North Africa, Early Church in
NORTH AFRICA, EARLY CHURCH IN
The Romans conquered Carthage in 146 b.c. and turned its territory into the provincia Africana, roughly northeast Tunisia, to which Tripolitania was added later on. In 46 b.c. the Numidian kingdom of Juba was annexed (Africa nova ) and, with Africa vetus, formed Africa proconsularis. In the year 40 Mauretania was also annexed, and two provinces were formed: Caesariensis, of which Caesarea was the capital, and Tingitana with Tingis as its capital. Numidia became a separate province in 198. Flourishing cities developed and Roman civilization reached a high peak in the second and third centuries, with famed writers, both pagan and Christian. diocletian divided Proconsularis into three provinces: Zeugitana, Tripolitania and Byzacena. Out of eastern Mauretania Caesariensis he carved Sitifensis, making Sitifis the capital. He placed the western part of Africa, Tingitana (today Morocco), under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Spain. Tingitana depended on the ecclesiastical province of Mauretania Caesariensis, whereas a separate ecclesiastical province corresponded to each of the other six civil provinces by the fourth century, though the civil and ecclesiastical boundaries were not quite the same.
Christianity. Apostolic origin for the African Church cannot be proved. Christianity probably came through Carthage, an important harbor, no later than the first half of the second century. The earliest dated event occurred on July 17, 180; 12 Christians of Scilli were martyred in Carthage. But as early as 197 tertullian (Ad Scap. 56) proudly appealed to the general Christian penetration of all ranks of society, which indicates that the evangelization had begun quite some time before. A striking fact is that the bishops were remarkably numerous, a condition explained by the fact that small dioceses were customary. By the year 225 at least 70 bishops were found in Proconsularis, and Numidia; by 411, there were 470 Catholic bishoprics and the number had grown to nearly 600 in 430. For this vast territory no metropolitan existed, except for Proconsularis, where the bishop of Carthage since the third century held metropolitan rights for all Africa. In the other provinces, the primae sedis episcopus was the bishop who exceeded the others by seniority.
Persecution under Decius. The Church seems to have been left in peace, until in the year 197 and especially in 202, a persecution took place, in which the most famous martyrs were perpetua and felicity, with four companions. The recording of the events of their martyrdom is traceable possibly to Tertullian. Other works of this writer indicate that another persecution in 211–212 followed. But the greatest trial of the local church came in the persecution of decius, who in 249–250 demanded of all inhabitants of the empire a certificate of sacrifice. The bishop of Carthage, cyprian (249–258), testified to the large numbers of apostates (De lapsis 7–9). Some of these actually offered sacrifice (sacrificati, thurificati ); others managed to obtain a false certificate to prove their compliance (libellatici, acta facientes ). Yet, many suffered martyrdom.
After Decius' death in 251, a grave problem arose as to the treatment of the lapsi. Some confessors granted libelli pacis to the lapsi, but Cyprian demanded that the sacrificati and thurificati perform a lifelong penance. This occasioned a schism at Carthage, headed by the deacon Felicissimus and the priest Novatus.
Persecution under Valerian and Diocletian. St. Cyprian distinguished himself by his charitable work for those who suffered from famine and pestilence (252–254) and convoked various synods (255–256), where the question of the validity of baptism conferred by heretics was treated. Following the opinion of Tertullian (De bapt. 15) and many bishops of Asia, especially firmilian of caesarea, Cyprian denied the validity of such baptism, thus setting a precedent for the donatists. He withstood Pope stephen i, who insisted on the Roman tradition, recognizing the validity of baptism conferred with the intention of doing the will of Christ. Though neither side yielded its viewpoint, no schism occurred, and the persecution of valerian (257–259) claimed the pope and Cyprian as victims, along with many Africans, including those who were later called the massa candida.
The Emperor Gallienus restored peace to the Church, but it was rudely interrupted by the persecution of Diocletian in 295, which began in the army with the martyrdom of the young Maximilian at Theveste. Other martyrs were the veteran Typasius, the centurion Marcellus and the standard-bearer Fabius. When the persecution became general in 303, it claimed victims in Africa, including the 19 women and 30 men of Abitina near Carthage. The peace of 313 was to bring grave problems to the African Church.
