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The Donatist Heresy:  A Rigorist Denial of Sacramental Effectiveness

Revised:  18 January, A.D. 2002
St. Peter's Chair at Rome
St. Prisca, Virgin & Martyr

Reprinted from: Our Lady of the Rosary Parish Bulletin -- April 1995  Although first writtten to answer a question in sacramental theology, this article contains an important lesson learned from Church history.

     Question: The priest who married us got in trouble and is no longer a priest. Does that mean that we are no longer married? What if he wasn't living a holy life when he married us? What about any of the other Sacraments he might have conferred?

     Answer: The holiness of the person who confers a Sacrament (the term "minister" is used, as not all Sacraments are always conferred by priests) may contribute indirectly to the graces received from a Sacrament. Likewise, the dignity and care exercised by the minister may contribute to our esteem for the holy thing being carried out. But, as long as the proper minister uses the appropriate matter, form, and intention, the Sacrament is effective without regard to his personal state of grace. The spiritual benefits of receiving the Sacraments from a holy person are incidental and do not relate to the validity of the Sacrament.

     In the case of marriage, it is the bridal couple who confer the Sacrament on each other by their mutual exchange of consent to live the rest of their lives as man and wife. The priest is essentially a witness of the Church and civil society, who together with two other witnesses, is qualified to testify to the fact that the marriage took place. In the sense that the priest is not the minister of the Sacrament, his own personal holiness is of even less importance than it might be in conferring those Sacraments of which he is the actual minister.

     From early on, the Church has taught that the validity of the Sacraments is unaffected by the worthiness of the minister. Although someone in the state of serious sin conferring a Sacrament may sin again by doing so, the recipient still receives the Sacrament and all of its graces. If this seems strange at first, a little reflection will assure us that it has to be this way. If only a holy person could administer a Sacrament, we would never be able to be sure that we were receiving any of them validly. How could you possibly know that the priest who baptized you, or the bishop that confirmed you, or the minister of any sacrament that you received was in the state of grace at the time?

     St. Thomas Aquinas likens the minister to "a pipe through which water passes, be it silver or lead." He concludes:

     The ministers of the Church do not by their own power cleanse from sin those who approach the sacraments, nor do they confer grace upon them: it is Christ who does this by His own power while He employs them as instruments.- Therefore the ministers of the Church can confer the sacraments though they be wicked.1

     In 254 AD, Pope St. Stephen I ruled on the validity of baptism administered by ministers outside of the Church:

     If anyone, from whatever heresy, comes over to you, nothing innovative should be done, only that which is traditional, that is the imposition of hands in penance, when these heretics come themselves to you they are not to be baptized, but only received into communion.2

     A century and a half later, St. Augustine, speaking of those who had severed themselves from the Catholic Church, says:

     If they observe some of the same things, in respect to these things they have not severed themselves; and so far they are still a part of the framework of the Church, while in all other respects they are cut off from it. Accordingly, anyone they have associated with themselves is united to the Church in all those points in which they are not separated from It. And therefore, if he wishes to come over to the Church, he is made sound in those points in which he was unsound and went astray; but where he was sound in union with the Church, he is not cured, but recognized....3

    Elsewhere the Saint explains:

     He [Christ] it is that baptizes in the Holy Ghost: Peter may baptize, it is He who baptizes; Paul may baptize, it is He who baptizes; Judas may baptize, it is He who baptizes.4

     In northern Africa, by Augustine's time, the possibility of lapsed Christians conferring the Sacraments had become a burning issue. Before the rule of the Emperor Constantine (312 AD), Christians were subject to severe persecution. Some of them, including priests and bishops, were induced to deliver the Sacred Scriptures over to the Roman authorities, and a few even offered incense to the pagan gods. Some of those who persevered in spite of the persecution began to question whether or not the "traditores" had lost the powers of the Sacraments they had received before giving in to the authorities.

     The issue of re-baptism was important, of course, but the matter came to a head when Caecilian of Carthage was elected bishop in 312. He himself had been accused of compromising during the persecution under the Emperor Diocletian and was consecrated by a bishop who had done likewise. The "Donatists" (probably named for one of their leaders, Donatus of Casae Nigrae) insisted that a lapsed bishop lost the power to confer any Sacraments, let alone consecrate someone else a bishop. The Donatists installed their own bishops in various cites where the Catholic bishop was said to have lapsed. Violence erupted sporadically. To preserve the peace, Constantine asked Pope Melchiades to rule on the issue and designate the legitimate bishop for those cities with two. Pope Melchiades condemned Donatus as a re-baptizer, confirmed Ccilian as archbishop of Carthage, and decided that in those cities with two bishops the senior would remain in office.

