In the fourth and fifth centuries, North Africa stood second only to Rome as a center of power for the Christian church in the western Roman Empire. Historical tradition holds that this vibrant ecclesiastical community, under the leadership of such forceful personalities as St. Augustine of Hippo and Aurelius of Carthage, maintained a spirited independence from papal control. Recently discovered letters of Augustine and a closer reading of the African canons show, however, that African fathers willingly sought advice from the pope and often approached Rome for a final verdict in cases of canon law. In this groundbreaking book, J.E. Merdinger contends that the African church of late antiquity gradually became dependent on the papacy for the enforcement of church discipline.
Merdinger begins by tracing the historic links between the African church and Rome through the writings of some of its most important thinkersTertullian, Cyprian, and Optatus. The author then provides a lively account of actual fourth- and fifth-century court cases that arose in Africa but were adjudicated by Rome, including the notorious Apiarius affair and one case that was completely unknown before the newly discovered letters of Augustine were first published in 1981. By examining cases chronologically, Merdinger uncovers evolving patterns of authority and shows that the Africans increasingly turned to Rome as the final court of appeal for disciplinary matters. In the midst of these legal maelstroms, Merdinger says, the Africans' true feelings toward papal jurisdiction emerged.