A History of Division: the Odd Policy of the Church


The beginning of the relationship between the Italian state and the Church goes back, from a theorical point of view, to a famous evangelic sentence attributed to Jesus: “Render unto Cesar that which is Cesars and unto God that which is Gods”.

Why can’t this lapidary sentence be pronounced by Jesus Christ?

Because of two simple reasons:

First, Christ never spoke about God, as he would consider himself as “son of man” and, due to his very own “atheism”, he risked more than once to be lapidated (it has been recognized for years and years that the appellation of “son of God” was provided by Paul of Tarsus); second, Christ could not grant citizenship to a foreign power: Cesar and his allies’, actually, which would occupy and oppress Palestine.

In any event, this sentence would always be considered extremely cutting-edge by all the historians of Christianity. By relating it to the historical Roman context, where the pagan religion was nothing more than an “instrumentum regni”, this sentence would unveil the idea of “separation” or, at least, distinction between religion and politics and, therefore, between Church and State. Indeed, the first Christians were considered “atheists” by the Roman institutions, which mean they were not very loyal in the political sphere and undoubtedly unreliable in the military defense one. That’s why they were initially persecuted.

These persecutions would not represent a clear attack against the revolutionary character of their policy (which was very conservative and traditionalist on some points, such as slavery): they were referred to the cultural character of a position which would tend to put civil issues on a separate level from religious ones.

When, more than two centuries later, after the propagation of Christianity, the Constantinian turn around occurred, some sort of non-denominational empire was born, which would allow each religion to externalize its expressions, as long as no elements jeopardized the scheme of the old slavish and the new servile relationship.

This pluralistic overture of the Roman state to many religions would not last long: the first Ecumenical Council was established in order to prevent the spread of Arianism and the Roman emperor Theodosius, in the year 380, made Christianity the only official religion of the empire, while all the others were fated to hide in clandestinity.

Throughout this phase, the Roman Church tried hard to exploit its privileged position as the only accepted religion, acquiring a role in acquiring revenue and, in order to diminish the power of the Byzantine leader, contributed to create a Catholic-Latin empire in the western area of the Roman-Christian area, as opposed to the Greek-Orthodox eastern one.

All the barbarian-born sovereigns, who had come to the West (even if it would be better to say “Asian-born”, or, at least, “Saxon” or “Slavic”) were used by the Roman Church as some sort of “secular arm”. Obviously, this manipulation was even easier with those tribes and peoples whose religion had no Aryan derivation, as it was clear that Aryanism would put the Church on a lower level than the holder of military and political power.

Generally, we can say that the Church of the middle-ages, through its institutional levels, would continuously scheme and conspire, starting from the relationships with the Franks, in order to prevent that phenomenon which was called, in the Byzantine universe, “diarchy” or “symphony” of institutional powers: imperial and religious, whose mutual authority was recognized as belonging to God, not that any of them needed each other to feel legally recognized.

In fact, as we all know, starting from the coronation of Charlemagne, the Roman Church began to make clear that it was willing to fully recognize the authority of only those sovereigns which had been consecrated by a special ritual by the Church itself.

In the eastern area of the Empire, the Orthodox Church never acted in such a remarkably politicized way. Indeed, it had to defend itself from the harassing interferences of imperial power in exclusively religious issues (just think about the phenomenon of iconoclasm).

In spite of this, almost the whole of western historiography still reasons that comparing the Byzantine emperors’ caesaropapism with the Roman Church’s papalcesarism, there are no doubts about which should be preferred.

In fact, if, on one side (East), a strict conditioning of religious freedom was imposed by civil power, on the other (West), it was the secular Church itself to condition, by means of its excommunications, its interdictions and its crusades, the civil powers.

It was not a mere coincidence that, even if independently monitoring the political power, the Roman Church was continuously led to change the principles, the customs and the habits of the so-called “undivided church”, which was active in the first millennium.

