Fr. Vladimir (Guettee) on St. Optatus of Milevis and Rome

(From Fr. Vladimir’s “The Papacy: Its Historic Origin and Primitive Relations with the Eastern Church,” pages 181-183)


Another text which at first sight seems very favorable to Romish pretensions, is that of St. Optatus of Melevia, which is quoted on all occasions by those theologians. Reasonably interpreted, this text is no more in their favour thatn those of the other Fathers. The holy bishop of Melevia was opposing the Donatists who had established a bishopric at Rome. He wished to prove to them that this bishopric was not legitimate. To do this it was necessary to prove that the only legitimate bishopric was that which had descended in direct line from the Apostles–for there was but one only Apostolate of which Peter typified the unity, and nothing outside of that Apostolic see–that is, this apostolate–could claim to be legitimate. St. Optatus, therefore, thus addresses his adversary:

Thou canst not deny it–thou knowest that the bishop’s chair was first given to Peter in the city of the Rome; upon that chair sat Peter the chief of all the Apostles; thou knowest why he was called Peter; that thus in that one see, unity should be preserved by all; lest each of the other Apostles should claim a separate see for himself; and that he should be schismatic and sinful who should establish another bishopric beside that only see. (Book II Against Parmenian)

“For the sake of unity,” he elsewhere says, (Book I, Against Parmenian) the blessed “Peter (for whom it had been enough had he only obtained pardon after denying his Master) deserved to be preferred to all the Apostles, and alone received the keys of the kingdom of heaven to impart them to others.”

St. Optatus was arguing against a man who denied the unity of the ministry and its Apostolic origin. In order to convince him he holds up before him Rome–the only Apostolic church of the West whose origin was incontestable. He shows him that Peter, who was the type of sacerdotal unity, founded the see of Rome; that, consequently, he must be with this see, if he would be in the unity and would give an Apostolic character to his ministry; but from this to an authority over the whole Church is a long step.

The whole argument of St. Optatus proves this to have been his idea in the preceding texts.

“Our angels,” he says, “dates back to St. Peter–yours only to Victor [Donatist bishop of Rome]. Address yourself, if you like, to the seven angels which are in Asia; to our colleagues–those churches to whom St. John wrote, and with which you are evidently not in communion. Now all outside of these seven churches is foreign. If you have any one of the angels of the seven churches with whom you are one, you commune through him with the other angels; through them with the churches, and through the churches with us. Such not being the case, you have not the characteristics of a Catholic church–you are not true Catholics.”

Such is a faithful analysis of the argument of St. Optatus. He does not seek in his work to prove that the legitimate Bishop of Rome had universal authority–he only proves that he was descended in direct line from the Apostles, and that his Donatist rival was illegitimate. He proves that all the Apostolic churches of the East were in communion with the Apostolic Bishop of Rome, and that, consequently, the Donatists were not in Catholic or universal unity. We really cannot see how such teaching can be quoted to support the pretensions of the modern Papacy. Nay, more. We may certainly justly quote it against them.