Since I could delay this forever, I suppose I should start to deliver on my promise to write some reviews of the 2011 Angelus Press Conference on the Papacy by offering some very general remarks on Professor John Rao’s opening lecture, “The Catholic Church as Heir of the Roman Empire.” Please keep in mind these comments are very general and I am sure if I went back to the lecture again, I could find a lot more to write on it.
The short and the long of Rao’s thesis is that not only the Catholic Church, but the Eastern Church as well, became the “heir(s) of the Roman Empire” to the extent that they were uniquely positioned to appropriate—and then apply—the administrative heritage of Rome. Indeed, the very constitution of the Church after the Edict of Milan began to increasingly reflect imperial structures, albeit with noticeable modifications. This is what Rao, it seems, is really concerned to get across. To the extent that the Catholic Church (or the Eastern Church) appropriated, revised, and then applied the administrative heritage of Rome (along with, I should add, the intellectual heritage of Hellenism), Rao sees nothing wrong. It is, however, during those periods of “conceptual slippage” (my term, not his) that bothers him. That is, when ancient Rome qua Rome became the model by which the Church and, eventually, individualized States ought to model themselves on, at the unfortunate expense of the Gospel. Rao identifies a certain genius in the Catholic Church insofar as it worked diligently, over many centuries, to appropriate and modify the Roman-Hellenic tradition. On the other hand, Rao is deeply critical of the Eastern tradition to the extent that it simply stopped the modification; that is, it simply accepted what had come from “old Rome” and then, where conflicts arose, invoked the murky concept of oikonomia to justify the retention of “old Rome” when, in fact, a “new Rome” or a “Christianized Rome” ought to have reigned.
This strikes me as an extremely academic debate. I put my two cents in because I am seeing this theme pop up a lot among Catholic intellectuals (look up Red Tories). As near as I can tell, they seek to reclaim the Church’s former influence in the now-militantly secular State in order to shape a more godly social order. Justice Scalia for example seems to relish the role of Thomas More to the democratic State’s Henry. I don't put much stock in this approach, whether it's Opus Dei or the Catholic Workers (leaving aside both groups' newfound faith in Masonic structures) because Rome and Constantinople are long, long gone and not coming back. The heirs to Empire are the West’s transnational, putatively democratic, globalist bureaucracies. They in turn have to reserve a seat at the table for the non-Christian oil exporting nations and Asian powers.
There is a lot of talk about Eastern Christianity in the linked post which strikes me as similarly arid. Russia is highly idiosyncratic and an international pariah with grave domestic issues. Greece is slipping into Third World status. Orthodox Greece and Russia no more concern the new secular order than Orban's Hungary, outside the desire to bomb such regimes off the map where feasible.
Nobody seems prepared for the probability that the secular neo-State itself is headed for collapse, like Rome and Constantinople before it. By the time things run their course, there won't be much left of the State apparatus to salvage.
A private joke I sometimes share is imagining Roman and Eastern hierarchs waking up yesterday and exclaiming, "The Empire fell? Now you tell me!"