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Church and State: A History of Conflict

‘They will persecute you’

In a discourse to his apostles, Jesus warned about the fate to befall Christians: “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20). Christ cautioned his disciples to anticipate negativity from the world, and Church history has verified the Master’s warning.

If there is one theme that runs through the 2,000 years of Christian experience, it is persecution. From its inception, the Church has suffered the evil of those who reject the God-man. In some cases, the persecution has been violent and bloody; at other times it has been manifested in non-bloody discrimination and suffering. Sometimes the evil is perpetrated by individual actors bent on inflicting violence on a select group of Christians, and sometimes governments have persecuted the Church on a large scale.

From its humble beginnings in the Roman imperial province of Judea, the Church’s existence has proven problematic for politicians and nations. These conflicts sometimes have been perpetuated by politicians needing scapegoats for their failed policies, sometimes by rulers jealous of the Church’s patrimony and nontemporal focus. History is the great teacher, and it is astonishing to review how the rulers of the world believed they could eradicate the Catholic Church, an institution that has survived countless political systems, nations, and despotic rulers.

Benito Mussolini knew the history of the interaction between church and state. After taking power in Italy, the fascist leader, in explaining his nonviolent approach to the Church, wrote in the Italian newspaper Figaro, “[The] history of western civilization from the time of the Roman Empire to our days shows that every time the State clashes with religion, it is always the state which ends defeated” (December 1934; quoted by Ronald J. Rychlak in Hitler, the War, and the Pope, 35).

Throughout this issue we highlight crucial times in history when the tension between church and state erupted into persecution and even war.

Two Centuries of Harassment

After Pentecost, the apostles spread throughout the world to preach the gospel. As the Faith spread and became focused on the conversion of Gentiles, the Church began interacting with the Roman imperial government. The Romans, who at first saw the new group as a sect within the Jewish community, came to view the Church as a separate organization that threatened the very life of the empire.

The first negative interaction between the Church and the empire occurred in the summer of A.D. 64 when the psychotic emperor Nero (r. 54-68) let Rome burn and blamed the Christians. Nero outlawed the Faith, arrested Christians in Rome and its environs, and executed them, including Sts. Peter and Paul, in a horrific manner.

That first imperial persecution initiated more than two centuries of government harassment of the Church. The Romans viewed Christians as an anti-social minority that threatened Roman peace and security because they refused to worship the pagan gods and the emperor. Christians became easy targets during times of civil unrest and bad economies when tyrannical rulers focused hatred on the Church in attempts to deflect criticism from the Roman populace.

The Roman persecutions spanned two centuries, but violent activity against the Church was only sporadic. The first empire-wide persecution occurred during the reign of Decius (r. 249-251), an inflexible strong man who desired unity and conformity to the imperial cults. Decius ordered every person in the empire to make a public sacrifice to the pagan gods. After the offering, a person received a certificate (known as the libellus) acknowledging the performance of the civic duty. Failure to sacrifice and provide the libellus when requested resulted in death.

Decius initiated his persecution by killing Pope St. Fabian (r. 236-250). Sadly, many Christians, including the clergy, offered the sacrifice or paid others to do it for them, and the Church suffered mightily. Decius died campaigning against the Goths, the first Roman emperor killed by a foreign enemy.

A few years later, Valerian (r. 253-260) attacked the Church in an edict condemning all bishops, priests, and deacons to death. Once again, the pope was killed (Pope St. Sixtus II), followed by his deacon, St. Lawrence. Valerian hoped the Christian persecution would unite the empire and appease the pagan gods in order to bring victory against the Persians.

The gambit failed, and Valerian was the first Roman emperor captured by a foreign enemy. The Persian king humiliated Valerian by using him as a stepstool when the king mounted his horse. Valerian died five years into his captivity, and the king ordered the emperor’s body skinned, stuffed, and displayed as a trophy in the palace.

The beginnings of the fourth century brought the Great Persecution to the Church under the reign of Diocletian (r. 284-305). Diocletian, recognizing that the empire was too vast for one man to rule, divided it into halves and instituted the tetrarchy, or the rule of four, with an emperor and caesar for both halves. Galerius, the eastern caesar, disliked the Church and convinced Diocletian to issue an edict of persecution in 303. Persecution was intense throughout the empire, and Christians were murdered in large numbers.

The killings ended when Diocletian, worn out from a lifetime of imperial service, abdicated, and Galerius died. The witness of the martyrs throughout the Roman persecutions proved the bulwark of the Church. Although attacked at its very beginnings, the Church survived and through the blood of the martyrs converted the government that had so violently harassed it.

