ARTICLE I. – SCHISM AND HERESY OF THE DONATISTS. – 1, 2.-Schism. 3. -Heresy. 4, 5. -Confutation of St. Augustine. Circumcellionists. 6. Conference commanded by Honorius. 7. -Death of St. Marcellinus, and Council of Carthage.

 

1.In order properly to understand the history of the Donatists, we must separate the schism from the heresy, for they were at first schismatics before they were heretics. Donatus the first was the author of the schism; a second Donatus was the father of the heresy, and he was called by his followers Donatus the Great. In the beginning of the fourth century, Mensurius, Bishop of Carthage, was cited before the tyrant Maxentius on the charge of concealing in his house a deacon of the name of Felix, the author of a libel on the Emperor. Mensurius went to Rome to defend himself, and died on his way home. Cecilianus was elected by the general voice of the people to fill the vacant see, and was consecrated by Felix, Bishop of Aphthongum and other prelates. His opponents immediately began to question the validity of his consecration, because it was performed by those bishops called traitors (traditores), who delivered up the Scriptures to the pagans. Another charge made against him was that he prohibited the faithful from supplying the confessors in the prisons with food. At the head of this conspiracy was a bishop of an African city, called ” the Black Houses,” whose name was Donatus; and it was very much strengthened by the intrigues of Lucilla, a Spanish lady then residing in Carthage. Cecilianus happened to come into collision with her while he was yet a deacon, because he reprimanded her for paying the veneration due to a holy martyr to a certain dead man, whose sanctity was never recognized by the Church. To revenge herself on him for this, she became the soul of the conspiracy, and by the influence of her wealth brought over to her party many of the bishops of Africa, who, uniting together in council, under the presidency of the secondary primate of Numidia, deposed Cecilianus in his absence, and elected a domestic of Lucilla’s in his place, of the name of Majorinus, who was consecrated by Donatus (1).

  1. Notwithstanding all this persecution, Cecilianus remained stedfast in the faith which obliged the Donatists to have recourse to the Emperor Constantine. He referred the entire matter to St. Melchiades, the reigning Pope, who, in the year 315, or according to others, in 316, assembled a council of nineteen bishops, and declared both the innocence of Cecilianus and the validity of his consecration. The Donatists were discontented with this decision, and again appealed to the Emperor; he used every means to pacify them, but seeing them determined to keep up the schism, he ordered Elianus, pro-consul of Africa, to investigate the matter, and find out whether the crime laid to the charge of Felix who consecrated Cecilianus (that of delivering up the Scriptures to the idolators), was true. The conspirators, aware that this investigation was to take place, bribed a notary of the name of Ingentius, to prove a falsehood; but in his examination before the Pro-consul, he acquitted both Felix and Cecilianus. The Emperor being informed of this was satisfied as to their innocence; but in order to appease the Donatists, and give them no cause of complaint, he caused another council to be convoked at Aries, to which St. Silvester, who succeeded St. Melchiades in the year 314, sent his legate to preside in his name; and in that and the following year, Felix and Cecilianus were again acquitted by the council (2).
  2. Nothing, however, could satisfy the Donatists; they even, according to Fleury (3), extended themselves as far as Rome. Heresy now was added to schism. The second Donatus, called by them Donatus the Great, put himself at their head; and although tinctured with the Arian heresy, as St. Augustine says (4), intruded himself into the See of Carthage, as successor to Majorinus. (1) Baron. Ann. 303, n. 29, & Ann. 306, n. 74 & 75; vide Fleury, Nat. Alex. Orsi, Van Ranst, & Hermant. (2) Hermant, c. 78, &c. (3) Fleury, t. 2, l. 10, n. 26. (4) St. Augus. 1. de Heres. c. 69.

