The temptation of Donatism

Most heresies don’t die–they just disappear for a while, to come back around in slightly different garb. Gnostics, Montanists, Arians, Sabellians, and so on–these names are attached to ancient groups we thought were stamped out, but if you think about it, there are elements of their error in modern-day New Agers, Pentecostals, Muslims, and still other Pentecostals. Many Protestants who are averse to the Virgin Mary would fit under the Nestorian label. It’s a rather stark reminder of what happens when one aspect of the truth is emphasized to the exclusion of others. But, I want to focus on one particular heresy to which I am quite tempted: Donatism. Rather than a lengthy discussion of the details of the ancient heresy, here are two articles: one in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, the other in Wikipedia, which cover it in ample depth. In quick summary, Donatism arose over the very real concern about what to do with priests and bishops who fall away from the Faith during persecution. In the reign of Diocletian, many clergy apostasized rather than face death, but quite a few of those returned to the fold in calmer times. The position of the church in Rome was to forgive and reinstate them, but some Christians, centered in Africa, rebelled against that laxity. They declared that Sacraments by former apostates were invalidated by their actions.

You ask, what’s the big deal? Such a seemingly minor point seems like nothing to quibble over, but it actually cuts to the heart of Catholic theology: what exactly are Sacraments? Are they dependent upon the state of the soul of the one celebrating them? Or, are they, as the Church has consistently taught, ex opere operato, “from the work having been worked,” that is, valid despite the sins of the priest? We must believe that given valid form and matter, the Sacrament is valid regardless of the state of the celebrant. Imagine if that were not true: since priests are obviously human, we’d have to worry every week about whether the Eucharist and absolution we’ve received were valid. Even more horrifying: what if our Baptisms aren’t all real? Donatism reduces Catholicism to an anxious inquiry into the states of souls that only God can judge.

So, why am I so concerned about it, if it’s an obvious heresy to which no one in his right mind would adhere? Because I have described an extreme case. There are elements of Donatism floating around Catholicism today, and I was almost trapped in one just this weekend. I discovered a flaw in the theology believed by a priest I know, which may lead him to offer the Eucharist to folks who are not disposed to receive it, even if he knows that to be the case. My immediate reaction was horror and a resolution to avoid his parish. But, that’s a Donatist would do. First, I don’t know all the details. But more importantly, this error in judgment in no way invalidates the Sacraments he celebrates. It does not cancel out all the good he does in his community, the warmth of his parish, or the beauty of the liturgy he celebrates. Who am I to judge? This is but one case. In more general terms, the liberal idiocy that one often runs across in Masses in a university town leads to the same temptation to cut and run, to find a more reverent and rubrically correct Mass. That, in my opinion, unless the error is a serious danger to your own soul, is also Donatism, pure and simple.

Sometime early in the last century, a famous author (can’t remember whether it was Lewis, Chesterton, or Knox) wrote that virtues stand between two opposite vices; vices and virtues are not black-and-white pairs. Lust is a vice, so is its utter opposite Puritanism; in between them somewhere lie the virtues of chastity and temperance. Liberalism is heresy–allowing all manner of error because truth is relative; but, so is Donatism, rigorism demanding perfection where it is impossible to attain. As is always the case, orthodoxy and virtue lie in an extreme middle course. It’s hard to find; heresy is so much easier. But, find it we must.

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1 Response to “The temptation of Donatism”


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