Countless times Saint Optatus in Against the Donatists defines schism as, simply put, whoever left and excluded the other party first. His treatment of the issue essentially revolves around who started it. Nevertheless, there are additional passages which discuss the issue more profoundly which in Orthodox Catholic-Roman Catholic dialogue are important. Specifically, the issue is whether communion with the Bishop of Rome is the hallmark of not being in schism; or if being in communion with all the world’s churches is the said hallmark.

In Optatus ‘ books, we see that schismatics have broke communion with the whole world and they up an episcopal chair separate from Peter’s. Is Optatus somewhere in between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic positions? Not exactly. Allow me to explain.

If we were to simply count in how many passages Saint Optatus points to the hallmark of being Catholic (i.e. not in schism) with being in communion of the world’s churches vis a vis “Peter” or “Rome,” one cannot help but conclude Rome is a relative afterthought in his mind.

The world (generally the Greek churches): 15

Rome or “Peter”: 8

Now, one may say that a 15:8 ratio is somewhat lopsided, but the latter number is hardly indicative of an afterthought. However, if one reads what those eight references to the “Chair of Peter” or Rome actually say, we realize the following: Saint Optatus taught that the Bishops of the whole world inherit Peter’s “chair.” He does not literally equate the chair with the city of Rome itself, though at first glance it sounds like he does. I speculate that Roman Catholics fundamentally misunderstand the wholeness of Saint Optatus’ thought that they focus so much on the word “Peter” or “Rome” that they completely miss the fullness of Optatus[ thought on the subject.

Why? Roman Catholic apologists seize upon any Petrine language as proof that the whole Church is contingent upon communion with the See of Rome. However, whatever Roman apologists may say, this is not a rationale Saint Optatus actually gives.

It appears that Roman apologists are reading Optatus in a fashion that is far too literal and wooden. For example, if a Roman apologist by mistake bumps into a gentleman who offers to “clean his clock,” if the Roman apologist was intellectually consistent with his literal approach to wording, he should take that gentleman up on his offer because his clock at home is dusty.

If we were to take Saint Optatus’ assertion that all Bishoprics received their succession from the literal city of Rome itself (something he states in Book 2, Chapter 2), there would be obvious chronological difficulties with this. Chief among these is that we know that Saint Peter did not appoint the other Apostles Bishops in Rome itself because his ministry began in Jerusalem. So, a much safer interpretation of Optatus would be that the focal point of unity is the city of Rome, because Saint Peter died there and Peter was the first Bishop to the Apostles before they had their Bishoprics.

Surprisingly, the “chair of Peter” is not even exceptionally Roman in Optatus works, which in my humble view seriously undercuts Roman apologetics. Optatus equates Cyprian’s throne with Peter’s throne, for example.

So, what is the “chair of Peter” in Optatus? It is used a colloquialism that means “a non-schismatic Bishopric with unbroken succession going back to the first Bishop, Peter.” So, though we count eight references to Rome of the chair of Peter, of these eight, the majority are simply references to such a chair, often not even in a strictly Roman context or having anything to do with the Roman Bishop himself. This is why I think I am justified in saying that communion with the Bishop of Rome himself is somewhat of an afterthought to Optatus. The only reason he seems to reference Rome itself is because it serves as an obvious example of the Donatists setting up a second chair that lacks unbroken succession–proving its schismatic nature.

Also, as my own afterthought, it appears that Optatus (as an African) viewed himself as somewhat on the Christian periphery–similar to how a Cambodian writer may write of goings on in his own country, but with an implicit view of his own country not being a global focal point. In Optatus writings, surprisingly, the focal point repeatedly appears to be the churches in the eastern Mediterranean–not Rome. While I do not think this is because Optatus contradicted Roman Primacy, it shows that the western Roman Empire was already a periphery in his time and that Roman Primacy did not overshadow the “heart” of the Church, which would have been the Hellenistic Christian world originating from the first century.

There are two reasons for this in my view. First, because these eastern churches are listed in the Book of Revelation. Second, because they are the center of Christian imperial power, Roman culture, and Roman capital. So, just like a Cambodian might look at the United States disproportionately as representing “the world,” it appears Optatus looked to the eastern Mediterranean in a similar fashion.

In light of the preceding, if we are to look to Saint Optatus’ ecclesiology in order to discern the east-west schism, the Eastern Catholic Bishoprics (with the possible exception of the Melkites) would be second chairs as they clearly have broken succession. This would thus make them schismatic according to Optatus’ thought.

