Thursday, March 24, 2011

Avoiding Heresies - Donatism

This week's heresy is Donatism--the school of heterodox thought that holds that a sacrament is only valid if the minister performing the sacrament is holy. As best I can tell, though, the real defeat of this heresy is logic. How holy must a priest be to administer a sacrament and it still be valid? Where does one draw that line?

That being said, there's a lot about Donatism that makes sense. Back in the 4th century CE, Christians were being persecuted by Diocletian and the Imperial authorities. Some Christians stood up in the face of persecution and were killed (martyrs) or were tortured and imprisioned (confessors). Others, however, gave in. They handed over the sacred texts and scriptures and betrayed the confidence of the Christian community. These individuals were labled traditores or "hander-overers." Needless to say, they were not popular among the faithful.

In 311, the episcopal see of Carthage became vacant, and Caecilian was elected and consecrated to fill the empty seat. Unfortunately, one of his three consecrating bishops was Felix of Aptunga--a bishop believed to have been a traditor. When word got out that Caecilian had been made a bishop at the hands of such a scoundrel, a schism rent the north African church asunder. Some, including the Bishop of Rome, sided with Caecilian. Others insisted on electing, consecrating, and following another bishop--the successor to whom was Donatus...hence the name). They didn't believe that the consecration of Caecilian could take place. The traditor bishop was unable to exercise divinely-appointed sacramental ministry. But the Donatists didn't stop there.

They believed that anyone in communion with the Caecailian group was wrong, and they believed that only their tiny little enclave was the true church. That means that anyone who had any connection with the traditores could not function in a sacramental capacity. The schism held on for 100 years before the orthodox (led by Augustine) could rid the Church of the problem.

But the Donatists had a lot going for them. How can someone who betrays the church (Felix) still function as a minister of that church? Even though his identity as a traditor was disputed, one would expect some sort of process of readmission to be followed. And isn't the church supposed to be the spotless bride of Christ? Isn't allowing a schismatic to continue functioning as a bishop tantamount to permitting or even endorsing schism? If a modern bishop announced s/he was leaving the church but then showed up to perform an ordination, wouldn't we wave big, bold red flags before allowing that bishop to proceed?

And, at an even deeper level, what is it that enables an ordained person to perform sacramental minsitry? Sure, he or she has been set apart and annointed by the Holy Spirit through the laying on of episcopal hands in apostolic succession to do that ministry, but isn't the community's understanding of that ordination (setting apart) what really gives someone the authority to do priestly things? Isn't it when the broadest form of church recognizes someone's authority that she or he actually has that authority? And, if that's the case, isn't someone who has lost the confidence of the people to perform sacramental actions actually therefore incapible of doing that?

Well, the orthodox position says no. The Church says that even if the minister is heretical or schismatic or an all-around bad dude, as long as that which God commands is performed the sacrament is valid. But that's tough to swallow if you're asking me to accept the sacrament of reconciliation at the hands of a priest who has abused me. Right?

Much to think about. More on the heresy in the slide show below. Enjoy!

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