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The Donatist Heresy
Unnoticed during the course of the Great Persecution of Diocletian, a storm
was quietly brewing in the Church of North Africa that would test the
newly established religious peace of Constantine. The Church in North
Africa had always been characterized by the prevalence of rigorism since
the days of Tertullian. Now it was to re-emerge in a new strain known as
Donatism.
The rigorists advocated the view that any bishop who had collaborated with
the Roman authorities during the Great Persecution was by that very fact
permanently excommunicated and deprived of ecclesiastical office. When
the moderate Caecilian was consecrated Bishop of Carthage in 312, the
rigorists objected, citing that at least one of his episcopal consecrators
(Felix of Aptunga) had collaborated with the persecutors and therefore was
no longer capable of administering the sacraments validly. The rigorist
bishops of Numidia proceeded to elevate one of their own party,
Majorinus, as bishop, thus affecting a formal schism. When Majorinus died
after only one year in office he was replaced by Donatus (from whence is
derived the name for this schism and heresy).
Donatus, like most heretics, was an able but proud man. Both he and his
followers were noted for their obnoxious temperament, malevolence and
hypocrisy. Two principal supporters of Donatus, Bishops Silvanus of Cirta
and Purpurius of Limata, were later found to be respectively guilty of theft,
embezzlement, simony and murder. Constantine at first clearly backed the
Caecilian party, intending to restore confiscated property to them. The
Donatists appealed, asking Constantine in a letter dated April 15, 313 to
appoint three bishops from Gaul (where there had been no persecution and
hence no collaborators) to arbitrate the dispute. Constantine, knowing well
the structure of the Church, referred the matter to Pope Miltiades, who set
up a council of fifteen Italian bishops plus the three requested by the
Donatists from Gaul.
This Council met in Rome for three days in October 313. Pope Miltiades,
himself from Africa, presided, while Caecilian and Donatus were both on
hand to present their cases personally. Each were also allowed to have
present ten bishops of their own persuasion from North Africa. The sum of
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