The Donatist Controversy

The Donatus Controversy

Important Yet Forgotten

There are some moments in Church history that on a grander scale do not seem to be very significant when we initially look at them.  The controversy in Carthage over the legitimacy of an anointed bishop seems to me to be one of them.

It is easy to gloss over it but out of it emerges doctrine about the priesthood and sacraments that I think were forgotten by some of the reformers in the 15th and 16th centuries.  Had they remembered the lessons of this event I have to believe they would not have been so quick to dismiss the sacramental priesthood regardless of the corruption that indeed existed even at its highest levels at that time.

Two important lessons emerge  from the Donatist Controversy and the insistence of the Donatists that the Church must be totally pure and that a priest needed to be holy (in the state of grace) in order to perform a valid sacrament.  Here it is….

Controversy Caused by “”Rigorists”

A substantial number of Christians in the East were very strict about not permitting apostates to return to the Church after the persecutions.  Other Christians were more moderate about the issue.  You can imagine the feelings of those in the East.  Many had loved ones, faithful to the end, executed, sometimes more than one from a family. Others endured the tortures but did not die.  They were called “confessors”, and were highly regarded.

To many, it was not easy to tolerate and forgive those who did not endure and who, for whatever reason, capitulated to the Romans, regardless of what the Church taught.  For them, either you were on board or you were an apostate.


Similar to the crisis that brewed after the persecution of Decius sixty years previously when Novation, and those who followed him, strongly opposed any apostate being re-admitted into the Church then, these feelings arose again after the persecution of Diocletian in the late third and early fourth centuries, and it became a major issue in Carthage (Africa).

Even more divisive than before, the result was a schism (split) in the early fourth century Church that lasted through the time of Augustine in the fifth century and beyond.   In fact, during Augustine’s period they were places where Donatists may have been more popular than the official Church itself.

At any rate, this time the issue was not just about permitting apostates back into the Church.  This time the concern was intensely focused on whether a priest or bishop who handed over a copy of the scriptures to the Roman authorities exercised a legitimate priestly ministry, since Christians viewed those men both as traitors (traditor), and as apostates.

In Carthage, Bishop Mensurius cooperated with the Roman directives during the persecution and did not allow Mass and Sacraments.  He claimed that he did not become a traditor, that is, he did not hand over the Sacramental texts and Bibles to the “police” to be burned.

When he died in 310 a.d. his archdeacon, Caecilian, succeeded him.  Caecilian was anointed by Bishop Felix of Aptungi, who supposedly was a “traditor”.  Many of the rigorist bishops were furious believing that Felix, being a traditor, had forfeited his right to exercise his priestly ministry.  They claimed, therefore, that the anointing of Caecilian was not valid and they challenged it.


Majorinus, Bishop of Numidia strongly opposed the consecration of Caecilian by Bishop Felix.  In turn, the rigorist bishops consecrated him, Majorinus, as Bishop of Carthage, and claimed he was the rightful Bishop.  Suddenly, there were two Carthage Bishops, two Carthage groups, thus two Carthage Churches.

Bishop Caecilian of                       Carthage

In other words, there was a schism in the Church at Carthage!

Majorinus’ time as “bishop” of Carthage was not long, however, and Donatus ( after whom Donatism is named)  succeeded him as Bishop of Carthage.

Bishop Caecilian appealed to Constantine, who, not completely aware of the seriousness of the dispute, confirmed Caecilian as the legitimate bishop of Carthage.  He even donated money to Caecilian and the city of Carthage so they could restore churches damaged during the persecution.  This gift only made matters worse because the Donatists did not receive anything and they were angry.

The Donatus Controversy

The Donatists appealed to Rome but Pope Miltiades and others sided with Caecilian.  The Donatists, not satisfied, appealed then to the Emperor, who called the Council of Arles in 314 a.d. that again sided with Caecilian.  The full weight of the emperor was used in settling this matter, which was significant in itself.

At this time there were two theories (ways of thinking) about what the relationship of the Church and the State should be particularly since Christianity became not only a legal religion but also the one favored by the emperor Constantine.


Emperor Constantine

One theory held the emperor was indeed the head of the Church.  This theory professed that the Empire was the earthly kingdom of God, that it fulfilled that was spoken of in the gospel.  This theory is called “Caesaropapism” (“Caesar is Pope”). This theory gained greater popularity in the Eastern part of the Empire where the persecution of Diocletian was worse particularly because now the emperor was on their side instead of executing them.

In the West the regard for the Empire and the emperor being Church leader was not quite as high.  In the Western part of the Empire, the Pope handled all the matters of the Church.  As a result, conflicts between the Emperor and the Pope (as to who is going to be the final authority on matters of church policy and teaching) began to brew.   The popes contended with and ultimately overcame the emperor as head of the Church, but it took centuries of struggle.

Since he was using the church as a way to unify his empire Constantine did act as if he were not only a bishop, but as if he were Pope. He apparently felt he was going to be involved with a group that got along and thought alike.  Instead, he found deep division politically and emotionally over doctrine, so he took a “hands-on” approach to solving any problems that might frustrate his desire for unity.

Can Sinful Priests Celebrate Mass?

The actual challenge brought about by the Donatists and other rigorists was not just about whether a bishop was anointed validly.  The real challenge was to the nature of the Church, to the holiness of the Church, and to the effectiveness of the sacraments and of the priesthood.  The Donatists believed the Church should be totally pure and did not accept that a priest who was “impure” could perform valid sacraments.

Talk about a “Pandora’s Box”!  Who would know whether any sacrament they received was valid if validity depended upon the holiness and the state of the soul of the priest performing it?  Who would know?

The idea of a pure Church is noble, but a little extreme.  Augustine, one hundred years later, said that the Church on earth should be a mixture of both saints and sinners, not accepting the notion that it should be completely comprised of the “pure”.

Besides, the Church had already decided that receiving the sacrament of Penance would allow someone who had apostasized, or committed mortal sin, back into the Church, although the penance at the time was usually lengthy.

As to the issue of what constituted of a valid sacrament, the response given by Augustine was consistent with church tradition.  He said that the sacrament did not belong to the priest, rather, it belonged to Christ.  That when a priest performs a sacrament that it is really Christ, not the priest doing it.  It is holy because He is holy.

The priest needed to intend to perform a sacrament, but the state of his own soul does not affect the effectiveness of the sacrament. In other words the priest anointed to act as “another Christ” does not get in the way.  The sacrament, according to Augustine, is efficacious “ex opera operato”, from the work produced itself.

The Donatus controversy is another example of historical circumstances, backing the Church into a corner, where it became necessary for it to think, define and defend its position.  This is why the Donatist Controversy was important and that its lessons should never be forgotten.

However, this is how God works sometimes, stirring up the community, causing great thinkers to arise who articulate Catholic truths.

So, the truth is that a person can get baptized, receive communion, become confirmed, get married, go to confession, be ordained to the diaconate, and the priesthood, and receive reconciliation and anointing when sick or near death knowing full well that sacrament is valid and effective.

In other words, there is security in knowing that God’s life (grace) has been intentionally communicated through the ministry of the priest and the Church regardless of any human flaws or even corruption that may exist.


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