The heretics of the first centuries and the Roman spirit


Over the centuries the Catholic Church has always fought the deformations of its moral doctrine on both extremes. On the one hand laxism, meaning the negation of moral absolutes in the name of the primacy of conscience, and on the other rigorism, meaning the tendency to create laws and precepts that Catholic morality does not provide. Today laxism results in modernist “situational morality,” while rigorism constitutes a sectarian temptation for traditionalism. It is against this latter danger that I want to caution, recalling what happened in the first centuries of the Church, with the heresies of the Montanists, the Novatians, and the Donatists.

The Montanists, for example, argued that martyrdom should be voluntarily sought, without ever trying to avoid it. Quite different was the attitude of true Christians who did not seek martyrdom but once faced with the choice did not hesitate to prefer death to apostasy. The Acts of the Martyrs show the difference between the behavior of Quintus Phrygus and that of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, in 155 AD. Quintus declared himself a Christian, but then under the threats and tortures apostatized from the faith. Polycarp, instead, captured by the proconsul Statius Quadratus, obtained the palm of martyrdom, even though he did not seek it.

Montanism was condemned by the Church, but its rigorist spirit reemerged a hundred years later with the question of the so-called “Lapsi.” In 250, the emperor Decius issued an edict with which he ordered, under penalty of death, that all citizens of the Empire burn incense before the pagan divinities. Lapsi (fallen) was what those Christians were called who in order to save their lives denied the Christian faith, but once the persecution had passed asked to be readmitted into communion with the Church.

Some African bishops denied the lapsi the possibility of receiving the sacraments, including that of penance. In Rome this moral rigor was adopted by Novatian (c. 220-258), an ambitious priest who occupied an important position in the clergy. According to Novatian, the sin of the lapsi could be forgiven by God, but not by the Church, which could not have readmitted them even at the point of death. 

Pope Cornelius (251-253) established that lapsi who had made public penance could be readmitted into the Church. Novatian contested the validity of Cornelius’s election and, after having been consecrated bishop by deceit, claimed the papacy for himself, carrying out intense propaganda activity throughout the Empire. He is considered the first “antipope.”

If Novatian had refused absolution to apostates, his most consistent followers extended the error to all serious sins: idolatry, murder, and adultery, which according to them could not be forgiven by the Church, but only by God. These ideas were taken up under Diocletian (301-303) by the Donatists, who got their name from Donatus, bishop of Casae Nigrae (Black Houses) in Africa.

In his last persecution, the Emperor ordered that every Holy Book of the Church be handed over and burned in public. Those who submitted to this edict were called traditores by other Christians, because they were guilty of traditio, that is, of handing over sacred books and objects to the persecutors. The bishop Donatus stated that the consecration of Carthage bishop Caecilian was invalid because it had been carried out by a traditor, Felix of Aptunga. For Donatus and his followers, neither heretics nor manifest public sinners belonged to the true Church and the sacraments administered by them were invalid. The value of the sacraments depended, for them, on the holiness of the minister.

The great doctrinal opponent of Donatism was Saint Augustine, bishop of Hippo, who over the span of twenty years, between 391 and 411, wrote more than twenty treatises against the sect. At the Council of Carthage in 411, Augustine spoke more than seventy times in three sessions, the minutes of which have come down to us, refuting their doctrine.

The Novatians and Donatists did not intend to abolish the sacrament of penance, but by denying that the Church was able to administer it in certain cases they paved the way for its suppression by Luther and Calvin. For this reason the Council of Trent, on November 25 1551, reiterated the condemnation of the Novatians and the Donatists (Denz-H, no.1670), affirming that anyone who falls into sin after having received Baptism can always remedy this with true penance. The same Council defined the validity of the sacraments, regardless of whether the minister is in a state of grace or of sin (Denz-H, no. 1612).

The denial of the Church’s power to remit sins committed after Baptism inevitably led to the rejection of the institutional dimension of the Mystical Body of Christ. The Montanists defined themselves as “spiritual” and longed for a church of prophetic inspiration and direct divine communication; the Novatians called themselves katharoi , meaning “pure,” a term used later, in the Middle Ages, by the Albigensian heretics, to distinguish themselves from the members of the hierarchical Church; the Donatists were inspired by the same paradigm of an “invisible church.” The sects that proliferated on the left of Luther in the sixteenth century took up the errors of the Montanists, the Novatians, and the Donatists, opposing their conventicles to the Catholic Church, founded by Jesus Christ.

To avoid falling into this sectarian fanaticism, the Christians of the first centuries needed thoughtfulness and balance.

Such a talented historian as Msgr. Umberto Benigni (1862-1934) affirms that the early Christians were first of all mindful and determined: “They knew what was to be willed and, strongly, constantly, they willed it. They were also disciplined, against the anarchist and separatist tendencies of the ‘enlightened’, the hotheads, the individualists; the episcopal monarchy immediately overcame the oligarchic tendencies of some prophet or presbyter; and papal supremacy was determined, in fact, against that of some secessionist bishops. (…) Finally, the first Christians were balanced. That is, in their orthodox assemblage they did not allow themselves to be carried away by the excesses of right and left, by the rigorists or by the laxists of Carthage, by the Montanist convulsions or by Alexandrian abstrusities, by the narrow-mindedness of the Judaizers or by Gnostic anarchy. This balanced mentality allowed them to understand their time and walk beside it without compromise and without skittishness, neither limping nor galloping; always staying ready to adapt, but in order to win, not to capitulate. When Constantine called them to reform Roman society they did not have to speed up nor slow down their progress, but just to continue on the imperial chariot along the road they had already been traveling on foot” (Social History of the Church , Vallardi, Milan 1906, vol. I, pp. 423-424).

Mindful and determined, disciplined and balanced is what Catholics must be today, rejecting the danger of chaos and fragmentation that threatens them. An article in the Dublin Review by the priest (later cardinal) Nicholas Wiseman, who compared the position of the African Donatists with that of the Anglicans, paved the way to conversion for Cardinal John Henry Newman, who was struck by a phrase of St. Augustine’s that Wiseman quoted: “Securus iudicat orbem terrarum” (“The judgment of the universal Church is sure,” in Contra Epistulam Parmeniani, Book III, chap. 3). This sentence sums up the Roman spirit of the first centuries.

Only the Church has the right to define a moral law and its obligatory nature. Anyone who claims to take the place of the Church’s authorities by imposing non-existent moral norms risks falling into schism and heresy, as has unfortunately already happened in history.