Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Fathers of the Church



”Augustine’s correspondence, the mark and expression of the influential personality and apostolic zeal of the author, is rich in historical, philosophical, theological, exegetical, spiritual, literary, and autobiographical content” (Agostino Trapè). Here he writes a Donatist bishop with a reputation for intelligence, to persuade him that the Donatist party is in schism. His arguments center around the fact that the Donatist controversy is local to Africa, and so can be settled easily by showing that the Donatists cannot maintain their own views while remaining united to the universal Church.


The extant correspondence of St. Augustine includes more than 270 letters, including well over 200 written by him. Those numbered 31-123 span the period from his episcopal ordination until the conference between Catholic and Donatist bishops held in 411.

by Augustine of Hippo in 405 | translated by J. G. Cunningham


1. I know that it is not on the possession of good talents and a liberal education that the salvation of the soul depends; but when I hear of any one who is thus endowed holding a different view from that which truth imperatively insists upon on a point which admits of very easy examination, the more I wonder at such a man, the more I burn with desire to make his acquaintance, and to converse with him; or if that be impossible, I long to bring his mind and mine into contact by exchanging letters, which wing their flight even between places far apart. As I have heard that you are such a man as I have spoken of, I grieve that you should be severed and shut out from the Catholic Church, which is spread abroad throughout the whole world, as was foretold by the Holy Spirit. What your reason for this separation is I do not know. For it is not disputed that the party of Donatus is wholly unknown to a great part of the Roman world, not to speak of the barbarian nations (to whom also the apostle said that he was a debtor) whose communion in the Christian faith is joined with ours, and that in fact they do not even know at all when or upon what account the dissension began. Now, unless you admit these Christians to be innocent of those crimes with which you charge the Christians of Africa, you must confess that all of you are defiled by participation in the wicked actions of all worthless characters, so long as they succeed (to put the matter mildly) in escaping detection among you. For you do occasionally expel a member from your communion, in which case his expulsion takes place only after he has committed the crime for which he merited expulsion. Is there not some intervening time during which he escapes detection before he is discovered, convicted, and condemned by you? I ask, therefore, whether he involved you in his defilement so long as he was not discovered by you? You answer, "By no means." If, then, he were not to be discovered at all, he would in that case never involve you in his defilement; for it sometimes happens that the crimes committed by men come to light only after their death, yet this does not bring guilt upon those Christians who communicated with them while they were alive. Why, then, have you severed yourselves by so rash and profane schism from the communion of innumerable Eastern Churches, in which all that you truly or falsely affirm to have been done in Africa has been and still is utterly unknown?

2. For it is quite another question whether or not there be truth in the assertions made by you. These assertions we disprove by documents much more worthy of credit than those which you bring forward, and we further find in your own documents more abundant proof of those positions which you assail. But this is, as I have said, another question altogether, to be taken up and discussed when necessary. Meanwhile, let your mind give special attention to this: that no one can be involved in the guilt of unknown crimes committed by persons unknown to him. Whence it is manifest that you have been guilty of impious schism in separating yourselves from the communion of the whole world, to which the things charged, whether truly or falsely, by you against some men in Africa, have been and still are wholly unknown; although this also should not be forgotten, that even when known and discovered, bad men do not harm the good who are in a Church, if either the power of restraining them from communion be wanting, or the interests of the Church's peace forbid this to be done. For who were those who, according to the prophet Ezekiel, obtained the reward of being marked before the destruction of the wicked, and of escaping unhurt when they were destroyed, but those who sighed and cried for the sins and iniquities of the people of God which were done in the midst of them? Now who sighs and cries for that which is unknown to him? On the same principle, the Apostle Paul bears with false brethren. For it is not of persons unknown to him that he says, "All seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ's;" yet these persons he shows plainly to have been beside him. And to what class do the men belong who have chosen rather to burn incense to idols or surrender the divine books than to suffer death, if not to those who "seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ"?

