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Obviously, none of this could have happened if Christianity had not been legalized and if it had not been able to promote its politics to a more efficient manner than it had previously done.
The same trend continues throughout the Middle Ages as well, when Christianity is the most important moral entity, but also, in many occasions, the mediating political player as well. It has the power not only to name its own responsible authorities, but also to approve or secular tendencies and manifestations. We can rightly point out that the Church during the Middle Ages is the most powerful entity in Europe. If it had not been legalized, it might have been able to become an important religious entity, but it would not have been able to decide political issues to the manner to which it did.
Potential negative consequences of legalization
Different sources have reaffirmed, in history, the perspective of negative consequences that have arisen from the legalization of Christianity. One of these negative consequences was identified as the possibility that the legalization of Christianity created, in fact, a less authentic religious framework than the initial religion had been conceived. In fact, the legalization of Christianity might have only come about from the political need to create a religious structure to back the political power. In this sense, it could be the case that, in fact, Christianity at the point of legalization was changed in principle so as to match the political needs of the times.
The arguments against such an opinion reside on two main pillars. First of all, sources were keen to report that at the point of Christian legalization, it was the Emperor, above all other factors, the element who actually glued together the entire Roman Empire. As a central figure of the Empire, cumulating all main functions (political, military and religious functions), the Roman Emperor did not, at the time of Christian legalization, need a religious backup to his political function.
Further more, most of the religious framework was already well in place for Christianity by the time of the 4th century, some three hundred years after the death of Jesus Christ. This included the Scriptures, the teachings of Apostles and Martyrs, means by which the scattered community of Christians could be brought together etc. This may sustain the idea according to which it was difficult to change such a solidly created infrastructure so as to absorb the political element into the entire puzzle. Christianity had already survived the previous persecutions, notably the one under Diocletian's rule, and had remained as powerful, perhaps even more powerful.
The idea of Christianity losing its authenticity is also supported by Nigel Wright. However, he also adds another different negative consequence brought about by the legalization of Christianity. He points out that once Christianity was embraced as a state religion, it know longer held on to the initial valued principle and could always be used, subsequently, as the moral and ethical arm of the political ruler.
There are many who point out that the legalization of Christianity itself was in fact a political instrumentation meant to benefit from the rising strength of the increasing number of Christians. By this time, one can expect a significant amount of Christian devotees in the noble class as well, close to the Emperor, and increasing their spread as time passed.
History only partially supports this acknowledgement, in the sense that, in many cases throughout history, this was a dual process, with the Church and the State fighting for moral and political supremacy. The Middle Ages were a notable example of this, but this continued right through to the 20th century. While the Church was indeed used as a moral justification for political actions in some historical actions (if we look, for example, at the crusades, essentially acts of political conquest, but using the Church as the morally justifying arm), this cannot be generalized and cannot be necessarily connected with Constantine's legalization.
There were also voices that have supported the belief according to which, because of official political recognition, Christianity lost its initial poverty-based spirit and this led to subsequent acts of corruption, because of the increased power from which the members of the Church benefited.
Constantine's legalization of Christianity marked an essential milestone in the development of the religion. While Christianity had been constantly developing prior to legalization and had, at the same time, conceived its main instruments by which it would become a recognized religious entity (scriptures, internal organizational structure, main strategic objectives and goals, as well as its leadership structure), the fact that it was not officially recognized limited both its area of action and its capacity to attract new worshippers at a faster rate. While the number of Christians had increased in the previous three centuries since formation, it was only after legalization that Christianity was able to reach out to the entire European space and move from its traditional Mediterranean basin into Europe.
Legalization also meant that Christianity could now be a more active and much more important political player. As a political player, especially starting with it being name the official state religion in 380 AD and the Emperor giving up his title of Pontifes Maximus, Christianity was now able to participate actively to decisions being made in the secular state and to act both as a mediating entity and as a powerful force that could actually decide on matters of interest to the secular state.
Its role would continue to entangle with that of the secular state well into the history of mankind.
If we look at things, even today the Catholic Church has retained its mediating role in many aspects. Pope John Paul II, for example, was one of the primary recognized actors in toppling Communism in the 20th century. Pope Pius XII, on the other hand, was accused that he could have intervened to end or limit casualties in the Second World War (especially in what the Holocaust is concerned), but he did not. All this could have not evolved to this extent if Constantine had not legalized the religion in the 4th century, boosting its subsequent evolution.
In this sense, and with the limitations that have already been discussed, we can certainly state that Constantine's legalization of Christianity was crucial in what the further evolution of the Church was concerned, paving the way for its future development and role.
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2. Waddington, George. A History of the Church, from the Earliest Ages to the Reformation. Baldwin & Cradock. 1833.
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History of Christianity in Rome. On the Internet at http://www.allaboutreligion.org/history-of-christianity-in-rome-faq.htm.Last retrieved on October 8, 2007
Wright, Nigel. At 08: The Powers and God's Providential Rule: Church and State, Part 2. Anabaptism Today, Issue 8, February 1995. On the Internet at http://www.anabaptistnetwork.com/node/172.Last retrieved on October 8, 2007[continue]
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Constantine the Great was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity and to make Christianity the official religion of Rome. This makes him one of the most important figures in Western history, and in fact, world history. Prior to Constantine's conversion, Christians were widely persecuted throughout the Roman Empire (Herbermann and Grupp). Making Christianity the official religion of Rome led to the downfall of the Roman Empire and the