I commend readers to the writings of Optatus himself. The following is, in my mind, every single relevant passage concerning the issue in all seven of his books, including an additional book, the Appendix:

[T]hey are unwilling to be in communion, as we are, with the whole body of Bishops, let it be freely granted that they are not colleagues, if they refuse so to be, but (as we have already said), brothers they are…At any rate, though the Donatists forbid their people to come to us, and close the way to any approach to us, and avoid a meeting (Book 1, Chapter 4). 

[T]he Schism at Carthage was begun by your fathers. Search out the beginning of these affairs, and you will find that in associating heretics with schismatics, you have pronounced judgement against yourselves. For it was not Caecilian who went forth from Majorinus, your father’s father, but it was Majorinus who deserted Caecilian; nor was it Caecilian who separated himself from the Chair of Peter, or from the Chair of Cyprian —-but Majorinus, on whose Chair you sit—-a Chair which had no existence before Majorinus himself (Book 1, Chap 10).

But schism, after the bond of peace has been broken, is brought into existence through passion, is nourished by hatred, is strengthened by envy and dissensions, so that the Catholic Mother is abandoned, whilst her unfilial children go forth outside and separate themselves (as you have done) from the root of Mother Church (Book 1, Chap 11).

You see, then, my brother Parmenian, that none but heretics only—-who are cut off from the home of truth—-possess ‘various kinds of false Baptisms with which he, who is stained, cannot wash, nor the unclean cleanse, nor the destroyer raise, nor he, who is lost, free, nor the guilty man give pardon, nor the condemned man absolve.’ Rightly hast thou [Parmenian] closed the Garden to heretics; rightly hast thou [Parmenian] claimed the Keys for Peter; rightly hast thou denied the right of cultivating the young trees to those who are certainly shut out from the garden and from the paradise of God; rightly hast thou withdrawn the Ring from those to whom it is not allowed to open the Fountain. But to you schismatics, although you are not in the Catholic Church, these things cannot be denied, since you have shared true Sacraments with us (Book 1, Chap 12).

Betrayers, men who had offered incense to idols, and murderers, proceeded to Carthage, and there, although Caecilian was already the Bishop, made the Schism by consecrating Majorinus—-on whose Chair, Parmenian, you sit…The question is about a Division. Now in Africa, as in other parts of the world, the Church was One, before it was divided by those who consecrated Majorinus—-whose Chair [as opposed to the chair of Peter] you have inherited, and now occupy. We shall have to see who has remained in the root, with the whole world; who went forth; who sits on a second chair, which had no existence before the Schism; who has raised altar against altar; who has consecrated a Bishop when another was in undisturbed possession (Book 1, Chapter 15).

In this manner they went forth, and altar was raised against altar; and there was an unlawful consecration; and Majorinus, who had been lector when Caecilian was archdeacon —-Majorinus, a member of the household of Lucilla—-at her instigation, and through her bribes—-was consecrated Bishop by Betrayers, who in the Numidian Council had (as we have already said) acknowledged their crimes and granted pardon to one another (Book 1, Chapter 19).

(Note: Chapters 24-26 are emphatic that the judgement of “many Bishops” for the council at Rome carried authority, never once mention the Bishop of Rome’s individual judgement.)

We have shown who were the Betrayers, and have pointed out the origin of the Schism in such a manner that we have almost seen it take place before our eyes…You, my brother Parmenian, have said that she is with you alone. This, I suppose, can only be because, in your pride, you strive to claim some special holiness for yourselves, so that the Church may be where it pleases you, and may not be where it pleases you not. And so, in order that she may be with you in a little piece of Africa, in a corner of one small region, is she not to be with us in another part of Africa? Is she not to be in Spain, in Gaul, in Italy, where you are not? If you maintain that she is with you only, is she not to be in Pannonia, in Dacia, Moesia, Thrace, Achaia, Macedonia and in all Greece, where you are not? In order that you may be able to argue that she is with you, is she not to be in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Pamphylia, Phrygia, Cilicia and in the three Syrias, and in the two Armenias, and in all Egypt and in Mesopotamia, where you are not? And is she not to be throughout innumerable islands and so many other provinces which can hardly be counted, where you are not? Where in that case will be the application of the Catholic Name, since on this very account was the Church called Catholic, because she is in accordance with reason, and is scattered all over the world?…you strive to rob Him of the inheritance given Him by the Father, allowing Him a part of Africa and refusing Him the whole world, which the Father has bestowed upon Him (Book 2, Chapter 1).