In fact, on a dogmatic plan, the Orthodox Church didn’t cease to stick to the fundamental principles, which had been expressed throughout the seven Ecumenical Councils, even after the Turkish conquered Constantinople, which was then followed by the “spiritual heritage” of the so-called “Third Rome”, Moscow. On the contrary, the Roman Church would continuously need to change the ideal principles which had constituted it, in order to assert the authority of papacy on the council, the ex-cathedra infallibility of the pope on the “consensu ecclesiae” (resolution of the evangelical community), the judicial supremacy of Rome over every other place and so on.

The first form of “Protestantism” occurred inside the Church itself, by sustaining on a political level a kind of authoritarian individualism, which was clearly in contrast with the humanitarian socialization of simple “believers”.

This Church had to struggle against the Greek one: it started when Constantine moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium (we don’t have to forget that the famous fake named “Donation of Constantine” was crafted five years before the coronation of Charlemagne).

The most critical moments occurred at the end of the VIII century, the one which witnessed the insertion of the “Filioque” in the Creed, which broke the ideological unity of ancient Christianity and, in 1504, the year of mutual excommunications, which broke the ecumenical and spiritual unity of the European Christian community, which has not been healed since.

The separation of the two religions was immediately followed by the Crusade phenomenon, which evidently did not aim to fight the Arabic invaders in the Middle-East, while it would undoubtedly mean to take vast territories from the Byzantine Empire, which, at the time, presented a great welfare, immune to the antagonistic contradictions of the feudal system.

The most dramatic events of the whole Crusade period were the conquest of Constantinople in 1204, followed by the constitution of the Eastern Latin Empire, which lasted about sixty years. We should not forget that the Crusaders would march against the Saxon and Slavic populations in the Baltic area and middle-eastern Europe, in order to force them to abandon their pagan beliefs or to prevent them from becoming Christian in an Orthodox sense.

The aggressiveness of the Latin-Catholic world was backed by the hegemonic social classes and all the western European sovereigns. The Crusades were some sort of ante-litteram colonialism and they did trigger the progress of the Octomane army throughout modern Turkey, irreparably weakening the imperial military forces.

Anyway, during the beginning of the middle ages, a vast series of phenomena occurred, which started undermining the authoritarian principles of the Roman Catholic Church:

1- The fight for the ecclesiastical investiture, driven against German kings (which will determine the antagonism between the two main parties: Guelphs and Ghibellines).

2- Criticism of corruption in the clergy and of the connection between religion and jobbing, which would trigger, as clerical reaction, the birth of inner crusades against the so-called “pauperistic heretical movement”.

3- The development of the bourgeois-municipal movement, which lead to the birth of lordships, principalities and national states, whose ideological characters, even if still formally Christian, would develop in a markedly laic-humanistic and scientific way, though in a bourgeois way, which means in a close relationship with the principles of individualism, entrepreneurial profit and financial interest.

The Roman Catholic Church could use, not without difficulties, the support of catholic sovereigns until it was the feudal revenues principle to rule unconditionally, obviously related to the idea of ownership of the land. This is evident until the Counterreformation period, including the period of world colonizations.

On the contrary, when the bourgeois and the economical formation of capitalism arrived, the Roman Church, which thought, at the beginning, to be able to take advantage of these phenomena, by mastering them, found itself forced to accept some hard compromises. While the war of the Roman Church against the middle class in Italy found a victorious outcome within the Counter-reformation, even due to the missing transformation of several principalities in one single national Italian State, the situation appeared to be different abroad. In fact, mainly in northern Europe, this battle led to a total, massive defeat.

The Roman Church had to accept a new ideological break, caused, this time, by Protestantism, which would become the fundamental religion of capitalism.

It has to be underlined that, while in western Europe, feudalism became capitalism, by starting with the municipal development (in Italy) and the birth of manufactures (rest of Europe, XVI century), eastern Europe keeps on with a feudal structure until the end of XIX century, when European capitalism decides to become imperialism, by conquering the whole world and waging World War One.

Even after the protestant break, the Roman Church kept on being a “political” church, willing to have a direct, immediate relationship with the institutional reality of civil power: a relationship of explicit compromise and mutual favors and benefits exchange. The Protestant Church, instead, would definitely tend to delegate to the state the management of a civil society, simply acting as a mere private reality of individuals or of independent religious communities.

