committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs










Pope Gregory Against the Donatists


        The late appearance of my extracts from the writings of this ancient and famous pontiff concerning the Donatists may be accounted for from the fact that I had no knowledge of such writings till most unexpectedly I found them in Du Pin's Monuments. The extracts which I am about to make from pope Gregory's writings will be from seven of his epistles addressed to eminent men, to whom he appealed for aid against the inroads of the heretics on the Catholic church. One of these men was the Roman emperor. By the following descriptions the Donatists will be found vigorous and successful about two hundred years later in history than appears in former accounts of them by Augustine. In making extracts from these epistles I shall take them in their order in Du Pin's work, and shall be confined as far as possible to sentences pertaining wholly to Donatist affairs.

To Gennadius, Patrician and Exarchate Of Africa

        This man the pope complimented as a distinguished warrior, and, said he, just as the Lord has made your excellence conspicuous for victories for the state, in the same manner you ought to be most highly honored for opposing the enemies of the church. It is know, said the pope, that men of an heretical religion rise vehemently against the Catholic faith; the poison of their heresy, however, must be destroyed, to whatever extent it may gain the members of the Christian body. But may your eminence crush their attempts, and press their proud necks under the yoke of rectitude.

To All the Bishops of Numidia

        You, said the pope to these bishops, have sought through our secretary, if the customs of former times are still preserved; which customs were ordained from the first by the blessed Peter, the prince of the apostles. From the pope's answers to these bishops the customs in question appear to have referred to the chief officers of the Catholic church, and, strange as it may have been, the inquiring bishops seemed to fear that converts from the Donatists would find their way to these offices.

Gregory's Answer to the Bishops

        In constituting primates, and other chief officers, said he, those are excluded who come to the episcopate from the Donatists, who are put forward for the dignity of primates. This advancement in office, said the pope, we by all means prohibit. Pope Gregory's restraining policy with the Donatists in the business of offices will be referred to from Du Pin in the next chapter. The office of primate with the Catholics has previously been described, to wit: He was the head bishop of his province; by him all new bishops must be ordained; he succeeded to the office as the oldest bishop, and his age was counted from the time of his ordination. Such was the aversion of the Donatists to the Catholics that we should not suppose that they would join them for the sake of office; but all parties have had men of this description. Through all this history we have seen the Catholics were very anxious for the Donatists to join them; and as there was no voting for their primates an office seeker might slide into that office without the voice of the pope or people, without pope Gregory's law against it.

To Columbus, Bishop of Numidia

        It is know, well beloved brother in Christ, said the pope, that the ancient enemy who subjected the first man to a life of painful labor, by the crafty persuasion of the delights of paradise, hath now inflicted the punishment of mortality on the human race. With the same craft, said the pope, this old enemy would, with poisonous transfusions, bring the pastors of the Lord's sheep under his own power. But we, said pope Gregory, unworthy as we are, who have by right assumed the government of the apostolical seat, in the place of Peter, the prince of the apostles, are compelled by the very office of the pontificate, to meet the common enemy. In the next place the pope made mention of an extended petition brought to him concerning the Catholic affairs in the province of Numidia. The substance of the story seemed to consist of the imputation of the corruption of a Catholic bishop, by a reward, from the Donatists, by which they obtained an unusual freedom. But besides he petition, said the pope, we have been informed by the insinuation of the bearers of the document, who are present, that the heresy of the Donatists was daily spreading far around, by our omissions; and, said the pope, it so happens that under a venal license granted the Donatists, very many, by them, are baptized anew, after they have received Catholic baptism. What may come of such a grievous transaction, my brother, it behooves us to weigh with the utmost carefulness of our minds. Behold, said the pope, the wolf, which tears in pieces the Lord's flock, not secretly in the night, but openly in the light, and we behold him rioting in the slaughter of the sheep, with no solicitude for it, and with no sharp words of censure do we oppose these ravages of the wolf. What fruits, said he, can we render to the Lord, of the increase of his flock, if we, its pastors, thus quietly behold it devoured by a beast of prey? Let us, therefore, be watchful, said pope Gregory, to his brother Columbus, that with words of divine eloquence we may reclaim the Lord's flock, as the Pastor of pastors has been vigilant about his own flock.

