My favorite class in my church history curriculum is the one dealing with Donatists. For those of you who have never attended (shame, shame), the Donatists arose as a result of Diocletian’s severe persecution of the church. After it was all over, the church had to figure out what to do with those who had fallen away when the going got tough.
This included members of the clergy. In North Africa, where the Donatist controversy flared up, persecution had actually been relatively light; Christians were mainly “asked” to hand over the scriptures to be burned. Many did so, and in doing so earned themselves the moniker of “traditores” (literally “those who handed over,” and the origin of our word “traitor”). Many of them returned to their priestly duties once the danger was past.
Donatus found this unconscionable, and many people agreed with him, leading to one of the earliest schisms. I like to pose the same issues to my students, and force them to hash out how they would handle the problems the early church faced. It makes for a great class; the class before is all about early Christians dying in lots of horrible ways, so the surrounding context is still fresh in their minds, there are no easy answers to the problems posed, so they have to think hard, and it ties in easily to problems that we still face in church today. Plus, it comes near the beginning of the course, hopefully hooking them in to stay around for the rest.
Anyway, I recently spent some time teaching the youth in our church, and all of them came down on the side of the Donatists. Everybody agreed; if our pastor had turned traitor, they would all leave and find a different church. We even had a group of Novatianists. When I taught the adults, they also tended to side with the Donatists.
But then again, we’re all Protestants. Would Catholics respond differently?