Meddlesome Imperial Protectors

Marching his army through Gaul on the way to a winner-take-all battle for the imperial title, Constantine witnessed a miraculous sign: a cross appeared in the sky with the phrase In hoc signo vinces (“In this sign, conquer”). Convinced the sign showed favor from the Christian God, Constantine marched to battle against his rival Maxentius at Rome.

In the Battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine won a great victory and became the Western Roman emperor. The new emperor showered favors on the Church, which had been decimated in the Great Persecution. He legalized the Church, legislated Christian morality, and began instruction in the Faith as a catechumen.

Constantine viewed the Church as an instrument to unite and reform the empire and further his political aspirations. So he meddled in Church affairs, creating a relationship between emperor and Church known as caesaro-papism.

The rise of Arianism illustrates the danger such a relationship posed to the Church. Arius, a North African priest, taught that Jesus and the Holy Spirit were not co-eternal Persons in the Trinity but were rather creatures of God. The heresy appealed to the Roman elites because of its sophisticated approach to the complex problem of the Trinity, and they adopted the teaching to separate themselves from the uneducated populace that believed Jesus was fully God and man.

Annoyed at the conflict in the Church, Constantine called the bishops to meet at Nicaea in 325 to discuss the issue. The council condemned Arianism and developed a faith statement known as the Creed. Most of the bishops at the Council accepted the Creed, but two refused to do so and were exiled by Constantine, the first time in Church history a secular punishment was utilized for an ecclesial crime.

Even after Constantine’s death, the imperial government continued to interfere in Church affairs by supporting Arianism and persecuting faithful bishops. Constantius II, Constantine’s son, called a council at Milan in 355 to compel Western bishops to support Arianism, and he tortured, imprisoned, and exiled those who refused.

Pope Liberius (r. 352-366) was pressured to sign a condemnation of Athanasius and although he initially refused, he was exiled until he signed an ambiguous formula. After Constantius II’s death, the Church suffered the rule of Julian the Apostate (r. 361-363), who persecuted the Church in favor of paganism. Julian issued anti-Christian edicts that marginalized Catholics in Roman society and even attempted to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem as a means to disprove Christ’s prophecy.

The Church suffered the effects of caesaro-papism for the next several centuries, as meddlesome emperors engaged in theological controversies. Bishops who opposed emperors, such as St. John Chrysostom (347-407), found themselves in grave danger. Even popes who defied the emperor’s will were assaulted by the imperial government.

Pope St. Martin I (r. 649-653) excommunicated a patriarch of Constantinople for holding to the Monothelite heresy. He was arrested by imperial troops, exiled to an island in the Aegean, and brought to Constantinople, where he was imprisoned, tortured, and convicted on trumped-up charges. Martin’s death sentence was commuted, but he was sent into exile and died. He is recognized as the last papal martyr.

Centuries of persecution by the imperial authorities forced the popes to look elsewhere for political support and protection. In the eighth century they turned to the rulers of the Franks (in modern-day France). Pepin the Short (718-768) captured territory in Italy from the Lombards and gave it to the pope, creating the Papal States.

Although the Church welcomed its new protectors, the responsibilities of temporal lordship caused much consternation for the Church in the following centuries.

Street Fights over the Papacy

The collapse of central governing authority from Rome at the end of the fifth century thrust the papacy and the Church into greater administrative and temporal roles. Pepin the Short’s gift of land in central Italy, forming the Papal States, provided the pope with a temporal landholding and made regional politics an item of importance for the papacy.

In the ninth century, Pope Leo III (r. 795-816) crowned Charlemagne, king of the Franks, emperor. This set the precedent that the pope granted imperial power and authority in the West. As a result, the ninth century witnessed the entanglement of the papacy with local Italian lords and German kings.

The question of the imperial title consumed the five-year pontificate of Pope Formosus (r. 891-896). The pope angered several noblemen by supporting and then withdrawing favor to each, in turn, for the title. Formosus’s successor, Stephen VI (r. 896-897), acquiesed to the demand of Duke Lambert II of Spoleto, one of the noblemen Formosus had spurned, that the dead pope be put on trial.

In one of the most bizarre events in Church history, Formosus’s corpse was exhumed. Since the deceased pontiff was unable to defend himself, a deacon was appointed counsel. The infamous “Synod of the Corpse” ended with the condemnation of Formosus and the desecration of his body.

The troubles in the papacy continued into the tenth century as secular rulers vied to control papal elections. For more than fifty years, the powerful Theophylact family controlled the papacy by placing several members of the family on the throne of St. Peter.

