IF the mutual flattery of Constantine and the bishops had concerned only themselves, it would have been a matter of very slight importance indeed; but this was not so. Each side represented an important interest. Constantine merely represented the State, and the bishops the church; and their mutual flattery was only the covering of a deep-laid and far-reaching scheme which each party was determined to work to the utmost, for its own interests. “It was the aim of Constantine to make theology a branch of politics; it was the hope of every bishop in the empire to make politics a branch of theology.” Consequently, in their mutual toadyism were involved the interests of both the church and the State, and the welfare of human society for ages to come.
Therefore, to the reign of Constantine the Great must be referred the commencement of those dark and dismal times which oppressed Europe for a thousand years.
When the alliance was formed between Constantine and what was represented to him as Christianity, it was with the idea on his part that this religion formed a united body throughout the empire. As has been shown, this was true in a certain sense; because the persecution as carried on by Galerius under the edicts of Diocletian was against Christianity as a profession, without any distinction whatever as to its phases, and this caused all the different sects to stand together as one in defense of the principles that were common to all. Therefore the essential unity of all the professions of Christianity, Constantine supposed to be a fact; and from all his actions and writings afterward it is certain that representations had been made to him by the bishops in a stronger measure than was true, and in an infinitely stronger measure than he found it in practice to be.
The alliance with Christianity on Constantine’s part was wholly political. It was merely a part of the political machinery by which he designed to bring together again the divided elements of the empire into one harmonious whole, as contemplated by Diocletian. It being represented to him by the bishops who met him in Gaul in A.D. 311, that Christianity was a united body which, if he would support it, would in turn be a powerful support to him, he accepted their representations as the truth, and formed the alliance solely as a part of his political designs, and to help him to forward his declared “mission to unite the world under one head.”
But, although the alliance was formed with what was supposed to be Christianity as a whole, without any respect to internal divisions, it was very soon discovered that each particular faction of the Christian profession was ambitious to be recognized as the one in which, above all other, Christianity was most certainly represented. The bishops were ready and willing to represent to Constantine that Christianity was one. They did so represent it to him. And although he entered the alliance with that understanding, the alliance had no sooner been well formed than it devolved upon him to decide among the conflicting factions and divisions just where that one was to be found.
The Edict of Milan ordered that the church property which had been confiscated by the edicts of Diocletian, should be restored to “the whole body of Christians,” without any distinction as to particular sects or names. Thus runs that part of the edict:—
And this we further decree with respect to the Christians, that the places in which they were formerly accustomed to assemble, concerning which also we formerly wrote to your fidelity, in a different form, that if any persons have purchased these, either from our treasury, or from any other one, these shall restore them to the Christians, without money and without demanding any price, without any superadded value or augmentation, without delay or hesitancy. And if any have happened to receive these places as presents, that they shall restore them as soon as possible to the Christians, so that if either those that purchased or those that received them as presents, have anything to request of our munificence, they may go to the provincial governor, as the judge, that provision may also be made for them by our clemency. All which it will be necessary to be delivered up to the body of Christians, by your care, without any delay.
And since the Christians themselves are known to have had not only those places where they were accustomed to meet, but other places also, belonging not to individuals among them, but to the right of the whole body of Christians, you will also command all these, by virtue of the law before mentioned, without any hesitancy, to be restored to these same Christians, that is, to their body, and to each conventicle respectively. The aforesaid consideration, to wit, being observed; namely, that they who as we have said restore them without valuation and price, may expect their indemnity from our munificence and liberality. In all which it will be incumbent on you to exhibit your exertions as much as possible to the aforesaid body of Christians, that our orders may be most speedily accomplished, that likewise in this provision may be made by our clemency for the preservation of the common and public tranquillity. For by these means, as before said, the divine favor with regard to us, which we have already experienced in many affairs, will continue firm and permanent at all times.
But that the purpose of this our ordinance and liberality may be extended to the knowledge of all, it is expected that these things written by us, should be proposed and published to the knowledge of all. That this act of our liberality and kindness may remain unknown to none.
This was proper in itself. But Constantine and the bishops had formed an alliance for political purposes. The bishops had lent to Constantine their support, the fruit of which he was enjoying, and now they demanded that the expected return should be rendered. Accordingly, the restoration of the property of the Christians under the Edict of Milan had no sooner begun, than the contentions which had been raised before the late  persecution, between the church of Rome and the churches of Africa, were not only made to assume new and political significance, but were made an issue upon which to secure the imperial recognition and the legal establishment of the Catholic Church. As the rule had already been established that all who did not agree with the bishops of the Catholic Church were necessarily heretics and not Christians, it was now claimed by the Catholic Church that therefore none such could be partakers of the benefits of the edict restoring property to the Christians. The Catholic Church disputed the right of heretics to receive property or money under the Edict of Milan, by disputing their right to the title of Christians. This forced an imperial decision upon the question as to who were Christians. The dispute was raised in Africa. Anulinus was proconsul in that province. And to settle this question, Constantine wrote thus to him:—
It is our will, that when thou shalt receive this epistle, if any of those things belonging to the Catholic Church of the Christians in the several cities or other places, are now possessed either by the decurions or any others, these thou shalt cause immediately to be restored to their churches. Since we have previously determined that whatsoever these same churches before possessed, shall be restored to their right.
Thus it was made evident that the imperial favors were meant only for the Catholic Church. But it was not enough that Constantine should decide that all his favors were for the Catholic Church; he must next decide which was the Catholic Church. This he did in 313 in another letter to Anulinus, thus:—
It is my will that these men within the province entrusted to thee in the Catholic Church over which Cecilianus presides, who give their services to this holy religion, and whom they commonly call clergy, shall be held totally free and exempt from all public offices, to the end that they may not, by any error or sacrilegious deviation, be drawn away from the service due to the Divinity, but rather may devote themselves to their proper law, without any molestation. So that, whilst they exhibit the greatest possible reverence to the Deity, it appears the greatest good will be conferred on the State.
Following this two councils were called by the emperor to settle disputes between those claiming to be the proper representatives of the Catholic Church—the first was held October 313, the second, in August of the following year. They both decided in favor of Cecilianus and the party presided over by him.
The question as to which was the Catholic Church having been decided, Constantine, in his next epistle, could add yet another distinguishing title. As we have seen, the Edict of Milan—March, A.D. 313—ordered that the churches should be restored to the Christians—“the whole body of Christians”—without distinction. When the Catholic Church asserted its sole right to the designation “Christian,” and backed its assertion with political reasons, which were then peculiarly cogent, the imperial epistle ran—March, A.D. 313—“to the Catholic Church of the Christians.” When the emperor wrote to Melchiades appointing the first council under the imperial authority, his epistle ran—autumn, A.D.—“the holy Catholic Church.” When he wrote to Chrestus—summer, A.D. 314—summoning him to the second council under imperial authority, he referred to the doctrine of the Catholic Church as embodying the “most holy religion.” When it had been decided which was “the most holy Catholic religion,” he addressed an epistle to Cecilianus—A.D. 316—announcing imperial favors to “the legitimate and most holy Catholic religion,” and empowered Cecilianus to assist the imperial officers in preventing any diversion from the most holy Catholic Church.
It was thus that that which on its face appeared only innocent and highly proper—indeed a necessary act of justice, restoring to its rightful owners property unjustly confiscated, resulted inside of three years in the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church as the religion of the empire.