Understanding Donatism


The Diocletian persecution of Christians in the 4th Century was every bit as vile as the Isis persecution of Christians today. People routinely butchered and caused to suffer simply for faith in Jesus Christ. A time of anguish for the faithful.

It is not a surprising footnote of history, therefore, that whilst some proved heroic in standing up for the faith, others did not. Many of the faithful opting to recant their faith or simply disappear under the radar.  I don’t like to ponder which camp I would have fallen into. I have huge admiration for the brave and much sympathy for the cowards. Nobody should have been put in that place.

The problem for the church was not the persecution itself. Such things cause tremendous suffering but do little to challenge faith. No, the problem arrived in the fallout afterwards, once the situation had calmed and recanters crawled out of the woodwork.  They returned to church but were not flavour of the month amongst those who had stood firm and suffered as a result. These people felt that the recanters were cowardly traitors who had abandoned them in time of need. Very understandable on the human level.

The Donatist heresy was born. Not because people were hostile understand. But because those who had suffered began to deny the validity of those returning EVEN AFTER THEY HAD BEEN TO CONFESSION! That is to say they were denying the validity of the Sacraments. They even went so far as to suggest the baptism of those who had caved in was invalid. Acting as if certain sins cannot be forgiven when the Church plainly teaches that all sins can be forgiven by God. Acting as if baptism can wear off. St. Augustine had to step in and tick them off!

It strikes me that those pushing for relaxation of church teaching today, especially as regards admitting to communion non-penitent people, might be dubbed modern day Donatists! For where the originals denied the validity of confession, modernists now deny the indissoluble validity of Marriage.

St. Augustine would suggest here a need for greater fidelity and courage. Reminding us that our duty as Christians is never to reconcile Christ to the fallen standards of this world but to reconcile the world to Christ. The church has much mercy to offer sinners who repent, which is why the Donatists were in error. What it cannot offer is mercy to those who do not repent! For that would mean turning a blind eye to ongoing sin thereby leaving souls in peril.

It is bewildering then, even upsetting, to hear about serious documents emanating from high places that cast faithful Catholics, if they presume to uphold historic teaching concerning marriage, as “Donatists”. I hope my understanding of what is being said is mistaken. For it would seem to suggest that some of the episcopate in England and Wales imagine the heresy of the Donatists centred on their refusal to show mercy to backsliders when, as I have explained, it so clearly centred on a denial of church teaching regarding the efficacy of the sacraments.

We live in an age of crisis. The relativist idealism of the sixties generation threatens to undermine the deposit of faith. I witnessed this destructive agenda as an Anglican and it is upsetting to see it in Rome. And the threat is high, and will be for a decade, because the revolutionary proponents of such idealism currently occupy seats of tremendous power and influence.

Where defenders of the faith should sit, we can sometimes find those with a worldly agenda based on modernist notions of political correctness. Meaning bishops who do stand by the faith need our prayers and support. They are going to need tremendous courage to speak out for Christ against the spirit of the age. As are we little people in the parishes and at the grassroots.

Mercy does not mean we turn the blind eye to sin. It does not mean we divorce doctrine from practice. Mercy is about honesty before God. I think this prayer from the Ordinariate Rite Mass puts it rather beautifully. Making it very clear that mercy requires decisive action on the part of the penitent.

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and make your humble confession to Almighty God, meekly kneeling upon your knees.

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9 thoughts on “Understanding Donatism

  1. Thank goodness Pope Francis has had the courage the criticise those who become spiritually and mentally hardened, those who have lost their ‘human sensibility’, as he put it.
    But isn’t it complicated? What we know, for example, is that the majority of Roman Catholics in the West do not observe Church teaching on artificial contraception, do not believe it is a matter for the confessional, and still go to communion. And strangely, the sky has not fallen in…..

    1. Only three persons know what goes on in Confession – the penitent, the priest and The Almighty. The last two will not be talking and I doubt that the first will be. So, beware such broad brush ‘definitive’ statements. After all, the final judge of a person’s spiritual status is The Almighty. Us humans, with God’s help and with the support of Christ’s teaching and sacraments can only try to make available channels of Divine Mercy and Grace for folk to use. The rest is up to them and the light God gives them.

  2. Why does Mr Goddard always have a snipe at the Catholic Church? Perhaps he should engage his brain more and think about what he writes just a little more

  3. Some time ago, I read a short story which had an interesting ‘take’ on the way of those secure in their comfort zones. I went something like:- such individuals, in whatever walk of life, fear challenges which might cause change. But what they fear most is what might make them think outside their boxes. I’d suggest that Pope Francis is trying to create just such a change in thinking.

  4. There is a certain irony in that the prayer fr ed has quoted -received into the catholic church via the ordinariate- originates in the book of common prayer. I know this also falls within lumen gentium’s acknowledgement that there are elements of catholicity outside roman catholicsm, but ultimately the prayer is the work of heretics! I am one, apparently

    1. The prayer is indeed found in the BCP. But that liturgical work was not formed in a vacuum but came out of pre-reformation England and reflected the Sarum tradition of this land prior to the break with Rome. At the reformation those who went with Henry retained the English patrimony but lost their Catholicity. Those who remained faithful to Rome retained Catholicity but lost the English way. The vision of the Ordinariate is to reconcile the two in a work of unity that can appeal to all. So be flattered and encouraged at our use of these great English prayers….and join us in them.

      1. While a good portion of the BCP derives from the pre-reformation English Use, the invitation to confession which you quote, along with the confession and comfortable words which follow it, come from purely Reformed sources.

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