Question: As a child I learned that the pagan Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Catholicism and was baptized and healed from leprosy by Pope Sylvester, shortly after winning a battle with the Cross as the imperial standard. However, my college history teacher insists that Constantine was baptized only shortly before his death, and was not baptized by a Catholic. Who is right, and why are there such different stories about an event that we would expect to be well documented?
Answer: Modern readers are used to evaluating evidence on a straightforward basis: We gather what seems to support a position, compare it with whatever seems to go against the position, and draw a conclusion one way or the other based on the comparative “weight” of the evidence – or, perhaps, admit that the evidence is too equal or too scant to form a conclusion either way. If we come across someone who ignores the available evidence and demands an unwarranted conclusion, we begin to suspect his motives or his intellect or both. This judgment of motives may not always be appropriate in evaluating the motives of patristic and medieval writers, who often introduced a more subjective (and therefore debatable in itself) element of “fitness” into their analysis of the facts. They wrote of what they feel should have been, or what they feel should have happened, rather than what was or did. We find this with great regularity in reading “hagiographies,” the edifying biographies of the saints.
For example, historians, both those living in the patristic era and those living today, are well agreed that the Emperor Constantine, although favorable to Catholicism and often referred to as a Christian, was not baptized until he was on his death bed in 337, and then by the Arian Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia.[ii] But to have the first Christian Emperor baptized by an heretical bishop would not be fitting – so the hagiographers generally had Constantine baptized by Pope Silvester in the Lateran palace in Rome, often with mention of a miraculous healing from leprosy (sometimes spiritual, sometimes physical).[iii] The hagiographer wasn’t lying, He was not falsifying history, for he never set out to write history. The hagiographer wrote to edify the Christian faithful, to show them the greatness of God’s providence, and His ability to effect His plans through the use of holy men and women – and to impress his readers that they too should become holy men and women. Of course, any one can baptize, even an Arian – but it is more fitting for Constantine to be baptized by the miracle working Pope – and a much greater demonstration of God’s power that it should be so.
We also have a liturgical tradition of accommodating biblical writings to subjects other than those of the original texts. There is no deception involved, but most of us were a bit startled when we first realized that those “epistles” in the Masses of the Blessed Virgin were taken from the Old Testament. No one seriously thinks that our Lady was physically there when God “established the heavens … marked out the vault over the face of the deep … and fixed fast the foundations of the earth” – but those words certainly do call to mind how fitting it was for God to conceive the Immaculate Mother of His Son in His mind from all eternity.[iv] It is likewise fitting to acknowledge Mary as “the Mother of fair love, and of fear, and of knowledge and of holy hope,” a description likewise from the Old Testament.[v] We like the fitting imagery of Mary crushing the enemies of God’s people, as she does in the person of the Old Testament Judith on the feast of the Assumption – but no one really thinks of her as exactly as Judith. With great moderation, even the love poetry of the Canticle of Canticles is occasionally (and well) accommodated to our Blessed Lady.[vi] Even though there may be no real connection between the scriptural passage and its accommodated subject, it is fitting that the former be called to mind to emphasize some attribute of the latter.
There is, too, a less fortunate aspect of this problem. Over the centuries, the ideas of the Church Fathers as to what is fitting have gained such wide acceptance that many faithful Catholics consider such ideas inseparable from the Catholic Faith – as though they were defined dogma or a revealed part of divine positive law – as something, they have come to believe, that Catholics may not doubt without ceasing to be Catholics. They react – in varying degree, of course – as advised by Saint Ignatius Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises:
It matters not that the Hierarchical Church has not defined the thing in question, for even great theologians fail to make such distinctions when something that is closely tied up with the life long experiences of their religion is questioned. If heretics and schismatics have challenged the fitness of some idea before, any such challenge is now a heresy or a schism. It is not fitting to think otherwise, even if, perchance, the otherwise might be true. The mind can accommodate itself: the white must be black.
Galileo got himself in trouble for challenging authority (just after the Reformation, when Authority already had more than enough challenges to deal with). He had the impudence to suggest that the physical sciences were best learned through empirical experiment, rather than by consulting the learned (pagan!) authorities of antiquity. Aristotle and Ptolemy were intelligent men, to be sure, but their pronouncements just didn’t square-up properly with what observers actually saw and measured in the universe around them. To Its everlasting credit, the Church was already prepared – with the help of men like Saint Augustine – and eventually adjusted to the questioning of scientific authorities.
Centuries later Leo XIII would quote Augustine in an encyclical on Biblical interpretation in the light of Scientific criticism (Saint Robert Bellarmine had expressed the same ideas at the time of the Galileo affair):
Ironically, Saint Augustine is one of those who sometimes relied on what was “fitting,” without adequately weighing other evidence, and who in his own sphere is accepted much like Aristotle, without question, even though the Church may teach otherwise.
There is nothing wrong with filling in the lacunæ of salvation history with speculation as to what would have been “fitting” – nothing wrong with recognizing the great wisdom of men like Augustine, and habitually consulting their opinions. There is a problem, though, when modern people, not familiar with the patristic genre, mistake hagiography for history, and, on the basis of “authority,” take what is “fitting” for what is fact.
[ii] See, for example Eusebius, Life of Constantine, Bk. 4, Ch. LXI-LXIII http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/25024.htm or www.ccel.org/fathers2/NPNF2-01/Npnf2-01-30.htm#P8068_3311663 for a patristic historian, and Philip Hughes, A History of the Church, Vol 1, pp. 198-199 for a modern one.
[iii] Roman Breviary, 1960 Edition, Second Nocturn of the Feast of the Dedication of the Archbasilica of the Holy Savior, November 9.
[iv] Epistle for December 8, Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Proverbs viii: 22-35).
[v] Epistle for July 16, Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Ecclesiasticus xxiv: 23-31).
[vi] First nocturn of September 8, Nativity of the Blessed Virgin (Canticles i: 1-16).
[vii] The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Translated from the Autograph by Father Elder Mullen, S.J. New York: P.J. Kennedy and Sons, 1914. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/loyola-spirex.html
[viii] Pope Leo XIII: Providentissimus Deus (On the Study of Holy Scripture) November 18, 1893 http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Leo13/l13provi.htm