Donatism was a Christian sect leading to a schism in the Church, in the region of the Church of Carthage, from the fourth to the sixth centuries. Donatists argued that Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid. Donatism had its roots in the long-established Christian community of the Roman Africa province (present-day Tunisia, the northeast of Algeria, and the western coast of Libya) in the persecutions of Christians under Diocletian. Named after the Berber Christian bishop Donatus Magnus, Donatism flourished during the fourth and fifth centuries.
The Roman governor of North Africa, lenient to the large Christian minority under his rule throughout the Diocletianic Persecutions, was satisfied when Christians handed over their scriptures as a token repudiation of faith. When the persecution ended, Christians who did so were called traditores—"those who handed (the holy things) over"—by their critics (who were mainly from the poorer classes).
Like third-century Novatianism, the Donatists were rigorists; the church must be a church of "saints" (not "sinners"), and sacraments administered by traditores were invalid. In 311 Caecilian (a new bishop of Carthage) was consecrated by Felix of Aptungi, an alleged traditor. His opponents consecrated Majorinus, a short-lived rival who was succeeded by Donatus.
Two years later, a commission appointed by Pope Miltiades condemned the Donatists. They persisted, seeing themselves as the true Church with valid sacraments. Because of their association with the Circumcellions, the Donatists were repressed by Roman authorities. Although they had local support, their opponents were supported by Rome and by the rest of the Catholic Church. The Donatists were still a force during the lifetime of Augustine of Hippo, and disappeared only after the seventh- and eighth-century Muslim conquest. The Donatists refused to accept the sacraments and spiritual authority of priests and bishops who were traditores during the persecution. The traditores had returned to positions of authority under Constantine I; according to the Donatists, sacraments administered by the traditores were invalid.
Whether the sacrament of Penance could reconcile a traditor to full communion was questioned, and the church's position was that the sacrament could. The church still imposed years- (sometimes decades-) long public penance for serious sins. A penitent would first beg for the prayers of those entering a church from outside its doors. They would next be permitted to kneel inside the church during the Liturgy. After being allowed to stand with the congregation, the penitent would finally be allowed to receive the Eucharist again. According to Donatists, apostasy would permanently disqualify a man from church leadership.
The validity of sacraments administered by priests and bishops who had been traditores was denied by the Donatists. According to Augustine, a sacrament was from God and ex opere operato (Latin for "from the work carried out”). A priest or bishop in a state of mortal sin could continue to administer valid sacraments. The Donatists believed that a repentant apostate priest could no longer consecrate the Eucharist. Some towns had both Donatist and Orthodox congregations.
The sect developed and grew in North Africa, with unrest and threatened riots in Carthage connected to the bishop controversy.[a] Constantine, hoping to defuse the unrest, gave money to the non-Donatist bishop Caecilian as payment for churches damaged or confiscated during the persecution. Nothing was given to the Donatists; Constantine was apparently not fully aware of the seriousness of the dispute, which his gift exacerbated. The Donatists appealed to Rome for equal treatment; Constantine tasked Miltiades with resolving the issue, which led to the 313 commission. The Donatists refused to abide by the decision of the Roman council, demanding that a local council adjudicate the dispute and appealing directly to Constantine. In a surviving letter, a frustrated Constantine called for what became the first Council of Arles in 314. The council ruled against the Donatists, who again appealed to Constantine. The emperor ordered all parties to Rome for a hearing, ruled in favor of Caecilian and warned against unrest. A delegation from Rome traveled to Carthage in a vain attempt to seek compromise. The Donatists fomented protests and street violence, refusing to compromise in favor of the Catholic bishop.
After the Constantinian shift, when other Christians accepted the emperor's decision, the Donatists continued to demonize him. After several attempts at reconciliation, in 317 Constantine issued an edict threatening death to anyone who disturbed the imperial peace; another edict followed, calling for the confiscation of all Donatist church property. Donatus refused to surrender his buildings in Carthage, and the local Roman governor sent troops to deal with him and his followers. Although the historical record is unclear, some Donatists were apparently killed and their clergy exiled.
