The Church took over another function of Roman government as it entered the imperial phase, the distribution of grain distribution.
Prior to the advent of the Imperial Church, Christian communities in urban centers throughout the Empire had already assumed this function. The Church more than any other group distributed bread to the hungry. In the third and fourth centuries CE, as the bureaucracy of the Empire was collapsing, the Church stepped into this role.
This explains in part the rapid growth of the Church, why it was seen as a threat and persecuted by traditional Roman institutions, and why the support of the Church was a crucial part of Saint Constantine’s successful bid to become Emperor.
Grain distribution was vital to the life of the Empire. Most of the grain consumed in Europe was grown and milled by the Church. The major agricultural estates were centered at monasteries and other ecclesiastical holdings. Grain was the single greatest source of revenue in feudal Europe. In addition to farming, religious institutions throughout Europe, both monastic and diocesan, were vital centers of culture; housing schools, and markets, and the crafts-guilds that supported them. The European nobility coveted these estates as sources of prestige, income and political power.
As Christianity spread into Northern Europe various methods were devised by various parties to help them secure their legal claim to the most profitable lands. Many wars were fought and much violence was perpetrated by Christians against each other, as well as between secular powers and the Church, over the issue of who had the right to make appointments to high ecclesiastical office, and over the legitimacy of hereditary control of Church property.
This practice, known as simony, was the subject of centuries of reform movements within the Church. Yet, it was precisely the practice of simony that helped to spread and stabilize the Church in Northern Europe.
The European royal families and those barbarians, who wished to join them, looked to the Church to be a faithful arbitrator of their rights. Barbarian lords converted to Christianity because they believed that by doing so their dynasty, and their family holdings would be secure. They saw in the Church a vehicle for the preservation of their families and their family wealth. Christian lords, both secular and ecclesiastical promoted the spread of Christianity not so much for the cure of souls but for the territories that would fall into their possession upon their success.
The greatest example of this corrupt system is found in the period of the encomenderos, during the Spanish conquest of America. Secular Christians and those in holy orders rushed to the “New World” to divide up its lands and enslave its people.[i] They worked whole populations to death. The crimes the Church committed against humanity were so horrific that it was ultimately forced by its “conscience” to pass a decree which ordered that some attempt should be made to convert the natives, that they should not be held as slaves but as friends and pupils, but it was a hollow gesture.
The native populations in the West Indies were completely destroyed. Those who came into contact with Europeans on the American continents were more than decimated. Christians began to import slaves from Africa. Centuries passed, with almost no attempt at all given to converting those people or making them citizens in the feudal system. The Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) even operated a seminary for the training of priests especially for its slave holding plantations in the New World.[ii]
Christendom had been a slave holding society from the very beginning. Even the Gospels encourage slaves to remain with their masters if their masters are just, a bargain that the early church made with the Imperial powers. The question on whether it is lawful for Christians to hold other Christians as slaves, had one consistent answer up until around the eighteenth century, and it was yes.
Christians had always authorized to hold slaves, if they had been captured in a lawful manner; as say through war, where the lives of the captives are forfeit. In addition, people could be sentenced to slavery or indentured servitude through the secular or ecclesiastical courts. Any person who owed a debt to another could be forced into servitude. This included nearly the total non-land holding population of the Christian world.
That the history of Christian mission is characterized by political power and violence is in no way assignable to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus did not advocate the use of political power and violence. His ministry opposed to it.
The great sins Christians have perpetrated on so many helpless people have less to do with the fact that they are Christian, and more to do with the fact that we are human.
[i] Mario Rodriguez Leon, Invasion and Evangelization in the Sixteenth Century, The Church in Latin America 1492 - 1992, edited by Enrique Dussel, Commission for the Study of Church History in Latin America (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1992), 43.
[ii] Laënnec Hurbon, The Church and Afro-American Slavery, The Church in Latin America 1492 - 1992, edited by Enrique Dussel, Commission for the Study of Church History in Latin America (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1992), 369.