In the 4th century, the Christian community in North Africa suffered a major schism. Great portions of the local clergy and their flocks contested the election of Bishop Caecilian of Carthage in the year 312, and instead decided to appoint their own new set of church leaders—one of these leadership figures was Bishop Donatus of Carthage (d. 355), after whom the religious sect of the Donatists was named. In that divided time, an impressive debate raged, in which North African Roman Catholic and Donatist bishops verbally attacked each other and defended themselves through published works. One of the debaters on the Catholic side was Bishop Optatus of Milevis (flourished in the second half of the 4th century), who published a text called Against the Donatists, which largely targeted a Donatist leader named Parmenian. Within Optatus’ book are many curious tales about his Donatist rivals. Yet, a tale he recorded about a pack of dogs that turned on their masters ranked as one of the more peculiar stories.
To set the scene for the tale about the dogs, Bishop Optatus of Milevis accused the Donatists of abusing the sacramental items used by the church, such as the bread and wine for the communion Eucharist and the chrism oils used for consecrations and anointments—it was an odd accusation, as the Donatists were quite a puritan group of people. Nevertheless, Optatus accused the Donatists of doing such sacrilegious actions as tossing containers of chrism oil out of windows and feeding Eucharist bread to dogs. These lucky dogs, after taking communion, were said to have been greatly affected by the holy power of what they had been fed. In their spiritual epiphany, the well-nourished dogs began to judge their masters, and in concurrence with Roman Catholic bishops such as Optatus, they deemed the Donatists to be heretics. After the holy-powered pack of dogs came to this conclusion, they were inspired to lash out at their Donatist owners. Optatus pointed this tale out to his rival, Parmenian, in Against the Donatists, where he wrote the following passage:
“Moreover, a hideous crime (which seems to you something of little importance) was committed, in such a fashion that your above-mentioned fellow-Bishops profaned everything which is most holy. They commanded the Eucharist to be cast to the dogs. This did not pass without evidence of the Divine Judgement, for these same dogs were inflamed with madness, and tore their own masters in pieces as though they had been murderers, and attacked with avenging teeth those guilty of [neglecting] the Holy Body, as if they had been strangers and enemies” (Optatus, Against the Donatists, 2.19).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (St. Augustine and the Donatists painted by Charles-André van Loo (c. 1705–1765), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Against the Donatists by Bishop Optatus of Milevis (c. 4th century), translated by Rev. O. R. Vassali-Phillips. Longmans, Green, and Co.: London, 1917.