While these developments were taking place in the thought of Christians about their faith, and, as we have suggested, in part through the struggle to arrive at a common mind on the issues which were raised, the structure of the Catholic Church was continuing to grow. While this growth was in part from the effort to reach unanimity on central features of the Christian faith, it was profoundly affected by the patterns of the state and the society in which the Church found itself and by the relations of the Church to the state.
The Catholic Church was the majority Church of the Roman Empire. While it reached beyond that Empire and while there were minority Christian groups which excluded themselves from the Catholic Church or were excluded by it, in the main the Catholic Church was the Church of the Roman Empire. By the close of the fifth century the Catholic Church and the Roman state had become so intimately associated that the latter had placed an impress upon the former which was to prove indelible. The Catholic Church owed what might be called its structural unity as much to the fact that it had the support of the political unity which the Roman Empire had given to the Mediterranean Basin as to the love which theoretically should bind all Christians together. Indeed, when in the centuries which immediately followed the first five hundred years of the faith the Roman Empire fell apart, the unity which ideally should have existed in the Christian Church not only was too feeble to preserve the unity of the Mediterranean world: it also was not strong enough to hold the Catholic Church together. Yet so deeply had the Roman Empire placed its stamp on the Catholic Church that to this day the various fragments into which the latter broke have preserved many of the features, especially those of outward organization, which were acquired in the days of the Empire, and the largest fragment, the Roman Catholic Church, in many ways perpetuates the genius of pre-Christian Rome.
As we have suggested, increasingly the Church centred about the clergy led by the bishops and especially around the bishops. As early as the beginning of the second century a differentiation between clergy and laity began to be seen, and as time passed a priesthood developed which was regarded as the Christian counterpart of that of the ancient Jews. Leading the clergy and, therefore, the Church, were the bishops. As we have seen, the bishops were regarded as successors of the apostles. The development of the clergy and of ranks in the clergy may in part have been influenced by the example of the kind of officialdom which characterized the Roman Empire, especially during the later years of the period which we have been describing. We have also noted something of the theory of the episcopate held by the great Bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, who expounded it in letter after letter. He insisted that the bishops were necessary to the very existence (esse) of the Church and were not merely a form of administration found useful for the well-being (bene esse) of the Church. "The Church is in the bishop and the bishop in the Church," he said. He held that each bishop was the equal of every other bishop and that while a bishop might admonish one of his brothers no one had rightful administrative authority over any other. He declared that no bishop should "set himself up as a bishop of bishops," and that a bishop "can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another." In this he was in conflict with the claims of the Bishops of Rome, claims to which we have already referred and to which we are to recur. The bishops tended to group themselves by the administrative divisions of the Empire, and for the election and consecration of a bishop the bishops of a particular province assembled. From very early days, bishops wrote letters to one another on matters which concerned the Church. Through them, Christians in one part of the Empire helped those in other sections who suffered from persecution or famine. Bishops prayed for one another, especially at the time of the Eucharistic services. Lists of bishops, emperors, and benefactors of the Church, both living and dead, were placed on tablets, called diptychs, for commemoration at the Eucha rist. Removal of a bishop's name from the diptychs of another bishop was symbolic of excommunication.
After the time when, through Constantine, the government of the Roman Empire made its peace with the Church, the Church became increasingly associated with the state. Long before it had accepted the Church, the Roman state had insisted upon controlling the religion of its citizens. Its Emperor was pontifex maximus, the chief priest of the cults officially acknowledged by the state. It was, therefore, natural that when the Emperors were Christians they should insist upon having similar power in the Church. To be sure, they were not members of the hierarchy and did not perform the functions which by now had become exclusively assigned to the latter. The Church was never as fully subservient to the Emperor as the former pagan state cults had been, but to a degree maintained the autonomy which it had developed in the centuries when it had not been accorded legal recognition. In theory a Christian Emperor might be cut off from communion for his misdeeds like the humblest member of the Church. This was seldom done, but on a notable occasion in 390 Ambrose, as Bishop of Milan, remonstrated with the Emperor Theodosius for a massacre which the latter had ordered in Thessalonica and excluded him from the Church until he had proved his repentance by the acts prescribed for penitents. Yet the Emperors exercised great power in the Church. We have noted how Constantine and some of his successors sought to bring internal peace in the Church by calling councils of the Church. We have pointed out that some of the Emperors hastened the formal acceptance of Christianity by encouraging bishops in their missionary activities and by proscribing paganism and its ceremonies. Eventually, the Emperor himself, as we have reported, and as we are to see especially in the case of Justinian, declared what was sound doctrine. The Emperors enforced the decrees of councils against those condemned as heretics. They had a voice in appointments to high ecclesiastical office, especially in the East, near the main seat of their authority. As time passed, the assent of the Emperor was required even for the assumption of his powers by each successive Bishop of Rome. It was under the Emperors that, what came to be called "ecumenical councils" became the voice of the entire Catholic Church.
In the course of the years the bishops in the larger cities began to exercise authority over the bishops in their vicinity. In 341 the Council of Antioch ordered that in each province the bishop in the chief city, or metropolis, should have precedence over the other bishops in the province, and that the other bishops should "do nothing extraordinary without him." In this the council believed that it was not making an innovation but was simply following a time-honoured custom. The metropolitan or archbishop was to take no common action without the concurrence of the other bishops in his province. Each bishop had authority in his own diocese, namely, "the whole district which is dependent upon his city; to ordain presbyters and deacons; and to settle everything with judgement." But he was "not to undertake anything further without the bishop of the metropolis," nor was the latter "to undertake anything further" without the consent of the other bishops of the province. Any bishop might have under him what were called chorepiscopoi, appointed by himself, to supervise the churches in villages and rural districts. The chorepiscopus had been ordained to the episcopate and could ordain those in the subordinate ranks of the clergy — readers, sub-deacons, and exorcists — but not presbyters or deacons.
The bishops in the chief cities of the Empire had positions of outstanding prestige, a prestige which, with modifications, has persisted into our own day. Especially prominent were those of Jerusalem, because of its historic associations with the beginning of Christianity, Antioch, the chief city of Syria and where the disciples were first called Christians, Alexandria, Constantinople, and, particularly, Rome. The bishops of these sees were eventually known as Patriarchs.
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