European Civilization – From the Edict of Milan to Christianophobia

On October 2, 2012, the DECR chairman spoke at the opening of an international reflection-action conference on ‘Spiritual Feat of Sts Constantine and Helen Equal-to-the-Apostles – the Beginning and Triumph of Christendom in Human History’, which took place at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Dear Participants and Guests of the Conference,

Allow me to greet you on behalf of the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia. In his statements, His Holiness has often addressed the theme of Christian values which have formed the European civilization and become the spiritual foundation of our people. It is an important theme to be constantly revisited.

The Christian world is approaching a remarkable date, the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan, which entered the world history as a most important legal document dividing the two eras – those of heathen Roma and Christian Europe. As far back as 1675 years ago died the initiator of this document, Emperor Constantine the Great, proclaimed by the Church to be holy and equal to the apostles. Speaking about the significance of the holy Emperor Constantine’s deeds for Christians, it is necessary to recall those times of persecution which the Church of Christ had experienced before Roman citizens and subjects were granted freedom of religion.

Our Lord Jesus Christ warned his followers: ‘If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you’ (Jn. 15:20) and ‘they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and rulers for My name’s sake…’ (Lk. 21:12). In addition to the persecution by the Jews, which had begun already during our Saviour’s life on earth, the heathen Roman society, too, saw Christians as new enemies. There were several reasons for it. The heathen worship was a source of subsistence for a whole range of persons including pagan priests, producers of idols and oracles. Christians, who rejected the worship of false gods, were accused of godlessness and abandonment of the faith of the forefathers, which was a great dishonour and a moral challenge to the whole people. Extremely suspicious was their evasion from pubic amusements and circuses, which did not add to people’s sympathy for them. Their refusal to recognize the emperor as god, to worship his image and to offer sacrifices provoked suspicions of their disloyalty and high treason. The most terrible crimes began to be imputed to Christians, who were seen as man-haters and people of low life.

Jesus Christ explained to his disciples the reasons for this attitude to be shown to them by those around them: ‘If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you’ (Jn. 15:19).

Heathen intellectuals, without taking the trouble to plunge into the essence of Christ’s teaching, described it as ‘pernicious prejudice’ (Tacitus) or ‘rude and unstinting’ (Pliny the Younger). Among those who came out against Christianity were Stoics, Epicureans and New-Platonist including Lucian of Samosata, Celsius, Flavius Arrianus, Hierocles. Some did not understand the courage and steadfastness of Christian martyrs in their faith, while others believed their teaching to be ‘a random walk in the air’ which, unlike the views of Neo-Platonists, did not even recognize the truth of other religious systems and philosophical views. Verily, Christianity became ‘to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness’ (1 Cor. 1:23).

The public opinion was now quite ready and the only thing required for mass persecution was the political will. What was needed was a spark to set fire to the explosive mixture of rumours, stereotypes and established ideas of Christians. And this spark, in the literal sense of the word, was provided by the fire in Rome kicked up, according to some evidence of contemporaries, by Emperor Nero. Rumours of his complicity in the disaster began to circulate and to supress them he accused Christians of the arson. Tacitus thus described the developments: ‘To get rid of the rumours, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace… Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired’ (Tacitus Annals XV.44).

The persecutions were sometimes to subside sometimes to flame up. Under Diocletianus and his successors, the persecution against Christians became the empire’s last spurt to paganism. Rome’s religious pluralism proved to be incompatible with ‘rigid’ and ‘intolerant’ citizens and subjects who sought the absolute Truth. Once again the powerful state machine failed to cope with unarmed Christians who did not even put up any resistance, which led to radical changes in the empire and St. Constantine Equal-to-the-Apostles was the one who initiated and carried them out.

