Christians In Politics: Heed the Words of St. Antony to St. Constantine

Christians In Politics: Heed the Words of St. Antony to St. Constantine December 15, 2010

And the fame of Antony came even unto kings. For Constantine Augustus, and his sons Constantius and Constans the Augusti wrote letters to him, as to a father, and begged an answer from him. But he made nothing very much of the letters, nor did he rejoice at the messages, but was the same as he had been before the Emperors wrote to him. But when they brought him the letters he called the monks and said, ‘Do not be astonished if an emperor writes to us, for he is a man; but rather wonder that God wrote the Law for men and has spoken to us through His own Son.’ And so he was unwilling to receive the letters, saying that he did not know how to write an answer to such things. But being urged by the monks because the emperors were Christians, and lest they should take offense on the ground that they had been spurned, he consented that they should be read, and wrote an answer approving them because they worshipped Christ, and giving them counsel on things pertaining to salvation: ‘not to think much of the present, but rather to remember the judgment that is coming, and to know that Christ alone was the true and Eternal King.’ He begged them to be merciful and to give heed to justice and the poor. And they having received the answer rejoiced. Thus he was dear to all, and all desired to consider him as a father.

Life of St. Anthony 81 in NPNF2(4):218.

The fame of the simple monk had reached the ears of Constantine. It is difficult to know what exactly Constantine wrote, but it is clear that he wanted a response, that he wanted Anthony to direct him, to offer advice as to how he should rule as a Christian. This, with reluctance, Anthony did. The message he gave was to remind Constantine of his place in eternity: not to look too much on his present condition as an indication of greatness, rather, to realize it was what he did with that position which could make him great. And what exactly was it Anthony told Constantine? That he should follow the path of justice. That he had been given authority could not be denied, but it was a relative authority: Christ was the eternal king, Constantine’s rule was temporal. He will be judged according to how his policies reflected the eternal kingdom, whether or not he strived to advance the kingdom of Christ on earth, so that it would be on earth as it is in heaven. This meant Constantine had to focus on making a just state; central to this was for the state to look out for and advance the needs of the poor. St. Anthony presented the answer which the Church has always given when the state asks for guidance. The role of the state is to enforce justice; justice, of course, does not mean “following the laws as they are now,” but rather, “to make the laws so that justice can be had.” People seek power, seek glory for themselves; if they get it, they have gotten what they sought, their reward. Now what will they do with it? Will they use it for what it is meant to be used for? Will they use it for the common good? Will they make sure the poor are protected, and justice is served? The preferential option for the poor has always been central to the proper execution of the state. While many will find excuses, such as saying “the rich are also a part of the state,” what they are doing is supplying the groundwork for injustice, and the possible loss of souls. For it is always the case that we shall be judged by our justice, by how we have treated the least amongst us. Jesus is found among the poor, among the outcast. How we have treated them will be seen as how we have treated Christ. Rejecting them and their needs is to reject Christ; how can Christ know us if we neglect those among which he is to be found?

“I think you are not ignorant that the enemies of virtue are always plotting against the truth.”[1]

This is true, not only in the times of Antony, but in the present era as well. Where do we find these enemies? Those who denounce the need for the state to enforce justice, those who look after the rich more than the poor, indeed, those who put the poor on the edge of destruction and threaten them with perdition unless the rich get what they want first. What can we say to this? The rich need to be warned: they have been given the wealth they want. They want to use it for their own benefit? Then they should do so. What can be of greater benefit to them than the purification of their souls? They should look after their neighbor, and put them forward, making sure their needs are met. For this is how they shall be judged: have they hurt Christ, hurt God, or have they helped Christ, have they helped God?

For this cause, therefore, he who sins against his neighbour sins against himself, and he who does evil to his neighbour does evil to himself; and he who does good to his neighbour, does good to himself. Otherwise, who is able to do ill to God, or who is there who could hurt Him, or who could refresh Him, or who could ever serve Him, of who could ever bless Him, that He should need his blessing, or who is able to honour Him with the honour that is His due, or to exalt Him as He deserves?[2]

Lust and avarice go hand in hand; is it no wonder, that with the increase of avarice, lust has increased in our society? People accumulate wealth so as to satisfy their desires, their lusts; they are told that what they can afford, what they want, is good for them. The society based upon the accumulation of wealth can only succeed when lust is accepted as an unquestionable good. If one wants to overcome the toxic sexuality before us today, they must also work against the toxic avarice which is accepted as a norm. Wealth, while apparently making one free, ends up making a prison for the one who is attached to it.

Christians involved in politics should remember this. Like Constantine, they too should be told: remember justice, remember the poor: though you have a temporal place of authority today, Christ remains the eternal king. How does your politics reflect Christ’s eternal kingdom? Are you going about the Lord’s business, or your own?


[1] St. Antony, Letter III in The Letters of St. Antony the Great. Trans. Derwas J. Chitty (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1991), 9.

[2] St. Antony, Letter VI (20).


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  • Nate Wildermuth

    Yes, government must serve justice and attend to the poor. But.

    It is clear that large bureaucratic welfare programs have ruined the social structures of the poor — from their local communities right on down to the family itself. By employing top-down approaches to poverty, the government has only made the problem worse.