3. I omit many proofs which I might give from Scripture, that I may not make this letter longer than is needful; and I leave many more things to be considered by yourself in the light of your own learning. But I beseech you mark this, which is quite enough to decide the whole question: If so many transgressors in the one nation, which was then the Church of God, did not make those who were associated with them to be guilty like themselves; if that multitude of false brethren did not make the Apostle Paul, who was a member of the same Church with them, a seeker not of the things of Jesus Christ, but of his own,— it is manifest that a man is not made wicked by the wickedness of any one with whom he goes to the altar of Christ, even though he be not unknown to him, provided only that he do not encourage him in his wickedness, but by a good conscience disallowing his conduct keep himself apart from him. It is therefore obvious that, to be art and part with a thief, one must either help him in the theft, or receive with approbation what he has stolen. This I say in order to remove out of the way endless and unnecessary questions concerning the conduct of men, which are wholly irrelevant when advanced against our position.

4. If, however, you do not agree with what I have said, you involve the whole of your party in the reproach of being such men as Optatus was, while, notwithstanding your knowledge of his crimes, he was tolerated in communion with you; and far be it from me to say this of such a man as Emeritus, and of others of like integrity among you, who are, I am sure, wholly averse to such deeds as disgraced him. For we do not lay any charge against you but the one of schism, which by your obstinate persistence in it you have now made heresy. How great this crime is in the judgment of God Himself, you may see by reading what without doubt you have read ere now. You will find that Dathan and Abiram were swallowed up by an opening of the earth beneath them, and that all the others who had conspired with them were devoured by fire breaking forth in the midst of them. As a warning to men to shun this crime, the Lord God signalized its commission with this immediate punishment, that He might show what He reserves for the final recompense of persons guilty of a similar transgression, whom His great forbearance spares for a time. We do not, indeed, find fault with the reasons by which you excuse your tolerating Optatus among you. We do not blame you, because at the time when he was denounced for his furious conduct in the mad abuse of power, when he was impeached by the groans of all Africa, groans in which you also shared, if you are what good report declares you to be, — a report which, God knows, I most willingly believe, — you forbore from excommunicating him, lest he should under such sentence draw away many with him, and rend your communion asunder with the frenzy of schism. But this is the thing which is itself an indictment against you at the bar of God, O brother Emeritus, that although you saw that the division of the party of Donators was so great an evil, that it was thought better that Optatus should be tolerated in your communion than that division should be introduced among you, you nevertheless perpetuate the evil which was wrought in the division of the Church of Christ by your forefathers.

5. Here perhaps you will be disposed, under the exigencies of debate, to attempt to defend Optatus. Do not so, I beseech you; do not so, my brother: it would not become you; and if it would perchance be seemly for any one to do it (though, in fact, nothing is seemly which is wrong), it assuredly would be unseemly for Emeritus to defend Optatus. Perhaps you reply that it would as little become you to accuse him. Granted, by all means. Take, then, the course which lies between defending and accusing him. Say, "Every man shall bear his own burden;" "Who art thou that judgest another man's servant?" If, then, notwithstanding the testimony of all Africa, —nay more, of all regions to which the name of Gildo was carried, for Optatus was not less notorious than he,— you have not dared. to pronounce judgment concerning Optatus, lest you should rashly decide in regard to one unknown to you, is it, I ask, either possible or right for us, proceeding solely on your testimony, to pronounce sentence rashly upon persons whom we do not know? Is it not enough that you should charge them with things of which you have no certain knowledge, without our pronouncing them guilty of things of which we know as little as yourselves? For even though Optatus were in peril through the falsehood of detractors, you defend not him, but yourself, when you say, "I do not know what his character was." How much more obvious, then, is it that the Eastern world knows nothing of the character of those Africans with whom, though much less known to you than Optatus, you find fault! Yet you are disjoined by scandalous schism from Churches in the East, the names of which you have and you read in the sacred books. If your most famous and most scandalously notorious Bishop of Thamugada was at that very time not known to his colleague, I shall not say in Caesarea, but in Sitifa, so close at hand, how was it possible for the Churches of Corinth, Ephesus, Colosse, Philippi, Thessalonica, Antioch, Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, and others which were founded in Christ by the apostles, to know the case of these African traditors, whoever they were; or how was it consistent with justice that they should be condemned by you for not knowing it? Yet with these Churches you hold no communion. You say they are not Christian, and you labour to rebaptize their members. What need I say? What complaint, what protest is necessary here? If I am addressing a right-hearted man, I know that with you I share the keenness of the indignation which I feel. For you doubtless see at once what I might say if I would.

