Imagens das páginas


by which they attained to such complete authority over those within the fold, and such a converting power, more active than the most zealous of missionary exertions could have been, over the unbelieving without.

In conclusion, we are struck by the consideration which presents itself to us on reviewing the progress and scope of clerical influence during the early and middle ages, that although that influence arose and spread during the continuance of the Roman power, it had nevertheless, politically speaking, a more special Providential relation to a later period. It appears as if the fulness of Imperial iniquity in the West had been divinely permitted to run its career of vice unchecked by the purer discipline which had grown up among it—till, after the priesthood had received the education of calamity, and had been accustomed, as we shall see hereafter, to complete connexion with the state, it was sent forth, thus prepared, on its true mission of spreading the truths of the Gospel among new nations, and laying the foundations of a less grovelling civilization.

To expatiate more at length on the direct religious benefits of clerical influence would be to extol Christianity itself. We shall now enter, in examining the two succeeding centuries, on a field of inquiry than which none can contain more matter of interest or instruction to us, whose circumstances are in many respects not dissimilar.


The portion of history included in the second great chronological division of our subject, and extending from the accession of Constantine to the fall of the Western Empire, presents to our view the Christian clergy burdened with new duties, and exposed to other not less dangerous temptations than those with which we witnessed their contest during the preceding centuries. Then, we saw them employed in establishing the rules of Christian discipline and practice among all the temptations of a world lying in wickedness; now, their great task is to engraft that discipline on the ancient Pagan institutions of an Empire whose conquest to the cause of truth is as yet far from complete. Then, they were settling the pure canon of the faith against the assaults of the heathen and the arrogance of the human intellect; now, they are rather occupied in asserting the clear meaning of the Word of God against the numerous schismatics who do but wrest it to their own destruction. Then, they displayed the force of pure example and doctrine in persuading men who had been persecutors to take up their lot with the persecuted; now, amid all the temptations of Imperial patronage, their task rather is to exclude from the fold such nominal converts as seek to combine all the supineness of the old creed with all the worldly advantages of the new. Then, they were in danger of sacrificing to the inducements of a life of security and prosperity the faith which in their consciences they yet held; now, on the contrary, every seduction of worldly advantage leads them to court prosperity by the profession of tenets to which they yield merely nominal assent. The most superficial acquaintance with human infirmity would teach us to expect that bulwarks long unscathed by adversity should totter at last at the more pernicious approaches of prosperity; nor could the most sanguine believer in the stainless perfections of the Church have hoped that its contact with so much that was impure should leave untarnished all its former brilliancy.

It is, then, at first sight evident that we shall meet, in the examination of the first head under this section of our subject, many peculiarities to which in the preceding pages we have necessarily been strangers, – that the moral influence of the clergy on their people, exalted as they now are to a novel elevation, will assume very different forms from what it did during the age of persecution.

The combination of so long distinct religious and political systems, while it in some measure simplifies our task, by laying before us the results of the former illustrated by all the added historic clearness of the latter, nevertheless imposes upon us corresponding difficulties ; for the social action of the priesthood, no longer a merely direct one, but also transferred through the medium of the supreme authority, renders it a less easy task to distinguish between their moral and their political influence.

No sooner had the clerical body assumed its position as one of the leading powers in the state, than its

systematic discipline and doctrines were placed before the world in a more effective and to the eye of history more evident form, by the introduction of government by cecumenical councils. It is principally by the decrees of such general convocations of ecclesiastical wisdom that we discover the steps by which the principles so long carefully inculcated by the earlier Fathers of the Church on their scanty flocks were rendered meet for being applied to the social system of the entire Roman world. And the more we acquaint ourselves with the moral code thus enunciated, the more are we convinced how stedfastly were preserved and exercised in their new and wider sphere those leading Christian doctrines which had been handed down from the Apostolic age: for the very same excesses, which had been condemned by the uncompromising piety of the primitive Bishops, received, at the hands of their successors in Councils assembled, not less severe reprobation. One or two examples will be sufficient to show how, by a gradual but effective process, the corrupt system of Paganism was raised to a higher level by the pure action of Christianity, while, at the same time, we shall be able clearly to perceive the same aversion to radical and sudden alteration which was one of the principal characteristics and safeguards of the Church during her earlier stage.

We have already viewed Christianity in its relation to slavery; we shall now glance at the commencement of that gradual course of mitigatory laws by which it has become peculiarly associated with slave-abolition in our own day. The Christian Fathers, it is true, never repudiated the Roman slave-system; on the contrary, we find among the enactments of the earlier councils, that it is repeatedly acknowledged as a recognized principle, both among clergy and laity. But by the laws of Rome no limit was set to the amount of punishment which a refractory slave might suffer from his master, who, if his slave died under the infliction, was not liable to a capital prosecution, unless he could be proved to have made use of a lethal weapon, or any other equally disproportionate mode of punishment; and even such a check as this was the result of the comparative moderation of the Theodosian* code: whereas the more scrupulous ecclesiastical canon imposed five years of penance and exclusion from the communion on the proprietor who was guilty even of an involuntary murder of the kind t.

The ecclesiastical Fathers, again, were the first to place in its true light the crime of suicide, and to inflict upon the body of him who had deprived himself of life the same ignominy which was decreed for the more ordinary violators of the sixth commandmentt; a striking contrast to those heathen philosophers who looked back with regretful admiration to the virtues and deaths of Cato and Brutus. It would be easy, but unnecessary, to multiply

* [Edict. Constantini ap.) Cod. Theodos. Lib. ix. tit. 12, leg. 1.

+ Conc. Illib. [Can. 5. ap. Routh. Rell. Sac. iv. 260. ed. 2.) quoted by Bingham, B. xvI. c. 10. § 8.

See Bingham, B. xvi. C. 10. $ 6, and Augustine De Civ. Dei, i. 20.

« AnteriorContinuar »