    Unfortunately, in our top-down style of governance, no program that addresses poverty is capable of ensuring justice. Rather, these poverty programs are a form of impersonal charity. And this form of charity is debilitating and disabling — replacing community with bureaucracy.

    Justice would address systematic problems in our economy that cause poverty in the first place. Example: huge tariffs and taxes on foreign and corporate farming, with a new homestead act and loan-guarantees to get families back on to the land. That’s systematic, and a far cry from Section 8, WIC, SSI, and Food Stamps.

    But this is never going to happen.

    • Nate the problem is that such programs mostly are focused on the preservation of the current economic system, and to keep the rich in power. In that way, they do not go far enough, which is why it looks like they are the problem. However, the response is not to decry the need for welfare programs: a band-aid might trap germs and infect a cut, but it certainly is better to put it on than nothing.

      Indeed, if one looked to the early Christian aid programs, they look quite a bit like welfare programs. Their need exists, but they need to go hand in hand with sweeping reforms outside of the programs but in society as a whole. But again, without them, more people would die — this whole “it’s the welfare state which is keeping people down” is just an excuse given by people to ignore the real problems, the ones which create the need for the welfare programs. And do not confuse justice as with charity: as Pope Benedict said, even in the most just state, charity does not end — the confusion is again the economic system which confuses money as charity. It isn’t. But it certainly can be used for the execution of justice.

      • Nate Wildermuth

        Henry, I think we mostly agree.

        You said “the preservation of the current economic system, and to keep the rich in power” and I agree completely — they are ‘band-aid’ solutions that bureaucratically mimic the Works of Mercy. Like you say, “if one looked to the early Christian aid programs, they look quite a bit like welfare programs” — precisely because the early Christians took the works of mercy on as a personal duty.

        As you also say, however, “do not confuse justice as with charity” — the goal of the state, as Pope Benedict puts it plainly, is not charity. The goal is justice — not welfare programs that mimic the works of mercy, but with, as you say, “sweeping reforms” that address “the real problems, the ones which create the need for the welfare programs”.

        In truth, we’re not dealing with band-aids on minor cuts here. We’re dealing with band-aids on sucking chest wounds. To the extent that we think the band-aid is working, or is a solution, or is in any way relevant, undermines the real work and healing that must be done.

        I’m speaking only of government charity, not personal Works of Mercy — for the real wound is deeply spiritual, a wound that cannot be healed by WIC.

        There’s really no hope for justice with the nation-state, Henry. We’ll have to work for justice on our own.

  • Nate Wildermuth

    Yes, government must serve justice and attend to the poor. But.

    It is clear that large bureaucratic welfare programs have ruined the social structures of the poor — from their local communities right on down to the family itself. By employing top-down approaches to poverty, the government has only made the problem worse.

    Unfortunately, in our top-down style of governance, no program that addresses poverty is capable of ensuring justice. Rather, these poverty programs are a form of impersonal charity. And this form of charity is debilitating and disabling — replacing community with bureaucracy.

    Justice would address systematic problems in our economy that cause poverty in the first place. Example: huge tariffs and taxes on foreign and corporate farming, with a new homestead act and loan-guarantees to get families back on to the land. That’s systematic, and a far cry from Section 8, WIC, SSI, and Food Stamps.

    But this is never going to happen.

    • Nate the problem is that such programs mostly are focused on the preservation of the current economic system, and to keep the rich in power. In that way, they do not go far enough, which is why it looks like they are the problem. However, the response is not to decry the need for welfare programs: a band-aid might trap germs and infect a cut, but it certainly is better to put it on than nothing.

      Indeed, if one looked to the early Christian aid programs, they look quite a bit like welfare programs. Their need exists, but they need to go hand in hand with sweeping reforms outside of the programs but in society as a whole. But again, without them, more people would die — this whole “it’s the welfare state which is keeping people down” is just an excuse given by people to ignore the real problems, the ones which create the need for the welfare programs. And do not confuse justice as with charity: as Pope Benedict said, even in the most just state, charity does not end — the confusion is again the economic system which confuses money as charity. It isn’t. But it certainly can be used for the execution of justice.

      • Nate Wildermuth

        Henry, I think we mostly agree.

        You said “the preservation of the current economic system, and to keep the rich in power” and I agree completely — they are ‘band-aid’ solutions that bureaucratically mimic the Works of Mercy. Like you say, “if one looked to the early Christian aid programs, they look quite a bit like welfare programs” — precisely because the early Christians took the works of mercy on as a personal duty.

        As you also say, however, “do not confuse justice as with charity” — the goal of the state, as Pope Benedict puts it plainly, is not charity. The goal is justice — not welfare programs that mimic the works of mercy, but with, as you say, “sweeping reforms” that address “the real problems, the ones which create the need for the welfare programs”.

        In truth, we’re not dealing with band-aids on minor cuts here. We’re dealing with band-aids on sucking chest wounds. To the extent that we think the band-aid is working, or is a solution, or is in any way relevant, undermines the real work and healing that must be done.

        I’m speaking only of government charity, not personal Works of Mercy — for the real wound is deeply spiritual, a wound that cannot be healed by WIC.

        There’s really no hope for justice with the nation-state, Henry. We’ll have to work for justice on our own.

  • C.Y.A.

  • C.Y.A.