The Roman Empire had the emperor at the top and citizens at the bottom, with several ranks in between


The Roman Empire had the emperor at the top and citizens at the bottom, with several ranks in between

As Christianity became large and powerful it organized itself around the only power structure that it knew, namely the political hierarchy of the Roman Empire and medieval Europe. Being a subject of the emperor did not mean having direct access to the emperor and following direct orders. Rather, citizens were governed by local authorities who acted on behalf of higher ranking officials , all the way up to the emperor. In our society it is conceivable (if not efficient) that you might write a letter to the president of the United States about a burned out street light, or to the president of the University about not enough recycling bins. In the Roman Empire you would not dream of such arrogance. For the most part, disobeying the local representative of the emperor was as bad as disobeying the emperor directly. The idea that the local ruler is part of a chain leading to the emperor was satisfying enough.

It was no large stretch to apply the ideas about the Roman emperor to Christ . After all, the Roman emperor was also considered a god and someone most people could not see or touch except in the form of a statue or coin. Having a place in a chain of representation was as much as one could hope for.

Perhaps in theory I could pray to Jesus directly, but the prayer of someone closer to Jesus might be better heard

This is not to say that Christians adopted the power structure of the Roman Empire without adjustment. There were major innovations in thinking of the Church as the mystical body of Christ. Also, as the Roman Empire transformed and declined, theologians such as Augustine developed a more abstract notion of the Church that was not reducible to tangible, human agents. Christ, unlike an emperor, could not die (again) or be defeated.

Having a personal relationship with Christ was no more plausible (or desirable, really) than having a personal relationship with the emperor

Figure 6. Patrick spread Christianity in Ireland and now is in heaven, so if you’re Irish he might be able to put in a good word for you.

More so in the Middle Ages, one’s place in society depended on a system of patronage. You could not count on getting what you wanted on the merits of the case alone; you needed connections. You needed a patron or advocate who could bring your case to someone more powerful. You might look for someone who was well connected above but sympathetic to you in particular. This way of thinking about making requests to higher authorities led people to think of approaching Christ through patrons living and dead. Perhaps my grandmother (living or dead) is holier than I am, and has a better foundation to make requests. Even though I am a sinner, because she is my grandmother, she will go to bat for me. There were also different patron saints for different professions, places in life, and places in the world. Basically, if someone from your high school is now a powerful person in a corporation, government, or heaven, you might ask that person to help you out. Similarly, there was a cultural norm that women were more compassionate than men. The wife or daughter of my master might be more sympathetic to my situation and she could say something to my master. Along those lines, Mary, the Mother of God and Queen of Heaven, might be a good place to start when asking for compassion. This is not the whole story of how Catholic theology understands the communion of the saints. However, it is related to the historical origins of how Christians understood themselves in relationship to Christ through the Church based on analogy with their relationship to the king through administrators and patrons.

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