Constantine did more than merely grant equal rights to Christianity as a definite religious doctrine. The Christian clergy (clerici) were given all the privileges granted to the pagan priests. They were exempted from state taxation and duties as well as from the officeholding which might divert them from the performance of their religious obligations (the right of immunity). Any man could bequeath his property to the Church, which thereby acquired the right of inheritance. Thus, simultaneously with the declaration of religious freedom, the Christian communities were recognized as legal juridical entities; from a legal point of view, Christianity was placed in an entirely new position.
Very important privileges were given to episcopal courts. Any man had the right, if his opponent agreed, to carry a civil suit to the episcopal court, even after proceedings in that suit had already been started in the civil court. Toward the end of Constantine's reign the authority of the episcopal courts was enlarged still more: (1) The decision of a bishop had to be accepted as final in cases concerning people of any age; (2) any civil case could be transferred to the episcopal court at any stage of the proceedings, even if the opposing side did not agree; (3) the decisions of the episcopal courts had to be sanctioned by civil judges. All these judicial privileges increased the authority of the bishops in society but at the same time added a heavy burden to their responsibilities and created many complications. The losing side, in view of the illegality of appealing a bishops decision, which could not always be correct, often remained dissatisfied and irritated. Moreover, these additional duties introduced too many worldly interests into the lives of the bishops.
A History of the Byzantine Empire - Table of Contents
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