So we have proved that the Catholic Church is the Church which is spread throughout the world…You cannot then deny that you do know that upon Peter first in the City of Rome was bestowed the Episcopal Cathedra [Ed: chronological difficulties with taking this literally is addressed in introduction], on which sat Peter, the Head of all the Apostles (for which reason he was called Cephas), that, in this one Cathedra, unity should be preserved by all, lest the other Apostles might claim—-each for himself—-separate Cathedras, so that he who should set up a second Cathedra against the unique Cathedra would already be a schismatic and a sinner. Well then, on the one Cathedra, which is the first of the Endowments, Peter was the first to sit (Book 2, Chapter 2).

To Peter succeeded Linus, to Linus succeeded Clement, to Clement Anacletus…Now do you show the origin of your Cathedra [the Donatist Bishopric in Rome], you who wish to claim the Holy Church for yourselves (Book 2, Chapter 3)!

But you allege that you too have some sort of a party in the City of Rome…So it follows that your colleague Macrobius must confess that he sits where once sat Encolpius; and if Encolpius himself could be questioned, he would say that he sat where before him sat Bonifacius of Balla; and if Bonifacius could be asked, he would in his turn reply that he sat where Victor of Garba sat, whom some time ago your people sent from Africa to a few wanderers. How do you explain that your party has not been able to possess a Roman citizen as Bishop in Rome? How is it that in that City they were all Africans and strangers who are known to have succeeded one another? How is it, then, that you strive to usurp for yourselves the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, you who, with your arguments, and audacious sacrilege, war against the Chair of Peter (Book 2, Chapter 4)?

So, of the above-mentioned Endowments, the Cathedra is, as we have said, the first, which we have proved to be ours [in Carthage], through Peter, and which draws to itself the ANGEL —-unless, perchance, you claim him for yourselves, and have him shut up somewhere or other. Send him out if you can, and let him exclude from his communion seven angels, our colleagues in Asia, to whose churches wrote the Apostle John—-churches with which you cannot prove that you have any intercourse whatsoever…Whatever is without the Seven Churches is alien. Supposing then that you really had even one Angel who belongs to the Church, through that one Angel you would be in communion with other Angels too [Ed: A legitimate Church is identified by its communion with the world’s churches], and through them with the above-mentioned Churches, and through these Churches with us also (Book 2, Chapter 6).

[I]t has been shown that, through the Chair of Peter which is ours—-through it—-the other Endowments also belong to us (Book 2, Chapter 9).

You proclaim that you sacrifice to God on behalf of the One Church, which has been spread throughout the whole world…If we are displeasing to you, what wrong has the City of Antioch done you, or the Province of Arabia? Yet we are able to prove that those who come from Antioch and Arabia have been rebaptised by you (Book 2, Chapter 12).

And although we are in communion with the whole [Catholic] world, and all the Provinces are in communion with us, you for some time past have thought well to provide two churches, as if Africa alone had Christian people—-that Africa in which, through your fault, two parties have been made! And you—-not remembering Christ, who says that His Spouse is One—-have said, not that there are two parties in Africa, but two Churches (Book 2, Chapter 13).

Unity displeases you. So—-if you deem it to be a crime, convict us of being in communion with Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians and the Seven Churches which are in Asia (Book 2, Chapter 14).

For Peace in unity joined together the peoples of Africa and of the East, and the rest beyond the sea, and this unity itself, through the representation of all its members, made the Body of the Church solid (Book 2, Chapter 15).

Christ was made King by God the Father—-that is in the whole world, where there is One Catholic Church…And since Isaiah had not his vision of the whole mountain, but of one valley, that means in Africa alone, for in Africa alone your fathers were pleased to build fresh temples, although the first were amply sufficient. (Book 3, Chapter 1).

What if God has now been pleased with those things which you say that you have suffered—-you who refused to have unity, well pleasing to God, with the whole [Catholic] world, and with the ‘Shrines’ of the Apostles [i.e. Saints Peter and Paul in Rome] (Book 3, Chapter 5).

The whole world rejoices concerning Catholic unity, excepting a portion of Africa, in which a conflagration has been blown up from a spark. You complain that some evil deeds or other were committed by the makers of unity. No complaint of this kind is made by Italy, or by Gaul, or by Spain, or by Pannonia, or by Galatia, or by Greece, or by any of the Provinces of Asia. No one was sent there to put things right, because there was nothing there which needed setting right (Book 3, Chapter 9).

