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To God, What Belongs to God—Ambrose & Valentinian (385)

In the spring of 385, Milan stood on the brink of anarchy. Valentinian, the fourteen-year-old Roman Emperor, was trying to seize control of a church called the Portian Basilica. Supported by his Arian1 court, he wanted to establish a heretical church. Yet in the face of peril, Bishop Ambrose would not give in; too much was at stake. He was willing to be martyred if necessary, but he would not give up a church to the emperor.2

Emperor Valentinian reigned for a number of years alongside his half-brother Gratian, whose basic beliefs were soundly Christian. But when Gratian died in 383, royal support for orthodoxy collapsed. Arians increasingly dominated Valentinian’s court, and eventually they goaded him into demanding the Portian Basilica.

Bishop Ambrose rebuffed him, so the emperor made another request—that he be given the newly built cathedral instead. Ambrose again refused, and on Palm Sunday, things came to the boiling point. As the bishop was celebrating the Eucharist in the cathedral, he heard that the emperor’s functionaries were installing imperial hangings in the basilica. Ambrose carried on with the service, but a group of protesters soon formed in the city square. They seized a passing Arian priest and would have killed him had not Ambrose intervened by sending several deacons and priests to save him.

That night the emperor fined and imprisoned many of the leading orthodox citizens. The next morning the faithful responded by occupying both the Portian Basilica and the cathedral. The military encircled the basilica, but Ambrose and his flock stood fast. Citing Mark 12:17: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” they insisted that the basilica was not one of “the things that are Caesar’s.” Soon even Valentinian's troops began joining the congregation in worship. Frustrated by the populace's defense of their bishop and the Church, the emperor withdrew his troops.

Valentinian should have anticipated Ambrose’s resolve since this churchman had earlier excommunicated another emperor, Theodosius, for atrocious behavior in office. Bishop Ambrose did not take ecclesiastic prerogatives lightly. Neither should twenty-first-century Church leaders, whether the government sends in troops or mere bureaucrats.

God’s people must pick their battles; confrontation is not always the answer. But a Church which picks no battles, one which never finds confrontation the answer, is likely to be a puzzle, a disappointment, and an embarrassment to brothers and sisters in the fray and to “the great cloud of witnesses,” including Ambrose, who have gone before.


Arians denied the deity of Christ.


St. Ambrose, “Letter 61,” St. Ambrose's Letters 1-91, in The Fathers of the Church, vol. 26 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1954), 365-375.