Political-social aspects. From the political-social point of view, it is necessary to emphasize how, starting from the so-called Constantinian turn 313, there began a process of social sacrilization of the clergy and, more concretely, of the bishops. There is no doubt that, at the ontological level, every priest was a sacred person, but the public and official recognition of this reality is another question; in fact, the NT, when it treats the priesthood of Christ, does not allude to this external dimension of social status. Christian bishops were recognized officially and publicly as holders of the status of sacred persons starting from the 4th c. This new social position of Christian clergy was framed within the categories of thought proper to a Roman religiosity: God guaranteed prosperity and well-being to the state if proper adoration and worthy worship were offered to him.
From the moment Constantine chose the God of the Christians as his protector, he as a result also took on the responsibility of this God’s worship. For this reason, Christian priests received from Constantine a series of civil privileges privilegium immunitatis and privilegium fori. Dispensed thereby from specific civil services, priests were better able to fulfill their own clerical duties so that no impediment would interfere in the completion of the worship owed to the divinity see Eusebius of Caesarea, Hist. eccl. 10,7,2. Moreover, in the year 318 the audientia episcopalis was granted to the bishops, through which juridical status in the matter of civil law, but not in penal law, was granted. Nevertheless, it came about that the bishops began to obtain duties proper to imperial officers such as those of governors or social assistants; thus, for example, Basil, the metropolitan bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia was at the same time the exarch of the political diocese of Pontus.
This awareness of clerical status, which was increasingly more influential within society, became external in the liturgical vestments and other external forms that emphasized the privileged position of the bishops; John Chrysostom, however In Ep. II ad Cor. 20,2, was opposed to the idea of putting on a clerical garment, condemning the cassock as a luxury that failed to demonstrate one’s solidarity with the poor and that was incompatible with the generosity of almsgiving.
One cannot determine with certainty whether the bishops were elevated by Constantine to the noble rank of viri illustres famous men, something which would have allowed them to adorn themselves with the honorary insignia proper to this social status; it is certain that some elements of the liturgical attire and the episcopal rite went back to the models of the Late Antique civil nobility, but this does not indicate an official appointment by Constantine, which does not appear either in the literary or juridical sources. The office of social promotion and assistance for the poor and those in need, to whom the bishops were committed, was noteworthy and higher than the assistance which in the 2nd- and 3rd-c. Christian communities had supplied needy brethren; the bishops of Late Antiquity assumed the responsibility of supplying the population with food that it did not receive from the state food administration, which by that time was not functioning well. The social prestige of the bishops grew enormously for a number of reasons: they were responsible for the religious life in every place; they were members of the old city’s elite and administrators of charitable works for the poor; for this reason, the bishop’s authority was recognized as a pater populi father of the people, pater civitatis father of the citizenry, pater urbis father of the city or pater patriae father of the homeland.
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