Thascius Caecilianus Cyprianus (died 258) is known as St. Cyprian. As bishop of Carthage, he was the most prominent leader of Western, or Latin, Christianity in his time. He contributed to the development of thought on the nature and unity of the Church.
Born to a high-ranking pagan family in Roman Africa probably during 200-210, Cyprian was converted to Christianity about 246. He was bishop of Carthage no more than 3 years later. Within months of his becoming bishop, the Roman imperial government inaugurated its first empirewide persecution of the Church. Cyprian retreated to an unknown spot in the country and directed Church affairs by letter and messenger.
During his exile and in the years following his return in 251, Cyprian faced a serious pastoral problem. Under torture and threat of death many Christians had either performed the required pagan sacrifices or so far complied with the government as to acquire papers certifying that they had performed them. These "lapsed" Christians penitently wished, however, to be readmitted to communion in the Church. Breaking with the traditional rigorism of the Church, Cyprian gradually moved to the position that all lapsed Christians could be fully readmitted after clear evidence of penitence. He differed crucially from dissident elements in Carthage and Rome, however, in his insistence that only the duly appointed bishop had authority to adjudicate the matter.
In arriving at his solution to this problem, Cyprian developed his constitutional theory of the Church. He believed that the "episcopate" was a single, divinely appointed, governing office shared by the many bishops, each of whom possessed the full authority of the office in his own locale. Christ's Apostles were the first bishops, and their plenary authority had continued in the duly elected and consecrated bishops who were their successors. To act apart from the bishop was to place oneself outside the Church and to lose the hope of salvation. Cyprian expressed these concepts in the treatise De unitate ecclesiae.
The last 3 years of Cyprian's life were marked by controversy with Stephen, the bishop of Rome. Disagreements among Christians over the problem of the lapsed had resulted in the emergence of dissident sects in Rome and Carthage. The question then arose whether persons baptized in a sect should be "rebaptized" if and when they decided to enter the Catholic Church. Cyprian, consistent with his principles, taught that baptism outside the Catholic Church was no Christian baptism at all; but Stephen, whose position ultimately prevailed in the Western Church, defended the traditional Roman policy of recognizing sectarian baptism and requiring that persons coming to Catholicism from the sects receive only the laying on of the bishop's hand.
When persecution of the Church was renewed, Cyprian went calmly and with dignity to his death as a martyr on Sept. 14, 258.
Further Reading on Thascius Caecilianus Cyprianus
The classic study of St. Cyprian is Edward White Benson, Cyprian (1897), which is still of great value as a comprehensive account of the man's life and times. See also G. S. Walker, The Churchmanship of St. Cyprian (1969).
Additional Biography Sources
Cyprian, Saint, Bishop of Carthage, The letters of St. Cyprian of Carthage, New York, N.Y.: Newman Press, 1984.
Born to new life, New Rochelle, N.Y.: New City Press, 1992.