June 22, 2007

Church and State and Contemporary Society – A comparison of perspectives between the Roman Catholic and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church

. Catholic and Orthodox approaches to the State
. The approach of Orthodox churches to relations with the State differ from the relations between the Vatican and the various states.
. Islam figures prominently in this historical and cultural difference.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
By Ezana Habte Gabr
The apostolic churches, namely the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches have witnessed social changes throughout the world, while continuing to maintain the faith which was bought to societies in Europe, Africa and Asia. While spiritually being one apostolic church, they were divided by the politics during the schism, but theologically maintaining commonalties such as the seven sacraments and the veneration of the Virgin Mary.

However, in terms of perspectives regarding the state and society, historical differences have evolved leading the Roman Church to be respectful of the state and contingently prescriptive in terms of the role of the state and society as it has maintained its universality. The Orthodox Church on the other hand, evolved into a national church and has viewed the propagation of the faith by being a tied to the state. As the historical Ethiopian saying puts it “seamy aytaras, negus aykeses” My intention here is to address some salient aspects in regards to state and society such as modernization, changing social relations, language and culture by making references to Ethiopia.

As the encyclicals of the Twentieth Century of the Roman Catholic Church indicate, the role of the state in society has been constantly examined and clarified taking into consideration the changes in society. The universality of the Catholic Church has historically made it not part of any state. However, as the state in societies has a profound impact on the spirituality and morality of people, the church could not remain detached from this reality.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church along with the Armenian Church is the oldest church which has been ascribed to a state. Christianity was declared the official religion of the Ethiopian empire in the fourth century and continued to be so until 1974. However, after 1974 the church continued to survive in very much the same way other Orthodox churches survived under states which adopted Marxist-Leninist systems as the promoting nationalism has been its historical duty as the royalty were considered elected by God. While, it is important to note that Orthodox Church continued to stand firmly to its beliefs and provide consolation under new regimes, the fact that it was always a column of nationalism provided it some room to function in spite of ideology.

This is very similar to the Catholic Church in Poland under the Communist government. However, the Ethiopian Orthodox church was not an active change agent and if there was any anti-systemic movement it supported, it was the exiled monarchist party which was really was not a major change agent.

Since the Enlightenment, the Roman Church was faced with the concept of the liberal state, one that was based on rationalism and positivism. Hence the liberal and the pluralistic state was conceived based on relativism which increasingly detached sprit from state as it was associated with ideologies of the anciene regime. Several grassroots movements which fought for social justice and equality associated spirit and church with the monarchical system. The industrial revolution, whose material benefits began to be appreciated in the West, were the Roman church has had most of is presence began to experiences a spiritual alienation increasingly manifested by growing numbers of nominal and non practicing believers as materialism began to predominate the social psyche. Social relations did deteriorate in industry and urban settings in Europe and indeed Latin America, regions with large numbers of Roman Catholic adherents. In Europe, difficult labor conditions increasingly made liberalism attractive, calling for various encyclicals at the end of the 19th century by Pope Leon XII`s encyclical, "Rerum novarum” Here, the Pope responded to the social problems calling for a Christian alternative, one that comprehended the problems but sought to solve them through the teachings of Christianity.

During the same time, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church had a much stronger connection to the state as the Ethiopian state began to expand and the church’s role was imminent as it was supported by the state and vice versa. Priests and monks converted the non Christian south, which was incorporated by Emperor Menelik II, who reigned from 1889 to 1913, generating the need of a symbiotic relationship between church and state, unlike the case of Europe. Ethiopia had always been part of the diocese of Alexandria until the mid Twentieth century.

However, as the expansion of the empire and the nationalism espoused by the Church served to strengthen and even distinguish the church from the rest of the Orthodox communion in that it became the national church very much in the same manner as did other Orthodox churches. It officially became “The Ethiopian Monophysite, wrongly called at times Church or in Ge’ez, the official language of the church, “ye Etiopia Tewahado Beta Cristian”.

