From antiquity to the 17th century, religion is a very public matter in Europe and the rest of the world. A casual study of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire will reveal the same thing. This is more evident when tracing the development of the most dominant religion in Europe during the Medieval Age. Christianity was originally from Palestine, it was exported to the West and just like any ancient religion, it is a system of beliefs that encourage believers to publicly express their allegiance to God. Later on, Roman Catholicism, a major offshoot of Christianity became the most dominant religion in Europe, it is during this time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Medieval Age when Roman Catholicism influenced every sector of European society.
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The reason why religion could not be kept as a private matter can be understood when one will examine how religion and politics are two major sources of influence in nation-building. This is true from the very beginning when city-states and tribes mixed religion and politics to shape their world and created order out of chaos. Religion is a public matter in ancient times because it is the religious leaders who had access to critical information regarding dates and times such as the lunar cycle, and the best time to plant and harvest crops. Religious leaders are also the ones who were in charge when it comes to important ceremonies. For instance, a coronation of a king is never official without the blessing of the high priest.
When two people marry they needed the consecrated hands of the religious leaders to seal their vow and this is very important when it comes to the marriages intended to seal the alliances of two warring factions. Religious leaders also play an important role when it comes to funerals and giving assurances that the dearly departed will not experience hardships in the afterlife. Before going to war it is customary for priests to bless the warriors who will fight and defend their way of life. And if there is a calamity or famine, the villagers and the members of the tribe will definitely seek out their religious leaders for guidance and for help on how to restore peace and abundance in the land.
The ancient Greeks worship Poseidon the god of the sea (Hare, par. 2). They sought favor from Poseidon so that their naval affairs and their voyage in the open sea will be blessed and safe from harm. In order to worship Poseidon, the ancient Greeks would build sanctuaries, make dedications, sing hymns, offer dances, libations, perform rituals, offer prayers, sacrifice and festivals. Except for prayer and singing songs, most of these activities are done in public. These are just a few reasons why religion is a public matter in the ancient world.
The Roman Empire
The Roman Empire is arguably the greatest empire in the history of Europe. The Romans introduced radical ideas when it comes to government and warfare. In fact, they were one of the first to establish a policy wherein defeated foes are not humiliated by a brutal conquest if they choose to surrender. According to Margaret King, “Departing from the norm of an ancient conflict, they did not enslave those they defeated … though they did demand tribute they did so in the context of a mutual relationship that was as bold as it was novel” (p. 2). This means that Rome was also lenient when it comes to religious beliefs but this did not end public worship. Rome was civilized and far advanced in thought and policies but the Roman Empire continued with their elaborate rituals and ceremonies to honor their gods. According to one historian, “The Capitol, the very center of the old world, was crowned with the old gods, and these old gods could not soon be forgotten … their spirit filled the old city (Lawrence, p. 20). Even today one can still see the ruins of temples and holy places dedicated to Roman gods.
Through the centuries Rome began to evolve into a dominant military power in the Mediterranean. The Roman Empire was able to expand its territories and the scope of its influence reached far beyond the Tiber. But in the 4th century A.D., the empire began to experience a decline in political strength. At the same time, a new form of religion was beginning to emerge and influence Roman society. In 313 A.D. Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan and granted tolerance to the Christians in the Roman Empire (King, p. 8). It is important to take a pause here. If an edict is needed to provide protection for the Christians then there was a time when its members were persecuted. Therefore, there was a time when Christianity was practiced in secret. In other words, there was a time when Christianity was a private matter in Rome and the colonies under its domain. But this secrecy and private worship will not last for long.
After Constantine’s gracious offer to the Christians, the small group of believers in Rome and throughout the empire began to multiply in astonishing numbers. During Constantine’s reign, there were seven bishops of great prominence in the Church and they are the bishops who oversee Alexandria in Egypt, Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, and Constantinople (Cairns, p. 112). But it was the bishop of Rome who was elevated to an exalted position. Later on, the Church became widely known as the Roman Catholic Church due in large part to its leader whose seat was in the ancient city of Rome.
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The Medieval Age
During its heyday, the Roman Empire was the one who subjugated the various barbaric tribes in Europe. When its defenses and military might begin to crumble, it was the barbarians from across the Tiber that returned the favor. In 410 A.D. it was the Goths led by Alaric who entered Rome and sacked the city, and then the Vandals came to loot Rome and Ostrogoths grabbed power and ruled Rome in 493 A.D. (King, p. 8). After the fall of Rome, the Roman Catholic Church began to emerge a much stronger faith. In the 7th century A.D. Pope Gregory, systematized church rituals and two hundred years later Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as emperor of the Romans (King, p. 8). This is merely the beginning of the expanded role of the papacy and the partnership between Church and State.
It was a group of intellectuals who hasten the dominant growth of Roman Catholicism in Europe. They added to the work of St. Augustine, Aquinas, and other Church Fathers (Hare, par. 25). The Roman Catholic Church became very influential in Europe. There are times when the power of the Roman Catholic Church created problems in the social sphere. This is the reason why modern men and women clamor for the separation of Church and State. The Medieval period was a brutal testament to what can happen if religious leaders are also given the ability to meddle in the affairs of politicians.
In the time before the rise of geopolitical nations, governments were established by rulers of supposedly noble blood. But who can really determine noble birth? As shown in the turbulent and bloody history of the Roman Empire, the crowned ruler can never expect to reign in perpetuity. There are plenty of political rivals plotting the downfall of the emperor and there are enemies more than willing to overrun a rich and powerful nation. The political turmoil in Europe was now made more complicated by the fact that popes have the same power as kings. They can easily influence the members of the Church and this was no easy task for a ruler to resolve. It is easy to observe the effects of the Church’s power over kings and queens.
In the early part of the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church was in need of reformation. But status quo should be maintained and those who are in power are hesitant to reform their old ways. It took a charismatic and bold leader, Martin Luther, a priest in the fold of the Roman Catholic Church to shake the old institution at its core (HistoryWorld, par. 3). Martin Luther was instrumental in the formation of a breakaway group which will be later known as the Protestants. The ensuing conflict between Catholics and Protestants was not hidden from sight, it was more than a public spectacle as men and women from both camps would rather go to war than compromise their beliefs (HistoryWorld, par. 5). This continued even after the Renaissance.
From ancient times up to the 17th century, A.D. religion did not cease to be a public matter. There are a few times in the history of mankind when religion seemed to be practiced in private. Both occurred during the heyday of the Roman Empire. The first one was when Rome was gracious to its defeated foes. They asked for tribute but they did not crush their enemies. One can argue therefore that there was a brief time when the conquered armies practiced their religion in private since they were under the control of the Romans. The second time occurred when Christians were persecuted all throughout the Roman Empire. It can also be argued that during this time Christians performed their rituals in secret and therefore it was a private matter for many of them. But this did not last long because Emperor Constantine allowed them to worship freely. Since then Christianity became a dominant force in the empire and all throughout Europe even until the medieval period. During this time emperors were crowned by popes and therefore religion became part of the social formation of nation-states.
- Cairns, E. E. Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996.
- Hare, John. Religion and Morality. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [online]. Web.
- HistoryWorld. History of the Reformation.
- King, Margaret. The Renaissance of Europe. UK: Laurence King Publishing, 2003.
- Lawrence, David. Movements in European History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.