Stephen calls himself "the servant of two masters," indicting "The imperial British state" in England and "the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church" in Italy. He is determined to free his thoughts from the mind-control of both institutions.
Stephen has defined himself in A Portrait of the Artist as “free of all existing orders,” and he objects entirely as much to religious orders as to political ones. After his decision not to become a priest, which is simultaneously a decision to leave the church, he tells his friend Lynch, “I will not serve,” echoing the utterance by which Lucifer rebelled against God: Non serviam. In Circe he renews his defiance, asserting a Romantic conviction that art can effect a liberation of the individual mind: "The intellectual imagination! With me all or not at all. Non serviam!" Shortly later, tapping his forehead, he thinks, “in here it is I must kill the priest and the king.” The individual who accepts submission to the church and the state can never be his "own master."
Haines understands why an Irishman might resent the British, but Stephen's riddling identification of the Catholic Church as "an Italian" master puzzles him. Anti-colonialism was linked with anti-clericalism in Joyce’s mind for reasons more specific than just the abstract similarity of two repressive regimes. When Stephen rhetorically balances the “imperial British“ state against the “holy Roman” church, he is calling attention to a devil’s bargain between English imperial power and Roman ecclesiastical power in the second half of the 12th century.
When the western part of the Roman Empire disintegrated in the 5th century, the western part of the Church played a crucial role in establishing new forms of social order, laying some of the foundations for what eventually became modern European nation-states. Ireland, however, had never been a part of the Roman Empire, and its church pursued an independent path, far less concerned with social order and political hierarchy. The focus of the Irish church was monasticism. Its abbots wielded far more power and influence than its bishops, and its monks preserved and advanced learning at a time when, on the continent, libraries were in ruins, manuscripts were not being copied, and intellectual inquiry was largely stagnant. In the 6th and 7th centuries Irish monks began to export their learning and spirituality to the impoverished continent. In Proteus, Stephen thinks about a key early figure of this history, “the fiery Columbanus.”
“Catholic” means “universal,” and Roman means imperial. As the centuries wore on, Roman clerics expressed increasing impatience with their Celtic brothers’ independence in matters of ecclesiastical hierarchy and liturgical rites. In the 12th century, their impulse to enforce conformity found common cause with the Norman barons’ impulse to conquer ever more territories. In 1169 an English cardinal named Nicholas Breakspear became pontiff; his career had been advanced by the English king Henry II. As Pope Adrian IV, one of Breakspear’s first actions was to reward his patron by issuing the infamous bull that begins with the word Laudabiliter, condemning the renegade Irish church and awarding temporal sway over all Ireland to England. This invitation to conquest triggered the Anglo-Norman invasions of Henry II’s reign, initiating a long history of English colonialism in Ireland. And the Norman overlords, remembering their debt to the pope, reformed the Irish church into a distinctly Roman Catholic Church forevermore marked by subservience rather than independence. Many Irish prelates became submissive not only to Rome but also to Westminster.
In the 1860s the Catholic bishops consistently opposed the fenian movement, and their rejection of Charles Stewart Parnell, after the scandal of his adultery broke, turned the tide of public opinion against that parliamentary evangelist for Home Rule. Instructed by his patriotic and anti-clerical father, Joyce was well versed in the craven political conservatism of the clergy. In 1906 he wrote to his brother Stanislaus, "I quite see, of course, that the Church is still, as it was in the time of Adrian IV, the enemy of Ireland; but, I think, her time is almost up" (Ellmann, 237).