Furthermore the emperor was considered to be the elected servant of God. Therefore as the State became stronger, so did the church, which was not the case of the Roman Church. Indeed, this was the case of other Orthodox churches throughout the world, they increasingly became a column of nationalism and with the creation of new states such as the post Soviet countries, there have been more Orthodox churches as each new state formed its own church. In the Ethiopian case, with the independence of Eritrea, a new Eritrean Orthodox Church was founded. Therefore, in terms of a social doctrine, it is quite obvious that the Orthodox Church’s close knit relationship did not really call for inquiries and forms of adjustment to social changes as the states automatically formed new churches.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church continues to use the traditional Ge’ez language in its liturgy in very much the same way the Roman Catholic Church used Latin until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. This was intended to accommodate diversity and make the bible and the liturgy more accessible to populations which were unable to study Latin. In the case of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Ge’ez, a clerical language, with the clergy and a few scholars being the only speakers continues to be the language of the liturgy. However, over the years and with modernization and Westernization, the church as increasingly been using Amharic in sermons.

The decision to use Amharic in sermons has very much been stimulated by the faithful who live overseas and those who have been highly educated. One could also draw the conclusion that the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church may have also inspired its brother Church to increasingly be open to the use of widely spoken languages.

In Latin America and Europe, as states adopted liberalism and authoritarian systems or caudillos, states increasingly distanced themselves from spirit as they viewed themselves to be social mediators and agents of modernization. Colombia, during the later part of 19th Century had Liberal regimes which espoused degrees of separation of Church and State. Furthermore, as Catholicism had always been based in the Vatican and as it was always autonomous, it could be argued that the Church naturally did not have much say in the affairs of the state. However, this is not to say that there were not political entities which viewed themselves as allies of the church. Unlike the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, I would argue that the autonomy of the Roman Church from states has not impacted the actual church due to its universality. Encyclicals, therefore, became necessary to accommodate spirit and relativism. Periods of Ethiopian contemporary history where the monarchy did not manifest strong support for the Church generally resulted in the monarchy collapsing.

Orthodox regions of the world, including Ethiopia, have always been faced with co-existing with other religions, perhaps more so than the Roman Church. Ethiopia, for example, is a country which has always been diverse in terms of religion. Close to half the population is Moslem and as the empire began expanding into the lowlands over the course of three centuries, it was faced with accommodating Islam. During the Ottomans, there were actual confrontations, similar to those of the Crusades in the Middle Ages. However, the empire did incorporate local Islamic leaders into the nobility system which was historically only for Orthodox Christians. Since Byzantine times, when the first Orthodox Church was founded, Islam had always been an issue in Orthodoxy. Perhaps it could be argued that the Church obtained defense from the state and the state, particularly, the nobility received spiritual support from the Church, hence contributing to a stronger relationship between both entities. On the other hand, countries which are predominantly Roman Catholic, in recent history began to co-exist with other beliefs as they recently emerged after. Here the encyclicals of Ecumenism, particularly those of John Paul II contributed to interfaith dialogue and one could argue served as model to other Churches and to Orthodox regions. In the case of Ethiopia under the liberal government, the Church continues to be tied to the state. The appointment of the recent patriarch was very much impacted by the ruling party. However, efforts have been made to grant equal rights to other faiths in very much the same way the Colombian constitution of 1991 has gone about this. Nonetheless, the historical precedence of these churches continues to make them essential parts of their societies.

To conclude, it can be suggested that both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church and specifically the Ethiopian, are theologically very similar in respect to the seven sacraments, the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Mary. However, their history has unfolded in different social contexts which include the Western and Eastern worlds. While the Roman Church is unchanged in terms of its beliefs, it has withstood marked philosophical transformations by considering social events and maintaining the faith.

The Ethiopian Orthodox church along with other Eastern churches has also maintained its apostolic faith, but being a state institution and the state needing to historically maintain ties with the church, has continued to survive and maintain its faithful. The challenge that it would face in this century is similar to that of the Roman, but as the last three decades have shown, very much more accelerated as the state transformed to communist and now neo-liberal.


1. As the heavens can not be ploughed, nor can a king be accused.

2 See http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09169a.htm which identi

3. The webpage http://www.answers.com/topic/ethiopian-orthodox-tewahedo-church provides an historical overview of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

4. Eritrea became an independant country in 1991 after having been part of Ethiopía since it gained its independance from Italy.

5. http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Ge'ez-language

6. During the 1860’s and the 1920’s Ethiopia had emperors, Tewodros and Eyassu, respectively, who distanced themselves from the Church.

Ezana Habte Gabr is a member of the faculty of Universidad de La Sabana of Bogotá, Colombia. He also writes at Humanising Language Teaching .

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