Dissension and schism have been displeasing to thee, thou hast agreed with thy brother and with the One Church, which is in all the world, thou hast communicated with the Seven Churches and with the Shrines of the Apostles (Book 4, Chapter 4).

In our First Book we have shown by the clearest proofs who were the Betrayers of the Law and the originators of the schism; in the Second we have pointed out that with us is the One True Catholic Church (Book 5, Chapter 1).

[W]e have shown, when it is looked at in its commencement, that your fathers are responsible. Why then do you speak of Catholics, as though they were defiled? Is it because we have followed the Will and Command of God by loving peace, by communicating with the whole world, in union with those who live in the East, where Christ was born, where His holy footsteps touched the ground, where His adorable Feet have walked, where so many and such great miracles were worked by the Son of God Himself, where so many Apostles accompanied Him, where is the Sevenfold Church, on having been cut off from which, you do not merely fail to grieve, but in a sort of way rejoice? You call us defiled, because we have loved Unity well-pleasing to God. Because we have agreed with and hold communion with the Corinthians, Galatians, Thessalonians, you call us defiled. You call us defiled, because we have not, together with you, read corrupt books—-deny, if you can, that you read books which differ [from those of the Church]. How do you venture to read the Epistles written to the Corinthians, you who have refused to communicate with the Corinthians? To what purpose do you read aloud that which was written to Galatians or to Thessalonians, with whom you are not in communion? Since it is certain that all these things are so, understand that you have been cut off from the holy Church, and that we are not defiled (Book 6, Chapter 3). 

It is most true that the Catholic Church was sufficient for herself with her countless peoples in all countries; she was sufficient for herself also in Africa, although here she is but in few places. But God was not pleased with your separation, for the members of one body had been torn asunder, and, against the Will of God, you, who are our brothers, wandered away from your brethren (Book 7, Chapter 1).

But you have shrunk from bringing forward the examples to be found in the Gospel, as for instance what has been written concerning the person of the most blessed Peter, where we may read a description of the way in which unity is to be retained or procured…And though this has been thus written, nevertheless, for the sake of unity, blessed Peter (for whom it would have been enough if after his denial he had obtained pardon only) both deserved to be placed over all the Apostles, and alone received the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, which he was to communicate to the rest. So from this example it is given us to understand that for the sake of unity sins should be buried, since the most blessed Apostle Paul says that charity can cover a multitude of sins…For he had seen all these things in the other Apostles, who for the sake of unity, through charity, would not withdraw from the communion of Peter—-of the man, that is to say, who had denied Christ. But if their love of innocence had been greater than the gain of peace and unity, they would have said that they ought not to hold communion with Peter, who had denied his Master and the Son of God, the Lord. They might, as has been said, not have held communion with the most blessed Peter; it would have been possible for them to quote against him the words of Christ, who had declared that He would deny before His Father whosoever should have denied Him before men…we understand that all things were ordered by the Providence of the Saviour, that Peter should receive the Keys. The way of malice was stopped up, that the Apostles might not conceive in their minds that they were free to judge, and condemn with severity, him who had denied Christ…If you had mentioned these things, and asked for communion, how could the Catholic Church, our Mother, have hesitated to receive you in her Bosom, since it is certain that you are not Betrayers, but the sons of Betrayers (Book 7, Chapter 3)?

Is it that we are in one communion with the whole world? Will you be able to prove that this is a lie? Is it that we keep and defend the true and one Creed? Will you be able to prove that this is a lie? Will you be able to prove that the Chair of Peter is a lie—-and the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, which were granted him by Christ, with which we are in communion?…For there are some of your party, who, having forgotten, or being ignorant of past times, say against us things which belong of right to those men who, having already fallen away from the Catholic Church, consecrated Majorinus—-that is to say to the authors of Schism and Betrayal (Book 7, Chapter 5),

But since you [the Pope] were by no means able to leave that region, where the Apostles daily sit, and their blood without ceasing bears witness to the glory of God, it did not seem to us that by reason of your absence, most well-beloved Brother, we ought to deal exclusively with those matters, on account of which we had been summoned, but we judged that we also should take counsel on our own affairs; because, as the countries from which we come are different, so events of various kinds will happen which we think that we ought to watch and regulate. Accordingly we thought well in the presence of the Holy Spirit and His Angels that from among the various matters which occurred to each of us, we should make some decrees to provide for the present state of tranquillity. We also agreed to write first to you, who hold [the government of] the greater dioceses, that by you especially they should be brought to the knowledge of all (Appendix, Letter of the Council of Arles to Pope Sylvester).

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