The Limits of Imperial Authority. Freedom of Speech Is the Benchmark of Power That Is Not Tyrannical.
St. Ambrose set himself as bulwark and defense of the Catholic Faith against the Arian heresy.
Through his many theological and scriptural writings, he is one of the four great doctors of the Church in the West. St. Ambrose, Doctor of the Church, in the letter to Paternus shows his desire to call things as they are: “to beat an enemy is victory, to strike against the guilty is equity, to strike the innocent is homicide (hostem ferire victoria est, reum aequitas, innocentem homicidum).
(Note: The four great doctors of the West are Saints Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, and Pope Gregory the Great. The Arian heresy began with the priest Arius who denied that Jesus is God, equal to His Father. This heresy was condemned and rejected by the great Council of Nicea. We pray the Creed of Nicea at Mass every Sunday and on solemnities.)
He does not contest the authority of the emperor, but the pretence of those, according to whom, whatever the emperor does is lawful. Fixing the limits of the emperor’s authority, that divine and natural law impose, he proclaims “ freedom of speech” libertas dicendi, the conducting wire of all his interventions with emperors, which may be even the ultimate defense of liberty, and for the person who knows how to respect it, a benchmark of a power that is not tyrannical
(Note: “The heretical Empress Justina and her barbarian-advisers would many a time fain have silenced him (Ambrose) by exile or assassination, but, like Herod in the case of the Baptist, they ‘feared the multitude’. His heroic struggles against the aggressions of the secular power have immortalized him as the model and forerunner of future Hildebrands, [Pope Gregory VII] Beckets, [St. Thomas Becket] and other champions of religious liberty.” The Catholic Encyclopedia article on St. Ambrose.
Religious liberty is much threatened in our country, by those who seek to subordinate the Catholic religion to political power under the guise of political correctness and a pretended social justice. Justina also tried to force St Ambrose to hand over a church that Arian heretics demanded be given to them. This he successfully resisted and defeated, through prayer and protest.)
Ambrose alone felt, as a serious obligation, he should use freedom of speech with the emperor, which he had always stood up for, as the rightful obligation of the Bishop. In his letter of 390 A.D. this freedom of speech was shorn of any vindictive tone and became the humble but firm fulfillment of a risky task, which it was not lawful to exempt himself from, because in carrying it out he chose to obey God (Deum praefero, I prefer God). We must obey God rather than human beings! (Acts 5:29)
But besides this boldness and strength, of a man of the Church, who governs, manly, frank, and clear, as he was, he also was a great shepherd and profound theologian in defending the fundamental principles of justice and right, of truth, and goodness (Note: The Church teaches the office of the bishop requires him to teach, govern, and sanctify)
Two important aspects of his teaching illustrate to us the depth of his thought and his activity of Bishop: his convinced Christocentrism and his original Mariology. At the center of his life, stands Christ, sought after and loved with an intense abandon. To Him, he kept turning in his teaching. On Christ, he modeled also the charity that he proposed to the faithful, which gave testimony to his person….Ambrose speaks with ardor, of the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption, as one who has been seized by Christ and sees all in His light (See St. John Paul II’s, Apostolic Letter, Operosam Diem, 1996)
(Note: Christocentrism means, of course, that Christ is the center of the Catholic religion and Mariology is the theology which concentrates on the person of Mary, Mother of God, in the Church. This Christocentrism of the Catholic Faith was admirably expressed by Blessed Rupert Mayer S.J. who said: Christ is the center of life. There can be no compromises.)
“We have everything in Christ and Christ is everything to us” (Omnia habemus in Christo et Omnit Christ est nobis), is the emblem and paradigm of his thought. He lived and worked entirely without tiring, everything for Christ and everything for His Church. His love for Christ, the Church, and the salvation of souls were inseparable. Without tiring in his seeking to make love for Christ grow, for which he spent all his inexhaustible energies in working, suffering, studying, praying, weeping and risking his life in the face of the powers of his era, he was a bulwark of strength and apostolic heroism exercised for the Church, the people of God.
St. Ambrose was intimately and profoundly convinced that the Church shines not in her own (light)but in Christ’s light, “Fulget Ecclesia non suo sed Christi lumine,” and therefore, “She lives, from the inseparable, essential, and fruitful sacramental union with Her Head.” In fact, “The Body of Christ is the Church, (Corpus Christi Ecclesia est);” in her, the Church Mother and Spouse, faithful sons and daughters of the Church, proclaim in unison: “We are the one body of Christ,” (Nos unum corpus Christi sumus). Precisely for the “faithful of Christ, which the Church of Christ is and for her head “Christ the Lord, Word of God, King of Eternal Glory, always present in His Church, the bishop, St. Ambrose, worked, studied, risked his life, wept, prayed, preached, journeyed and wrote books until his death, faced without fear, proper to the saints of God, in the light of “His Good Lord!” at dawn on the 4th of April in the year of the Lord 397.
Notes by Fr. Villa
BACK TO LIST