By Elizabeth Lev
ROME, MARCH 26, 2009 (Zenit.org).- A long time ago, during the reign of Commodus, six Christian men and women in North Africa refused to acknowledge the law declaring the divinization of the Emperor. It was little matter, some incense on the fire, and a public vow. First they were shunned and insulted, then they lost their jobs and homes and ultimately they were brought to trial before the Roman Proconsul Saturnius. The acts of the trial, lovingly preserved over 1,800 years, tell us what transpired.
Saturnius demanded that they swear by the divine genius of the emperor, as did every inhabitant of the Roman Empire.
One of the six, Sperato, countered that he served “that God which no man has seen or can see with these eyes.” But as a citizen, he pointed out that “I have committed no theft; on that which I purchase I pay taxes, because I recognize my sovereign.”
Saturnio ordered them to “renounce their persuasion,” but Sperato held firm: “It is wrong to persuade another to commit homicide and perjury.” A woman, Donata, chimed in with “Honor Caesar as Caesar, fear God alone.”
Saturnio offered them a 30-day waiting period to think things over, but for the Christians there was no decision to make. The proconsul commandeered their belongings which were “books and the epistles of Paul — a just man,” and ordered them decapitated on July 17, 180. They are honored today as the Scilitan martyrs.
Let’s look forward to a few years from now, a not too distant future to another group of Christian men and women. These are health care workers, who again are denying the right of the State to coerce their conscience, and refuse to perform or assist abortions. They have already been derided by their colleagues, lost their jobs, and now they stand on trial for not killing an unborn child.
The modern proconsul exhorts them to abandon their beliefs and get with the program, while the crowds jeer at the troublemakers. Eventually, these men and women are also sentenced, convicted felons for obeying their conscience instead of the State.
Does this seem far-fetched? Anything but. One of the first priorities of the administration of President Barack Obama razed the path to unrestricted abortions. The greatest impediment to this plan is a formed human conscience that recoils at the idea of murdering an unborn baby while lies in its mother’s womb.
Six weeks into President Obama’s term of office, he has begun to uproot this obstacle by repealing a regulation granting broad protections to health workers who refuse to take part in abortions or provide other health care that goes against their consciences.
The promulgation of this conscience rule was one the last acts of President Bush, and it codified a previous law ensuring that no health care providers at institutions receiving federal funds should be discriminated against for refusing to participate in abortion or sterilization procedures.
President Bush attempted to protect medical and health care professionals from being coerced into actions they deemed wrong on moral and religious grounds
This protection could seem almost unnecessary. If one shrinks from killing an enemy soldier, the government allows for conscience objectors to serve their country in a way that doesn’t conflict with their conscience, opponents to the death penalty are not forced to participate in executions. How could it be that a health care worker, one devoted to the assistance and care of human life could be forced to exterminate the most vulnerable life of all?
And yet Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards is determined to expunge this protection of conscience as a dangerous thing, proudly claiming that “this president is not going to stand by and let women’s health be placed in jeopardy.”
So to preserve “women’s health” from jeopardy, one must trample the consciences of millions of men and women. Consequently, the most powerful man in the world has decided to employ his might in silencing the moral conscience.
It’s really not too far from Imperial Rome after all.
The Roman Empire, led by the Divine Emperor, imposed its rules on all levels of human life, recognizing no authority but itself. It governed not only political life but also the private sphere of individual existence. Rome told its subjects what to think, how to act, and no part of their lives was independent from the whims and caprices of temporal power.
Christians challenged the authority of the government by claiming that its influence controlled only one area of their lives. They paid taxes, fought and died in the military and supplemented the State’s weak provisions for the poor and the ill with their own charity. But their duty to their God directed by their conscience would not let them recognize the Emperor as having control over actions that would affect their immortal souls. The State can give you a home and job during your time on earth, but it cannot do a thing about Eternal Life.