Duke Alberic II of Spoleto, on his deathbed, made his nobles swear to place his son on the papal throne. They did, and the young Octavian became Pope John XII (r. 955-963). John turned the papal palace into a brothel and participated in the ecclesial abuse of simony (the buying and selling of Church offices). John XII turned to Otto, king of the Germans, to protect him from a powerful Italian nobleman.

In exchange, John crowned Otto emperor in 962, after a period of nearly forty years when the imperial title was vacant because popes engaged in games of power politics with various Italian families. Although a devout Catholic, Otto desired to control the Church.

The early eleventh century witnessed literal street fights in Rome between rival claimants over papal elections. In 1032, Pope John XIX (r. 1024-1032) died, and his nephew, Benedict IX (r. 1032-1045; 1045; 1047-1048) became pope. Benedict’s father paid a large sum of money for the papacy.

Benedict was young and restless and decided to resign the office, allegedly to marry his cousin. Benedict conditioned his resignation on the repayment of his father’s money for the papacy, so a pious Roman priest, John Gratian, gathered the money to send the young man on his way. Rome in 1045 was in a state of anarchy, with no effective government and violence the norm. John Gratian, now Gregory VI (r. 1045-1046) helped restore order in the city. However, Benedict IX regretted his resignation, returned to Rome, and demanded reinstatement.

Eventually, Henry III, king of Germany, resolved the situation by nominating a holy German bishop, Sudiger, for the papacy. As Clement II (r. 1046-1047), Sudiger crowned Henry III emperor. Many in the Church were disgusted by the political machinations of papal elections and disliked the emperor’s ability to nominate papal candidates. Hildebrand, a holy monk who witnessed these events, proposed a new method of papal election: the cardinals.

Pope Nicholas II (r. 1058-1061) issued the decree that stipulated the College of Cardinals as the elective body for the papacy. The popes of the Middle Ages ensured the independence of the papacy but also its ascendancy as the prime political motivator in Christendom.

Popes Flex Their Secular Muscles

When Hildebrand was elected pope in 1073, taking the name Gregory VII (r. 1073-1085), he focused on papal authority in the area of episcopal appointments. In his Dictatus Papae decrees, Gregory advocated papal power to depose secular rulers and absolve their subjects from oaths of loyalty.

Gregory’s assertion of papal power was tested in German territory against King Henry IV over the issue of lay investiture, a common practice whereby secular rulers granted the insignia of ecclesiastical office (the ring and crozier) to bishops and abbots. The issue centered in reality over the question of who legitimately appoints bishops: the pope or a secular lord? Gregory VII banned the practice of lay investiture in 1075.

Upset at what he viewed as Gregory’s unwarranted interference, Henry convened an emergency meeting of the imperial congress (known as a Diet) where he denounced the pope and called for his removal. Gregory excommunicated Henry and absolved his subjects from their oaths of loyalty.

Fearing a rebellion, Henry traveled across the Alps in the dead of winter to meet with the pope, who was staying at the castle of Canossa. Gregory reluctantly reconciled Henry to the Church but did not restore his throne. Eventually, Henry put down the rebellion and marched on Rome in order to deal with interfering pope. Gregory took refuge in Castel Sant’Angelo and requested assistance from the Normans, who put to flight Henry’s forces. The Normans brought a large troop of Muslim mercenaries who sacked Rome for three days. Gregory died in exile but had reformed the Church and strengthened the papacy against the wiles of secular rulers.

In the twelfth century, another reform-minded pope molded the papacy into one of the most powerful political actors in Christendom. Pope Innocent III (r. 1198-1216) was the youngest pope in a 150 years and the first with a university education. He expanded on Pope St. Gregory VII’s understanding of the relationship between Church and state by arguing secular power actually derives its authority from papal power.

A secular ruler who challenged Innocent’s vision of papal power was Frederick II, a ward of Innocent’s as a child due to the death of his parents when he was young. Frederick desired control of northern Italy as well as the kingdom of Sicily, which placed the papacy in a precarious situation. He ran afoul of multiple popes for promising to go on crusade but failing to do so.

Eventually excommunicated by Pope Gregory IX and forbidden to go on crusade, Frederick went anyway and achieved moderate success on the campaign through diplomacy. The wayward secular ruler was deposed at the First Council of Lyons in 1245 and died a few years later.

Boniface VIII (r. 1294-1303) also attempted to assert papal power over secular influence. He was heroic in his desire to protect the Church but lacked charity in his dealing with kings. Philip IV “the Fair” of France used Church revenue to finance his wars, and when Boniface objected, the king attacked him.

