An Analysis of the Problems Posed by the Donatists in the Early Catholic Church
Donatus Magnus represents a kind of Puritanism that has always existed in the Church. The Donatist movement of the early fourth century was a response to perceived laxity on the part of Church officials concerning Catholics who had lapsed out of fear under the persecutions of Diocletian. That was one side of the argument, at least. On the other side was the work of St. Optatus the African, Bishop of Milevis, who authored a significant treatise concerning the schism of the Donatists. The problem, essentially, was one of Church politics, judgment and charity -- and it was a problem that eventually found itself coming before the throne of Emperor Constantine, who sent a group of bishops to hear the case and give a decision. This paper will analyze the problems the Donatists posed for the early Catholic Church, and the manner with which they were dealt.
As J.R. King (1870) notes, "The schism of the Donatists…arose indirectly out of the persecution under Diocletian" (ix). The martyrdom of many, such as St. Cyprian, a bishop of Carthage killed for the faith in the third century, was having a euphoric effect on the early Christians. King describes it as a kind of fanaticism "in which many of the Christians courted martyrdom" (ix). Bishop Mensurius of Carthage and his successor, Caecilianus, because of their apparent lack of longing for martyrdom were accused of having given up their Bible (of being, in other words, traditor -- a defamatory word used to describe those whose faith appeared to waver under the threat of annihilation).
When Caecilianus was consecrated by a Felix (also suspected of having been a traditor) the alarm rang out among the hard-line opposition, who installed Marjorinus as the new bishop of Carthage. Marjorinus believed the sacraments of traditors to be invalid, thus he (and his successor, Donatus) were legally bound to occupy the See. By the time Donatus had succeeded in 315, the Puritanical element of what became known as Donatism had risen to foreground. By then, of course, the dispute about who was legal bishop of the Church, Marjorinus (and later Donatus) or Caecilianus (consecrated by a suspected traditor and therefore invalidly installed -- according to the Donatists) had come before Constantine. Pope Melchiades along with three other bishops heard the case and "decided in favor of the validity of the consecration of Caecilianus; and a similar verdict was given by a council held at Arles, by direction of the Emperor, in the following year" (King 1870:ix).
The Donatists continued to appeal their case and the Church's response against them was, as King states, to issue "sever laws…against their schism" (x), which only added fuel to their fire and kindled the intensity of their belief. So concerned with purity and asceticism were they, that they attracted a host of likeminded religious and with Donatus now at the head of their movement, their views spread like wildfire through Africa. They imprudently longed for martyrdom and become violent with those whose fanaticism failed to measure up to their own. The Church had given its ruling, but Donatus and his followers were not content to mind it. The schism was in full swing and now the early Church doctors were beginning to make their own minds known on the matter.
The Role of Augustine, Doctor of the Church
St. Augustine was naturally drawn to the debate first and foremost because it concerned the faith and the exercise of its authority -- but secondly because it appealed to the very qualities of reason that he himself made such glorious use of in treatises such as "On Concerning the Freedom of the Will," his inimitable "Confessions," and City of God. Augustine applied himself to the task of bringing the Donatists back into line with Holy Mother Church.
Augustine's "Alphabetical Psalm" was a document that took the Donatist movement apart piece by piece, beginning with the nature of its history and concluding with the nature of its errors.
Letters also went back and forth between Donatus and Augustine, the former attempting to persuade the latter that his baptisms alone were valid, and the latter attempting to contradict him; the only evidence for such letters (since they are lost) comes from various allusions made to them elsewhere, just as does his two books written in 400 called Against the Party of Donatus. Augustine's argument had many facets but one of its most essential was the exclusivity effected by Donatism was proof enough of its being separate from the Church of Christ.
Yet Augustine went on to write even more, including seven books on Baptism, in which he asserts that St. Cyprian, whom the Donatists upheld as one of their own, actually held a position that was far from anything even remotely Donatist:
Ye mad Donatists, whom we desire earnestly to return to the peace and unity of the holy Church, that ye may receive health therein, what have ye to say in answer to this? You are won't, indeed, to bring up against us the letters of Cyprian, his opinion, his Council; why do ye claim the authority of Cyprian for your schism, and reject his example when it makes for the peace of the Church? (Augustine On Baptism 2:4, p. 35).
It was clear where Augustine stood, and that he considered the Donatists to be in error was obvious. This was no ecumenical dialogue concerning differences. Augustine's works were adamant, forceful and strong and he had no problem laying bare the contradictions at the heart of the schismatic Donatists.
Augustine's writing's along with the Council of Carthage and the help of the Roman government effectively put an end to the Donatist movement, as W.H.C. Fend states: "The Donatist clergy were to be exiled and, separated one from another, dispatched to remote corners of the Empire. Donatism was henceforth a criminal offense" (Fend 2010:289).
The Donatist Defensive
As Albrecht Vogel states, a synod at Cirta was held at which the seeds of schism were sewn -- a decade before Donatus came to power. At Cirta, Bishop
Secundus of Tigisis proposed that an investigation should be made, whether there were any traditores among the assembled. The result of the investigation was, that nearly every one of the bishops present was proved guilty of the crime, in some form or other. Suspicion fell even upon Secundus himself. He was consequently compelled to drop the investigation.
The event showed the depth of the dilemma for Donatists -- and the grey area that existed for the Church regarding traditores. No one, it appeared, was safe from suspicion. Yet, the fact that the question of who had lapsed under persecution and who had longed for martyrdom, from the Donatist perspective, was a question that provoked too much scrutiny and far too many accusations. Thus, it is no surprise that Augustine would decry it as a movement that was tearing the Church apart. Such hard-line Catholicism would always threaten the stability of the Church, right down the present day sedevacantism (an extremely conservative movement that denies the current Papacy due to signs of modernism).
The problem worsened when Donatus took upon himself his own bishopric (as happens still today): "There were two bishops and two congregations" (Vogel). Most of the African church and many of its bishops followed Donatus (who appealed to St. Cyprian in the same way the sedevacantist groups appeal to St. Pius V). But the Church outside of Africa recognized Caecilianus. Thus, the problem for the Church at whole was evidently one of schism.
This problem became even more evident when the first decision by the Pope was granted in favor of Caecilianus. The Donatists appealed to the Constantine (in a move that showed little respect for the Papacy and showed a terrible lack of judgment on the part of the Donatists). The Emperor himself was nowise pleased by the appeal and the Donatists were digging themselves into a hole by expressing their outrage and contempt for their fellow churchmen in such an unorthodox manner. Their protest that the Pontiff's judgment had been partial to the other side found little favor with Constantine, who was already "disgusted, that he, a Pagan, was asked to decide upon the internal affairs of the Christian Church; but he accepted, nevertheless, the appeal, summoned Caecilianus and his accusers to Milan, and condemned the latter as guilty of calumny" (Vogel).
Afterwards, Constantine preferred to ignore the matter. Constans, his son, did not. The Church in Africa was still enthralled with asceticism and the longing for martyrdom as if this were the only proof of one's Catholic faith. Constans took more of an interest in the Catholic faith than his father did and began to focus his attention on rooting out the schism that was separating the Church in Africa from its Catholic roots.
Unfortunately, at the same time a group even more ascetic than the Donatists called…