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The Church Then and Now

Two thousand years of Church life have proven the old Preacher true: There’s nothing new under the sun (Eccl 1:9). In the era of the Church Fathers — the first eight centuries of Christianity — the Church faced many of the difficulties it faces today: the threat of heresy, challenges to authority, priests abusing their position of trust, quixotic quests for common ground, lax clergy and uppity laity, rigorist clergy and lax laity.

Father George Kaitholil, a priest of the Society of Saint Paul in India, has examined those early Church responses and found them to be useful models for life in these latter days. His book Church: The Sacrament of Christ examines the “patristic vision” in light of modern theology.

I interviewed him about his book, shortly after its release in 1998.

Aquilina: In your book you describe an ancient Church in which modern Catholics would find much that is familiar. We can even recognize many of the topics of debate — such as the nature and extent of Church authority, the relationship between Church and state, and even liturgical change. What light can the Fathers shed on modern discussions of these issues? Why have these issues remained current through 2,000 years?

Fr. Kaitholil: The Fathers never imagined the Church as a democratic organization in which authority comes from the will of the people. Though democratic processes are used in the Church, its authority comes from God’s will. Christ alone chose His twelve apostles. Peter, chief among them, was not elected by them, but appointed by Christ. The Church’s authority extends to faith, morals and interpretation of the Word of God, and has to guide and regulate these.

The Church-state relationship was a live question then, as now, because both have extensive powers that often come into conflict. In many instances, Church and the state have tried to control each other. Emperors and kings interfered in Church matters, while the Church consecrated emperors.

Emperor Constantine convoked the Council of Nicea in 325. That was a sign of the coexistence of the Church and the state and cooperation between them. This was even more clearly seen in the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Emperor Marcian convoked it at the request of the Roman Synod.

The ideal Church-state relationship would be one of mutual respect and support. The Church should remain the highest authority in theological and spiritual matters while recognizing the supremacy of the state in political and civil matters. The fourth century witnessed this.

Aquilina: In what ways was the Church of the patristic era different from the Church we know today?

Fr. Kaitholil: The Church in the patristic era struggled to cultivate faith and morals in a non-Christian world. Then the Church had more problems from without; today she has more problems from within.

Aquilina: In debates today, some Catholics — citing patristic precedents — tend to emphasize the authority of the local bishop over that of the pope. Does this accurately represent the Fathers?

Fr. Kaitholil: Not at all. There were sometimes disagreements between popes and bishops — for example, between Bishop Cyprian and Pope Stephen I regarding heretical baptism. Cyprian advocated parity and communion among all bishops, but did not place the authority of the bishop over that of the pope. He taught that Christ instituted a unique episcopate in Peter, and that all the bishops, in their communities, represent the see of Peter. Cyprian also considered the see of Peter as the principal church; all other churches were to be in communion with it.

Other Fathers, like Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons, also insisted on the primacy of the See of Rome. This primacy, however, is not papal absolutism, an idea the Fathers did not teach.

Aquilina: Meanwhile, others say that their loyalty to the pope gives them freedom to reject the authority of their local bishop. Again, they invoke the Fathers, noting that many bishops succumbed to the Arian heresy. What is the consensus of the Fathers on this issue?

Fr. Kaitholil: It is absurd to think that loyalty to the pope justifies rejection of the authority of the local bishops. Just the contrary. As Cyprian held, the local bishop represents the see of Peter. There is a wide consensus among the Fathers regarding the authority of the local bishop and the need of being in communion with him. When a bishop is no longer in communion with the pope, he breaks off from the Church, and the pope as the chief pastor intervenes to do the needful. If a bishop is a confirmed heretic, fidelity to the pope demands rejection of that bishop’s authority.

Aquilina: How did the Christians of the patristic era view their local bishops? What can we learn from this today?

Fr. Kaitholil: They viewed their local bishops as their spiritual leaders, teachers and guides in faith, morals and liturgy. They accepted the discipline of the bishops and supported them in their pastoral ministry. The people formed well-knit communities around their bishops, who kept them united. Here again, Cyprian insists that concord with the bishop is the condition for peace and unity in the community. He taught that the Church was built upon the bishops. The individual members of the community, through their bishops, belong to the one universal Church. The lesson we learn here is one of communion, cooperation and docility.

Aquilina: How did the Christians of the patristic era view the pope? What can we learn from this today?

Fr. Kaitholil: As I see it, Christians of those times viewed the pope as the center of unity, the source of guidance and encouragement for the whole Church. Jesus appointed Peter chief shepherd, the key holder and the rock foundation. From the earliest times, churches in other places accepted the Church of Rome as the center of unity and acknowledged that authority over the whole Church belongs to the successor of Peter. Today the jurisdiction of the pope over the bishops — which Cyprian did not favor — is an accepted fact.

The authority of the college of apostles is a shared one, exercised in communion and love. Yet Peter has a special duty to strengthen others in faith, as we see in Luke 22:32. According to Pope Leo the Great, Peter is the prince of apostles. The primacy of the pope subjects the bishops to him, and collegiality unites them to him.

Aquilina: How did lay Christians of the patristic era view their own role in the Church and in the world? What can we learn from this today?

Fr. Kaitholil: Lay Christians were deeply involved in the mission of the Church and collaborated with their pastors. They were open to social and cultural life, and adapted themselves to new conditions. They considered themselves the people of God, pilgrims and strangers in the world but at home everywhere.

Cyprian held that every member of the Church has an honorable function. The laity formed active and united communities and played their role in organization and activity.

Tertullian was a fervent lay theologian and preacher. So was Origen, before he was ordained a priest. Their writings still inspire many. The lesson for us is that the Christian community is not to be a passive flock, but to be active in Church life under the guidance of legitimate authority.

Aquilina: What can we learn from the divisions within the early Church and the ways the Fathers conducted themselves in debate? What behavior was productive? What wasn’t?

Fr. Kaitholil: Divisions in the early Church were generally based on convictions and not personality conflicts or quest for advantage. In debate, the Fathers were often fiery, fanatical and polemical. They used Scripture and logic, but also resorted to argumentum ad hominem. They took clear positions and were willing to bear the consequences. Some of them went by their own wisdom and did not follow the magisterium of the Church, thus paving the way for divisions.

Yet the debates led to clarification of ideas, to greater precision in doctrine, to creative thinking and deepening in theology. Free thinking and honest expression of thought were thus productive.

3 thoughts on “The Church Then and Now

  1. Mr. Aquilina, just came across your blog, and perusing through it sort of reminded me of this book:

    The Closing of the Western Mind : The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman

    By any chance, have you read this book, or do you know anything about this book, or its author? If so, could you share any opinions/thoughts/analysis about them.


  2. All I know about the book and author is what I just read on Amazon. Luckily, the author himself chimed in with a rather long Apologia Pro Vita Sua. He succeeds in distinguishing himself from Gibbon, who viewed the rise of Christianity as an almost unmitigated disaster. But he still seems to think Christianity was a slide backward for intellectual life and sexual license. Though I haven’t read the book, I doubt that, even in 480 pages, he could demonstrate to me that I should prefer Plotinus over Augustine or Boethius. Nor do I think he could persuade me of the superiority of pagan sexual ethics, even if he wrote 26 volumes on the topic. The misery is all too apparent in the relics of antiquity, not to mention the works of modern historians who desperately want to recover a pagan sexuality. Give me Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity any day. Stark may be an agnostic, but he has no ax to grind.

  3. Why do so few of these writers point towards the rise of huge slaveholding landholders as the cause of imperial decline? I mean, it’s pretty obvious those few rich guys controlling so many people and so much wealth were doing a great job sucking the life and hope out of things. I’m sure they sucked the reason from things, too. I mean, why work on literary or scientific pursuits if you were just going to be unable to pay taxes and end up being made a slave on some rich guy’s factory farm far away from your home?

    Blaming Christianity seems awfully old-fashioned.

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