In Augustine’s 43rd letter, he speaks of the beginnings of the Donatist controversy. In short, this is what happened–

  1. Caecillian/Caecilianus was ordained Bishop of Carthage by Bishop Felix of Aptunga when the preceding Bishop of Carthage died.
  2. Punic Numidian Bishops (Donatists) took issue with this and formed a council of 70 Bishops, nominating Majorinus as Bishop of Carthage.
  3. The Donatists appealed to the Bishop of Rome, where he and other Bishops (20 in number) sided with Caecillianus.
  4. The Donatists then appealed to the Roman Emperor, Constantine. He left the matter to be decided by a council of western Bishops.
  5. Those western Bishops, 200 in number, met in Arles and sided with Caecillianus.
  6. The Donatists then appealed to Constantine again. He ultimately decided the matter in Milan, siding with Caecillianus.

Here is Augustine’s recounting of the events covered between three through six:

They chose, therefore, as it is reported, to bring their dispute with Cæcilianus before the foreign churches, in order to secure one of two things, either of which they were prepared to accept: if, on the one hand, by any amount of craft, they succeeded in making good the false accusation, they would abundantly satisfy their lust of revenge; if, however, they failed, they might remain as stubborn as before, but would now have, as it were, some excuse for it, in alleging that they had suffered at the hands of an unjust tribunal—the common outcry of all worthless litigants, though they have been defeated by the clearest light of truth—as if it might not have been said, and most justly said, to them: “Well, let us suppose that those bishops who decided the case at Rome were not good judges; there still remained a plenary Council of the universal Church, in which these judges themselves might be put on their defence; so that, if they were convicted of mistake, their decisions might be reversed.  Whether they have done this or not, let them prove: for we easily prove that it was not done, by the fact that the whole world does not communicate with them; or if it was done, they were defeated there also, of which their state of separation from the Church is a proof (Par 19).

What they actually did afterwards, however, is sufficiently shown in the letter of the Emperor. For it was not before other bishops, but at the bar of the Emperor, that they dared to bring the charge of wrong judgment against ecclesiastical judges of so high authority as the bishops by whose sentence the innocence of Cæcilianus and their own guilt had been declared. He granted them the second trial at Aries, before other bishops; not because this was due to them, but only as a concession to their stubbornness, and from a desire by all means to restrain so great effrontery…[Then] he [Constantine] consented to try their case after the bishops [who met at Arles], on condition that, if they did not submit to his decision, for which they had themselves appealed, they should thenceforward be silent! For he ordered that both parties should meet him at Rome to argue the case. When Cæcilianus, for some reason, failed to compear there, he, at their request, ordered all to follow him to Milan. Then some of their party began to withdraw, perhaps offended that Constantine did not follow their example, and condemn Cæcilianus in his absence at once and summarily. When the prudent Emperor was aware of this, he compelled the rest to come to Milan in charge of his guards. Cæcilianus having come there, he brought him forward in person, as he has written; and having examined the matter with the diligence, caution, and prudence which his letters on the subject indicate, he pronounced Cæcilianus perfectly innocent, and them most criminal (Par 20).

From the preceding, we can surmise the following:

  1. Augustine acknowledges that the Bishop of Rome can be wrong, because it can be “most justly said” that the Roman Bishop and his cohorts were “not good judges.”
  2. The appropriate way of overturning a finding from a Roman Bishop would be to appeal to the whole Christian world in an ecumenical council. It should be noted that in Augustine’s time, every single Council at this point was called by an Emperor, not by the Bishop of Rome.
  3. The Donatists were in the wrong in the preceding matter because they avoided having the issue decided by an ecumenical council. Augustine is confident that the entire Christian world would have condemned the Donatists, evidenced “by the fact that the whole world does not communicate with them.” They avoided appealing to such a council because they knew they would lose. So, their only shot was with the Emperor. Any continued appeals to Constantine were only addressed by him because of his patience with their intransigence.

Conclusion. The Roman view that an Ecumenical Council can be vetoed or ultimately confirmed only by a Bishop of Rome, is at best, incomplete. Rather, we can see in the writings of a western Bishop with a very high view of the Apostolic See in Rome that he believed it completely legitimate for an ecumenical council to have veto power over that same Apostolic See.

Ramifications. In Augustine we have a suggestion that a dispute can be taken above the Bishop of Rome and to an Ecumenical Council. In Athanasius, we have an example of someone taking a dispute above the councils that condemned him to the Bishop of Rome. Though I believe the historical circumstances are very different (Athanasius was looking for protection more than he was making a serious ecclesiological stand giving supremacy to Rome is such matters), we can at least conclude this much–the issue of who had supremacy, and when such a party did, was not settled categorically in the early Church.