The Donatist Temptation: Controversy in Catholic China

Benoit Vermander, SJ

Paid Article

The Peace of Maxentius in 307 and the consequent official cessation of persecution led to a violent conflict in the Church. Led by Bishop Donatus, the “pure ones” refused the re-admission of the “traitors” (those who had handed over their sacred books and vessels) and the “lapsed” (those who had “fallen” during the persecution, beginning with the bishops). They wanted in particular to forbid them any priestly function. In various forms, the conflict lasted until the sixth century.[1] One of the greatest adversaries of Donatism – a movement which, because of its need for purity, was soon marked by all kinds of excesses – was Augustine. Several traits of Donatism were already present at the end of the 2nd century and at the beginning of the 3rd in the Montanist movement, to which Tertullian adhered for a certain period.

Today, the climate, both social and ecclesial, sometimes leads to hasty and intransigent judgments, so much so that we should pause for a moment to appreciate the meaning and scope of the decisive position taken then by the Church, through which the repentance expressed by those who had lapsed allowed their reintegration. Above all, the Church can never consider herself composed only of “saints,” excluding those who would not be judged to be so.

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