Schisms Connected With Questions of Discipline


The schism of Damasus and Ursinus, at Rome, merits but a passing glance. It was prepared by the banishment and subsequent restoration of Liberius; this double change in the fortunes of Liberius involving the installation and then the removal of a rival bishop, and so giving rise to a division of parties. On the death of Liberius, in 366, one party elected Damasus, and the other Ursinus. Damasus won the victory, though at the expense of disgraceful violence on the part of his adherents. In a church that was stormed, as Ammianus reports, one hundred and thirty-seven dead bodies were found. [Lib. XXVII.] The Meletian schism at Antioch, near the same time, had a somewhat more substantial ground. It grew out of the complications of the struggle with Arianism. Meletius, who was installed by the Arians, afterwards professed the orthodox faith, and secured the support of most of the Catholic bishops of the East; while the West supported his orthodox rival, Paulinus. The division lasted about half a century. Neither of these schisms has special relation to the subject of the section. The great schism on the score of discipline was that of the Donatists in North Africa.

At the close of the Diocletian persecution, a large party in this region cherished a fanatical zeal for martyrdom, scorned all use of prudential means to escape the persecutors' vengeance, and wanted no fellowship with those who had used such means. Opposed to these was a moderate party, who refused all praise to rash and needless sacrifice of life. Mensurius, Bishop of Carthage, and his archdeacon Cæcilian, were conspicuous representatives of this class. Upon the death of the former (about 311), Cæcilian was installed as his successor. His opponents, however, determined to have their own bishop. They declared that the bishop who had consecrated Cæcilian was a traditor, --that is, one who had delivered up the sacred books to heathen officers, --and maintained that this fact, added to the haste of his election, altogether nullified his title. A certain Majorinus was then installed as their bishop. Upon his death, in 315, the man from whom the party derived its name, the fiery and energetic Donatus, took his place. The schism spread to wide limits, and there was a struggle between the Donatists and the Catholics for the churches. Tribunals appointed by Constantine, as also the Emperor himself, decided against the schismatics. [Augustine, Epist., xliii., lxxxviii.] Penal laws were issued, but their effect was only to inflame the zeal of the sectaries; and Constantine finally settled upon the policy of toleration. Persecution, however, was resumed and urged on by Constans and others. Fed with such fuel, Donatist zeal became in many instances a burning fanaticism. A party of ascetics, in particular, the so-called Circumcelliones, in their crazy enthusiasm went so far as to plunder and to murder their opponents; and some of them, as Augustine testifies, cast themselves down from rocks, as if, forsooth, a death secured in this way might merit the crown of martyrdom. [Cont. Litteras Petil., i. 24; Epist., xliii. 24.] Augustine tried the virtue of argument upon the schismatics, but effected little. The Donatists lived on as a powerful faction until the invasion of the Vandals, and a remnant survived even that inundation. Reference to them is found as late as the end of the sixth century.

Like the Montanists, the Donatists insisted that the Church is to be regarded as the assembly of the holy, and that its discipline must be such as to preserve to it this character. They gave little or no place to the policy of sparing the tares lest the wheat be at the same time pulled up, and laid the whole stress upon the idea that unless the tares are eliminated the wheat will be spoiled. They ran into the extreme of affirming that insincere and unworthy members can prejudice the standing of those animated by the most sincere and righteous purposes, that the virtue of the sacraments depends upon the character of the administrator. The Donatist Petilian, as quoted by Augustine, says, "What we look to is the conscience of the giver, to cleanse that of the recipient. He who receives faith from the faithless receives not faith, but guilt. For every thing consists of an origin and root; and, if it have not something for a head, it is nothing; nor does any thing well receive second birth, unless it be born again of good seed." [Cont. Litteras Petil., ii. 3-5.] Thus, in emphasizing inconsiderately so spiritual an attribute as holiness, Donatism ran upon the very unspiritual tenet of dependence upon human rather than upon divine connections.

Augustine showed the fallacy and impracticability of Donatism. He convicted its advocates of departing from their own principles in practice, and showed that there was no possibility of administering the Church in strict accordance with their standard, since no human discernment can distinguish with certainty between the worthy and the unworthy. But Augustine, on his part, indulged a one-sided theory. While he allowed that men might be in the general, or Catholic, Church, who were not truly of it, not members of the mystical body of Christ, he disallowed that any members of Christ's body could be outside of the visible Catholic Church, unless perchance necessity, as opposed to their own will, should keep them out. By the Catholic Church he understood the Church spread through all lands and continuing in communion with the apostolic seats. Augustine's conclusions followed logically from his premises. He assumed that no one can break away from the outward unity of the Church except under the promptings of a spirit contrary to love. To continue in schism involved, in his view, a continued violation of the love which is the very essence of the gospel. "Those," says he, "are wanting in God's love who do not care for the unity of the Church, and consequently we are right in understanding that the Holy Spirit may be said not to be received except in the Catholic Church. Whatever may be received by heretics and schismatics, the charity which covers the multitude of sins is the especial gift of Catholic unity and peace." [DeBap. cont. Donat., iii. 16.] "The Catholic Church alone is the body of Christ. Outside this body, the Holy Spirit giveth life to no one." [De Correct. Donat., § 50.] Augustine ignored the fact, so emphatically taught by history, that a minority may be in the right, and may be assailed with such intolerance by the majority as to have no way of saving the interests of truth, except by breaking the bond of outward unity. His indiscriminate emphasis upon the external unity of the Church was indeed fitted to serve as a corner-stone in the edifice of spiritual despotism. Schism on slight grounds Play be a great crime; but absolutely to disallow schism is to license a corrupt Church to perpetuate an universal apostasy from the truth. Augustine, with all his spiritual conceptions, elaborated maxims supremely fitted to turn the Church into a kingdom of this world.

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