prophet Jeremiah instructed the people to “seek the peace of the city” (Jeremiah 29[36]:7) in which they now lived. Accordingly, St. Justin the Philosopher claimed, “We are in fact of all men your best helpers and allies in securing good order….”

In his own answer to pagan rumors, St. Justin described early Christian gatherings, including the administrative structure of their catholicity: “What is collected is deposited with the president [i.e., the bishop], and he takes care of orphans and widows, and those who are in want on account of sickness or any other cause, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers who are sojourners among [us], and, briefly, he is the protector of all those in need.” By contrast, according to Brown, “The idea of a steady flow of giving, in the form of alms, to a permanent category of afflicted, the poor, was beyond the horizon of [upper class pagans].”

Fr. Alexander Schmemann provides further detail. By the third century, “The Church had its own cemeteries and almshouses, conducting an extensive charitable activity.” To this we may add the observation of Brown: “In 248 the church of Rome had a staff of 155 clergy and supported some fifteen hundred widows and poor. Such a group … was as large as the city’s largest trade association.” This helps us contextualize St. Cyprian’s rebuke of the schismatic Novatians during this same time. By starting their own sect only for the cathari (“the pure”), they “departed from charity and from the unity of the Catholic Church” (emphasis mine).

As for individual Christians, our earliest teachings highlight four fundamental ascetic doctrines: prudent almsgiving, responsible receiving, profitable labor, and a patronage of prayer.

While the Fathers commended all almsgiving, the Didache (“The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”) relates a saying that recommends discernment: “Let your donation sweat in your hands until you know to whom to give it,” warning especially about supporting itinerant prophets. Both the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas furthermore recount another saying for those who receive: “Do not be one who holds his hand out to take, but shuts it when it comes to giving.” And where would one get anything to give? “Work that which is good,” the Shepherd of Hermas records, “and of thy labors, which God giveth thee, give to all that are in want freely….” We see again here, as well as the Didache and Barnabas, that principle of St. Paul that “by laboring … you must support the weak” (Acts 20:35).

Last, St. Hermas also describes an image of harmony across social classes: the elm and the vine. The elm (the rich), according to his vision, bears no fruit on its own, but provides the shade needed for the vine (the poor) to flourish. Thus, “the poor, by interceding with the Lord for the rich, establish their riches, and again the rich, supplying their needs to the poor, establish their souls.” Both benefit each other and together bear fruit to God through a sort of mutual patronage.

In these ways and more, in their service for the kingdom of God, the first Christians contributed to the common good of Rome. Tertullian even notes that Christians participated in nearly every trade and social rank. Still, St. Athenagoras objects to the emperors, “while everyone … enjoy[s] equal rights under the law … you have not cared for us who are called Christians in this way.” The nations in which Christians sought “the peace of the city” at times waged war against the Church.

Martyrdom of St. Polycarp

We see a vivid illustration of this in the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, a letter “to all those of the holy and Catholic Church who sojourn in every place.” In Israel’s exile, the Babylonians threw the prophet Daniel into the lion’s den and his friends into the fiery furnace, despite their service to the king. But God stopped the mouth of the lion and “the Son of God” (Daniel 3:25) preserved the three holy youths in the flames. Similarly, when brought to the arena in Smyrna, the crowd “asked the Asiarch Philip that he let loose a lion on Polycarp. But he said … he had brought the wild-beast sports to a close. Then they decided to shout with one accord that he burn Polycarp alive.” Yet “when the flame flashed forth … the fire made the shape of a vaulted chamber … and made a wall around the body of the martyr.” Thus, protected from the mouth of the lion and preserved amidst the flames, “the lawless men … commanded an executioner to go to him and stab him with a dagger.”

Despite many protests of learned Christians throughout the second and third centuries, martyrdom like that of St. Polycarp marked this age of exile. However, though the Church’s catholicity would endure, the paradigm of exile would soon collapse in Rome when something utterly unthinkable happened in the early fourth century: The emperor became a Christian. A Christian kingdom required new perspectives. But that’s a story for the following essays.


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