“The ‘Edict of Milan,’ whose milleseptuacentennial (so to speak) is being marked this year,” says George Wiegel in today’s column, “wasn’t an edict and wasn’t issued at Milan. Still, its enormous impact on the history of the Church and the West is well worth pondering on this 1,700th anniversary.”
[The Edict] involved all religions, not just Christianity; it went beyond mere toleration and embodied a more robust idea of religious freedom, based on the conviction that true faith and true worship cannot be compelled; and it treated the Church as a corporate body with legal rights, including property-owning rights. Thus the not-really-an-Edict of Nicomedia and Elsewhere cemented into the foundations of the West ideas first sketched by the Christian philosopher Lactantius: that coercion and true religious faith don’t mix because “God wishes to be adored by people who are free” (as Joseph Ratzinger would rewrite Lactantius a millennium and a half later, in the 1986 Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation). The rather humane provisions of the mis-named “Edict of Milan” were not infrequently ignored in subsequent Western history; but that doesn’t alter the fact that the “Edict” had a profound and, in many respects, beneficial influence on the future of the West.
There was a shadow side to all this, however. For what we know as the “Edict of Milan” marked the beginning the Christian Church’s deep entanglement with state power.
Read the full column here.