Peace of the Church. —This is the designation usually applied to the condition of the Church after the publication at Milan in 313 by Emperor Constantine of an edict of toleration by which the Christians were accorded complete liberty to practice their religion without molestation. The freedom of conscience demanded by the Christian religion was incompatible with the theocratic or absolutist views which had prevailed regarding the relations of the State and religion prior to the time of Christ. This fundamental difference as to the extent and province of the civil power together with other reasons of a religious, social, and economic character led to the prescription of the followers of Christ in the Roman Empire. The attitude of the civil authorities changed as the Christians increased in numbers and importance. At first looked on merely as Jewish schismatics, the Christians were afterwards persecuted as enemies of the State and established institutions. A new stage was reached when, in the middle of the third century, the Church as such was made the object of attack. This attitude, inaugurated by Emperor Decius, made the issue at stake clear and well-defined. The imperial authorities convinced themselves that the Christian Church and the pagan Roman State could not co-exist; henceforth but one solution was possible, the destruction of Christianity or the conversion of Rome. For half a century the result was in doubt. The failure of Diocletian (284-305) and his colleagues in the last and bloodiest of the persecutions to shake the resolution of the Christians or to annihilate the Church left no course open to prudent statesmen but to recognize the inevitable and to abandon the old concept of government, the union of civil power and paganism.
The first decisive step in this direction was taken by the beaten and implacable Galerius, who published from Nicomedia in 311 an edict of toleration in which he confessed that the efforts to “reclaim the Christians” had failed. This edict was the result of utter impotency to prolong the contest. Complete amnesty and freedom were attained two years later when Emperor Constantine, after defeating Maxentius, published early in 313 with his colleague Licinius the famous Edict of Milan by which Christians were guaranteed the fullest liberty in the practice of their religion. Without detracting from the credit of Constantine, the important social and political changes implied in this act must be looked on as a triumph of Christian principles over pagan narrowness. The absolute independence of religion from state interference, which formed the keynote of this famous document, produced a new concept of society, and may be looked on as the first official expression of what afterwards came to be the medieval idea of the State. It was in Western Europe the first declaration on the part of any one vested with civil authority that the State should not interfere with the rights of conscience and religion. In addition to removing the ban from the Christians Constantine ordered that the property of which they had been deprived during the persecutions by seizure or confiscation should be returned to them at the expense of the State. For the Christians the immunities and guaranties contained in this act had most important results. Then for the first time it became possible to observe the Liturgy in its fullness, and seriously and earnestly to attempt to mold the life of the empire according to Christian ideals and standards. The joy of the Christians at this change in their public status is admirably expressed by Eusebius in his “Church History” (X, ii).
PATRICK J. HEALY