He was the first who began to disseminate the errors of the Donatists in Africa (5). Those consisted in the adoption of one false principle, which was the source of many others. This was that the Church was composed of the just alone, and that all the wicked were excluded from it; founding this belief on that text of St. Paul, where he says that the Church of Christ is free from all stain: “Christ loved his Church, and delivered himself up for it, that he might present it to himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle ” (Ephesians, v. 27). They also professed to find this doctrine in the twenty-seventh verse of the twenty -first chapter of the Apocalypse: ” There shalt not enter into it anything defiled.” The adoption of this erroneous principle led them into many heretical consequences: First, believing that the Church was composed of the good alone, they inferred that the Church of Rome was lost, because the Pope and bishops having admitted to their communion traitors, or those who delivered up the holy books into the hands of the Pagans, as they alleged Felix and Cecilianus to have done, and as the sour leaven corrupteth the entire mass, then the Church, being corrupted and stained by the admission of those, was lost, it only remained pure in that part of Africa where the Donatists dwelt; and to such a pitch did their infatuation arrive, that they quoted Scripture for this also, interpreting that expression of the Canticles, ” Shew me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou liest in the mid-day,” (the south,) as relating to Africa, which lies in the southern part of the world. Another heretical inference of theirs was, that the sacrament of baptism was null and void if administered out of their Church, because a Church that was lost had not the power of administering the sacrament, and on that account they re-baptized all proselytes.

(5)0rsi, t. 4, 1. 11, n. 61 & 52.

  1. These two heretical opinions fall to the ground at once, by proving the falsity of the first proposition, that the Church consists of the good alone. St. Augustine proves clearly that these texts of St. Paul and St. John, refer to the triumphant and not to the militant Church, for our Redeemer, speaking of the militant Church, says, in many places, it contains both good and bad; in one place he likens it to a threshing floor, which contains both straw and grain: ” He will thoroughly cleanse his floor, and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt, iii, 12). In another place he compares it to a field sown with good seed, and cockle growing amongst it: ” Let both grow” he says, ” till the time of the harvest, and then I will say to the reapers, Gather up first the cockle and bind it into bundles to burn, but gather the wheat into my barn” (Matt, xiii, 3) (6).
  2. The Donatists were not content with the crime of heresy, but committed a thousand others, if possible of a deeper dye. They destroyed the altars of the Catholics, broke the chalices, spilled the holy Chrism on the ground, and threw the holy Eucharist to the dogs. But St. Optatus Milevitanus (7) informs us that God did not suffer the indignity to his sacred body and blood to go unpunished, for the dogs getting mad turned on their own masters, and tore them, as if in revenge for the insult offered to the body of Jesus Christ. Not satisfied with tormenting the living, they outraged the dead, whom they dragged out of their graves, and exposed to the most unheard-of indignities. About this time, also, the Circumcellionists sprung from the Donatists. Their chiefs were Faber and Maxidus, and they were called Circumcellionists from running about from town to town and house to house. They were called by Donatus the chiefs of the saints; they boasted that they were the redressors of all wrong and injustice through the world, though nothing could be more unjust than their own proceedings. They gave liberty to slaves, and commanded debtors not to pay their debts, telling them they were freed from all obligation. Their cruelty equalled their fanaticism, for they went about in armed bands, and put to death those who did not become proselytes to their doctrine; but what was more astonishing than all was to see this fury turned against themselves, for many of them committed suicide by throwing themselves over precipices, some cast themselves into the fire, others drowned themselves, or cut their throats, and endeavoured to induce others to follow their example, telling them that all who died so were martyrs; even women followed the example of their husbands in this madness, and St. Augustine tells us that even some, in a state of pregnancy, threw themselves down precipices.

(6) Nat. Alex. t. 9, diss. 31. (7) St. Opt. I. 2, de Donatis.

It is true that even the Donatist bishops endeavoured by every means to put a stop to such frightful fanaticism, and even called in the authority of the secular power to aid them, but they could not deny that they were their own disciples, and that they became the victims of such perverse doctrines from following their own example (8).

