21 May 2017

Constantine, Helena and Christian statecraft

Equal-to-the-Apostles and Emperor Constantine with his Mother Helena

Today is the name-day of my daughter, whose patron saint is Holy and Right-Believing Helena the Empress, Equal-to-the-Apostles, mother of Equal-to-the-Apostles Emperor Saint Constantine the Great. Perhaps it is worth reflecting this Sunday on the virtues of both, and the ideals of Christian statehood which they represented?

Emperor Saint Constantine was a model emperor, not because of his military victories alone, not because of his founding the great City that bore his name, not because of his public philanthrōpía (a generosity for which his saintly mother Empress Saint Helena was equally famed, being a patroness of churches and hospitals in the Holy Land – most famously the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem) and state welfare policies, not even because of the Edict of Milan which lifted the great repressions from off the shoulders of the Christian Church. Constantine was a model emperor because he was able to exercise both authority and humility. Even though he did not outlaw pagan practices and (for the purposes of political expediency) kept most of his pagan titles, he nonetheless refused outright to allow himself – the State, in the person of Cæsar – to be worshipped as a god, as demanded by the tribunes of the older Roman cultus. At the same time, though, Emperor Constantine was relentlessly insistent upon the prerogatives of the state to enforce justice – and at that, a justice which was far more expansive than mere procedural formalism.

Constantine’s relationship with the Church shows a similar balance of humility with authority, a similar sense of sōphrosunē in the classical sense, as demonstrated by his conduct at Nicæa. Even though Constantine told the bishops they must come to an agreement on the question of the doctrines of Arius, and even though he was responsible for hosting and assembling the bishops there, he himself exerted no pressure one way or the other. He asked only that the bishops come to a unanimous agreement. As Church historian Theodoret put it: ‘These and similar exhortations he, like an affectionate son, addressed to the bishops as to fathers, labouring to bring about their unanimity in the doctrines.’ Emperor Saint Constantine was well aware of his civil power and prerogatives, and used those prerogatives as appropriate both before and after the Council, but while the ecclesiastical leaders deliberated he conducted himself before them meekly and with deference, as a son or as a younger brother would do. This virtue was inculcated in him early in his life by his mother, whom he treated with great filial respect both before and after he became Emperor.

The saintly Emperor was clearly no ‘intégriste’ – such a vertical conception of the unity of the ends of church and state itself being a product of the ‘reforms’ of the eleventh century and of the investiture controversies, rather than of the ecclesiology of the Early Church. Saint Constantine embodied, rather, the principle of symphonía: harmony, or cooperation, between civil and ecclesiastical authority. The civil state with its own ends of earthly justice, conditioned by the realities of sin and death, does have concerns which overlap with the Church in its care for the eternal soul; however, these ends are very different. Certainly Constantine, a man who from personal experience was all too well-aware of the ‘messiness’ of statecraft and of political exigency, would have understood that his own position could not be effectively conflated with those of the bishops he invited to Nicæa; nor could their authority be exercised through punitive civil actions without the salvific witness being polluted. Yet neither could the two be indifferent – or, still worse, hostile – to each other.

Emperor Saint Constantine, in no small part thanks to his upbringing by the august Empress Helena, displayed in his public life an altogether-too-rare mixture of humility, cunning and genuine concern for the least of his subjects, which taken together made him something of an anti-machiavel. Or rather, Emperor Saint Constantine was someone with the requisite ‘virtù’ in the instrumental sense, but who directed that skill toward selfless and truly public-minded ends.
Having seen the figure of the Cross in the heavens,
and like Paul not having received his call from men, O Lord,
Your apostle among rulers, the Emperor Constantine,
has been set by Your hand as ruler over the Imperial City
that he preserved in peace for many years,
through the prayers of the Theotokos, O only lover of mankind.

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