6. Perhaps, however, your forefathers formed of themselves a council, and placed the whole Christian world except themselves under sentence of excommunication. Have you come so to judge of things, as to affirm that the council of the followers of Maximianus who were cut off from you, as you were cut off from the Church, was of no authority against you, because their number was small compared with yours; and yet claim for your council an authority against the nations, which are the inheritance of Christ, and the ends of the earth, which are His possession? I wonder if the man who does not blush at such pretensions has any blood in his body. Write me, I beseech you, in reply to this letter; for I have heard from some, on whom I could not but rely, that you would write me an answer if I were to address a letter to you. Some time ago, moreover, I sent you a letter; but I do not know whether you received it or answered it, and perhaps your reply did not reach me. Now, however, I beg you not to refuse to answer this letter, and state what you think. But do not occupy yourself with other questions than the one which I have stated, for this is the leading point of a well- ordered discussion of the origin of the schism.

7. The civil powers defend their conduct in persecuting schismatics by the rule which the apostle laid down: "Whoso resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil." The whole question therefore is, whether schism be not an evil work, or whether you have not caused schism, so that your resistance of the powers that be is in a good cause and not in an evil work, whereby you would bring judgment on yourselves. Wherefore with infinite wisdom the Lord not merely said, "Blessed are they who are persecuted," but added, "for righteousness' sake." I desire therefore to know from you, in the light of what I have said above, whether it be a work of righteousness to originate and perpetuate your state of separation from the Church. I desire also to know whether it be not rather a work of unrighteousness to condemn unheard the whole Christian world, either because it has not heard what you have heard, or because no proof has been furnished to it of charges which Were rashly believed, or without sufficient evidence advanced by you, and to propose on this ground to baptize a second time: the members of so many churches rounded by the preaching and labours either of the Lord Himself while He was on earth, or of His apostles; and all this on the assumption that it is excusable for you either not to know the wickedness of your African colleagues who are living beside you, and are using the same sacraments with you, or even to tolerate their misdeeds when known, lest the party of Donatus should be divided, but that it is inexcusable for them, though they reside in most remote regions, to be ignorant of what you either know, or believe, or have heard, or imagine, concerning men in Africa. How great is the perversity of those who cling to their own unrighteousness, and yet find fault with the severity of the civil powers!

8. You answer, perhaps, that Christians ought not to persecute even the wicked. Be it so; let us admit that they ought not: but is it lawful to lay this objection in the way of the powers which are ordained for this very purpose? Shall we erase the apostle's words? Or do your Mss. not contain the words which I mentioned a little while ago? But you will say that we ought not to communicate with such persons. What then? Did you withdraw, some time ago, from communion with the deputy Flavianus, on the ground of his putting to death, in his administration of the laws, those whom he found guilty? Again, you will say that the Roman emperors are incited against you by us. Nay, rather blame yourselves for this, seeing that, as was long ago foretold in the promise concerning Christ, "Yea, all kings shall fall down before him," they are now members of the Church; and you have dared to wound the Church by schism, and still presume to insist upon rebaptizing her members. Our brethren indeed demand help from the powers which are ordained, not to persecute you, but to protect themselves against the lawless acts of violence perpetrated by individuals of your party, which you yourselves, who refrain from such things, bewail and deplore; just as, before the Roman Empire became Christian, the Apostle Paul took measures to secure that the protection of armed Roman soldiers should be granted him against the Jews who bad conspired to kill him. But these emperors, whatever the occasion of their becoming acquainted with the crime of your schism might be, frame against you such decrees as their zeal and their office demand. For they bear not the sword in vain; they are the ministers of God to execute wrath upon those that do evil. Finally, if some of our party transgress the bounds of Christian moderation in this matter, it displeases us; nevertheless, we do not on their account forsake the Catholic Church because we are unable to separate the wheat from the chaff before the final winnowing, especially since you yourselves have not forsaken the Donatist party on account of Optatus, when you had not courage to excommunicate him for his crimes.

