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When Public Servants Were Barred from Being Priests

Such was the case in the late Roman Empire, by no less of a personage than Pope Siricius.  Writing to the bishops in North Africa, he gave eight reasons why a person should not be consecrated to the priesthood, saying that “if after the remission of sins (baptism) he (the candidate for the priesthood) takes on the belt of public service it is not right for him to be admitted to clerical orders.” (Letter V, 1) The “belt of public service” was part of the uniform of the Roman bureaucracy, which took on military form in its civilian part as well.  The Council of Toledo made the same prohibition in 401.  Siricius expressed the same disapproval of people passing from civil service to the priesthood in a later letter to several bishops (Letter VI, I, 3.)

Why was this? Siricius and others were well aware of the nature of late Roman politics, which involved patronage and graft, to say nothing of torture and execution.  He could not imagine someone successful in the Roman bureaucracy having the moral character necessary to be a Christian priest or bishop.  For all the trashing of fourth century Christianity by some of those who came after, this is a higher standard than much of what we see these days.  We are better at making our own system look clean, but there is plenty of corruption to go around.

And when the opportunity to unload this bureaucratic weight came around, as Britain did a few years later, the glee was clear, as we can see in the Pelagian Fastidius’ De Vita Christiana:

We see before us plenty of examples of wicked men, the sum of their sins complete, who are at this present moment being judged, and denied this present life no less than the life to come…Those who have freely shed the blood of others are now forced to spill their own…Some lie unburied, food for the beasts and birds of the air…Their judgements killed many husbands, widowed many women, orphaned many children.  They made beggars and laid them bare…for they plundered the children of the men they killed.  Now it is their wives who are widows, their sons who are orphans, begging their daily bread from others.

Today, of course, Christians are made to think that participation in public life is their Christian duty, but there was a time when just the opposite was commended to Christ’s followers.  In both cases good reason is involved; it is not as easy an issue as some think.


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