Historians and theologians were especially interested in the question what exactly made Constantine the Great to take side with Christianity. Clearly, he, just as his father Constantius Chlorus, adopted a favourable attitude to Christians originally under the influence of his mother, the holy Empress Helen Equal-to-the-Apostles. But what was it that ultimately guided the emperor when he initiated the preparation and publication of the Edict of Milan? – Was it a naked political calculation devoid of sincere religious feeling or sincere acceptance of Christ in his heart? Historical sources, which tell us about the personality of Constantine the Great, are rather polar. There is church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, on one hand, and heathen author Zosimus, on the other, who felt aversion to the personality of the emperor. These sources were used as a basis by later researchers who added their own subjectivism to this question. There are, for instance, sceptic assessments by German historian Jacob Burckhardt, who described Emperor Constantine as a smart politician and pure pragmatist with no religious motivation whatsoever. It is impossible to agree with it at least because by that time there had been no more than 10% of Christians in the empire, and to rely on such a narrow segment of the population meant to venture upon an extremely risky political experiment, the more so that this risk was not groundless as neither Senate nor Roman public supported Constantine’s religious policy. It was evident from the celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the imperial rule in Rome when the emperor did not take part in the sacrifice made on the occasion of his arrival in the capital, which led to the Romans’ open indignation ready to develop into an armed rebellion. The open hostility of predominantly heathen Rome became one of the factors which compelled Constantine the Great to think over a new capital city for the empire.

The turning point in the emperor’s religious perception of the world happened during his battle with usurper Maxentius before which Constantine had been instructed by the God of Christians about the way to defeat the enemy.

In 313 in Milan, a conference took place between Constantine the Great and Licinius during which the Edict of Milan was issued on behalf of the two personalities augustus, addressed to presidents of the provinces. Its text has survived in Lactancius’s book ‘On the Deaths of Persecutors’ and in ‘Church History’ by Eusebius of Caesarea. The edict disavowed the previous acts concerning Christians. Unlike the 311 Edict of Galerius, this document proclaimed full religious freedom to the Roman citizens and subjects: ‘…no one whatsoever should be denied the opportunity to give his heart to the observance of the Christian religion, of that religion which he should think best for himself’. Thus, the heathen worship de jure lost its dominance.

St. Constantine the Great began a gradual process of raising the legal status of the Church. It continued, with certain setbacks and attempts to restore the hegemony of heathenism, under his successors, and Theodosius the Great was to complete the empire’s legal rupture with heathenism.

The Edict of Milan laid foundations for future relations between church and state, which were to be described by Justinian as symphony of priesthood and kingdom.

Recalling in our days the high price paid by Christians for this freedom, we are grieved to see how easily today’s Europe is parting with her Christian identity. The concept of European integration has left aside the religious component. First, any reference to God and Christianity was removed from the draft Constitution of the European Union and later from the Lisbon Treaty, which has replaced the yet non-ratified Constitution. As a result, the whole ideological basis of the European integration was reduced exclusively to freedom, democracy and rule of law – a secular paradigm inconsistent with Europe’s civilizational heritage. The secularization has led to the fact that most Europeans have ceased to correlate their life with the Gospel in order to live according to the ‘consumer society’ standards. More than that, Christianity has become an alien element in public life, which has increasingly encountered manifestations of Christianophobia.

Regrettably, the dominant secular worldview is ousting religion from public space, being declared now ‘a private affair’. That is to say, you can do whatever you wish at home, to believe in whatever you wish ‘in your soul’, but you should cooperate with the state and society only according to established rules, the same for all. This seemingly fair approach becomes a true challenge for Christians when these rules begin to contradict the foundations of Christian ethics. The recognition of such things as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex unions by the secular society makes Christians outcasts since they cannot agree with them as a norm for human life.

The logic of modern secularism reminds that of heathen Rome: you can believe in whatever you like but you are obliged to offer sacrifices to gods which are ‘tolerance’ and ‘pluralism’. The faith in God and readiness to follow His commandments are increasingly described as private opinion and it has become simply indecent, out-dated and archaical to proclaim it too loudly. To name things by their proper names, for instance abortion as infanticide, euthanasia as murder and suicide, is now treated as acts of intolerance incompatible with pluralism of opinions and declared ‘infringement on citizens’ rights and freedoms’.

