Donatus (died ca. 355) was the schismatic bishop of Carthage during the first decades of the Donatist movement.
Little is known of Donatus before 311, when the Christian Church in North Africa was torn by schism. He is reported to have come from Casae Nigrae in Numidia, southwest of Carthage. He may also have engaged in some quasischismatic activity of an "anti-Catholic" sort before coming to Carthage.
The cause of the schism may be said to lie in the persecution of the Church in 303 by the emperor Diocletian. As in the Decian persecution and the Novatian schism that had swept Rome 50 years before, the Church was divided into two camps concerning those who had apostatized under threat of torture or death. The "laxists" sought easy and quick rehabilitation for the lapsed; the "rigorists" held that any act of compromise, even the handing over of the Scriptures to the state (those who did so were called traditores), deprived the lapsed Christian of the right to receive the Sacraments and, if he was a clergyman, of the right to administer the Sacraments.
In North Africa the rigorists tended to be the rural Berbers, given to a hatred of apostasy and a sometimes extreme veneration of martyrs. Donatus was a member of this faction. The more urban and urbane "Catholics" were laxist in discipline and politically and sociologically oriented more toward Rome and the empire than toward the surrounding countryside.
Some 10 years after the Diocletian persecution, the episcopal office in Carthage fell vacant upon the death of Bishop Mensurius. Amid rival factions and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, a hastily called and peremptorily administered group of Catholics met and elected Caecilian as their new bishop. Because of his severe antirigorist views, Caecilian had many enemies, not least of whom was Lucilla, a wealthy Spanish lady residing in Carthage. Caecilian, when a deacon, had alienated her by harshly criticizing her practices of martyr worship.
The opposition, consisting mostly of Lucilla and the Numidian clergy, was quick to move. They claimed that Caecilian was in fact not a bishop because one of his coconsecrators, Felix of Aptunga, had been a traditor during the persecution and therefore the consecration was invalid. They elected and consecrated their own bishop, Majorinus, claiming him to be the true bishop. Thus began in 312 the great schism that was to rend North Africa for the next century. "Bishop was set up against Bishop," wrote Optatus, "and altar against altar." This was the same year in which Constantine was converted to Christianity; the persecution of the Church by the state was now at an end, but the persecution of the Donatists was just beginning.
Majorinus lived only a year after his consecration as rival bishop. It was Donatus who took his place, and because of his long and powerful episcopacy, the schism was named after him. During the first year of his reign the Roman Church formally condemned Donatism at the Council of Arles in 314. But the Donatists became increasingly intransigent in their views and in their anti-Catholic activity. "Under the hot Numidian sun," one historian wrote, "nothing was forgiven or forgotten." Donatus proved an able and enthusiastic leader of his fellow schismatics; they swore by his "white hairs," wrote St. Augustine later. Finally Donatus was driven from Carthage by force in the proconsular Macarian persecution of 347. He died in exile less than 10 years later.
The schism persisted, but the Donatists were never as strong as they had been under Donatus. At the turn of the century the Donatists, with their militant activists (known as the circumcelliones), were to test the intellectual skills of the great Catholic bishop of Hippo, Augustine, as well as sorely to try his patience. Violence and futile attempts at reconciliation continued well into the 5th century, and not until the onslaught of Islam did the Donatists (and Catholics) of a divided and weakened Christian North Africa finally disappear.
Further Reading on Donatus
Primary sources for the life of Donatus and the history of Donatism are found chiefly in the works of Optatus, Bishop of Milevis, and in the anti-Donatist writings of St. Augustine. Modern studies in English are few, but W. H. C. Frend, The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa (1952), and Stanley L. Greenslade, Schism in the Early Church (1953; 2d ed. 1964), are important.