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Perspectives

from the Secretary General

Upstairs, Downstairs

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

Perhaps the most popular BBC television series ever, “Upstairs, Downstairs” has captivated viewers worldwide since 1971. The story concerned the “upstairs” people, the sophisticated society folk, and their relations and interactions with the “downstairs” people, the live–in servants.

One thing was clear — although they lived in different worlds, the lives of both were inextricably intertwined.

The history of Christianity and the Roman Empire has something of an “Upstairs, Downstairs” aspect.

Christianity didn’t really move into the Roman house in the first centuries; Christians were more like folks who broke in or who were squatters in an unimportant part of the dwelling.

Officially, living together started with the emperor Constantine. By the end of the forth century Christianity and Christians were “in.” Christianity had become the established religion of the empire and the great city of Constantine, New Rome, flourished as a Christian capital city.

All this hardly changed the fundamental nature of imperial authority — in practice it was considered of divine right. One of the titles of the Christian Roman Emperor was “coequal of the Apostles.” It was the emperor who presided over the first ecumenical councils and set their agenda.

Church and State were certainly living in the same house, but State lived upstairs and Church, downstairs. In the Eastern Roman Empire this living arrangement and relationship lasted for a thousand years after the “decline and fall” of the short–lived Western Christian Empire in the fifth century.

In the vacuum of Roman authority in the west, the bishop of Rome, the pope, gradually emerged as the most significant authority figure. He began to use some of the trappings of imperial authority and to exercise some of its powers.

In 800, the pope constituted a “Holy Roman Empire” in the west, anointing Charlemagne as its head. Although relationships between civil and ecclesiastical authorities were often uneasy in succeeding centuries, the greater authority was always that of the pope.

Church and State were living together in the same house, but in the west the Church was living upstairs and State was downstairs.

This diversity in Eastern and Western history is reflected in diverse ecclesiastical traditions.

Orthodox Eastern churches are accustomed to be subordinated to civil authority, often need its confirmation to function, and more often than not are structured as national churches.

The Catholic Western church is accustomed to greater autonomy, once was supreme over civil authority, and is international.

The contemporary concept of separation of Church and State has not been welcomed by all Christians. Some see it as a disruption of a reasonably well–functioning household or, worse, as not only separation but divorce.

In countries where they were wedded, the process of divorce often has been painful and sometimes full of recriminations. In others, where they never lived closely together, both have been learning to flourish separately.

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Tags: Christianity Orthodox Church Pope