More and more often in the European Union countries we see discrimination against citizens who express active Christian position. Moreover, even the wearing of Christian symbols, such as baptismal crosses, can be seen by some employers as a violation of ‘corporate culture’. There are voices speaking of the need to ban public Christmas celebrations under the far-fetched pretext that it may insult people of other religions. Similar struggle against the presence of religious symbols in schools have been waged for several years in the European Court of Human Rights under the case of ‘Lautsi vs. Italy’ – a vivid example of an attempt of a single person, under the pretext of the infringement of her rights, to impose her own will on millions of people. ‘The religious neutrality of society’ built by proponents of European secularism has turned in practice into a ‘value cleansing’ of this society.

How can Christians oppose such tendencies? What does the power of Christianity lie in? It is determined by the faith of Christians, their ability to live up the Gospel’s law, to bring the light of Divine Truth to people. Having lost the ability to be the salt of the earth, Christians become unable to oppose various ideologies asserting their own rules of common human life.

Today’s conference sets as its task to reflect on the 1700 year-long journey of the Church of Christ from the Edict of Milan to our days – the era filled with many events significant for Christians. And the most important thing in this reflection is an answer to the question about the future of Christianity, the place and role of Christian values in the life of the society, the family and the individual.

Thank you for your attention.


  1. cynthia curran :

    That’s was very good I read some information again on Constantine and Constantine gave one speech that mention about Virgil’s poets prophesied the coming of the Messah. Christians seen it as about Christ while most Romans in Virgil’s day seen it as about Augustus. One other thing Suetonius is another early source that mentions about some Jews fighting over chrestus and being exile. This is mention also in the book of Acts and it actually happen during the reign of Claudius.

  2. Amid the history and regret there is the pearl: “What does the power of Christianity lie in? It is determined by the faith of Christians, their ability to live up [to] the Gospel’s law, to bring the light of Divine Truth to people.”

    Why was it, back in those days, the Christians under such circumstances of persecution nevertheless deemed it worth-while to live the moral life?

    • Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

      Harry, read “Atheist Delusions.” It goes into great detail about this very question. In fact, it sees the Early Christian commitment to the moral life as the driver that turned the conscience of the pagan (there was no such thing as atheism back then) towards Christ. Constantine’s vision at the Milvian Bridge and the subsequent lifting of the persecutions would probably (historical speculation is always a contentious enterprise) have been impossible.

      Looking closer at your question, are you asking too how come they were moral and we aren’t?

      • Fr. Hans: As I read the above I felt I was reading ‘about a picture’, ‘what effect the picture had on various viewers’, ‘the paint used in the picture’, ‘the nature of the picture’s frame’– in short everything except why I care: What’s going on there from the inside?

        Here above in your remarks and the bishop’s remarks in the article we see observed the effects of such choosing to be Christian over against whatnot of the day. For example ‘the moral life was the driver that turned the conscience of the pagan’ and other various characterizations and metrics as to the extent of effects, notable political developments and so forth and so on. They remind me of the quality I feel are part of Archbishop Demetrios’ very thoughtful written remarks and often in his talks, I’ll call it ‘the observer relating what can be seen with high attainment’. Still and all, though, somehow, featuring, relating and organizing the many details available to sight and observation — all externals so to speak. Somehow, well, sterile, sanitary, tidy, missing the main event somehow. Not incorrect, on the contrary quite correctly organized and with as little internal meaning clashes and contradictions as the written language with the discipline of reason and logic appears capable. Still it feels like speaking about a barrel holding something– then talking about everything except what’s in it or why folk chose to interact with it, which certainly was not owing to deeply intellectual ‘broad sweep of history’ dynamics, at least not foremost.

        I feel it most likely that the average dubiously literate Roman citizen in the early several hundred years in question considering Christianity was fantastically unaware of the article’s ‘broad sweep of history’ agenda goals. Most, if able to grasp it at all, certainly would NOT place those outcomes front and center as their motivators for why it was they chose to live as they did.

