St. Augustine Reacts Against Donatists in Africa Vol. 5, No. 22

The victory of Christianity in Africa dated back to the latter half of the third century. By the time of Augustine, there were more than three hundred sees in Africa. Very unfortunately, the Church in Africa was torn by dissension between Catholics and Donatists. It was a Schism that dated back to the time of Constantine and that occurred when some of the bishops refused to recognize a certain Caecilian as the legitimate bishop of Carthage on the ground that he had been consecrated by a traitor that is, one who had handed over the Sacred Scripture to the Roman persecutors under Diocletian.
In spite of Constantine’s effort to pressure the Donatists back into union with the Catholics, the schism lasted, and by Augustine’s time the two churches faced each other in almost every town. The Donatists claimed to be a pure church, a church of the elect, of the holy, of the martyrs, uncontaminated by and fiercely exclusive toward the world, an Ark of refuge from evil society. By their practice of rebaptizing, they claimed fidelity to the tradition of Cyprian and to true African Christianity as it was before Constantine.
The opposite task was taken by Augustine and the Catholics who willingly acknowledged the co-existence of saints and sinners in their church. A church intended to embrace all of humanity could not be so sharply demarcated from the world, they argued. The final separation would only take place at the end. The church’s purpose was to be a sociological sign of God’s presence in the world; its sacraments were holy, even if sometimes its ministers were not.
The current Emperor, Honorius, a devout catholic, having discovered that some of the Donatists themselves were prone to violence, published the edict of unity in June 405, which ordered the dissolution of the Donatist church. After so many considerations on the course of justifying the persecution, Augustine wrote the only full treatise found in the history of the early church on the right of the state to suppress non-Catholics. His work exercised tremendous influence on subsequent church policy and provided a rationale for the medieval inquisition. For him, the persecution of the Donatists could be regarded as a divinely ordained castigation intended for their spiritual benefit. In addition to his (Augustine) treadmill of ceaseless activity as the bishop of Hippo, he managed to write innumerable treatises – thirty-three books alone between 395 and 410. Much of his success however, was due to an extraordinary sensitivity, by which he could identify with his people and so move them to identify completely with himself. Again, his incredible knowledge of the scripture as well as a verbal dexterity that fascinated his uneducated audience and kept them interested even when he was expounding the most profound truth of faith.

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