Boniface issued several papal bulls in an effort to assert the independence of the Church, but Philip ignored them. William of Nogaret, a royal advisor, hatched a plan to kidnap Boniface and force his abdication. The armed force attacked the pope while he was in his hometown of Anagni. Briefly imprisoned until freed by the townspeople, Boniface died a month later.

Afterward, Philip, who desired a more amiable pope, got his wish when the Frenchman Bertrand de Got was elected pope, taking the name Clement V (r. 1305-1314). Philip demanded Clement V move the papal residence to France, which he did in 1309. The Avignon papacy lasted nearly seventy years and negatively impacted the pope’s spiritual and temporal power in Christendom, which laid the foundation for the Protestant Revolution in the sixteenth century.

The Monarchy Assaults the Church

Henry II, king of England, had a brilliant idea: he nominated Thomas Becket (1118-1170), his best friend, as archbishop of Canterbury. Henry was annoyed that secular crimes committed by clerics fell under Church law courts rather than royal legal jurisdiction. He demanded Becket and the English bishops agree to his desire for significant control over Church affairs.

When Becket refused, the king brought false charges against him, prompting the archbishop’s escape from England. After years in exile, Becket returned to England only to be murdered in his cathedral by several knights loyal to the king.

Three and a half centuries later, another King Henry attacked the Church in England. Henry VIII was a sensual man who became controlled by his mistress, Anne Boleyn. Desirous of an annulment from his valid marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry petitioned Pope Clement VII (r. 1523-1534). Impatient for the pope’s decision, Henry listened to the advice of Thomas Cranmer, a secret Lutheran, who believed the king should reign supreme over the Church in his realm.

Henry nominated Cranmer archbishop of Canterbury and, once installed, Cranmer ruled in favor of the king’s request and presided over the “marriage” of Henry and the already pregnant (with Elizabeth) Anne.

When Pope Clement VII’s decision arrived in England, the king was enraged at the pope’s defense of the marriage to Catherine. In the spring of 1534, Parliament passed a series of acts, including the Acts of Succession and Supremacy, that legitimized Elizabeth as the rightful heir and declared Henry as supreme head of the Church in England.

Both acts required that English subjects swear oaths affirming the king’s marriage and status; refusal resulted in imprisonment and death. Several Carthusian monks in London, along with St. John Fisher (bishop of Rochester), and the layman St. Thomas More, refused the oaths and were killed. Henry’s control of the Church allowed the dissolution of the monasteries, wherein the king ordered the closure of all monasteries in England and the confiscation of their revenue in order to enrich himself and his loyal supporters.

Under the reign of Edward VI, Henry’s son with Jane Seymour, England embraced the Protestant heresies of Luther and Calvin. Although the Catholic faith was restored to England after Edward’s death under the reign of his half-sister Mary, it lasted a mere half decade.

The Protestant Queen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558, and under her forty-five year reign the Church was actively and bloodily persecuted by a state government for the first time since the Roman Empire. Controlled by men who desired the eradication of English loyalty to anything outside of the monarchy, Elizabeth allowed the persecution of her Catholic subjects in horrific ways. Laws were passed making it illegal to be Catholic, to attend Mass, to harbor priests, to leave the country to study for the priesthood on the Continent, or to convert anyone to the Faith.

Jesuits and other priests came to England clandestinely to minister to recusants and members of the underground Church. Martyrdom abounded as priest-hunters scoured the English countryside. Even pregnant laywomen (such as St. Margaret Clitherow) were executed for their adherence to the Catholic faith. Despite Pope St. Pius V’s (r. 1566-1572) excommunication of Elizabeth and the launching of the Spanish Armada, the sufferings of English Catholics continued.

Even after Elizabeth’s death, the belief that one could not be both a loyal subject of the English crown and a Catholic persisted. After the failed Gunpowder Plot in 1605, King James I promulgated anti-Catholic laws and in the early eighteenth century Parliament passed the Settlement Act that ensured the English monarch must be Protestant.

The Long Conflict Continues

As the European political and intellectual landscape changed in the eighteenth century, enemies of the Church set their sights on limiting its influence in society. Recognizing the Jesuits controlled most of Europe’s universities and were an obstacle to central state authority, several countries undertook a concerted campaign to suppress the Society of Jesus.

The attack against the Jesuits happened first in Portugal when King Joseph signed a decree expelling the Society from the nation and its colonial territories. King Louis XV followed the actions in Portugal and expelled the Jesuits from France in 1764. Spain, the native country of St. Ignatius Loyola, also expelled the Society in 1767.

