In the aftermath of the victory over Communist domination of Eastern Europe, previously hidden divisions are surfacing within the churches that played such a crucial role in that struggle. For example, the recent book on religion in the Soviet Union by Michael Bourdeaux of Keston College documents the current struggle between the Russian Orthodox and the Ukrainian Catholic churches over the Ukrainian church’s property that Stalin seized and handed to the Russian Orthodox in 1946. “Turf struggles” of this kind will no doubt continue to threaten the churches of Eastern Europe and Russia.
Equally serious struggles loom ahead over what can be called the question of the “lapsed.” It is well known that over the decades of Communist oppression, many Eastern European churchmen cooperated in one way or another with the regimes. Some, no doubt, were convinced Marxists; others were ignorant stooges of the Communist rulers; others were too weak to live a life of dissent; still others now defend their actions by saying that their minimal cooperation gave them opportunities to minister that would not otherwise have been available. The Economist recently reported on the growing tensions between those who “lapsed” and those who boldly opposed tyranny.
In this context, the history of the Donatist schism and particularly the anti-Donatist writings of St. Augustine (354-430) might be fruitfully studied. The Donatist schism originated in the years following the Great Persecution of Diocletian, which predated Augustine by several decades. Signs of impending schism appeared as early as 305, when the persecution was in full force, but there was no formal break until the persecution ended. The Donatists, named for one of their leading spokesmen, condemned the “lapsed,” the “traditores” who bad betrayed their faith during the terror of persecution by fleeing or banding over Bibles or other sacred books. The “Catholic” party, by contrast, counseled prudence and caution, and raised questions about the purity of the motives behind the Donatist thirst for martyrdom. After several fruitless efforts to restrain the Donatists, Constantine in 321 granted them full liberty of worship, though this toleration was denied by his successors.
In the time of Augustine, Donatist churches were still found throughout North Africa; there was a Donatist congregation in Hippo itself. For more than a decade, Augustine mounted an unrelenting verbal assault on the Donatists. In 412, the Donatist church was banned by imperial edict and driven underground, though there are hints that Donatism survived as late as the time of Gregory the Great (590-604).
Jaroslav Pelikan notes that the basic theological issue between Donatists and Catholics was “the causal connection between grace and perfection, or between the unity of the church and the holiness of the church.” These large issues came to a focus in the practical question of whether ordinations and baptisms performed by traditores were valid. The Donatists insisted that sacraments were invalid if administered by a traditor. More than that, anyone ordained by or in communion with a traditor (including Augustine himself) was declared guilty by association.
Against this, Augustine stressed that the sacraments belonged to Christ and to His Church, and the piety or impiety of the administrator was irrelevant: “My origin is Christ, my root is Christ, my bead is Christ.” Augustine admitted that the traditores had sinned, and be was not averse to using the instruments of Church discipline when necessary. But so long as a minister was in union with the One Church, the sacraments he administered were valid. Baptism, he stressed, “belongs to Christ, regardless of who may give it.”
Augustine’s victory over the Donatists has often been characterized as a victory of objectivity and catholicity over subjectivity and sectarianism, a victory, to borrow Ernst Troeltsch’s categories, of church over sect. This characterization is one-sided; Augustine’s victory was also a victory of mercy and forbearance. The Church was, for Augustine, not so much a community of the holy as a school of holiness. The Church is always in pilgrimage; she will never, this side of the eschaton, be able to say that she has “arrived.” Augustine’s insight was in part a corollary of his doctrine of predestination, but it was just as much a product of his practical churchmanship. It is an empirically verifiable fact that the Church as it presently exists is a “mixed multitude,” comprised of weak and strong, fearful and bold, those given to capitulation and those given to martyrdom.
Applying these Augustinian insights to the current situation of Eastern Europe is no easy task. Surely, there are degrees of betrayal and degrees of culpability. A bishop who actively propagandized for a Communist regime is more culpable than a layman who simply averted his eyes. There will doubtless be cases where the churches will have no choice but to take disciplinary action.
Yet the churches of Eastern Europe would do well to err on the side of mercy. Such an approach runs the risk of being attacked as “soft” by hardline anti-Communist leaders, but the counsel that the Church show mercy to the weak need not imply any compromise with Marxist-Leninist oppression. Instead, it arises from a recognition of the important role the Church can play in the coming decades of transition. Imprudent rigorism in the churches of Eastern Europe will only divide and weaken the Church, and vitiate her witness. An Augustinian Catholicity, by contrast, will give the Church an opportunity to play her central part in healing Eastern Europe’s deeply divided societies.
Peter J. Leithart is a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?