Augustine’s “Nudge" of the Donatists

As a practicing Lutheran, I was surprised to discover that a then-proleptic application of Thaler and Sustein’s “nudge” was advanced over 1,600 years ago by Augustine when he advocated nudging the Donatists back into unity with the Catholic Church. I’m obviously not interested in nudging anyone into Catholicism, but I do think the episode an instructive one. Only inertia and status-quo bias, Augustine suggests, induced most Donatists to maintain their schism. They did not need severe punishment or suppression, Augustine argued, but a nudge, no more than a gentle poke in the ribs (to Augustine), to make the choices they already knew they should.

Donatism arose in the 4th century among North African Christians after the end of Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of the Church. During the persecution, some Church leaders capitulated to the Emperor, giving up the Scriptures entrusted to their care to their persecutors as a sign of their rejection of the faith. After the persecution ended, some of these Christians returned to leadership positions in the Church. Donatists rejected the validity of the ministry of these “traditors,” insisting that they could not validly celebrate the sacraments because of their earlier apostasy. This belief turned into schism when, in response to a “traditor” bishop’s participation in the ordination of Caecilian as bishop of Carthage, objecting bishops in the region selected a rival bishop for the city. (Donatus, after whom “Donatists” are named, followed as the subsequent “Donatist” bishop for the city.)

Augustine, as the bishop of Hippo (in modern-day Algeria), devoted a lot of time and effort to responding to Donatists and Donatism. In a letter to Vincentius in 408 A.D., Augustine admits he originally believed “that no one should be coerced into the unity of Christ, that we must act only by words, fight only by arguments, and prevail by force of reason, lest we have those whom we knew as avowed heretics feigning themselves to be Catholics.” In what we might style a nascent application of behavioral economics, Augustine adds that empirical examples changed his mind on this point, rather than theory.

Two sine quibus non of a nudge are that the nudge have a light touch and that, among objectives, it be aimed at changing behavior that might otherwise continue,  simply due to inertia or a bias toward the status quo.

The latter point first. Augustine believes that, by his time, most Donatists remained with the sect out of inertia. In his letter to Vincentius Augustine writes that many of them “supposed the sect of Donatus to be the true Church, merely because ease had made them too listless, or conceited, or sluggish, to take pains to examine Catholic truth.” And many, “believing that it mattered not to which party a Christian might belong, remained in the schism of Donatus only because they had been born in it, and no one was compelling them to forsake it and pass over into the Catholic Church.”

Augustine suggests that Donatists stay Donatists because of the “bondage of custom” and an “inveterate sluggishness of mind.” They recognize Catholicism as true, he writes, but are loath to make the change. Augustine has them saying, “What you affirm is true [regarding Catholicism], nothing can be said against it; but it is hard for us to leave off what we have received, by tradition from our fathers.”

Augustine advocates responding to their inertial embrace of Donatism with “admonition” rather than holding that Donatists should be “punished for a crime.” He of course means more than verbal admonition. Augustine proposes to “inconvenience” and “annoy” the Donatists in order to “shake them” out of their status-quo bias, and so guide their choices back to Catholicism:

Why should not such persons be shaken up in a beneficial way by a law bringing upon them inconvenience in worldly things, in order that they might rise from their lethargic sleep, and awake to the salvation which is to be found in the unity of the Church? How many of them, now rejoicing with us . . . confess that it was out duty to inflict annoyance upon them, in order to prevent them from perishing under the disease of lethargic habit, as under a fatal sleep?

To be sure, a 5th century “annoyance” might be a 21st century penalty. Nonetheless, given that Augustine thinks Donatists could be punished with death, he terms the imposition of some cost (a fine or exile) “a comparatively gentle severity” and a “moderate severity.” Indeed, he terms the nudge he proposes to be real “clemency” shown to the Donatists.