The Errors of the Donatists and Why They Matter Today

St. Augustine as a Champion of the True Faith

St. Augustine is known as a fierce opponent to the errors of Manichaeism, which was founded in the 3rd century by Manichaeus, who claimed to be the final prophet. The central tenet of Manichaeism was the dualistic belief in a cosmic struggle between the forces of light (represented by God) and the forces of darkness (associated with the material world and an evil deity called the Prince of Darkness).

The human soul, according to Manichaeism, was seen as a divine element trapped within the material world, and the goal of adherents was to liberate the soul by following Manichaeus’ teachings and practices. St. Augustine fiercely opposed this heresy and, due to his influence and legacy, it largely disappeared by the 7th century.


What Was Donatism?

But St. Augustine also strongly fought against the errors of the Donatists. The Donatists were a heretical sect that emerged under Donatus Magnus, a bishop of Carthage, in the Roman province of Africa in the 4th and 5th century.

The Donatists originated as a response to the Diocletian persecution of Christians. During this period, some Christians in North Africa had renounced their faith or cooperated with Roman authorities to avoid persecution. When the persecution ended, the debate arose on how to deal with those who had apostatized from the Faith or who had collaborated with the authorities.

The Donatists argued that clergy who had betrayed their faith during the persecution, or those who were ordained by them, were illegitimate. They believed that the Sacraments administered by such clergy were invalid, and they insisted on the purity of the Church. The Donatists contended that only those who had remained faithful during the persecution could be true members of the Church.


St. Augustine Denounced the Errors of the Donatists with Charity

In the early stages of the controversy, St. Augustine criticized the Donatists for their strict stance on the purity of the Church. He argued that the validity of Sacraments did not depend on the moral character of the minister but on the efficacy of the Sacraments themselves. This is known as the principle of ex opera operantis. St. Augustine also denounced the Donatist insistence on rebaptizing individuals. Baptism, if validly conferred, can never be repeated.

We too must learn from this example to attack error relentlessly but never to attack the person since our goal is to win over the sinner to the Truth. St. Augustine’s writings persuade through Scripture, philosophy, and logic, not through attacks on individuals. When the Donatist bishop Petilianus called him foul names, St. Augustine refused to retaliate. Instead, he wrote:

“If I render injury for injury, we would both be guilty. I am not trying to win a victory over another man but to destroy an error. We are not dealing here with the merits of a human being but with the truth of Holy Church. If we must not believe the praises of a friend neither must we believe in the slanders of an enemy. When I am seeking the lost sheep of my Master, is it a cause for astonishment that I am bitten by venomous serpents?”


The Church Officially Condemned Donatism as a Heresy

Several regional councils convened to address the Donatist controversy including the Council of Arles in 314 (which was attended by legates sent by Pope St. Sylvester) and the Council of Carthage in 411. The Roman emperors intervened in an attempt to resolve the Donatist schism. Imperial edicts were issued to force reconciliation; however, these measures did not bring about a lasting solution.

The Council of Carthage in 418 marked a key moment in the condemnation of Donatism. At this council, the Church officially condemned Donatism as a heresy. The decisions of this council were later confirmed by Pope Boniface I. And in the years following the Council of Carthage, imperial decrees were issued against the Donatists. The emperor Honorius, for instance, passed laws that restricted the activities of Donatist clergy and supporters. By the 7th century, Donatism had virtually faded away.

The Catechism of St. Thomas Aquinas also mentions the condemnation of the Donatists:

“The Church is Catholic, that is, universal. Firstly, it is universal in place, because it is worldwide. This is contrary to the error of the Donatists. For the Church is a congregation of the faithful; and since the faithful are in every part of the world, so also is the Church: ‘Your faith is spoken of in the whole world’ (Rom 1:8). And also: ‘Go ye into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature’ (Mk 16:15). Long ago, indeed, God was known only in Judea; now, however, He is known throughout the entire world.”


We Pray for All Clergy and Know They Are Not Perfect

Donatists argued that clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and Sacraments to be valid. We may find in our own parishes or chapels personalities we find difficult. It may be that we do not appreciate our pastor’s style of sermons or piety. We might even find he plays favorites or is brusque or unresponsive. Yet we are Catholic – we are not Protestants, who change which church they go to for human reasons. As long as the priest and parish strive to spread and defend the true Catholic Faith, we should support them.

We must not fall into the errors of Donatism and feel that those who did not grow up as Catholics, who lapsed from the Faith for a time, or who are not as holy as we hope are not worth our support, friendship, and charity.

God, in His goodness and generosity, showers us with proofs of the accuracy of the Catholic Church’s doctrines. And this too is why satan is not attacking Lutherans, or Baptists, or Muslims.  He is attacking the Catholic priesthood; he is infiltrating our seminaries and leading men ordained to the priesthood of Jesus Christ to betray their office and to sexually assault children – an absolutely diabolical and unspeakable blasphemy. And satan does this because in the Catholic Church is the truth. Why would he waste his time on attacking those souls who are already under his rule?

May those of us who are Traditional Catholics never be accused of lacking in charity for others. We must have the love of God foremost in our lives – which necessitates a love of the Church – but we must also love our fellow man and seek for his conversion. May the number of committed, traditional Catholics ever increase through our example this year! If we struggle with this, let us call on the intercession of St. John the Apostle, who is a true Apostle of Charity as related in the Matins Reading from his December 27th feast day:

“The Blessed Evangelist John lived at Ephesus down to an extreme old age, and, at length, when he was with difficulty carried to the church and was not able to exhort the congregation at length, he was used simply to say at each meeting, ‘My little children, love one another.’ At last, the disciples and brethren were weary with hearing these words continually, and asked him, ‘Master, wherefore ever sayest thou this only?’ Whereto he replied to them, ‘It is the commandment of the Lord, and if this only be done, it is enough.’”