Theocracy: Seduced by Power and Authority

After Easter, my wife and I visited Huguenot territory in the South of France. A bit of vacation in the sun and a chance to visit the terrain of my Huguenot ancestors. The Huguenots were French Calvinists and strongly critical of sixteenth century Roman Catholic theocracy. 
[I am you see a critical-minded Roman Catholic historical theologian with strong Protestant DNA from my father’s family. They were French Huguenots and English Quakers, both arriving in North America in the seventeenth century.]

During the French Wars of Religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thousands of reform-minded but “heretical” men, women, and children were hunted, tortured, and executed by emissaries of the Roman Catholic theocracy. 

Theocracies are always dangerous and usually end up as inhumane manipulators of human beings.

A theocracy is a form of government in which the clergy have special sovereignty and official policy is governed by officials considered divinely constituted. The word comes from the Greek words θεός (Theos) “God” and κρατία (kratia) “power.” 

The understanding – the official theology of theocracies – is that the king/emperor/pope has divine authority and power given to him (usually a him) and he rules “by divine right.” All of this is affirmed and approved by the theocratic leadership.

A bit of history….

In the old Roman Republic, the Pontifex Maximus (“highest pontiff”) was the highest official in the state religion. After the establishment of the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar became Emperor and Pontifex Maximus in 63 BCE, making him the “chief priest” of the Roman state religion. 

When Constantine the Great (also called “Saint Constantine” by some) became the first Christian Roman Emperor, in the fourth century CE, the official religion of the Roman Empire changed to Christianity. (I am not so convinced Constantine was really a Christian but that is another discussion…)

Surrendering power and authority, however, is never easy.  

The first Christian emperors still retained the title of Pontifex Maximus. It was Pontifex Maximus Constantine, remember, who had called the Council of Nicaea (325 CE) to settle the Arian controversy and re-emphasize his own divinely-given power and authority. 

Constantine’s Council at Nicaea did more than simply reaffirm the divinity of Jesus. By basically cutting-off philosophical discussion about the nature of reason, (a long discussion about Jesus being the Logos) Western philosophy became trapped in a notion of truth that was absolute, unchanging, and eternal and Christianity, especially its Roman Catholic expression, became obsessed with defending static and unchanging expressions of truth, by asserting that only the Church of Rome possessed the complete truth.

In any event….The Roman Emperor Gratian (c. 360 CE) finally gave the pope the title Pontifex Maximus. 

The fourth century, therefore, brought a major paradigm change for Christianity. The century that began with the Roman Pontifex Maximus torturing and murdering Christians…to please and placate the Roman gods….ended with Christians torturing and murdering non-Christians under orders from the pope – the new Pontifex Maximus – parading through the streets of Rome with his pontifical retinue. The purpose was the same: to please and placate God by destroying God’s enemies. 

Thanks to Constantine, the Christian understanding of God was modified as well. God became the distant task-master who, like the old displaced Roman gods, could be occasionally sadistic and sick: a god who needed to be constantly appeased and always obeyed, a god who needed the death of his opponents, a god who manipulated people through fear and anxiety about this or the next life, and a god who required the death of his Son to compensate for human sinfulness. Very sad.

Terribly far removed from God the loving Father of Jesus of Nazareth. Far removed from God is love.

Gradually all power and authority moved into papal hands and the popes began to dress and behave like Roman Emperors. For centuries, they were very good at it. The papal title Pontifex Maximus was used right into the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, who, red shoes and all, replicated Roman imperial style and authority in grand style…. 

Fortunately the title of Pontifex Maximus is no longer on the list of official papal titles. Questions about power and authority, however, are very much with us.

 Christianity is not about power and authority OVER people. God is love and Christianity is about reaching out to people, offering forgiveness, calling to growth and conversion. We show our love for God by loving the people around us. Jesus was hardly a power-crazed manipulator of men and women.

Fortunately, the current Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, has greatly downplayed the papal imperial pageantry so greatly loved by Benedict and other illustrious predecessors. 

Time will tell if Francis can have a lasting impact on changing the understanding and use of papal and episcopal power. (Some bishops on both sides of the Atlantic have obviously not yet heard the message.) 

Perhaps the “Holy Year of Mercy,” announced by Pope Francis and starting at the Vatican, on December 8, 2015, will do that….

Next week some reflections about moving from static Romanized-Christian theocracy to developmental Christianized democracy.