The Donatists accused the Catholic Church in North Africa and elsewhere of being 'traitors' or real schismatics. Hence, so they argued, its ministers, like Judas Iscariot himself, were incapable of administering
155 See D. Holeton, Infant Communion. Then and Now (Bramcote, Nottingham: Grove Books, 1981).
valid baptism or other sacraments. Augustine had a triple response to make. First, any baptism that uses the proper element of water and the proper words (the trinitarian formula) is 'valid' (Contra Litteras Petiliani, 1. 6. 6). Second, he distinguished between the formal (the words) and the material (the water) dimensions that together make up the sacramental sign of baptism: 'Take away the word, and the water is neither more nor less than water. The word is added to the element, and there results the sacrament, as if itself also a kind of visible word' (In Evangelium Johannis, 80. 3). Eventually this distinction led to the medieval terminology of the 'matter' and the 'form' of the sacraments, a terminology approved by the Council of Florence (DH 1307; ND 1312). In the case of baptism, for instance, the 'matter' is the action of pouring the water or immersing someone in the water, whereas the trinitarian formula ('I baptize you ...') provides the 'form'. Third, Christ himself is the real minister of baptism (In Evangelium Johannis, 6. 7). Hence even Judas Iscariot could administer a 'valid' sacrament, provided he used the required elements and words. Since the invisible Christ, not the visible minister, is the 'origin, root and head' of the baptized, even sacraments administered in schism (e.g. by the Donatists) should be recognized as valid (Contra Litteras Petiliani, 1. 5. 6). Elsewhere Augustine put this point more forcefully: 'The baptism which is consecrated by the words of Christ is holy, even when conferred by the polluted, and on the polluted, however shameless and unclean they may be.' It is 'the power of God' that 'supports his sacrament, whether for the salvation of those who use it aright, or the doom of those who employ it wrongly (De Baptismo, 3. 15).
Augustine bequeathed here two major themes to sacramental teaching in the West. First, the sheer performance of the act (ex opere operato, or the prayer of faith of the community that has received the Spirit) rather than the personal holiness of the visible performer (ex opere operantis) guarantees the efficacy of the sacrament, especially baptism. This is because it is primarily the invisible Christ (made visible in his Body which is the Church) who performs the baptizing, the ordaining, and what would later be called the dispensing of all sacramental graces. The medieval theologians who spoke of the opus operatum were in fact referring to the opus Christi or Christ himself working in the sacraments, as Thomas Aquinas put it (ST III q. 65 a. 1). The Council of Trent was to use the language of ex opere operato (DH 1608; ND 1318). In his 1947 encyclical on 'Christian Worship (Mediator Dei)' Pope Pius XII repeated (a) the
Tridentine language of ex opere operato and ex opere operantis (no. 29), but also (b) wrote of Christ's active 'presence' in the sacraments (no. 19). The Second Vatican Council left the (a) terminology behind and spoke of the powerful, personal 'presence' of Christ in the administration of all the sacraments (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7), and indeed in the whole pastoral ministry of bishops and priests (Lumen Gentium, 21). But the point is the same: sacraments are primarily things God does for us through Christ, not vice versa.
Second, Augustine's stress on the priority of the divine initiative means that the validity of the sacraments does not depend on the worthiness of the human minister. God gives the grace, whether or not the particular minister is worthy. This issue was to flare up again in the twelfth century with the Waldensians (see Ch. 2) and even more in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when John Wyclif and John Huss argued that sacraments administered by a sinful priest or bishop are not effective. In 1415 the Council of Constance and three years later Pope Martin V insisted that even 'a bad priest', provided he (a) 'uses the correct matter and form' and (b) 'has the intention of doing what the Church does', truly and validly administers the sacraments (DH 1262; ND 1304; see DH 1154; ND 1303). In the sixteenth century the Council of Trent reiterated this teaching but expressed (a) in a slightly less technical way—as the minister observing 'all the essentials that belong to the performing and conferring of the sacrament' (DH 1611—12; ND 1321—2). (Nowadays one should mention the prayer of the liturgical assembly among 'the essentials that belong to the performing and conferring of the sacrament'.)
In his controversies with the Donatists, Augustine never held, however, that merely 'valid' sacraments are necessarily 'fruitful'. He drew a distinction between the sacrament or sign itself, sacramentum, and its fruitfulness, or res sacramenti. Those outside the unity of the Church, such as the Donatists, were validly baptized but did not enjoy the fruit of baptismal regeneration, which is charity or love (De Baptismo, 1. 3) and the presence of the Holy Spirit (ibid. 1. 12). Unless they returned to visible unity with the one Church, they would not experience the proper effect of baptism; they were truly baptized but to their 'doom' (ibid. 3. 15).156 What was enduringly important in Augustine's position against the Donatists was his conscious departure from the views of his North African predecessors,
156 See J. L. Maier, Le dossier du donatisme , 2 vols. (Berlin: Akademie, 1987—9).
Tertullian and Cyprian: sacraments—in particular, baptism—exist 'outside' the Catholic Church. They may fail, as in the case of the schismatic Donatists, to enjoy their full and fruitful effect. But Augustine's insight in the long run opened the way for the Catholic Church (and other Christian communities) to acknowledge one, true baptism for the forgiveness of sins beyond their boundaries.
Back in Chs. 1, 5, and 6 we saw how Augustine also entered into a major controversy with the Pelagians. Against this group he appealed to the practice of baptism for infants; the newly born inherit original sin and need to be baptized, so as to be freed from it through the Holy Spirit and reborn to the new life of grace. It was partly through Augustine's influence that infant baptism, administered as soon as possible after birth, came to be seen as the norm. In any case a high infant mortality rate encouraged the practice. This also meant that baptism during the Easter season or at one of the feast-days—for instance, at the Epiphany—gradually disappeared.
But Augustine witnessed to one, integrated sequence of Christian initiation: baptism at the end of the catechumenate, followed at once by an anointing, the laying on of hands, and reception of the Eucharist. It was only in Rome that, before the reception of the Eucharist, the newly baptized received a second postbaptismal anointing from the bishop. The reservation of this anointing to the bishop spread and helped to trigger the emergence of confirmation as a separate sacrament. We return to this development below. As regards the season for Christian initiation, evidence from the fourth and fifth centuries shows how Christian communities preferred to celebrate the rites of Christian initiation at the Easter Vigil and after a forty-day preparation during Lent.
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