Christianity and Religious Freedom in the Medieval Period (476 – 1453 CE)

AuthorDavid Little

The Medieval period commenced with the decline of the Roman Empire as the result of the barbarian invasions. In the aftermath and over several centuries, the Christian church played a decisive role in constituting what became known as the respublica Christiana. It included, in ever shifting configurations, the Western and Eastern sectors of the former Roman Empire, namely, portions of Western Europe and Byzantium, which consisted of Asia Minor and most of the territories around the Mediterranean rim. Rome and Constantinople would eventually become, respectively, the seats of the two parts of the new empire.

Under this arrangement, differently interpreted in the two sectors, civil and religious authorities were not sharply differentiated along modern lines, but were understood as two interdependent “departments” of a common, encompassing enterprise. Accordingly, the distinction between “sword” and “spirit,” between coercion and belief, so central to the early Christian experience, was retained, if only in a highly disguised form. While the relationship between spiritual and political authority was consistently intimate, it was also antagonistic, exhibiting, at various times, an intense struggle for religious authority and political power.

In the West, Charlemagne succeeded, by the ninth century, in consolidating the diverse barbarian kingdoms of Western Europe into a centralized Christian empire with himself as effective head of the church. Political power was taken to be an appropriate means for spreading, regulating, and protecting Christian belief and practice. This pattern reached its highest expression by the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries, when popes, having replaced kings as the ultimate authority in the Western empire, came to possess the final say regarding the use of force. The result was the Christian Crusades, which were armed incursions against lands under both Eastern Christian and Muslim control. The purpose of these Crusades was the conversion of non-Christians as well as the recovery of the lands where Christianity was born, lost over the years to Islamic conquerors. This period of papal ascendancy also saw policies of severe religious repression known as “inquisitions,” which were initiated in the thirteenth century and culminated in Spain in the fifteenth century.

These policies did not go unchallenged. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas propounded a powerful but limited doctrine of freedom of conscience. Based upon the incompatibility of belief and coercion affirmed by the young Augustine, Thomas contended that all human beings, Christian or not, had a moral obligation to follow even an erroneous conscience. This principle applied to everyone never previously exposed to the Christian message, such as Muslims and pagans. It did not apply, Thomas thought, to Christian defectors—heretics and apostates—who, like anyone defaulting on a solemn oath, should be punished. Nor did it create a political or civil “right” to error, because, Aquinas argued, an ill-formed conscience could lead to sinful acts, and, by example, could lead others into grave sin. Aquinas even compared heretical beliefs to counterfeit money, suggesting that they were damaging the “public good” of shared orthodox beliefs within the Church. He also hoped that in the process of being confronted, heretics and apostates would return to the true faith. As such, Aquinas enjoined the Church to first admonish the heretic before subjecting him to excommunication and secular authorities.

By the fourteenth century, the concept of papal supremacy—the pope as successor to Peter—was being challenged in the West by the Conciliar movement. Some asserted that representative councils possessed the final authority in church affairs. The existence of councils implied a constitutional system, including a set of rights that were attributed to ordinary members and lower church officials. Conciliarists also emphasized a greater distinction between ecclesiastical and civil government, and elevated the importance of territorial churches. The movement never had more than minority status in Western Christianity, though it would come to exert a disproportionate impact on the Protestant Reformation, and, eventually, on the shape religious freedom took as a result.

Conciliarism caught hold more successfully in Eastern Christianity, though in a form very different from the West. That was one reason, among others, the two wings of Medieval Christianity split in the eleventh century. Eastern Orthodoxy shared the Conciliarist preference for representative and consultative government over papal authority, but they embraced a system of territorial churches well before and well beyond anything that would develop in the West. Moreover, there was less emphasis on differentiating ecclesiastical and civil authority. On the contrary, the enduring image was of a set of unified Orthodox territorial states wherein the church, while exercising distinctive spiritual functions, was decidedly subservient to the temporal government. Religious freedom for the non-Orthodox would not thrive in such an environment.
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