The Catholic Answer to Rigorism

Tomorrow’s the feast day for St. Optatus of Milevis.  A while back, I gave something of a 20,000 foot view outlining his views on the sacraments, the Real Presence, the Sacrifice of the Mass, the papacy, and schismatics. Short answer: he was incredibly Catholic. Well, Bryan Cross at Called to Communion has a fantastic post on him that goes into far more depth — more quotes illustrating his thoughts, more background explaining what the Church in North Africa was like at the time, and so on.  If you want to get in a little closer than 20,000 feet, Cross is the guy to go to.

To understand the theological controversies facing Optatus, or most of the Fathers of the third or fourth century, you have to understand a little about the Roman persecutions.  The Romans were brutal to Christians: under the various persecutions, churches and Scriptures were burnt, thousands of Christians were executed, and many more were tortured or imprisoned.  As with modern China, in which Christians face a similar fate, this persecution brought out the best … and the worst.  There were great Catholic Saints who willingly gave up their lives, proclaiming the Gospel to their dying breath .But there were also some, including Catholic bishops, who to save their own lives informed on the location of other Christians, and even handed over Scriptures to be burnt.  These cowards were called traditors (which is Latin for “traitors”). Other Christians, under pain of torture, renounced Christ and sacrificed to Roman idols.  These folks were called lapsi.

Generally, there would be about a decade of organized violence against Christians, and then it would subside.  So, for example, the Decian Persecutions lasted from about 250-260, before Decian’s son put an end to them, and the Diocletian lasted from 303-313 A.D., under the emperor Constantine ended the persecution and legalized Christianity.  Once the torture and persecution were over, many of the traditors and lapsi wanted back in.

The Christians split into two camps over this.  One camp was the Catholic camp, which said that these people could do penance and be absolved of their sins.  The other camp was less organized, but would spring up from time to time.  While we generally refer to these people as “rigorists” today, they were called Novatians or Donatists at the time (depending on when and where). Essentially, they argued that a Christian who turned his back on Christ was lost forever, and that no amount of penance could save him.

Of course, rigorists existed before the Roman persecutions — it seems that wherever there are notorious sinners, there’s somebody ready to say that those sinners can’t be saved. So, for example:

In 217, a Roman priest named Callixtus had been elected pope. Callixtus was a man with a past: He had been an embezzler, a brawler and a convict. But he had repented and reformed his life, and the change was so complete that the majority of the clergy of Rome (who elected the pope at this time) considered Callixtus a worthy successor to St. Peter.

It wasn’t just Callixtus’ past that galled Hippolytus, it was also his policies. Pope Callixtus absolved penitent adulterers and fornicators, and readmitted to the Church heartbroken Christians who, out of fear of torture and death, had renounced their faith and sacrificed to the pagan gods. Hippolytus insisted that such sinners should be cut off forever; priests who took the same hard line met and elected Hippolytus as their pope.

The split dragged on for 19 years. Even after the martyrdom of St. Callixtus, the election and martyrdom of Pope St. Urban I and the election of Pope St. Pontian, Hippolytus still insisted that he was the true pope.

In 235 a new wave of anti-Christian persecution swept through Rome; both Pontian and Hippolytus were arrested and sentenced to the mines in Sardinia. There, Hippolytus, now 66, came at last to his senses, repented and was reconciled with Pope Pontian. Both men died of harsh treatment in the mines. Christians were able to recover their bodies and give them decent burial in the catacombs. To the Christians of Rome, Hippolytus’ repentance and martyrdom wiped his schismatic past, and they venerated him as a saint — along with Pontian and Callixtus.
What’s fascinating about this controversy is that it shows how Catholic the early Church was.  The controversy only makes sense if one believes in sacramental confession, and the ability of priests to absolve sins and assign penance.  A modern Protestant arriving on the scene wouldn’t be able to even enter the debate.
It also shows the eternal struggle within the Catholic Church: on one side, the Church suffers from Her wicked members – including bad bishops and even popes.  These people give a black eye to Catholicism, and often seem to do their best to tear the Church down from within.  On the other side, the Church suffers from those who demand that the true Church wouldn’t put up with these wicked members – who want to turn the Church from a hospital of sinners to a museum of (self-proclaimed) saints.  We see Christ’s warning against this misguided impulse in Matthew 13:28-30. These rigorists demand the Church pull up all those they (the rigorists) identify as weeds in the Church. When the Church refuses to (following Christ’s instruction), many of the rigorists break off to form a purer Church: we saw this with the Donatists, the Novatians, some of the Jansenists, and some of the various sedevacantist groups today.  Fortunately for the rigorists,  the Catholic Church holds out the same hand of forgiveness to them as She does to all other wicked sinners. 
For this reason, in the middle of Against the Donatists, St. Optatus reminds his Donatist opponent, the bishop Parmenian, that they’re still brothers in Christ:

And I would beg of you to recognise that, however distasteful the word brother may be to you, still it has of necessity to be employed by us, lest perchance (considering the proof that it ought to be used) we should, by refraining from it, be blameworthy. For, if you are not willing to be my brother, I should begin to be unbrotherly, were I to keep silence concerning this name. 

For you are our brethren, and we are yours, as the Prophet says: ‘Has not one God made you, and one Father begotten you?’ [Mal. 2:10] Nor can you avoid being our brethren, since to all has it been said: ‘You are all gods and sons of the Most High.’ [Psalm 82:6] And both you and we have received the one command in the words: ‘Call no man your father on earth, because One is your Father in the Heavens.’ |Mt. 23:9]  Our Saviour Christ alone is the Son of God by Birth, but both you and we have been made sons of God in the same manner, as it has been written in the Gospel: ‘The Son of God has come. As many as received Him, to them has He given the power to become sons of God, to those who believe in His Name.’ [John 1:11] 


But you will not have peace with us, that is, with your brothers. For you cannot escape being our brothers—-you whom together with us one Mother Church has borne from the same bowels of her Mysteries [Sacramentorum – that is, Her Sacraments], and whom God the Father has received in the same manner as sons of adoption. 

Wherefore Christ, foreseeing this time—-how it would come to pass that you should today be at variance with us, gave such commands with regard to prayer, that, at least in prayer, unity might remain, and that supplications might join those who should be torn asunder by faction. We pray for you, for we wish to do so, and you pray for us, even though you do not wish it. Otherwise let any one of you say: 

My Father, who art in Heaven,’ and ‘Give me my daily bread,’ and ‘Forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive him who trespasses against me.’ 

Accordingly, if things which have been prescribed may not be changed, you see that we have not been absolutely divided from one another, whilst we willingly pray for you, and you (though unwillingly) pray for us. You perceive, my brother Parmenian, that the bonds of holy brotherhood between you and us do not admit of being absolutely broken.

It’s this message, this Christian call to pray for one another, and to regard other Christians (even schismatics) as brothers in Christ, which should be on our lips.

Yes, there are some very bad Catholics. There always have been and always will be — did not Christ Himself anoint Judas as an Apostle? Did He not promise that until the end of the world, there would be weeds choking the wheat within the field which is the Kingdom of God (Mt. 13:30, Mt. 13:39).  We don’t need to pretend that bad Catholics don’t exist. But we do need to remember that they’re still bad Catholics, who share the same Father, and that we, too, are wicked sinners in need of salvation through Jesus Christ.


    1. Your comments in article Shameless Popery reiterate to me the Truely, Divine Mercy of God through Jesus the Christ!

  1. I’m not as “rigorist” as some I know, but I’m bad enough.

    After reading that, I am “reviewing the situation” (as Fagin did in “Oliver!”)

    Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *