On the relationship between Church and Power

8 06 2009


The Emperor, who was full of faith, now took courage to enter holy church where he prayed neither in a standing, nor in a kneeling posture, but throwing himself upon the ground. He tore his hair, struck his forehead, and shed torrents of tears, as he implored forgiveness of God. Ambrose restored him to favor, but forbade him to come inside the altar rail, ordering his deacon to say “The priests alone, O Emperor, are permitted to enter within the barriers by the altar. Retire then, and remain with the rest of the laity. A purple robe makes Emperors, but not priests. . .” Theodosius meekly obeyed, praising Ambrose for his spirit, and saying “Ambrose alone deserves the title of “bishop.”

The scene above, taken from the incident of St. Ambrose rebuking Theodosius, makes for “great cinema”, especially for us who have instinctively come to see “sticking it to the man” as the greatest feat of heroism a person can perform. We can go even further back to the Gospels themselves, where St. John the Baptist was beheaded for refusing to overlook the personal failings of another despot. That prophetic impulse, that tremendous courage to stand up to those in power who fall short of their call to be virtuous rulers, may make us proud to be Catholics and Christians.┬áIt may deflect any accusation that the Roman Catholic Church is guilty of Caesaropapism. The only problem is that such displays are the exception and not the norm, and many times this is not due to cowardice, but to prudence. Just as with its secular counterpart, ecclesiastical politics can often be the art of the possible, not of the ideal.
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