The news of sex scandal in Pennsylvania is truly sickening. Thousands of victims, hundreds of predatory priests, and what can only be described as a systematic conspiracy to conceal the crimes of those accused. All of which raises the question: How can the Catholic Church survive such a scandal? In fact, in light of previous revelations about sex abuse, how has the church survived so far?
To be sure, church attendance and vocations (the number of men joining the priesthood) have fallen, but to the external observer the ability of priests to maintain authority is baffling. Protestant leaders have been destroyed by smaller scandals, so how does the Catholic Church escape? Given the New Testament’s focus on personal morality and ethics, how can church leaders maintain any kind of authority and status when so many are complicit? Is it just sheer size and economic health that has preserved the church so far?
This is not, unsurprisingly enough for any organization, the first time that the church has encountered scandal on a large scale. Of course there have always been individual priests who have embezzled funds, kept secret families on their estates, and even ordered hits on their ecclesiastical rivals. For the Borgias this was all very much business as usual. But the precedent for how to deal with a widespread crisis of confidence in church leadership was set even earlier: as part of a schism in the church that took place in late antique North Africa.
Third-century Carthage was one of the economic centers of the ancient world. The city exported silver, lead, copper, tin, wheat and other goods to Rome and, as a result, the Bishop of Carthage was a powerful man in Church circles. Christians generally flourished, some rose to high levels in government and by the fourth century Christians were building large churches close to imperial palace. But they were occasionally persecuted and when persecution struck, as it briefly did during the reigns of Decius (250-51) Valerian (257) and Diocletian (303-304), it struck North Africans especially hard.
In every situation when the Romans applied pressure to the Christians to publicly abandon their affiliation to Jesus, Christians faced one of several choices: first, they could apostatize, that is, deny that they were Christian and go about their lives as normal. Second, they could avoid authorities and try to fly under the radar. Third, they could run away or, as those who did this put it, “go into exile” to a more rural location. And, finally, they could confess to being Christian and risk imprisonment and even death.
The Bishop of Carthage during the reign of the emperor Decian was a man named Cyprian. Cyprian fled persecution (something that he could, as a wealthy man, afford to do). Those urban Christians who were left behind and who knew people who had been imprisoned or even died felt some resentment towards Cyprian and those others who had fled. They felt, as many of us would, that the bishop had lost some credibility.
Even though Cyprian eventually did die as a martyr, his case and those of similar priests helped to lay the groundwork for outright schism in the future. At the beginning of the fourth century (303-304) the emperor Diocletian issued a series of edicts designed to elicit imperial unity by targeting Christians. The edicts began by making Christian meetings illegal, destroying Christian buildings, and demanding that Christians hand over religious books for destruction; they then ordered the arrest of clergy, and promised clerics amnesty if they would apostatize; and, finally demanded that everyone gather in a public space and offer sacrifices to the emperor.
At the beginning of the persecution, those most like to own religious books were clerics: priests, lectors, bishops, and so on. Books were expensive; the vast majority of people didn’t own them. Many priests complied with the government’s demands and handed over books (some of which weren’t even Christian scriptures) to the Romans.
For others, handing over books was tantamount to betraying Jesus himself. In fact, prior to this point, the word tradere simply meant to hand over something. But during this period it developed connotations of betrayal and, as a result, gave us the English word traitor. Complicity with the government sometimes went further, with Church leaders trying to dissuade Christians from visiting the prisons where those arrested had been consigned.
The Bishop of Carthage during the Diocletian Persecution was Mensurius, who was accused of being a traditor. The question, in the aftermath of the persecution, was whether or not Mensurius had lost the power of the Holy Spirit by collaborating with the Romans. After all, the New Testament specifies that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the only unforgivable sin (Mark 3:28-30); surely Mensurius had lost his religious power (the Holy Spirit) and authority? And, if he had, surely any baptisms he had performed were invalid too? Some felt that those people should be rebaptized.
In 311 a new Bishop, Caecilian, was elected to power. But at his consecration only three bishops were present and one of those (Felix) was a traditor. To many North African Christians it seemed as if the Church hierarchy had been corrupted by sin. The remaining North African Bishops met and declared Caecilian’s ordination invalid. They ordained a new bishop, who died and was replaced by Donatus. It’s from Donatus that this schism—the Donatist Schism—takes its name.
In the aftermath of Donatus’s election as a rival bishop, the Church in Carthage was effectively split. There were the Caecilianists (who we might call “Catholics” or “Orthodox” Christians) and there were the Donatists, who considered themselves morally superior. Both groups had bishops, priests, and churches. Sometimes these were located across the street from one another. The Donatists were popular, especially in rural areas, but the Caecilianists tended to be wealthier.
The schism was such a scandal that in 313 a council met in Rome, overseen by the emperor Constantine. For a variety of reasons, to do with the makeup of his advisers, cultural differences between Europe and North Africa, and the fact that the Donatists seemed to be anti-imperial, Constantine ruled in favor of the Caecilianists. The aftermath of Constantine’s decision was brutal: Constantine sent troops to North Africa, there was violence on both sides, and both Donatists and Caecilianists claimed to be terrorized by the other. The conflict lasted over a century; even St. Augustine himself advocated for the use of force against the Donatists.
The theological effects of the schism are felt to this day. The consequence most relevant to the current Church crisis is to do with authority. As a result of the controversy Catholics began to stress the validity and authority of the sacraments even apart from the piety of the individual bishop. There is a Biblical basis for this view of the sacraments, but prior to the Donatist controversy, Christians (like Romans before them) determined a man’s fitness for leadership from his personal moral conduct. This is why, among other things, the New Testament says that a bishop should be above reproach (Titus 1:7). After the Donatist controversy, however, the Church’s authority had to be grounded elsewhere, and that was in the liturgy and the performance of the sacraments.
This, in turn, is part of the reason why in situations of moral and theological crisis, the Catholic Church turns to apostolic succession (the idea that the Church’s leaders are the clerical descendants of the original apostles) and the special status of the liturgy as the source of its authority. This dogma has protected the Church through all kinds of clerical scandals, and is one reason why Catholics today talk about reform and change rather than outright abandonment.