Donatism. During the third century, heresy in Africa had been represented by montanism, to which Tertullian adhered in his later life and manichaeism (not strictly a Christian heresy). A movement arose, however, that united social and religious elements, renewed the errors of Tertullian and Cyprian, and caused havoc in the African Church for more than a century. It was known as donatism. The Bishop of Carthage, Mensurius, died in 311. The Archdeacon Caecilianus, his successor, had made enemies by his previous severity. These claimed that one of his Episcopal consecrators, Felix of Aptungi, had been a traditor, that is, guilty of the sin of having given up the sacred books during the persecution, and thus he was incapable of validly administering a Sacrament. The Church was for them a society of saints, in which authority and spiritual effectiveness depended on personal sanctity. Catholics were considered traditores; on conversion, freely or by force, to Donatism, baptism was repeated, and the other Sacraments given by Catholics, including the Eucharist, were treated with contempt. Donatism spread rapidly, in spite of the Emperor Constantine's persecution of the sect. Donatist doctrine was condemned first by a Roman ecclesiastical sentence in 313 and then by the council at Arles in 314.
Donatus (d. c. 355) was the first outstanding schismatic bishop of Carthage; under him the sect spread into other provinces, especially Numidia, which became its stronghold. In 347, a group of nomadic workers from the south, called Circumcellions, was used by Optatus, the Donatist Bishop of Bagai, against the Roman troops who tried to uproot the schism. Later, these workers adopted Donatism as a convenient ally to oppose the Roman Empire, which hindered their desire for absolute freedom from restraint.
optatus of milevis and St. augustine narrate sad details of the horrors perpetrated by the Donatists, especially the Circumcellions, against Catholic priests and monks. The sect increased so rapidly that 270 bishops attended a Donatist council of 336. After the death in exile of Donatus, he was succeeded by Parmenianus (d. 391), who not only displayed organizing activity, but wrote anti-Catholic works. Refutations by Optatus of Milevis and Augustine and efficient pastoral opposition under the Catholic Bishop of Carthage, Aurelius (392–430), took effect. The Donatists themselves split into various sects, against whom Augustine sharply pressed their inconsistencies and elaborated his theology of the Sacraments.
The Emperor Honorius aided the Catholic cause, and in 411 a meeting was held at Carthage, at which 286 Catholic and 284 Donatist bishops were in attendance. Bishops from both sides were allowed to present their viewpoints, and after a three-day discussion, the imperial representative announced the victory of the Catholics. In 412 the emperor ordered the schismatics to return to the Catholic Church, threatening the disobedient with confiscation, corporal punishment and deportation. After some hesitation Augustine admitted the wisdom of the state's intervention against the destructive activities of the Donatists and Circumcellions; when many returned to the Church, from which fear of the wild fanatics had held them, the schism was greatly weakened. Yet, even Pope gregory i complained in the sixth century that the error was not yet completely eradicated in Africa.
St. Augustine and Pelagianism. Augustine, himself a convert from Manichaeism, devoted a series of brilliant works as priest and bishop to a refutation of Donatism when another error called for response, namely, pelagianism. With his collaborator Celestius, Pelagius had denied original sin and claimed that man could perform good acts and avoid sin without internal grace. Both came to Carthage in 410, but Pelagius left at once for Palestine. Paulinus of Milan attacked the errors of Celestius and upon his refusal to retract, Celestius was excommunicated by the council of Carthage in 411. Augustine saw the fundamental rejection of Christianity implied in the heresy and brought out the works that earned him the title of "Doctor of Grace." Though Pelagius was declared orthodox by the Council of Diospolis in 415, provincial councils at Carthage and Milevis in 416 renewed the condemnation of Pelagianism, and when Pope Innocent I concurred, Augustine exclaimed: causa finita est (Serm. 131.10).
Pope zosimus (417–418), on receiving professions of orthodoxy from the two heretics, blamed the African bishops for excessive zeal in condemning men who admitted the necessity of grace. The African answer was a general council at Carthage in May 418, inspired by Augustine, in which the errors of the heretics were laid bare. Zosimus then condemned Pelagianism, but the stubborn opposition of julian of eclanum obliged Augustine to write several further tracts dealing with marriage and grace, as well as 12 books Contra Julianum. In 426–427 he composed his De gratia et libero arbitrio and De correptione et gratia for the monks of Hadrumetum who challenged human liberty in relation to predestination and questioned the gift of perseverance. Thus semi-pelagianism met its chief refutation from the African Church.
Monasticism. The monastic movement was introduced into Africa in its cenobitic form by Augustine in 388 on his return from Italy. Previously, individual monks and virgins, including Donatist sisters, had existed in Africa, but no monastery is recorded before 388. Augustine propagated the movement, as convert, priest and bishop, living with a group of ascetics. His sister became superior of a convent of nuns at Hippo, and Augustine's monastery provided ten bishops for other churches, who transplanted the monastic life to their new dioceses.
Even during the period when the vandals ruled in Africa (429–534) monasticism flourished in both clerical and lay circles. The life of fulgentius of ruspe (d. c. 533) is witness to this, for he followed Augustine's example and practiced a monastic way of life as layman, priest and bishop. Monasteries are found as far east as Tripolitania and as far west as Mauretania Caesariensis before, during and after the Vandal occupation. These barbarians had crossed from Spain in 429, besieged Hippo in the last days of St. Augustine and captured Carthage in 439. By treaty with the Emperor valentinian iii in 442 they became the recognized masters of Zeugitana, Byzacena and part of Numidia. After the death of this emperor in 455 they seized the two Mauretanias, though their control there was nominal, owing to the bellicose nature of the native Mauri.
Of the six Vandal kings, all Arians, who ruled in Africa, Geiseric, Huneric and Thrasamund persecuted the Church severely, concentrating on the higher clergy. The first two kings nearly succeeded in extirpating the Catholic bishops in favor of the arians. Hence in Zeugitana under Geiseric (429–477) the number of Catholic bishops was reduced from 164 to three. Yet, in his desire to make a favorable treaty with the Emperor zeno, Geiseric in 475 allowed the return of the Catholic exiles. His son Huneric (477–484) forced all the Catholic bishops of Africa to come to Carthage in 484 for a discussion with the Arians, after which he sent them into exile, deporting the bishops of Zeugitana to Corsica and others into the African desert. Five hundred clerics of Carthage were scourged and exiled. Later Huneric dispatched some 5,000 Catholics including many clerics to exile among the savage Mauri and tried systematically to destroy monastic life in Africa by ordering that all monasteries of men and women, together with their inhabitants, be given to the Mauri. His death put an end to the persecution, and King Gunthamund (484–496) allowed the exiled bishops to return (494). King Thrasamund (496–523) conducted the most effective persecution. No bishops could be elected, and when this decree was violated in Byzacena, 120 bishops were exiled to Sardinia, from which they returned only after his death, when King Hilderic (523–530) granted a period of peace for the Church. The last king, Gelimer, was conquered by the army of justinian i under Belisarius in 534.
Byzantine Influence. Under the Byzantines some of the Church's ancient splendor returned; capable theologians such as Ferrandus of Carthage and facundus of hermiane and frequent councils gave it a part in the affairs of the universal Church. In the dispute over the three chapters, the African bishops refused to subscribe to the condemnation rendered by Justinian and the Council of constantinople ii, and even excommunicated Pope vigilius. African monks and bishops were among those who were exiled for their opposition.
Byzantine occupation, however, did not bring an enduring peace to Africa either internally or externally. The Mauri inflicted many defeats on Byzantine arms and many Christians, including 70 monks with their abbot Donatus, fled to Europe about the year 570. Internally, the corruption of civil officials went unchecked and revolts were frequent. Yet many Mauri became Christians. In the seventh century the Byzantine emperors favored monothelitism, which was rejected by many African monks under the inspiration of St. maximus the confessor. When in 638 the Emperor heraclius with his Ecthesis imposed Monothelitism on the whole Church, most Africans refused to sign the document and in 645 revolted against his successor Constans II.
African ecclesiastical dissension prepared the way for the Arab invasions that began with a first raid in 643. The Arabs captured Carthage in 698 and took the last Byzantine stronghold at Septem, or Ceuta, in 709. The Mohammedans gradually brought about the extinction of Christianity, first by a rapid conversion of the volatile Mauri, then by a process of attrition, reducing the number of bishoprics to three for all Africa in the time of Pope gregory vii. They had disappeared entirely by the 13th century.
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[j. j. gavigan]