It would seem that a major schism would so weaken the church that it would be ill-suited to major expansion and growth. So it might seem. In his contribution to Sacred Schisms, however, Joseph Bryant argues that the third-century schism between the Catholic and Katharoi factions actually facilitated the church’s capacity to absorb the empire.
This preview of the Donatist controversy centered on the church’s treatment of the many lapsed Christians who had adopted various strategies to sidestep Roman authorities during the Decian persecution. Vast numbers of Christians sacrificed as required; others paid to get false documents stating that they had complied with the decree; many fled. Martyrs were few.
Alarmed, what Bryant describes as the rigorist sector of the church, the “Pure Ones” or Katharoi, enforced high standards for readmission. Early on, Cyprian took a rigorous stance: “Cyprian is adamant that the Eucharist can be offered to remorseful apostates only on their deathbed. For all the others, his episcopal command remains unchanged: the battle is still being fought; those who are genuinely repentant can erase their fatal offenses by seeking a martyr’s crown” (158). Over against the Katharoi were the moderates and “laxists” who had a much lower bar for readmission of the lapsed.
Through a process of “schismogenesis,” the two parties split into rival churches. Bryant explains the term: “rivalrous groups develop their own identities and objectives through a dialectical process of polarizing opposition and separation.8 As points of in-group tension become manifest, the emergent factions move increasingly toward disequilibrium, each side defining and valorizing their own respective positions through an intensifying deprecation and negation of the practices and principles espoused by the other . . . . A schismogenic dynamic, in short, is one that progressively transforms the engaged parties into ‘structural antitypes,’ as each side organizes itself as ‘the inverse of the other’ (Marthall Sahlins). Having started from a shared or common orientation, the contending factions are inexorably driven into providing principled rationales or justifications for their disagreements; in the course of placing excessive and pointed emphasis on those differences that form the grounds of disputation, contrapositional identity-markers come to the fore. Failing mediation or compromise, the escalating hostilities will issue in fissiparous rupture and the formation of autonomous or independent communities” (154-5).
Though this seemed to weaken the church, Bryant argues that the split enabled the Catholic party to become the preferred religion of the empire: “the Catholic–Katharoi rupture had initiated a reorganization of Christianity’s “internal” field of action that would prove correspondingly facilitating. Where laxist, moderate, and rigorist elements had formerly counterbalanced and restrained each other within a unitary institutional assemblage, post-schism Christianity proceeded along bisected paths, in separate and antagonal Church establishments. . . . With the expulsion/exodus of its hardline constituency, the Catholic Church was henceforth free to pursue a reformist pastoral strategy better suited to both preserving and augmenting its membership ranks” (165-66).
In short, Bryant claims, the Catholic party both restored its lapsed members and widened Christianity’s appeal, by “a far-reaching redefinition and reorganization of Christian identity and experience around the privileged themes of ‘divine compassion,’ ‘mercy,’ and ‘forgiveness’” (167).
Bryant’s argument depends in part on a questionable rigorist, millenniarian characterization of early Christianity. It’s certainly not clear that an emphasis on compassion and forgiveness constitutes a “redefinition” of the Christianity of the first century. Yet his overall storyline makes sense: The victory of the Catholic faction made it possible for Christianity to be the religion of the empire. Whether or not that was a positive outcome is, of course, a debated question.