9. You say, however, "Why seek to have us joined to you, if we be thus stained with guilt?" I reply: Because you still live, and may, if you are willing, be restored. For when you join yourselves to us, i.e. to the Church of God, the heritage of Christ, who has the ends of the earth as his possession, you are restored so that you live in vital union with the Root. For the apostle says of the branches which were broken off: "God is able to graft them in again." We exhort you to change, in so far as concerns your dissent from the Church; although, as to the sacraments which you had, we admit that they are holy, since they are the same in all. Wherefore we desire to see you changed from your obstinacy, that is, in order that you who have been cut off may be vitally united to the Root again. For the sacraments which you have not changed are approved by us as you have them; else, in our attempting to correct your sin, we should do impious wrong to those mysteries of Christ which have not been deprived of their worth by your unworthiness. For even Saul did not, with all his sins, destroy the efficacy of the anointing which he received; to which anointing David, that pious servant of God, showed so great respect. We therefore do not insist upon rebaptizing you, because we only wish to restore to you connection with the Root: the form of the branch which has been cut off we accept with approval, if it has not been changed; but the branch, however perfect in its form, cannot bear fruit, except it be united to the root. As to the persecution, so gentle and tempered with clemency, which you say you suffer at the hands of our party, while unquestionably your own party inflict greater harm in a lawless and irregular way upon us,- this is one question: the question concerning baptism is wholly distinct from it; in regard to it, we inquire not where it is, but where it profits. For wherever it is, it is the same; but it cannot be said of him who receives it, that wherever he is, he is the same. We therefore detest the impiety of which men as individuals are guilty in a state of schism; but we venerate everywhere the baptism of Christ. If deserters carry with them the imperial standards, these standards are welcomed back again as they were, if they have remained unharmed, when the deserters are either punished with a severe sentence, or, in the exercise of clemency, restored. If, in regard to this, any more particular inquiry is to be made, that is, as I have said another question; for in these things, the practice of the Church of God is the rule of our practice.

10. The question between us, however, is, whether your Church or ours is the Church of God. To resolve this, we must begin with the original inquiry, why you became schismatics. If you do not write me an answer, I believe that before the bar of God I shall be easily vindicated as having done my duty in this matter; because I have sent a letter in the interests of peace to a man of whom I have heard that, excepting only his adherence to schismatics, he is a good and well-educated man. Be it yours to consider how you shall answer Him whose forbearance now demands your praise, and His judgment shall in the end demand your fears. If, however, you write a reply to me with as much care as you see me to have bestowed upon this, I believe that, by the mercy of God, the error which now keeps us apart shall perish before the love of peace and the logic of truth. Observe that I have said nothing about the followers of Rogatus, who call you Firmiani, as you call us Macariani. Nor have I spoken of your bishop of Rucata (or Rusicada), who is said to have made an agreement with Firmus, promising, on condition of the safety of all his adherents, that the gates should be opened to him, and the Catholics given up to slaughter and pillage. Many other such things I pass unnoticed. Do you therefore in like manner desist from the commonplaces of rhetorical exaggeration concerning actions of men which you have either heard of or known; for you see how I am silent concerning deeds of your party, in order to confine the debate to the question upon which the whole matter hinges, namely, the origin of the schism.

My brother, beloved and longed for, may the Lord our God breathe into you thoughts tending towards reconciliation.

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (NPNF I/I, Schaff). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.

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