  1. The Emperors Constantine and Constans, sons of Constantine the Great and Valentinian, issued several edicts against the Donatists, but all was of little avail. In the reign of Honorious an edict was published, giving liberty to all sects to profess publicly their doctrines, but about the year 410 the Donatists, taking advantage of this, broke out into several acts of violence, which so exasperated Honorious that, at the suggestion of the Catholic bishops of Africa, he revoked the edict. He then published that law (L. 51, Codex Theodosianus), which punishes with confiscation of property the practice of any religion except the Catholic, and even with pain of death if the professors of any heretical doctrines should publicly assemble in their conventicles. In order, however, entirely to extinguish the heresy of Donatus, he sent the Imperial Tribune, Marcellinus, a man of the greatest learning and prudence, into Africa, with orders to assemble all the African bishops, both Catholics and Donatists, in Carthage, to proceed to a conference to see who was right and who was wrong, that peace should be established between them. The Donatists at first refused to come, but the edicts of Honorius were too strict to be avoided, and they consented, and the conference was held in the Baths of Gazilian. Two hundred and eighty-six Catholics and two hundred and seventy-nine Donatists assembled, but Marcellinus, to avoid confusion, would allow only thirty-six, eighteen on each side, to hold the conference, these eighteen to be chosen from among all the rest. The schismatics refused to obey the regulations of Marcellinus, and used every stratagem to avoid coming to the point; especially they endeavoured to cushion the question concerning the true Church, but, with all their art, they were, one day, drawn into it, and, seeing themselves caught, they could not help lamenting, saying, see how insensibly we have got into the bottom of the case.

(8) Baron. An. .157, w. 15; V. Ranst; Floury, t. 2, l 11, n. 46,; Hermant, c. 81.

Then it was that St. Augustine, as we have already shown, proved clearer than the noon-day sun that the Church is not composed of the good alone, as the Donatists would have it, but of the good and the bad, as the threshing-floor contains both corn and chaff. Finally, after many disputations, Marcellinus gave his decision in favor of the Catholics (9).

  1. Many were united to the Church, but many more persisted in their errors, and appealed to Honorius, who would not even admit them to an audience, but condemned to a heavy fine all those who would not join the Catholic Church, and threatened to banish all the Donatist bishops and priests who would persist in their opposition to his decree. Nothing could exceed their malice against the Catholics after that; they murdered the defender of the Church, Restitutus (10), and plotted with the Count Marinus the destruction of Marcellinus. The means by which Marinus accomplished this were horrible. He caused St. Marcellinus to be imprisoned on a charge of high treason, alleging that he was one of the chief promoters of the rebellion of Heraclian, which he was most innocent of, and although he swore to his friend Cecilianus that he would liberate both St. Marcellinus and his brother Aprinius from prison, he ordered him the next day to be taken out to a lonesome place, and beheaded. Cardinal Orsi proves this on the authority of Orosius, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine. Thus Marcellinus died a martyr, but Marinus was punished for his injustice, being shortly after recalled by Honorius, and stripped of all his honours. In the Council of Carthage, in 348, or, as Hermant (11) has it, in 349, the Catholic bishops of Africa assembled in great numbers to thank the Almighty for putting an end to this sect, and the schismatical bishops then joined them. In this council it was prohibited to re-baptize those who were baptized in the faith of the Trinity, in opposition to the erroneous opinion of the Donatists, who declared the baptism administered out of their communion invalid. It was also forbidden to honour as martyrs those who killed themselves, and they were allowed the rites of burial through compassion alone.

(9) Orsi, t. 11, I. 25, n. 1, 24; Baron. Ann. 411, n. 24. (10) Baron. An. 412, n. 1, &c.; Orsi, n. 28, 29.

(11) Hermant, c. 99.

Cardinal Baronius says that this sect lasted till the time of Gregory the Great, who endeavoured to put an end to it altogether, and he also says that those heretics were the cause of the ruin of the Church of Africa (12).

(12) Baron. An. 591, &c.