     Despite papal condemnation of the heresy, Donatism remained powerful in Africa for roughly a century. Around 400 AD, St. Augustine wrote several books to combat it. In 412 and again in 428 civil laws prescribed fines, beatings, and exile for those heretics who persisted. Other than a brief resurgence during the reign of Gregory the Great, the legal penalties and the invasion by the Vandals, brought the end of Donatism. (Except for an occasional relapse by "holier than thou" and poorly educated Catholics.)

     Over the centuries the Church has consistently applied the concept that the Sacraments are valid without regard to the holiness of the minister. Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders confer a "mark" or "character" on the soul, and therefore cannot be repeated without sin.5  They may be given again conditionally ("If you are not baptized, then I baptize you....") only if there is good reason to doubt some aspect of their administration.

     For this reason, converts are not re-baptized if they come from a denomination that validly baptizes. They are not re-confirmed or re-ordained if they come from a denomination that possesses valid Holy Orders (e.g. converts from the Greek Orthodox or Old Catholic churches). Likewise, such a convert would not be required to confess the sins for which he had already been absolved. And, certainly, his conversion would not nullify his marriage even if his spouse refused to convert with him.

     On occasion the Church has received entire non-Catholic churches into union.6 None of the Sacraments were reconferred and the hierarchies of the formerly non-Catholic churches generally remained intact.

     Even in cases where the minister of the Sacrament is a non- believer, Pope Leo XIII tells us:

     The Church does not judge about the mind and intention in so far as it is something by its nature internal; but insofar as it is manifested externally she is bound to judge concerning it. When anyone has rightly and seriously made use of the due form and matter requisite for effecting or conferring the sacrament he is considered by that very fact to do what the Church does. On this principle rests the doctrine that a sacrament is truly conferred by the ministry of one who is a heretic or unbaptized, provided the Catholic rite be employed.7

     We find what is probably the "classic" case in the activities of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. Talleyrand was consecrated a bishop (through his father's influence with Louis XVI) in 1789 in spite of his publicly sinful life. He was a leader in the intellectual circles of the French Revolution, and was numbered among the founders of the secret society known as the "Illuminati" in France.8 Describing Talleyrand as an "apostate" -- one who has fallen completely away from the Faith -- is not overly harsh.  When the Revolution required French priests and bishops to swear an oath to the new Constitution, most refused, left France, went into hiding, or died. Talleyrand was called upon to put on the sacred vestments for the last time in order to consecrate bishops loyal to the Revolution. When Napoleon sought to restore order following the Revolution, one of the first things he did was to negotiate a concordat with Pope Pius VII. Among other things, the Concordat of 1801 required the resignation of all French bishops loyal to the Pope, and granted Napoleon the right to appoint bishops for all the dioceses of France. Napoleon appointed roughly as many "constitutional" bishops as he appointed "non-juring" (those who had not sworn the oath to the revolutionary constitution) bishops.9 Once again, the Church upheld the validity of the Sacraments conferred by evil men, those separated from Itself, and even "skeptics" like Talleyrand.

     In Summary, no one should be concerned that they may have received the Sacraments invalidly because the minister later departed from the Faith or because he was a sinner or a skeptic. The Church assures that such doubts are unwarranted.


     1. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, Q. 64, A. 5
     2. Denzinger 46 (110 in the renumbered editions).
     3. Augustine, On Baptism, Ch. 8, No. 10.
     4. Augustine, Commentary on John 6, 7.
     5. Council of Trent, Denzinger 852 (1609).
     6. For example, the Acacian schism of Constantinople was ended by Pope Hormisdas in 517; The Council of Florence (1438) received Greeks, Jacobites, and Armenians in union.
     7. Leo XIII, Apostolicae curae, 15.
     8. Nesta Webster, The French Revolution, p. 20
     9. 12 to 16, together with 32 priests of unspecified loyalties according to The New Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Concordat of 1801" (NY: 1967)


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