Sunday, January 21, 2007

Horse Sense: The History of Freedom in Christianity (Part I)

When Constantine the Great carried the seat of empire from Rome to Constantinople, he reputedly carried nails employed at the Crucifixion, which his mother was believed to have found in Jerusalem. Constantine, in adopting the Christian faith, had not intended to renounce his arbitrary power. Nevertheless by promoting Christianity, he surrendered some prerogative of former Caesars. Constantine was the acknowledged author of the liberty and superiority of the Church. He was appealed to as protector and guardian of its unity. He admitted the obligation, accepted the trust. His power was absolute within this altered context. Nevertheless, the Romans became aware of a race of men, who had not abdicated freedom—not even for revealed religion, or in response to the edicts of Constantine. Kings of barbarians did not preside at councils and were sometimes even elected and could be deposed. They were bound by oath to act in obedience to the general wish, and they enjoyed real authority only in war. The primitive Republicanism held fast to the collective supremacy of all free men, as well as to the concept of constituent authorities, a remote germ of parliamentary government. The first effect of Teutonic (Germanic) migration into the regions civilized by Rome was to throw back Europe five hundred years in terms of science and knowledge. The collapse of the Western empire, however, released Christianity to a new and wide-open horizon—namely, to the conversion of the barbarian peoples. Conversion in fact occurred at an amazing rate, chiefly brought about by barbarian kings who converted. Much knowledge would eventually make its comeback through schools of the clergy. New states established by invaders, out of the old Roman Empire and along its borders, came to regard the Church as something infinitely vaster, stronger, holier than earthly political authority. The states at first conferred spiritual authority on the Church, and the Church helped develop state frameworks for governments.
The monarchies of the Goths in Spain and the Saxons in England had nobles, as well as the semblance of free institutions surrounding the throne, but these passed away fairly quickly. The people who prospered and overshadowed the rest were the Franks, who had no native nobility and whose succession to the Crown was guided by superstition. The system they developed to excess was the feudal system, which essentially made land the measure and the master of all things. The nations of the West lay between the competing tyrannies of local magnates and of absolute monarchs until another struggle challenged vassal and lord alike. When the progress of feudalism threatened the independence of the Church, by subjecting the prelates to personal dependence on kings, this ushered in a period of four hundred years of conflict to which we owe much of the rise of civil liberty. The towns of Italy and Germany would win their franchise, France got her states general, England her parliament; and as long as the conflict between Church and state rulers persisted, there was no rise of Divine Right of kings. The disposition existed to regard the crown as an estate descending under the law of real property in the family that possessed it. But the authority of religion, and especially of the papacy, was thrown to the side that denied the indefeasible title of kings. Except in France where the reigning house was above the law, oaths of fidelity to monarchs were conditional. That is, fealty to a ruler applied during his good behavior, i.e., so long as his actions were in conformity with the public law to which all monarchs were held subject. A sort of reverse doctrine of the Divine Right of the people was invoked to raise Edward III to the throne in England after it was used to depose his father. But the idea of the people raising up and pulling down princes, after obtaining the sanctions of religion, was made to stand on broader grounds than the Church and state, and strong enough to resist both. In the struggle between the house of Bruce and the house of Plantagenet for the possession of Scotland and Ireland, the English claim was backed by the censures of Rome. But the Irish and the Scots refused it; and the address in which the Scottish parliament informed the Pope of their resolution shows how firmly and exactly they held the doctrine of people’s sovereignty: “Divine Providence, the laws and customs of the country, which we will defend till death, and the choice of the people, have made him our King. If he should ever betray his principles, and consent that we should be subjects of the English king, then we shall treat him as an enemy, as the subverter of our rights and his own, and shall elect another in his place. We care not for glory or for wealth, but for that liberty which no true man will give up but with his life.”
This expression of doctrine essentially crosses concepts found in the Republicanism of barbarian invaders of Rome with tenets of Christianity and illustrates how these merged and spread with the Gentile conversion after the fall of Rome during the Middle Ages. Similar expressions of doctrine were adopted in quarters of the Church itself and expounded by its leaders, the likes of whom included St. Thomas Aquinas.
Wesley Allen Riddle is a retired military officer with degrees and honors from West Point and Oxford. Widely published in the academic and opinion press, he ran for U.S. Congress (TX-District 31) in the 2004 Republican Primary. This piece largely abridged and condensed from an address by Lord Acton to the Bridgnorth Institute in England on 28 May 1877. Email:

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