This means that, while the Roman Church always impeded the birth of a lay State, the Protestant one never had essential reservations. From this point of view, we can say that Protestants resemble more the eastern Orthodox church and, in another aspect, we can also admit that the Protestant movement generated a resistance against Nazism which was weaker than the one represented by Catholicism against Fascism (even if when the alternative enemy is Socialism, Catholicism has no doubts, at least at its institutional levels, about the side it’s on: it is enough to see how the Spanish Church behaved at the time of civil war or the Croatian one when, during the World War Two, the Serbian Orthodox communities were determined).

In any event, this progressive development led, within the Protestant culture, to the growth of two opposite phenomena: on one side, the proliferation of religious sects which easily trespass in the psychopathology and, on the other side, the accentuation of the erudite and intellectualistic side of traditional evangelical communities, with broad concessions to any kind of demystifying and historicist exegesis. In fact, actual atheistic ideology was born in the country where the studies concerning primitive Christianity are stronger.

The one which did not accept a destiny of emargination or sociological irrelevance is again the Roman Church, which actually demands to have an exclusive role in capitalism (just think about the financial management of the Vatican banks), a role which is not expressed only within a financial programme, but even within a political and institutional one, which was fully backed in right-ish political movements. Anyway, we have to admit, in relation to these environments, that the Fascist Decades represented a clear step backwards if compared to the liberalism which characterized the first years of the united Italian State. In fact, the first Italian governments would fully support the idea of “a free church in a free country”. It is also to underline, then, as the bourgeois is, by definition, not a popular, but a class revolution and the Lateran Pacts, signed on the 11th of February 1929 by the Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini, head of the Fascist party and a representative of the Vatican, Pietro Gasparri, should have become, sooner or later, without any proper Italian Protestant reformation, a necessary choice.

For what concerns the Orthodox Church, it stayed tenaciously close to its past and, even if fully open to a scheme of separation between Church and State, it didn’t seem to have any instrument to give birth to a suitable alternative to the contradictions of the modern world, even if, undoubtedly, by giving up to an actual political protagonism, the Orthodox religion has no difficulty in cohabiting with those regimens which encourage the separation between the two spheres.

The Orthodox Church would always struggle, in eastern Europe, against the Stalinist dictatorships, which would demand to impose atheism: it demonstrated that a civil society is different from the management of a country and freedom of conscience must necessarily provide the possibility to opt for a specifically religious behaviour, but, apart from this, it would be useless to expect from a religion, maybe even the most democratic of the planet, an answer to the social antagonisms of our conflictual societies.

The most evident anomaly is horribly clear in Italy, as there, even at a constitutional level, a concordant scheme with the Roman Church is still preserved (and its derivation – let’s underline it – is definitely fascist), a pact signed by two States which recognize each other’s independence from a territorial point of view, that actually guarantees only one of the two some kind of anachronistic privilege positions not only in relation to all the other religions, but even with the whole civil society. This prevents the national State from expressing with coherence its values of democracy and secularism.

The abolition of the seventh article of the Italian Constitution (which states that the relationship between State and Church is settled by means of those Lateran Pacts) is a target that the whole secular side of Italy demands, in order to guarantee everyone, independently from the behavior they have in relation with religion, equal rights and social dignity before the law.

I don’t wish to say that a secular state is more democratic than a religious one, just because I know that democracy is not a simple political idea to sustain, but it is also, and mainly, a social behavior to prove every day.

It seems, though, that the contradictions which are shown by the Catholic Church between the ideals professed on a theoretical basis and its practical activity are so vast and deep that they can prevent this institution from contributing in a relevant way to the development of secularism and democracy.

If, throughout the 50 years which followed the end of Fascism, people thought that capitalistic development could have been “humanized” thanks to the contribution of the social doctrine of the Church, today we have to say – honestly – that this doctrine is a total failure, as it has missed its goals, that the Roman Church, as an institution (which means independently from the trust of its followers) is so discredited that it has no more opportunity to say something meaningful to the new generations and that the battle against the contradictions of our age has to be made regardless not only of such social doctrine, but also of the doctrines of any other religion.