The Christians who claimed that the Empire could not dictate to their conscience were tortured, beaten and killed as the Empire tried to purge what Proconsul Saturnius called “dementia.”
Saturinius’ insistence that the Christians sacrifice for “the health of the Emperor” sounds chillingly like Cecile Richards demanding that consciences be sacrificed for the sake of “women’s health.”
Two thousand years later, the Empire strikes back, infiltrating the sphere of the human conscience as it did in the day when Romans had more slaves than citizens, sought amusement in blood sport in the arena, and executed men, women and children for not sprinkling a little incense before a metal statue.
As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger presciently wrote in his book “Church, Ecumenism and Politics”: “The Roman state was false and anti-Christian precisely because it wanted to be the totality of human capacity and hope. In that way it claimed what it could not achieve; and it distorted and diminished men and women. Through the totalitarian lie it became demonic and tyrannical.”
Every day I walk through the remains of the pagan, murderous, self-serving Empire that put its faith in man-made gods and their mortal skills and achievements. These are the crumbled ruins and scattered stones of a once great society.
Sprouting from the rubble and holding strong today are the churches, palaces, fountains and piazzas of Christian Rome, which breathed a new life into those sterile bones and allowed the city to be reborn into the splendor we know today. May modern Christians exhibit the same courage in the face of tyranny that we see in the glorious example of the early martyrs.
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Last weekend, I accompanied my students to Istanbul. I thought I was going far from home, but in reality many aspects of the city were hauntingly familiar to a Rome denizen.
Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, is poised at a unique geographical point. Partially in Europe and partially in Asia, the city straddles the two continents on either side of the Bosphorus strait. It also sits at the link between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. As all roads lead to Rome, all roads pass through Constantinople.
Although founded in the seventh century by a Greek named Byzas, (hence its other name Byzantium), Istanbul was put on the map by Emperor Constantine who moved the capitol of the Roman Empire to Constantinople, inaugurating his new city on 330 as Nova Roma, or New Rome.
It was conceived as a completely Christian city. What Constantine had been unable to do in Rome because of the deeply rooted pagan infrastructure, he accomplished in his New Rome. St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s basilicas were built in the outskirts; the only church he built inside the city walls was St. John Lateran, constructed on his own land next to the city gate.
In his new city, there was no ancient state religion to eradicate. Constantine built church upon church. The Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Apostles, and others, were like stars arranged around his great palace. Constantine’s city would symbolize the revelation and propagation of the Christian faith.
Those ambitious designs were soon felled by time. The palace crumbled and Hagia Sophia burnt down during the Nike riot of 532. Those destructive flames however, bore the phoenix of a new greater city. Emperor Justinian wrought the greatest artistic flowering of the city, rebuilding Hagia Sophia and constructing numerous other churches and monuments.
Justinian’s New Rome glittered with the finest mosaics in Christendom and her soaring churches seemed suspended from the heavens instead of rooted in earth. His sacred spaces transported the faithful from crowded streets and busy lives into a majestic journey upwards from intricately carved stone to the golden skin of mosaic to the pure light of Heaven.
Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The spectacular churches were transformed into mosques and the stunning stories of our salvation were covered over in plaster.
Today, Hagia Sophia is a museum, neither an Islamic nor Christian space. The gentle Virgin embracing her son dominating the apse and the arrestingly beautiful Christ in the upper gallery have lost their sacred meaning and are now tour highlights.
Imagine a future where one would buy a ticket to enter the museum of St. Peter’s and trudge through the treasures of the basilica as one would a museum. The confessionals would be mere curiosities, no one would enter a chapel for prayer, no bell would announce Mass. The Pietà would be another artwork to be catalogued and Bernini’s lifelong efforts to render the supernatural intelligible to the pilgrims would be little more than a few anecdotes.
The visit made me treasure our good fortune to still have our artistic treasures at the service of the Church and remember not to take for granted the certainty of retaining our rich Christian cultural heritage.
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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and the University of St. Thomas Catholic studies program. She can be reached at [email protected].