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.