The early history of the Catholic Church was a turbulent one, with various movements within the religion rising to prominence and then falling as the Church struggled to articulate its beliefs systematically. Donatism was one of those movements, and was eventually deemed heretical by the Catholic Church in the fourth century. Donatists' beliefs centered around the role of priests in the Church and the effectiveness of the sacraments those priests administered.
Donatist beliefs arose in the context of fourth-century Christianity in Rome. Beginning in 303, the emperor Diocletian ordered his armies to destroy all Christian churches and scriptures. The following year, he ordered everyone in the empire to burn incense honoring Roman gods. Many Christians refused and were martyred. Others gave in and gave up their copies of scriptures, and even turned other Christians in to the Romans, including Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage. After his death, Aelius Donatus became Bishop of Carthage and began teaching Donatist beliefs.
Invalidating the Sacraments
Donatus and his followers opposed those Christians who lapsed from the faith and allowed scriptures to be destroyed or other Christians to be persecuted, declaring them to be outside of God's grace. Priests and bishops guilty of this kind of a lapse had no right or ability to administer the sacraments in the name of Christ, claimed Donatus. A Christian who received any sacraments from a lapsed bishop or priest, in the Donatists' view, deserved condemnation.
One of the sacraments lapsed clergy had no authority to administer included baptism, or the Catholic rite of initiation. Any Christian baptized by a lapsed priest or bishop, then, had not really been baptized, according to the Donatists, so they began to rebaptize converts. In addition, while the ecumenical councils deemed Caecilian's consecration as bishop valid, the Donatists refused to recognize all activities that occurred under Caecilian's tenure as bishop, including the baptism of many new Christians, a majority of whom joined with the Donatists and were rebaptized.
Beliefs and Practices
Donatists held their own worship services that were distinct from mainstream Catholic services. They featured prophecies -- sometimes even from members of the congregation themselves. Confession became a public ritual in which the repentant sinner confessed sins in great detail before the entire Donatist congregation, as opposed to Catholic confession which was private, involving only the parishioner and a priest. Donatists believed that once people lapsed from the faith, they could not be restored, while mainstream Catholics taught that God can forgive any sin.
End of Donatism
As the persecution of Christians died down, so did the split between Donantists and mainstream Catholics. Donatism suffered a major blow when Augustine, writing in northern Africa where Donatism was widely practiced, wrote a defense of the Catholic doctrine of restoration, promoting the Catholic position that any Christian could be forgiven of any sin, even one so heinous as betraying other Christians to persecutors. Ultimately, Augustine's view won out over Donatist beliefs, and the sect faded away over the following century.
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