To The Prefect of Africa

        Such, said the pope, is the well known law of your excellence, that it should be made to bear with greater force on the most nefarious depravity of the heretics. We have learned, said the pope, that in their parts the audacity of the Donatists hath increased to that degree that by a pestiferous authority they not only eject priests of the Catholic faith from their own churches, but more than that, they do not fear to rebaptize those whom the water of regeneration had previously washed. After expressing his wonder at such impiety, the pope assured the prefect that the souls of those who were lost would be required at his hands, provided he had neglected the means in his hands for their salvation.

To Victor and Columbus, Bishops of Africa

        We are informed, said the pope, that the excitements of the Donatists in their parts, have so disturbed the Lord's flock that very many are torn from it by their venomous teeth; and the result has been that in their most depraved rashness, they expel canonical priests from their own churches; and more than that, it is said that they have inflicted a spiritual death on many by their most nefarious depravity, by rebaptizing many, to whom the water of regeneration had previously been administered for their salvation. The few remarks in this case appear to have been the closing of this epistle. In the first place, the pope spoke of injurious reports which had come to him of what was wickedly said of good men of the right faith; but what was still worse, he said, was, that their sons, or others under control of the Donatists, consented to be baptized into their heresy. And if this account be true, said the pope to bishop Columbus, whom he now addressed for the third time, concerning the Donatists, your episcopal fraternity should endeavor, summarily, to amend and reform the practice. And the pope, after commending the sincerity of the faith, and the unremitting solicitude of the bishop, said: The innocent souls which might be saved by their Catholic baptism, should not perish by the contagion of heretics. Whoever there be, therefore, said the pope, of the persons we have before mentioned, of whatever class of our people, who have suffered themselves to be baptized anew among the Donatists, with every power, and with all vehemence, all should endeavor to restore them to the Catholic faith.

To The Roman Emperor Maurice

        Pope Gregory, as we have seen, had addressed two eminent statesmen, to whom he had made serious complaints of the inroads of the Donatists on the Catholic church. We now come to his address to the head, both of the church and the state, on the same subject. Relative to the management of state affairs with the church, the pope complimented the emperor in the following terms: The unwearied zeal, said the pope, which the emperor maintained in governing the Christian republic amidst the concerns of arms and innumerable solicitudes, was a great cause of joy to him and all the world. In the next place, the pope commended the emperor for the serenity of his piety and his opposition to the most flagitious depravity of the Donatists, for its justice and for the tenor of his direct commands concerning them, which were most explicitly published. These commands, it appears, were intended to restrain what the pope accounted the most flagitious doings of the Donatists. Thus far the pope's address to the emperor was highly flattering, but soon it was much otherwise. Most venerable bishops, said the pope, from Africa, have said that the imperial commands for restraining the Donatists are disregarded by the principal men without dissimulation. Again, said the pope, these bishops subjoined to their report, that in Africa, amongst the Donatists, the Catholic faith was publicly exposed for sale. This was a very troublesome story to the pope, but as it was told by his most venerable bishops, he devised various plans to hinder its injurious influence, especially on the most pious youth of the church. With this story most of Gregory's epistle to the emperor is occupied. That the public sale in question was a real and legal transaction is evident from the fact that a secular judge was concerned in it. But in what way the Catholic faith was implicated in it, pope Gregory does not even intimate in any portion of his epistle to the emperor Maurice. In some of his remarks he seemed inclined to treat the story as "a misty fabrication;" but his great anxiety to suppress its circulation does not well agree with this theory. The same may be said of the pope's earnest endeavors to shield the emperor from any blame in the public sale of the Catholic faith. The pope closed his epistle to the emperor with the following remarks, relative to the story under consideration: "It is an obscurity of a pestiferous depravity; and its is the venom of a diabolical fraud."This whole story probably originated from the sale of one or more of the Catholic churches to the Donatists. That these churches often fell into the hands of the Donatists, is abundantly evident from the representations of both Augustine and pope Gregory. As a general thing, this was a matter of course on a change of denomination, without any formal sale or ceremony. In this case there might have been outside demands to be settled. After the next chapter I shall give some remarks on the epistles of pope Gregory, with a few biographical sketches of the author.

The Reformed Reader Home Page 

Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved