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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Securus judicat orbis terrarum (The whole world judges right)

Carle Van Loo (1705-1765)
Saint Augustin confond les évêques donatistes à Carthage/ Saint Augustine defeats the Donatist Bishops at Carthage 1753
La Basilique de Notre-Dame des Victoires, Paris

André Dutertre 1753-1842
Saint Augustin disputant contre les donatistes au Concile de Carthage/ St Augustine debating against the Donatists at the Council of Carthage (Inspired Copy of composition by Carle Van Loo)
Pen, brown ink, lead pencil, whitening and brown wash on paper
00,600 m ; L. 00,785 m
Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques, Paris

The Donatist Schism is not readily remembered by most today.

It began in Africa in AD 311 and flourished until condemned by the Council of Carthage in AD 411

It was St Augustine of Hippo who established the Catholic thesis that the Church, as long as it is upon earth, can, without losing its holiness, tolerate sinners within its pale for the sake of converting them

His thoughts in his writings in the Donatist controversy on the Church, its authority, its essential marks, and its mission in the economy of grace and the administration of the sacraments have wider application.

John Rogers Herbert (1810-1890)
Portrait of Nicholas Wiseman, then Rector of English College, Rome 1828-40
Oil on canvas
The Venerable English College - Rome

In Nineteenth century England, it was this same controversy and the debates about it which led to that "Tolle legi" moment for John Henry Newman, which started him down the final road to leave the Anglican Church for the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps it is this debt which Newman owed to St Augustine is one of the features of his life which makes him  attractive to Pope Benedict XVI

In July 1839 the then Bishop Nicholas Wiseman published in The Dublin Review an Essay which made a great impression both in Oxford and throughout the theological world in England.

Its theme was St. Augustine and the Donatists but with an application to Anglicanism.

During the Long Vacation of 1839, when Newman was studying the history of the Monophysite heresy, a doubt as to the tenableness of Anglicanism first flashed across his mind.

Then Newman read Wiseman`s Essay a month after its appearance, and described it as " the first real hit from Romanism which has happened to me. . . . I seriously think it,.. a most uncomfortable article on every account."

The Essay made "a great impression " at Oxford, he writes in the same letter.

And to another friend he wrote, " It [the Essay] made me for a while very uncomfortable in my own mind."

Wilfrid Ward, Cardinal Wiseman`s biographer describes the matter:

"In the article on the Donatists he [Wiseman] suddenly passed, as he himself expressed it, ' to a higher level.'

He dealt no longer with technical points of doctrine, but with the idea of the Church—which Rome alone perpetuates—as the one organised spiritual society, which claims to expound with authority the revelation of our Lord.

He pointed out that the question of a Church in a state of schism was regarded by the Fathers not as a question of antiquarian research, but as a great practical case of conscience for each individual.

The facts on which the technical controversy depended might become obscured ; but this did not leave individual persons or individual Churches free to say, ' I see no convincing proof on either side ; therefore I will do as I like.'

Such a plea had been advanced in the fifth century ; and the very Fathers to whom Newman was appealing as his mainstay had emphatically disallowed it.

Briefly, St. Augustine had shown that in a matter so vital to the continued existence of the Church as an organic society, a simple and incontrovertible guiding principle was needed for individual persons and Churches—a principle capable of being applied by the unlearned as well as by the learned.

Cases were constantly arising, and would arise, of schism on the part of a local or national Church. Each party - the schismatics and their opponents—would profess to represent the ancient Catholic faith, and would call itself Catholic.

If the individual Church or the individual member of the Church were to be allowed to judge for itself or himself, all hope of Catholic unity would be gone.

The local Church must, therefore, in the nature of the case, be amenable to the judgment of its peers. If the rest of the Catholic Church acknowledged the bishop of a local Church, and interchanged letters of communion with him, then he and those who were his spiritual subjects formed part of the Church Catholic.

If the rest of the Church refused to communicate with him, and judged his claim to be invalid, then he was thereby ruled to be in schism.

This simple but pregnant rule was essential to the very existence of the Church Catholic ; and St. Augustine sums it up in the sentence which was destined to ring in Newman's ears for many a day :

' Quapropter securus judicat orbis terrarum, bonos non esse qui se dividunt ab orbe terrarum, in quacumque parte orbis terrarum.' "

(Wilfrid Ward, The Life and Times of Cardinal Wiseman Volume I (2nd edition, 1897), pages 322 - 323 ; Longmans Green and Co, London)


The Tractarian High Church claimed the title "Catholic". So had the Donatists. They rejected the term "Protestant". Donatists rejected the term "Donatist" for them. The Tractarians accepted the title of "Anglican Church" on the basis of hereditary local possession and the traditions of a local Church. On similar grounds the Donatists accepted the title "the African Church".

Ward goes on, summarising Wiseman`s argument:

"Once more, the Fathers, in their final analysis of the great guiding principle, gave as the real and simple test of communion with the Catholic Church throughout the world, communion with the See of Peter.

Thus St. Ambrose asks the schismatic Lucifer 'whether he agreed with the Catholic bishops—that is, with the Roman Church '; St. Augustine gives as the mark of the true vine on which all Churches should be engrafted, the successive occupants of the ' Chair of Peter,' and John, Patriarch of Constantinople, writes to Pope Hormisdas of those who are ' separated from the communion of the Catholic Church — that is, who consent not in all things with the Apostolic See.'

This last stage of the argument had its effect in completing the wonderfully close parallel between certain aspects of the Donatist and Anglican schisms....

The degree to which Rome was explicitly and universally recognised in the fifth century as neccessarily the embodiment of the voice of the orbis terrarum, and to which communion with Rome and communion with the orbis terrarum were necessarily identical, was a question over and above St. Augustine's central argument, which created so profound an impression when brought before the Oxford of the nineteenth century ...