Outside Carthage, Donatist churches and clergy were undisturbed. Constantine's efforts to unite the church and the Donatists failed, and by 321 he asked the bishops to show moderation and patience to the sect in an open letter. During the brief reign of Julian, the Donatists were revitalized and, due to imperial protection, occupied churches and carried out atrocities. Laws against the Donatists were decreed by Valentinian I after the defeat of the Donatist usurper Firmus in North Africa.
Augustine of Hippo campaigned against Donatism as bishop; through his efforts, orthodoxy gained the upper hand. According to Augustine and the church, the validity of sacraments was a property of the priesthood independent of individual character. Influenced by the Old Testament, he believed in discipline as a means of education.
In his letter to Vincentius, Augustine used the New Testament Parable of the Great Banquet to justify using force against the Donatists: "You are of opinion that no one should be compelled to follow righteousness; and yet you read that the householder said to his servants, 'Whomsoever ye shall find, compel them to come in.'"
Marcellinus of Carthage, Emperor Honorius's secretary of state, condemned with decree the Donatists as heretical and demanded that they surrender their churches in 409. This was made possible by a collatio in which St. Augustine legally proved that Constantine had chosen the church over the Donatists as the imperial church. The Donatists were persecuted by the Roman authorities to such a degree that Augustine protested their treatment.
The Council of Trent (1545-1563) taught that in the divine sacrifice of the Holy Mass "is contained and immolated, in an unbloody manner, the same Christ that offered Himself in a bloody manner upon the altar of the Cross. Hence, it is the same victim, the same sacrificing-priest who offers Himself now through the ministry of priests and who once offers Himself upon the Cross". The worth of the sacrifice does not depend by the celebrating priest (or bishop), but on the "worth of the victim and on the dignity of the chief priest- no other than Jesus Christ Himself"
The effects of Augustine's theological success and the emperor's legal action were somewhat reversed when the Vandals conquered North Africa. Donatism may have also gradually declined because Donatists and orthodox Catholics were equally marginalised by the Arian Vandals, but it survived the Vandal occupation and Justinian I's Byzantine reconquest. Although it is unknown how long Donatism persisted, some Christian historians believe that the schism and its ensuing unrest in the Christian community facilitated the seventh-century Muslim conquest of the region.
Donatism is associated with a number of other groups, including:
The Donatists followed a succession of bishops:
For several centuries during the High Middle Ages and the Reformation, accusations of Donatism were leveled against church-reform movements which criticized clerical immorality on theological grounds. The early reformers John Wycliffe and Jan Hus were accused of Donatism by their theological opponents. Wycliffe taught that the moral corruption of priests invalidated their offices and sacraments, a belief characterizing Donatism. Hus similarly argued that a prelate's moral character determined his ecclesiastical authority, a position his contemporaries compared to Donatism and condemned as heresy at the Council of Constance.
During the Reformation, Catholic Counter-Reformers such as Johann Eck accused the magisterial Reformers of Donatism (although the latter had partially distanced themselves from Wycliffe's theology to avoid such a charge). Magisterial Reformers like Ulrich Zwingli labeled radical Reformers, such as the Anabaptists, as Donatists; Catholics were portrayed in Reformation rhetoric as Pelagian, another early Christian heresy. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the Bezpopovtsy (priestless) strain of Old Believers believed that because the Russian bishops acquiesced to Patriarch Nikon's reforms they (and the other patriarchs) forfeited any claim to apostolic succession.
Accusations of Donatism remain common in contemporary intra-Christian polemics. Conservative Lutherans are sometimes called Donatists by their liberal brethren, referring to their doctrine of church fellowship and their position that churches which deny that Jesus’ body and blood are eaten during the Eucharist do not celebrate a valid Lord's Supper.