The New Donatism

An old controversy illuminates the bishops’ Biden gambit.
Botticelli, “St. Augustine in His Study,” circa 1480 (CNS photo/Muscarelle Museum of Art)

At their June meeting, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to finalize a teaching on the Eucharist that will include the disciplinary action of withholding the sacrament from Catholic politicians who are unwilling to take a public stand against Roe v. Wade. The bishops will vote at their November meeting on the teaching they issue. Although their concerned rhetoric in debate last week was directed at “Catholic politicians,” it is clear that their disciplinary action is leveled at Joe Biden, the second Roman Catholic president of the United States. How times have changed. I was only nine years old when John F. Kennedy was elected as the first Catholic president in 1960, but I can recall vividly the deep pride that Catholics, still tied to the sensibilities of an immigrant Church, felt at his election to high office. Now, a rather large swath of the American bishops feel no such pride at the election of our second Catholic president. Instead, they seem intent on making him a negative example to the American Catholic faithful. This initiative is especially striking because President Biden is a practicing Catholic, a palpably good man who speaks readily about how his deep faith has been a source of comfort in facing the tragedies that have beset his life. One might think in a time when Catholics have left the Church in droves—so many in disgust at the astonishing moral failure of bishops to protect children from priestly predators—that the election of a Catholic president who wears his piety on his sleeve would be a moment to celebrate in the American Catholic Church. Instead, the bishops—or, to make a fair distinction, a surprising number of them—make Biden their target with the same single-mindedness as the right-wing ideologues on the Fox News evening line-up.

To refuse the Eucharist to a believing Catholic, to excommunicate him at least sacramentally, is to brand him a grievous sinner who by virtue of his sin has alienated himself from the Church. In the judgment of the bishops, Biden’s sin seems to be that, as a Catholic politician, he has not taken a public, political stand against abortion. Biden has stated many times that he considers abortion to be a moral evil. This is his Catholic belief. But, like many Catholics who believe the same, he finds that his personal belief conflicts with the beliefs of other citizens and with the law in a democracy that affirms the First Amendment. Moreover, Biden affirms a woman’s right to make her own choices regarding reproduction, even if he personally believes that some of these choices, however tragically contextualized, might be choices for moral evil. As I noted, many American Catholics hold the same position as Biden, as, I should say, do I. In many respects, this position is informed both by Catholic belief and by a recognition that one lives in a constitutional republic in which a dizzying pluralism of often conflicting beliefs is protected by a political contract responsible for what order American society offers its citizens. So, one might ask, why would the bishops make Biden’s political stance on abortion, and not his personal belief about the evil of abortion, a grievous sin worthy of their proposed action? And, given that Biden’s political stance on abortion is one held by millions of American Catholics—lay people, clergy, and perhaps even a number of bishops—why would the bishops make Biden’s stance on abortion a grievous sin worthy of his separation from the sacramental community? I propose that the Donatist controversy of the fourth and fifth centuries can shed some light on our present, troubling moment. I will explain this controversy about the nature of the Church briefly so that it can serve its illustrative purpose here.

 

The Donatists imagined the Church as Noah’s Ark, as a sheltered community of the saved tossed about in a world inundated by the floodwaters of sin.

Christianity was an illegal and persecuted religion in the late Roman Empire during the first three centuries of its history. In the late 200s and early 300s, Christians in Roman North Africa faced devastating persecution that often resulted in their deaths. The heroism of these martyrs led believers to venerate them as the first saints. Local Roman governors who pressed the persecution of the Church were often content to release arrested and imprisoned Christians from a death sentence if only they would renounce their faith in public. One way of doing so was for the compromising Christian to “hand over” (Latin: tradere) the Church’s sacred books to Roman officials as a sign of their renunciation, and the traditores (English: traitors) who handed over the sacred books were sometimes bishops. Permitted to live, the compromising bishops presented a problem to the Church after the Edict of Milan put an end to the persecution of Christians in 313 CE. By betraying the faith, in the judgment of all an extraordinarily grievous sin, had the traditor bishop invalidated his baptism and so proved undeserving of a continuing ministerial role in the Church? Followers of a North African Christian named Donatus believed that the answer to this question was a resounding yes, since the purity of the Church and the graceful efficacy of its sacraments would otherwise be polluted by the sinfulness of its pastors. The Donatist solution was that lapsed bishops needed to be re-baptized and by that sacramental act reintegrated into the Church’s purity, which they defined in opposition to a hostile world’s vehement persecution, even as the time of persecution passed.

Nearly one hundred years later, in the early 400s, this Donatist sensibility was still quite strong in many North African Christian communities. In one respect this was surprising, since this sensibility was stirred by the heroism of the martyrs and the scandal of episcopal betrayal during the time of persecution, which by now was long past. Yet, the Donatist sensibility inspired an enduring ecclesiology—a view of the Church as a community of the saints, purged of sinners and defined by the blatant holiness of its members. According to the historian Peter Brown, the Donatists imagined the Church as Noah’s Ark, as a sheltered community of the saved tossed about in a world inundated by the floodwaters of sin.

