Caesaropapism is the phenomenon of combining the power of worldy (secular) government with the spiritual authority of the Christian Church; most especially, the subordination of the spiritual power of the Christian Church to governmental authority; in its extreme form, it is a political theory in which the head of state also exercises dictatorial governmental power over and within the church.
The first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, showed some inclination towards Caesaropapism. It is recorded that, before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, he had a vision of a cross with the message, "by this sign you shall conquer," and was victorious. Constantine then presented himself to the Bishop of Rome, and offered gifts of thanksgiving, in the form of clemency and tolerance, although later claims of land based upon a "Donation of Constantine" were proved to be a forgery in the 15th century. Constantine, however, declined baptism until he was near death. He moved his capital to the East ("New Rome," or Constantinople). He also viewed himself as the overseer/bishop (the word "bishop" is simply from the Greek for "overseer") of external relations of the Christian Church. He decreed that the bishops gather at the First Ecumenical Council. The assertion of imperial power over the fathers (papa) of the church by the rulers/emperors (Caesars) was opposed by Ambrose of Milan and by many bishops, especially those of Rome, and some others.
The idea that a western "counterweight" existed to the eastern phenomenon of "Caesaropapism" is highly debatable. Imperial control over the Church in the East did not experience a massive upswing after the Great Schism, for example.
The idea of a political leader ruling the religious realm has been a very prevalent meme throughout western history. Among the several instances of western tendencies toward imperial interference in the western church, we can count the Investiture Controversy of the Holy Roman Empire, the Anglican schism of Henry VIII of England, and the settlement of the Treaty of Westphalia, which prescribed that an individual German principality's state church, or ecclesial community, would be the same as its ruler. Also many actions and controversies of French kings can be included, which go under the umbrella title Gallicanism.
In the east, struggle between the political rulers and the hierarchy re-occurred in the Bulgarian Church at the northern border of the Eastern Roman Empire. Later, this Bulgarian Church would provide the Slavic language texts for the Church of Rus' at Kiev. In the northern reaches of Rus', the Russian Orthodox Church developed in Suzdal and, later, Moscow, also becoming the scene of the involvement of political rulers in the affairs of the church. It must be stated that the ultimate expression of "Caesaropapism" did occur in Russia, wherein Tsar Peter the Great suppressed the patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, who opposed his modernization reforms, and made the church subordinate to the Emperor. This lasted until shortly before the Russian Revolution, when a synod of Russian Orthodox bishops elected a patriarch. A notable example of caesaropapism is found in the Russian Constitution of 1906:
- ART. 64. The Tsar as Christian ruler is the supreme defender and upholder of the doctrines of the ruling faith, the protector of the true belief, and of every ordinance in the holy Church.
ART. 65. In the administration of the Church the autocratic power acts through the Holy Directorial Synod, which it has created.
Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13