English: St. Augustine arguing with donatists.
St. Augustine arguing with donatists. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Donatists were a 4th century schismatic group in the North African Church, named after their leader, Donatus. They disputed conventional theologians like St. Augustine and also the authenticity of a certain bishop (Caecillian) whom they said had been consecrated by a traitor to the faith (The traitor apparently had handed over the Bible to Roman persecutors).

The Donatists resorted to violence in their bid to wrest Africa from Roman rule. And they survived until the Arab takeover of North Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries.¹

Theologically, the Donatists believed that a corrupt priest could not effectively administer the sacraments. So apart from their political importance, they raised a theological question which many still wrestle with today:

Can a corrupt priest effectively administer the sacraments?

Not too many contemporary critics of Catholicism are aware that the Church quickly dealt with this question—albeit, in its own way. Basically, the Church forwarded an argument that is now known as ex opere operato (Latin: by the action performed). Among believers, ex opere operato indicates that a sacrament is always effective when administered by a consecrated priest, regardless of the moral condition of his soul at the time.

Some may object by saying that dressing up a theological idea in fancy sounding Latin doesn’t necessarily make it a true idea. On the other hand, if one believes that we’re all born with the taint of original sin and remain imperfect throughout our lives, the ex opere operato argument seems not only reasonable but necessary. That is, if a priest had to be morally spotless to effectively administer the sacraments, would it ever happen?

¹ S. G. F. Brandon (ed.) Dictionary of Comparative Religion, 1971, p. 245.


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