        Was it because most ‘loved God’? That too is a consequence, the saying of that. Whether you love someone or not is a thing you either do or a thing that happens (or both)– in either case long before words issue forth about it. It certainly wasn’t ‘I love God so I’ll do this or that they say in church or in this gold book to prove it.’ Reaching for a strained but hopefully still useful metaphor: One’s mental personality chess pieces (both black and white) arranged on one’s inner ‘game board’ where both sets of pieces are arranged by one person in whose head this lives — lead to generally predictable ‘next moves’ and sometimes even predictable outcomes. Most Christians whether married or not have their inner ‘chess pieces’ arranged with tensions and relationships in such fashion they aren’t much interested in random sex, for example. There’s rarely this inner discussion: ‘Oh, I better not chat that person up because I’m a Christian after all and I need to prove it to God so I’ll not leap in the sack with whatever their name is I forget’.

        Back in centuries before 1900’s to include the Roman era one could deem it ‘Machivellian’ pressure from civil authority leadership (usually dictators) to the Christian life among the people, owing to pragmatism about early death being bad for the army ranks and labor pool if the invaders next door were to be dealt with or if conquest was to be successful. But they were far from the daily life of the average person choosing how to live.

        Consider real life, a family setting: A young girl soon to be wife (14 years old..) certainly might die in the course of pregnancy even if choosing abortion (popular at the time, risking the woman’s death though it did). If her parents are capable of love they would not want that for their daughter, the disease risk, the pregnancy risk, unless was ‘worth it’, lasting, leading to a future worth risking for. Not random. Having been 14 themselves they knew what impulses the local hot-bloods feel and so deemed protection from random sex by almost any means wisdom. Now unimportant disease then led often to death within days or a couple years at most. Fast forward to today. Big changes!! Sex today rarely leads to unwanted pregnancy and pregnancy almost never results in the mother’s death anymore. That’s a big change. Only ignorant, careless, mostly male-male promiscuous sex leads to horrific illness anymore.

        Was it that then that folk past adolescence in government noticed that Christians didn’t die so soon and generally led lives they wished for themselves having made other choices, and so ‘got on the bandwagon’ for pragmatic government competitive reasons— still while rather missing ‘the reason for it all’, the reason the ‘usually not so literate everyman’ who chose it even at social peril, unaware of the ‘broad sweep of governance and history issues’ chose it?

        To the extent the observer is willing to say that person lives the way they do seems not about choices owing to reasons at odds with ‘who they are’– but more about having arranged ‘who they are’ internally so that the internal chosen array of mental relationships that ‘just naturally follows’ is the observed ‘Christian life’. I suspect the often used scriptural metaphors of ‘flowing’ arise from this same theme. One arranges matters more or less ‘so that’ when life is then lived or ‘released’ what ‘flows forth’ or naturally follows is what observers call ‘The Christian life’. The life that led to the various outcomes described by mass attempts toward the practice of Christianity in the article.

        What is it that causes folk to reach into their own chosen internal mental array of tensions and cooperations and various inter-relationships (generally called ‘personality’ by outside observers) and fuss those ‘personality comprising chess piece elements’ about so that ‘just naturally, the further flowing developments ‘ are such that the external observer calls how that person lives ‘The Christian life’? It’s not about agendas to do with ‘the sweep of history’ I think. And I don’t think it’s about anything like ‘they love God and so pay attention to his to-do list in the gold book’. What leads to the decision to re-arrange the personality so it all flows ‘natrually’ or ‘as everyone expected’ in a fashion described as Christian then?

        Those are the sorts of articles I think will lead to growth, the sort I want to read.

      • “Atheist Delusions.” — in hand! Reading away. Introduction is impressive: “all narrative is interpretation, no intetpretation can be free of all prejudice”

        Jumped to the section described as the heart of the book, there we read about the profound personal sea-change involved in a person who makes the change from pagan whatnot to catechumen, to baptized Christian back in the early centuries. Still hoping to read more about what it is that lead a ‘whatnot’ person to commit to such a thing as radical as Christianity over against the mundane other choices with fewer restrictions on behavior.

  3. cynthia curran :

    Father Jacobe I reading about how in the reformation charity organziatons developed in the reformation was centralized,and by the French revoluation abolished private charity.


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