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Heresies & Heretics

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by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Donatism, at first a schism and later a heresy which profoundly disturbed the Church in Africa from the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) to the Muslim conquest. The name is commonly derived from Donatus, successor in the see of Carthage to Majorinus who had been elected in 312 by a group of purists as rival to the legitimate bishop, Cecilian. These purists maintained that Cecilian's consecration as bishop was invalid, on the ground that he had been consecrated by a prelate who had weakened under Diocletian's persecution.

The occasion for the schism was the imperial edict of 303, which demanded among other things that Christians deliver up the sacred books to be burned. Certain Christians in Numidia (modern coastal Algeria) claimed that anyone who had so sinned could not validly administer the sacraments. Felix, the bishop of Aptunga, was accused (it appears unjustly) of being one of these traditores (traitors) and therefore incapable of consecrating Cecilian. Those who elected his rival called themselves the Church of the Martyrs and declared that all who were in communion with public sinners like Felix and Cecilian were excommunicated.

As a result many cities had two bishops, one subject to Cecilian and the other to Majorinus. On request of the schismatics, Emperor Constantine submitted the case to Pope Miltiades for settlement. The Pope summoned a council of bishops and ordered Cecilian to come to Rome with ten bishops of his accusers and ten of his own. Heading the accusing delegation was Donatus.

When Miltiades decided in favor of Cecilian, Donatus rejected the decision and asked for another council, which was held at Arles in 314, and when this also went against him, he appealed to the Emperor. For some years Constantine tried to repress the schism, but in 321 he relented and bade the Catholics patiently bear with the Donatists.

Shortly before the death of Constantine (337), the Donatists were joined by an insurrectionary movement of dispossessed peasants, called Circumcellions because they were always prowling "around the homesteads” (circum cellas). Homeless and unemployed, they ravaged the countryside, beating landlords with cudgels and putting them to the sword. They defied the magistrates who tried them and sentenced them to death. To avoid capture, some threw themselves headlong from high places. In 347 the emperor Constans reinstated his father’s policy of repression against Donatists. The emperor Julian (r. 361-363) restored toleration, and inter-Christian conflict broke out again. Finally in 412 Emperor Honorius passed a law against the Donatists that practically dissolved the sect. He imposed heavy fines on all members, exiled their bishops and clergy, and taxed the Circumcellions. Though greatly weakened, the schism persisted until Byzantine rule in Africa was destroyed by the Arabs in the seventh century.

The success of Donatism may be traced partly to its powerful organization, but mostly to its simple dogmatic position: 1) The Church is a society of saints from which sinners are excluded; 2) The sacraments are worthless unless administered by the priests of this holy Church. In effect, Donatism sought to purge the rich, who had protected their privileges by cooperating with the Diocletian persecution, from the Church. Saints Optatus and Augustine spent years of polemic effort in refuting this radical doctrine.

Not the least importance of Donatism was the patristic teaching it evoked, especially in St. Augustine, on the rights of secular intervention in religious matters. At first Augustine was opposed to the application of civil laws against "heretics," although on principle he justified them. But later, as the Circumcellions became a serious threat to the rich, he favored a more aggressive policy by the state, on the score of protecting citizens from the violence of the dispossessed underclass.

Collier's Encyclopedia
Vol. 8, pp. 343-344

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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