The enemies of the Church did not stop at expulsion from certain countries; they desired the complete suppression of the Jesuits. In one of the papacy’s most disgraceful actions, Clement XIV (r. 1769-1774), bowing to intense political pressure, suppressed the Society in his 1773 decree Dominus ac Redemptor. Pope Pius VII (r. 1800-1823) reestablished the Jesuits in 1814 after forty-one years of suppression.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century in France, revolutionary elements took control of the government and abolished the monarchy. The revolutionary government passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790, which allowed for government control of the Church and separated it from the pope. The Constitution required an oath of fidelity by the clergy to the government and made priests paid employees of the state.

The initial nonviolent persecution turned violent when the state embraced a policy of de-Christianization of French society. Churches were confiscated and turned into temples of reason; the Gregorian calendar was modified to a calendar of reason; and clergy, religious, and Catholic laity were martyred.

King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were beheaded in 1792, and a Reign of Terror erupted throughout France. Secular authorities violently suppressed a Catholic uprising in the area known as the Vendée. Order returned to France with Napoleon’s ascent to power. Recognizing religion’s vital role in society, Napoleon signed a concordat with the Church that brought peace between Church and state.

The long conflict between Church and state entered a new phase in the nineteenth century with the rise of revolutionary socialism and Italian nationalism. Riots swept most European countries in 1848. In Italy, Count Pellegrino Rossi, a government minister in the Papal States, was assassinated in the presence of Pope Bl. Pius IX (r. 1848-1878). Mobs formed outside the Quirinal Palace in Rome demanding a unified Italian nation and an end to the Papal States.

Fearing for his life, Pius IX fled Rome and spent two years in Naples. The pope returned to Rome after French troops arrived in the city to guarantee his safety. Twenty years later, the French troops left to fight in the Franco-Prussian War, and the pope lost the Papal States, retaining only the Vatican, which was recognized in the 1929 Lateran Treaty as the independent sovereign nation of Vatican City State.

The modern era witnessed the greatest clash between Church and state with the rise of political ideologies at odds with message of Christ. Socialism, nationalism, and fascism are totalitarian ideologies that subject the individual to the state and persecute the Church.

In the early twentieth century, a socialist anti-Catholic revolutionary government came to power in Mexico. A new constitution was passed in 1917 with several anti-Catholic provisions that denied basic civil rights to Catholic clergy. Persecution of the Church turned violent in the 1920s under the direction of President Plutaro Calles. Foreign priests and religious were expelled from the country, priests were arrested, and bishops stripped of their citizenship and forced to leave the country. Brave priests, including Bl. Miguel Pro, continued to minister clandestinely to faithful Catholics, and many suffered martyrdom.

As in previous places where the state persecuted Catholics, rebellion erupted. The Cristeros fought against Mexican federal troops for several years to protect Catholics and the Church. Although a settlement was reached, the government later broke the agreement and hunted down the Cristeros.

In the 1930s persecution against the Church erupted once more as the Mexican state closed churches, forced priests to marry, and harassed Catholics. The anti-Catholic articles of the Mexican federal constitution were not repealed until 1992.

State-sponsored persecution of the Church continued into the twentieth century with the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and Soviet tyranny in Ukraine. Spain suffered a horrible civil war with socialists, anarchists, Freemasons, and communists targeting the Church. These groups massacred Catholic priests, religious, bishops, and laity in horrific manners not seen in Europe since the Roman Empire.
Eventually, the persecution ended when the Nationalists, who protected the Church, solidified control of the country. The rise of fascism and national socialism in Italy and Germany negatively impacted the Church as both political ideologies viewed the Faith as an obstacle to their political ambitions.

The Nazis sought to eradicate the influence of the Church in German life, especially among the youth and, despite signing a concordat promising safety and protection to Catholics, harassed the Church at every opportunity. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, sparking the Second World War, priests were arrested and sent to concentration camps where many died, including the martyr of charity, St. Maximilian Kolbe.

Catholic laity who refused to cooperate with the evil regime suffered also. Bl. Franz Jägerstätter, a faithful Austrian Catholic, was beheaded in 1943 for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to Hitler and the Nazi state as a member of the German military.

State-sponsored persecution of Catholics continues in the modern world. In Western nations such as the U.S., the persecution is largely nonviolent and focused on suppressing the Church’s influence in society. But in other areas of the world, especially China, the Church and the faithful are violently oppressed.

Christ warned the Church would be subject to violence and persecution in imitation of him. He also promised to remain with the Church until the end of time. It is vital for Catholics to know well the story of the conflict between church and state in order to be emboldened by the memory of the martyrs and saints, to remain hopeful in the midst of current calamities, and to fight for Christ and his Church against the forces of evil.

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