Diocletian Persecution and Donatism

[WARNING: High-level difficulty quiz. Might need a Catholic Encycolpedia]

Cosmas Damian apse
mosaic depicting Sts Peter and Paul ushering Sts. Cosmas and Damien into heaven

Today, at the altar, we remember the martyrs Cosmas and Damien, who went to their deaths during the persecution of the Emperor…

Diocletian.

Ironically enough, Diocletian appears to have ordered the persecution precisely because he had such piety. As a pagan.

He believed that the Roman Empire would thrive if everyone participated in the cult of the gods, and that the empire would collapse if they did not.

What provoked the crisis was the emperor styling himself as divine, according to the pagan system. Christians soldiers then refused to wear their insignia, because it depicted the emperor as a god. And they refused to take their oaths, because it referred to the emperor as a god.

From that starting point, widespread hideous cruelties against Christians began. The pope was martyred, and the Church couldn’t elect a successor for… how long? Three years. Countless bishops and clergymen were martyred for refusing to hand over the Scriptures for desecration.

This gave rise to which heresy and schism? …Donatist.

Some sly bishops tricked their way out of getting martyred by handing over heretical, non-canonical Scriptures, instead of actual Bible books. The pagan authorities didn’t know the difference, and those bishops squeaked through.

After the persecution finally ended, the Donatists denied the validity of the ordination of the bishops who tricked their way through. The Donatists insisted that if they were real priests, they would have willingly gone to their deaths.

The schism lasted for over 100 years. To finally resolve the issue, it took someone as clever and enterprising as…?

St. Augustine.

A couple morals of this little story

1. We can’t worship the President of the US, or any political leader—or even religious leader. He may be right or wrong about this or that, just like all fallible human beings. We fallible human beings help each other stay honest by challenging assertions that appear to be wrong. (Only exception: Pope of Rome speaking ex cathedra on faith or morals.)

And Moral of the Story #2. We have had big, confusing, painful messes in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church before. And, by God’s grace, we managed to survive.

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One thought on “Diocletian Persecution and Donatism

  1. The church will survive because it’s Christ’s church, not ours. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it will survive in the United States.

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