, also known as Donatus of Casae Nigrae
, became leader of a schismatic
sect known as the Donatists
in North Africa. He is believed to have died in exile around 355.
Little is known of his early life because of the complete loss of his correspondence and written works. He first appears in Church records as Donatus of Casae Nigrae
in October 313 when Pope Miltiades
found him guilty of re-baptizing clergy who had lapsed and of forming a schism within the Church. Casae was a settlement located on the extreme southern edge of the plains of Numidia
, south of Theveste
, an area settled by people predominantly of Berber
The schism between the two Christian wings centered on the status of traditor
clergy. The Donatists
contended that traditores
could not be reinstated without being re-baptized and re-ordained to take office. They also contended that church rituals performed by traditors were invalid. Therefore, persons who were baptized, ordained or consecrated should not be recognized by the Church. Donatist
thinking was relatively consistent with that of Saint Cyprian
, who died a martyr during an earlier wave of persecutions, over half a century earlier.
During the wave of persecutions of Christians by the Roman Emperor Diocletian
, in order to avoid torture, exile, or death, some Church leaders turned over their scriptures, liturgical books, and other church goods to the imperial authorities. Such people became known as “traditors
Upon the death of Bishop Mensurius of Carthage in 311, the deacon Caecilian was chosen as his successor. During the Diocletianic Persecution
in Carthage there had been many who were imprisoned, some of whom were voluntary martyrs
. These people claimed falsely to be in possession of Church property which they refused to give up to officials. The Bishop of Carthage
, who was very much opposed to what he considered the fanaticism of the voluntary martyrs, sent his Archdeacon, Caecilian, to the prison to disperse by force the militant crowds gathered in support of volunteer martyrs. This action by Caecilian created many enemies in Carthage who were staunchly opposed to him.
Caecilian was consecrated Bishop of Carthage and Primate of North Africa by Bishop Felix of Aptungi
. There were those who believed that Felix was a traditor
. Secundus of Tigisis
, primate of Numidia, held a council of seventy bishops at Cirta
which declared the ordination of Caecilian to be invalid, since it was done by a traditor. Caecilian, who by then held the basilica, did not attend the council, but sent word that if his consecration as bishop was not valid, then let it be done again. At Carthage it was well known that Caecilian was the choice of the people, and it was not believed that Felix of Aptonga had given up the Sacred Books.
The council then determined that Majorinus
should be consecrated as bishop. Soon there were many cities with two bishops, one in communion with Caecilian, the other with Majorinus. Majorinus died shortly after, and Donatus was chosen to take his place.
Donatus was consecrated in 313 AD as Bishop of Carthage
and Primate of North Africa
, the leader of the Christian sect which came to be known as the Donatist
The supporters of Donatus appealed to the Emperor, requesting the issue be judged by the bishops of Gaul, since under Constantine's
father there had been no persecution in Gaul and therefore no traditors. Instead he referred the matter to Pope Miltiades
, himself of Berber descent.
Miltiades summoned Caecilian to the Lateran
with ten bishops of his accusers and ten of his own communion. He then called a synod and appointed an additional 15 Italian bishops,
as well as three of the chief bishops of Gaul, Reticius
of Autun, Maternus of Cologne
, and Marinus of Arles.
The Lateran Council
was held for three days from 2–4 October 313.
The process was modeled on Roman civil proceedings, with Miltiades insisting on strict rules of evidence and argument. The written accusations against Caecilian were disregarded, as being anonymous and unproved. This frustrated the Donatists who left the council without presenting their case, which led Miltiades to rule in favour of Caecilianus by default.
The council ended after only three sessions. The pope retained Caecilianus as bishop of Carthage and condemned Donatus' teachings of rebaptism of bishops and priests.
The Donatists again appealed to the Emperor, who responded by convening the Council of Arles
in 314 but it too ruled against the Donatists.
The adverse rulings failed to stop the continuing spread of Donatism across North Africa. Around 400 Donatist Bishop Petilianus
of Constantine claimed that Miltiades, his successor Sylvester I
and others surrendered sacred texts and offered incense to Roman deities.
During his tenure of some 40 years Donatus oversaw the expansion of the Donatist Christian sect but struggled unsuccessfully against the Roman Christian
wing to obtain Church recognition as the legitimate Primate of North Africa
. This effort failed because the Donatists were unable to prove to a series of the councils that considered the case that Caecilian
had been a traditor
or that his consecration
was invalid because he was consecrated as bishop by a traditor
The issue was complicated because there it was not only Catholic bishops who were suspected of being traditores; some Donatist bishops were also suspected of the same, in contradiction to their sect's basic teaching. Further, bishops suspected of being traditores refused to be challenged.
Donatus succeeded in expanding the Donatist sect in spite of lack of success in removing Caecilian from office, in large part due to the unpopularity of Caecilian and the Roman administration - particularly amongst the rural population. Donatist priests and bishops were much closer to the rural agricultural population which consisted of Roman farmers and the Berber and Phoenician
descendants of the indigenous people who lived there before the Romans conquered North Africa.
Most Donatist clergy in rural Numidia spoke the vernacular languages (Libyan or Punic
) as well as Latin
, whereas the Catholic clergy usually spoke only Latin.
Donatism after Donatus
In 347 Donatus was exiled to Gaul until his death c. 355. At the time when Donatus' tenure ended, the Donatist
Church was the dominant Christian Church in North Africa – but suffered from internal dissensions as well as the actions of the Catholic Church aimed at reincorporating the sect and thus unifying North African Christianity.
were bands of nomadic anti-Roman rebels, Punic-speaking bandits from the lower strata of society, who supported Donatism and were sometimes led by Donatist clergy. However, they broke out of control, attacking Roman landlords and colonists and redistributing goods. Their support for the Donatists caused the Donatists to be identified with them, leading officials to take punitive action against the Donatist Church.
Further, the Donatist church splintered into two main groups, reducing its effectiveness as a church.
Later theological thought
Protestant historians have noted the parallel between the Donatist
debates and Reformation
debates that broke out in Europe over a millennium later, leading to the formation of Protestant
- ^ a b c Chapman, John. "Donatists." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 15 March 2021 This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
- ^ O'Malley, John (2009). A History of the Popes: From Peter to the Present. Lanham, MD: Government Institutes. ISBN 9781580512299
- ^ a b Levillain, Philippe, ed. (2002). The Papacy: an Encyclopedia. 2. New York City: Routledge, p.993
- ^ Burris, Ronald D. (2012). Where Is the Church?: Martyrdom, Persecution, and Baptism in North Africa from the Second to the Fifth Century. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers. p.78 ISBN 9781608998081
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain
: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Donatists". Catholic Encyclopedia
. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
- Beaver, R. Pierce, “The Donatist Circumcellions”. (Church History, Vol. 4, No.2 June 1935) pp. 123–133.
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- Gaddis, Michael. There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ. Berkeley: University of California Press: 2005. pp. 103 – 130.
- Tilley, Maureen A. trans., Donatist Martyr Stories – The Church in Conflict in Roman North Africa. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press: 1996.
- Tilley, Maureen A., "Dilatory Donatists or Procrastinating Catholics: The Trial at the Conference of Carthage" (Church History, Vol. 60, No.1 Mar. 1991) pp. 11 – 19.
- Donatus & the Donatist Schism. http://www.earlychurch.org.uk/donatism.php
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