It was this Donatist understanding of the Church that the North African Catholic bishop Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) judged to be heretical. In a number of treatises written in the early fifth century, Augustine condemned the Donatist position and articulated an understanding of the Church that finally was adopted as the orthodox Catholic teaching. For Augustine, the Church is not constituted by the moral purity of its members and certainly not by the moral purity of its pastors. The Church is a community composed of both saints and sinners, and, given the broader context of his later theology, Augustine assumed that the Church was predominantly a community of the fallen, of those desperately in need of the grace mediated through the Church to believers. The Church is not a gathering place for the saved but a refuge for sinners, above all. Augustine insisted that the graceful efficacy of the sacraments did not depend on the personal holiness of those who administered them, as the Donatists maintained. The sacraments  possessed a supernatural power that brought sinners to salvation even when administered by priestly sinners. The Church was founded by Christ not to be a gathering for those set apart by their moral purity but to be a graceful means for sinners to be brought to eternal life. St. Augustine’s understanding of the Church remains Catholic teaching to this day.

It is God’s gift of grace, mediated by the sacraments of the Church and not by its pastors, that brings the Church to resurrected life.

How does the Donatist controversy shed light on the bishops’ recent disciplinary gambit? The bishops seem to see the Church as the Donatists did. Those of them who argue that President Biden is required to hold a public, political position on abortion that directly reflects his personal belief in order to be worthy of the Eucharist appear to have made the judgment that the Church is characterized by a purity that cannot abide the sinful pollution of Biden’s political behavior. Judging Biden to be a sinner in what they consider to be his unrepresentative Catholic behavior, the bishops have not then found him to be worthy of the Church’s graceful offices. The Donatist binary of the purity of the Church versus the impurity of a hostile, extra-ecclesial world shows itself in the bishops’ implicit judgment that sin, and in this case Biden’s sin, remains outside the Church where it belongs. Pope Francis urged the American bishops not to vote as they did at their June meeting, and perhaps had their initiative in mind when he preached a few days earlier on the feast of Corpus Christi that the Eucharist “is not the reward of saints but the bread of sinners.” These words express the orthodox Catholic ecclesiology that Augustine defined in the Donatist controversy.

If the bishops’ intended exclusion of what they have judged to be Biden’s sinfulness is an expression of the Donatist sensibility, it is yet Donatism in a new key, its newness defined by the rather odd ways that the bishops have reconfigured the pure/impure binary. The ancient Donatists focused their concerns about moral failure on episcopal leaders who represented their congregations. The American bishops have shown no sign of such reflexive critique. There has been no talk on their part, for example, of withholding the Eucharist from bishops who were complicit in the sexual abuse of children. Nor, as I have argued here, should there have been. Instead, the bishops are portraying the most prominent American Catholic as impure—not because he does not believe with the Church but because he holds a political position with which they disagree. Could this typically Donatist tactic of foisting impurity outside the Church’s holiness be a strange way for the bishops to regain an imagined moral purity publicly lost in the past two decades? Though theologically misguided, the ancient Donatists applied their ethics of purity consistently throughout the Church to all its members. Why have the bishops begun an initiative that would withhold the Eucharist from Biden—and perhaps from a handful of other Catholic politicians? Why not issue a teaching that would withhold the sacrament from the millions of American Catholics who hold the same position on abortion as the president? Doing so, of course, would utterly fragment what’s left of the American Church, spiritually and—the word needs to be pronounced—financially. The bishops might consider that, in a Church that understands itself to be the one body of Christ, many Catholics will see the bishops’ judgment on Biden to be a judgment on them and that that judgment will cause far more ecclesial harm than their single-minded fixation on the second Catholic president ever allowed them to imagine.

Ancient Donatism and the new Donatism are deficient practices of the Church because they forget that it is God’s gift of grace, mediated by the sacraments of the Church and not by its pastors, that brings the Church to resurrected life. Occasionally that grace brings believers to a moral heroism that is a sign of God’s grace and that, as such, inspires the Church. But there is no moral heroism, and certainly not the taking of a self-described prophetic stance, in disciplining a faithful Catholic on the basis of a political position held by very many American Catholics. This is all the more so when the purported prophetic discipline curries the favor of a certain quarter of the Catholic donor class.  One hopes that when the bishops finally vote on this matter at their November meeting, the desire for a false purity through discipline will yield to the Gospel’s message of grace and mercy, a message that can only be truly received by those with a deep sense for the shared sinfulness of the Church.

John E. Thiel is professor of religious studies at Fairfield University. He is the author of Senses of Tradition: Development and Continuity in Catholic Faith (Oxford, 2000) and Icons of Hope: The “Last Things” in Catholic Imagination (University of Notre Dame, 2013).

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