Saint Augustine and the Donatists

Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive?
As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the accounting,
a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back,
his master ordered him to be sold,
along with his wife, his children, and all his property,
in payment of the debt.
At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’
Moved with compassion the master of that servant
let him go and forgave him the loan.
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
‘Pay back what you owe.’
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
But he refused.
Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master
and reported the whole affair.
His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?’
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

Matthew 18:  21-35

Throughout the history of the Church there has always been a tension between mercy and justice.  This tension was very much at the fore during the time of Saint Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries.  During the persecution of Diocletian in the third century, some bishops and priests, along with many ordinary Christians, apostatized in order to save their lives.  After the persecution these same individuals often asked for readmission to the Church.  The question arose as to what was to be done with these individuals.  The Catholic view was that after a period of penitence, often quite lengthy, these penitent sinners could be readmitted to the Church.  This generosity appalled not a few Catholics who had borne persecution and risked their lives for the Faith.  Bishop Donatus of Cathage, primate of North Africa, taught that those who had apostatized had to be re-baptized and then admitted back into the Catholic Church, and that the sacraments could not be administered by clergy who had fallen from the Faith.  The Church taught that the powers of the clergy were inherent in their office and that  their moral unworthiness did not affect the validity of the sacraments they administered.  A few minutes reflection convinces me of the necessity of this doctrine of the Church.  Otherwise we would have a continual concern with whether each priest or bishop is leading a holy life, something we usually have no way of knowing, and continual doubts about the validity of the sacraments we receive.

The teachings of Donatus were condemned by Pope Miltiades in 313.  The Donatists in response formed their own church, very strong in North Africa, and many cities and towns had both Catholic and Donatist churches, with the Donatists establishing their own hierarchy.

Saint Augustine battled the Donatists in his sermons and other writings.  In 411 a conference was held at Carthage attended by both Catholic and Arian bishops before an Imperial official, Marcellinus, a friend of Saint Augustine.  The Catholics, confident in their teaching and also confident of Imperial support, had instigated the idea of the conference.  The outcome of the conference was foreordained, with the Donatists being banned by the Empire, although it is also clear that the Donatist spokesmen were no match for Saint Augustine in debate.

Donatist bishop Petitilian stated during the conference:  “He who receives faith from the faithless receives not faith, but guilt, [and] everything consists of an origin and a root; and if it has not something for a head, it is nothing”

Saint Augustine responded:

“Wherefore, whether a man receive the sacrament of baptism from a faithful or a faithless minister, his whole hope is in Christ, that he fall not under the condemnation that ‘cursed is he that placeth his hope in man.’ Otherwise if each man is born again in spiritual grace of the same sort as he by whom he is baptized, and if when he who baptizes him is manifestly a good man, then he himself gives faith, he is himself the origin and root and head of him who is being born… when the baptizer is faithless without its being known, then the baptized person receives faith from Christ. …in that case all who are baptized should wish that they might have faithless baptizers.”

Sinful clerics are a scandal that have ever been with the Church beginning with Judas.  They often wreak much damage to the Faith.  However, even such unworthy vessels are channels of the grace of Christ per the power granted to Peter and the Church by Christ.  Human sinfulness can never withstand the power of God, or even obstruct it, if God intends otherwise.  The Donatists envisaged a Church presided over by Saints, a vision very different from that of Christ who saw His Church completing her mission in spite of human sin and folly, at all times using weak humans to bring the message of salvation and the grace of God.




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  1. What’s the Latin phrase for the Church’s position? “Ex opere operato”. And I call to mind Graham Greene’s magnificent novel, “The Power and the Glory” in which a sinful priest risks his life to bring Holy Communion in an anti-clerical Mexico.

  2. Reminded me to look something up that I had been meaning to….

    Caught a bit of something on the radio that quoted the scene where Jesus sends the 12 out to perform miracles; most likely it was from Matthew 10, which means that it was including Judas, which means that even the guy who betrayed Jesus unto death was able to perform miracles in Jesus’ name.

  3. If the Donatists were right, could anything good ever come from me who has so often strayed beyond the pale?

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