Consequently Wiseman, with a true instinct as to the strength of his position, assigns the first place and a separate place to the one principle that a local Church must be judged by the aggregate of Catholic Churches which may impart or refuse communion as they choose ; proceeding afterwards to the consideration that that aggregate is kept together in virtue of communion with the Apostolic See.

The simplicity and directness of St. Augustine's argument, its express purpose of superseding such intricate controversy as might plausibly divert a man from complying with the duty of submitting to the judgment of the Catholic world, gave it special urgency.

' It has given me a stomach-ache,' Newman wrote ; and from the day on which Newman read the article he never again looked at the Roman Church with the same eyes as before. ...

Wiseman thus sums up the principle laid down by St. Augustine and other Fathers as incontrovertible:

' By the Fathers the question was essentially considered one of fact rather than of right : that is to say, the very fact of one particular Church being out of the aggregation of other Churches, constituted these judges over the other, and left no room for questioning the justice of the condemnation.' ...

The Oxford leaders [the Tractarians] had begun as antiquarian historians, and this aspect of their work had fixed itself deeply in the minds of many Englishmen. The importance of the points at issue appeared infinitesimal, and the movement seemed an unreal attempt to galvanise into a life which in the climate of that day was foredoomed, institutions and ideas proper to an entirely different state of civilisation.

But Wiseman's article, a voice from the fifth century with a startling and close application to the nineteenth, arrested attention in a moment, as claiming to deal with points not special to one time, but applicable to entirely different epochs ; and the more it was read the more this view of the case was confirmed.

It hinged on the necessity of one great spiritual organisation—the civitas Dei,in St. Augustine's own phrase. It was no contention for minute points of ritual, or for the spiritual efficacy of detailed ceremonial, or for what Arnold was wont to call the ' magical ' gifts of a privileged caste of priests.

It dealt with the principle of union and organisation, and consequently of strength for good work, among the Christian body.

However little the broad thinkers accepted conclusions which were based on High Church premises, here they found food for thought. The Roman Catholic Church as a widely extended practical institution, as a corporate body to safeguard morality, to preserve a definite ethical ideal, to succour the poor by its religious orders, to stem revolution by its embodiment of the principle of Authority, was a real force for practical good, to be dealt with, and well worth considering. ...

The City of God has remained immutable in its nature amid all the tremendous changes which have passed over the world ; scarce a word of his counsel stands in need of change. Such a fact could not but make the Church stand out as sustaining her claim to embody something sacred belonging to all times ; to be above the general rule that an organisation is integrally bound up with the conditions of a given age, and ceases to be a living force when those conditions have passed away.

Wiseman may claim to have been among the first effectually to remind Englishmen in our own day of that historical significance of the Catholic Church which so much impressed Macaulay, which affected permanently such a man as Comte ...

While Wiseman's article owes much of its permanent value to this placing anew before the public mind the actuality of the Catholic polity, and severing it from unpractical antiquarianism, and even from merely theological controversy, the effect on Newman and his friends was necessarily more ' all round.'

Its bearing, indeed, on the idea of the Church as one society touched them at every turn : but it was the destruction, by the most absolute decision of the greatest of the Fathers themselves, of a via media that claimed to be true before all things to the Fathers, which was most urgent in its effect at Oxford."



In his Apologia pro sua Vita , Newman described the effect of the article on him:

" But my friend, an anxiously religious man, now, as then, very dear to me, a Protestant still, pointed out the palmary words of St. Augustine, which were contained in one of the extracts made in the Review, and which had escaped my observation. Securus judicat orbis terrarum, ['the whole world judges right'--that is., the Universal Church must be right against one local body]

He repeated these words again and again, and, when he was gone, they kept ringing in my ears. "Securus judicat orbis terrarum;" they were words which went beyond the occasion of the Donatists: they applied to that of the Monophysites.

They gave a cogency to the Article, which had escaped me at first.

They decided ecclesiastical questions on a simpler rule than that of Antiquity; nay, St. Augustine was one of the prime oracles of Antiquity; here then Antiquity was deciding against itself.

What a light was hereby thrown upon every controversy in the Church! not that, for the moment, the multitude may not falter in their judgment,—not that, in the Arian hurricane, Sees more than can be numbered did not bend before its fury, and fall off from St. Athanasius,—not that the crowd of Oriental Bishops did not need to be sustained during the contest by the voice and the eye of St. Leo; but that the deliberate judgment, in which the whole Church at length rests and acquiesces, is an infallible prescription and a final sentence against such portions of it as protest and secede.

Who can account for the impressions which are made on him?

For a mere sentence, the words of St. Augustine, struck me with a power which I never had felt from any words before.

To take a familiar instance, they were like the "Turn again Whittington" of the chime; or, to take a more serious one, they were like the "Tolle, lege,—Tolle, lege," of the child, which converted St. Augustine himself.

"Securus judicat orbis terrarum!" By those great words of the ancient Father, interpreting and summing up the long and varied course of ecclesiastical history, the theory of the Via Media was absolutely pulverized.

I became excited at the view thus opened upon me.

I was just starting on a round of visits; and I mentioned my state of mind to two most intimate friends: I think to no others.

After a while, I got calm, and at length the vivid impression upon my imagination faded away. What I thought about it on reflection, I will attempt to describe presently. I had to determine its logical value, and its bearing upon my duty.

Meanwhile, so far as this was certain,—I had seen the shadow of a hand upon the wall. It was clear that I had a good deal to learn on the question of the Churches, and that perhaps some new light was coming upon me. He who has seen a ghost, cannot be as if he had never seen it.

The heavens had opened and closed again. The thought for the moment had been, "The Church of Rome will be found right after all;" and then it had vanished." "