Taken From: “Penance in the Early Church” Rev. M. J. O’Donnell, Dublin, M. H. Gill & Son, LIMITED 1908
Imprimatur: Potest: Gulielmus, Archiepiscopus Dublinen. Hiberniae Primas. Dublini, 17 Junii, 1907.
Image: Gustave Doré, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
THE growing inclination—in sections of the Protestant Communion that have only the faintest faith, if any, in the sacramental efficacy of Penance, and are, moreover, heirs to the anti-Catholic suspicions and prejudices of three centuries and more—to regard the practice of confession with a certain measure of approval is a striking indication of the deeply rooted human tendency to seek relief from the troubled conscience in the advice and guidance of a sympathetic master in the spiritual life. That Christ should have set the seal of His approval on the practice, and associated with it a grace and efficacy all its own should, even apart from dogmatic and historical evidence, be a matter of surprise to no one that He not only did so but made it a necessary element in the sinner's reconciliation is little more than a corollary from the facts recorded, and the principles established, in the preceding pages. To assert that a Church with the power of binding and loosing, of absolving and condemning, should proceed to exercise that power without first ascertaining the malice of even the hidden crimes of those she summoned to her tribunal would be the most glaring of theological absurdities. Expression of sorrow for the past might seem in certain cases a sufficient basis for an absolution. But when we remember the many delusions under which a penitent may labour, the obligations in regard to sinful habits, restitution, occasions of sin and the like, which he may know nothing of, and the thousand and one obstacles to requisite disposition of whose existence he may be totally unconscious, it becomes clear that a full avowal of sins with their number and more important circumstances is an important condition for a reasonable use of the Church's power and prerogative. That must be true of every period of the Church's life : it was true, especially, of the age of rigorous penance when the addition or omission of a single sin might mean submission to, or exemption from, years of the strictest penitential discipline. All this is very clear. Even Protestant critics will admit that for those who maintain the power of the keys our doctrine on confession is the logical and necessary sequel? Though we might, therefore, from the dogmatic standpoint, spare ourselves the trouble of a closer investigation, it may be well to strengthen the position by a brief review of the historical records of the practice. The evidence is overwhelming, "Consider, therefore," says Origen, "what the divine discipline teaches, namely, that sins should not be concealed, for as they who are troubled with indigestion and have anything within them which lies crude upon their stomachs, are not relieved except it be removed ; so sinners, who conceal their practices and retain their sin within their own bosoms, feel in themselves an inward disquietude and are almost choked with the malignity which they thus suppress. But by confession and self accusation they discharge themselves of their burden, and digest, as it were. the cause of the disease. Only here it will be fit to advise you to be careful in choosing a fit person to whom you may confess. Try to find out such a spiritual physician as knows how to mourn with them that mourn, to be weak with them that are weak, in fine, who knows how to feel for others and sympathize with them in their sorrow; so that whatever direction and advice may come from such an approved and merciful physician you may follow out in practice ; if he shall judge your disease to be such as should be laid open and cured before the whole assembly of the Church, for the possible edification of others and for your own ready healing. this should be done deliberately and discreetly, and in obedience to the advice of such a skilled physician." I Origen's simile, if crude, is, at all events, expressive. Confession is like the medical treatment which, in certain stages of disease, is an indispensable condition for bodily recovery. It is private: and, like the penance to which it forms the preliminary step, should, clearly, extend to all important aspects at least of the spiritual malady. If a second and public confession of certain sins be implied in the concluding sentence it was quite distinct from the first and was merely part of the public discipline with which the Church in later times thought it prudent to dispense. That the second explicit confession is implied I am, however, inclined to doubt. Origen's rule may come to this. All sins are to be disclosed in private to the confessor ; if they are venial, he administers spiritual advice and direction, nothing more; if mortal, the penitent is asked to undergo the exomologesis, strict or otherwise, which from its character and duration would be an implied confession of the sins he had committed. The same doctrine is repeated in various portions of Origen's works. " If a man," he says' "has sinned in any of these ways, let him proclaim the sin he sinned. . . . Whatever we have done in secret, whatever faults we have committed, though merely in speech or even in our secret thoughts, must all be published, all brought forward by him who urges us to sin and accuses us thereof . . . If, therefore, we forestall him in this life, and become our own accusers, we baffle the malice of the devil, our foe and accuser. . . . but whomsoever he convicts of having been his associates in crime, these will he have associates in hell." No third course here ; either we confess our sins in this life or the powers of evil will proclaim them in the next. So again : " If we do this and reveal our sins not only to God but to those who can heal our wounds and sins, our sins will be blotted out by Him who says, Behold, I will destroy thy iniquities as a cloud and as a thick cloud thy sins. From the general expressions used by Origen in reference to the confessor it is sometimes concluded that he did not mean to restrict the office to the priesthood. But it is a significant fact that he always regards the claimants to the power of the keys as invested with the sacerdotal dignity.' If the evidence given be considered incomplete, his second Homily on Leviticus' supplies the missing link. After enumerating various methods of remission in which confession has no part, he describes a seventh "when the sinner washes his couch with tears . . . and when he is not ashamed to declare his sin to the bishop of the Lord." Clement of Alexandria has left us several references which, though rather vague, tend to confirm the conclusions suggested by Origen. The "rich man," he says, "should choose a saintly director." What their mutual relations should be he indicates in the advice he offers to the penitent. " Fear him, revere him, because for your sake he will pass sleepless nights pouring out for you his prayers before God and move the Father through the usual litanies. God does not resist His sons who have recourse to His mercy. . . . This man will pray for you who honour him as an angel of God ; if he is saddened it will be on your account and not on his own. This is the true penance."3 Opponents of the practice of confession would do well to explain how this "angel of God" could "direct" his client or act as an effective mediator between him and God unless he had become acquainted through confession with the state of his soul and knew the special dangers to which he was exposed. Whether, according to Clement, the confessor should necessarily be a priest is a point on which critics are not agreed. There is a strong flavour of Gnosticism in his writings, and it would not be surprising if, like Tertullian in his Montanist days, he attributed to the "men of the spirit" powers which the Church in general confined to the sacerdotal order. Yet his division of ministers of penance into three classes, corresponding apparently to deacons, priests and bishops,' and his application to them of texts addressed originally by Christ to His Apostles.2 has gone far to convince inquirers that, to his mind, the priest and the confessor were one and the same.' The confession, as is manifest, would be altogether private. Tertullian is so much occupied with the details of the public penance that he makes little mention of the confession that preceded. The necessity of such a confession is, however, not merely hinted at in his comparison of hidden sinners to the penitents "who shrink from disclosing their disease to the doctors and perish in their bashfulness ; it is a clear inference from his whole position. That a proportional penance should be assigned to alt, even secret, sins, that the " peace of the Church " should be denied to public and secret "homicide, idolatry, fraud. apostasy, blasphemy, impurity and fornication, and any other violation of the temple of God," and conceded, after a definite period of penance, to a long list of minor offences, was surely a sheer impossibility unless the penitent himself came forward and confessed the character, extent, and number of his crimes. To whom this confession should be made Tertultian does not state, but I think I may assert, without overstepping the limits of impartial criticism, that, since the penance was one continued process and was conducted, presumably, under the supervision of the same authorities all through, the confession must have been heard, and the discipline imposed, by the same minister—namely the bishop'—who afterwards brought the penance to a close and imparted the final absolution. From the fact that Tertullian, in his detailed description of the 'public penance, is silent regarding the confession that must have preceded, we may draw two conclusions : first, that the confession must have been entirely private ; secondly, that a subsequent public confession of individual sins formed no necessary, or even ordinary, part of the discipline itself.1 These conclusions, as well as the necessity of an integral confession, are supported by another consideration. There was a striking parallel between the Catechumens and the strict penitential class. Each formed a group apart from the ordinary body of the faithful ; on each there was imposed a period of public penance before admission to, or reconciliation with, the Church ; both were allowed to assist at part of the liturgy but were generally excluded from the more solemn and sacred functions. Now the confession of the Catechumens was private ; for that we have Tertullian's own statement. "They who are about to enter Baptism ought to pray with repeated prayers. fasts, and headings of the knee, and vigils all night through, and with confession of all bygone sins. . . . It is a matter for gratulation that we do not confess our iniquities publicly." If secret confession was deemed sufficient for the catechumen and not inconsistent with the public character of the subsequent atonement, and if the confession should extend to "all bygone sins," must not the same principles have been applied in the case of those between whom and the Catechumens the Church did all in her power to emphasize the likeness I need only refer in passing to the testimony of Irenaeus. The women, seduced by the heretics and afterwards converted "with their remaining faults confessed this also." Others confessed not merely the sins they had committed with the "magician Marcus " but the desires aroused by his evil practices. The saint is not giving a full exposition of the practice of confession ; to whom it was made and what were the attendant circumstances, he does not state; but his incidental reference to an integral confession as a preliminary to the necessary course of penance is as full and satisfactory as could be expected from the context. In the Eastern Church, apart from the general supposition in the Didascatia that the bishop was the only judge of the consciences of the faithfuls and its explicit statement that penance was inflicted on the penitent "according to his sin, two weeks, or three, or five or seven," it is doubtful whether we have any trustworthy testimony to the practice at the close of the second century or beginning of the third. If, however, we accept Sozomen's assertion that the office of Priest Penitentiary dated from the earliest times, an amount of light will be thrown on the subject. The appointment of the functionary in question was due to a consideration for the feelings of the penitents. " From the beginning it naturally seemed to the priests an inconvenient thing that men should proclaim their crimes as in a theatre with all the members of the Church standing around. Therefore the bishop chose from among his priests one distinguished by his uprightness, reserve, and discretion, to whom the duty of hearing the confession of sinners was assigned."' He regulated the length and severity of the penance and excluded sinners from the Eucharist for a greater or less period of time as the varying degrees of guilt demanded. We get a glimpse of the actual working of the system in Socrates' story of the woman whose indiscreet disclosures led to the abolition of the office. "She had confessed in detail to the Priest Penitentiary all the sins she had committed after Baptism."' Unless a critic is prepared to show that statements like these are coloured by the associations of a later time, he must admit that in Constantinople and in the " other churches," in which, according to Socrates, a similar regime was observed, private and integral confession to a priest was the recognised practice for the Christian sinner. That the descriptions of confession are less detailed than those of the penitential discipline should not excite our surprise. There always lives in history a clearer record of public than of private life. The discipline, as 1 have shown, was generally public; while, not withstanding the fact that an acknowledgment of faults before the community was occasionally recommended or even enjoined and that ecclesiastical authorities may have sometimes so far abused their power as to impose it unreservedly on all,' the recognised and all but universal practice of the Church, the " Apostolic rule " as St. Leo termed it,' was secret confession to the priest. Theoretically, and as a matter of obligation, it was, like the discipline itself, generally restricted to the case of mortal sins. Its further extension, however, in practice, would be the necessary consequence of the difficulty felt by the ordinary penitent in distinguishing between mortal and venial sin, and of the tendency common then as now among the faithful to seek spiritual aid and direction in the many minor failings and imperfections incidental to even the holiest of Christian lives.