Thursday, March 1, 2018

A Brief History of Confession

According to a quick Google search the Sacrament of Confession is the place where Catholic “receive absolution for the sins committed against God and neighbor.” This summary is neither wrong nor far off from how the average Catholic layman construes Confession, but it is not the whole story of the Sacrament. That people are forgiven their sins in Confession is but one of its many purposes and benefits. The reduction of Confession to the mechanical forgiveness of sins and nothing else is among the reasons it has become the “Forgotten Sacrament” in our sinless, post-Christian world. Confession has many purposes, none of which ought to be divorced from each other, that can be witnessed in its long and much changed history.
“And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man: and the Lord shall raise him up: and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess therefore your sins one to another: and pray one for another, that you may be saved. For the continual prayer of a just man availeth much.”
Saint James’ catholic epistle and this excerpt from it are the most explicit testimonies of confessing sins in the Apostolic age, the days after the Ascension during which the Apostles still lived. These brief sentences convey the Confession’s root intentions: the remission of sins and their associated punishments, penance, the reconciliation between a sinner and the Church, and accountability between one sinful human being another. Forgiveness comes from Christ through the Church, which Christ Himself made clear in giving His Apostles the power to remit sins even before sending the Holy Spirit upon them; a power held only by God was given by God to men before He descended upon them and dwelt within them.
In the primitive days of the Church sinners confessed their sins before the assembled faithful, recounting their sins in public and asking for forgiveness from the appointed ministers. That Confession took place in the ancient Church the Catholic Encyclopedia makes clear, with extensive quotations from the contemporary Fathers—something the proto-modernists of the early 20th century denied as an innovation.
  • St. Augustine (d. 430) warns the faithful: "Let us not listen to those who deny that the Church of God has power to forgive all sins" (De agon. Christ., iii).
  • St. Ambrose (d. 397) rebukes the Novatianists who "professed to show reverence for the Lord by reserving to Him alone the power of forgiving sins. Greater wrong could not be done than what they do in seeking to rescind His commands and fling back the office He bestowed. . . . The Church obeys Him in both respects, by binding sin and by loosing it; for the Lord willed that for both the power should be equal" (On Penance I.2.6).
  • St. Athanasius (d. 373): "As the man whom the priest baptizes is enlightened by the grace of the Holy Ghost, so does he who in penance confesses his sins, receive through the priest forgiveness in virtue of the grace of Christ" (Frag. contra Novat. in P.G., XXVI, 1315).
Confession and the accompanying absolution became a point of dispute early on in the Church and, inadvertently, drove the first wedge between Eastern and Latin Christianity. During the Decian persecution many lapsed from the Church either by burning incense before the image of the Emperor or assuaged their consciences by merely bribing officiates to write licenses testifying that they had done so. Rigorists, perhaps the Jansenists of the third century, under the influence of Novatian refused re-entry of the lapsed into the Church and even constructed their own virtue dioceses in Rome and Carthage. The numerous “lax” communities and bishops received the lapse after a public Confession and years of penance. In the middle St. Cyprian of the aforementioned Carthage suggested a compromise wherein the lapsed would be received back into the Church at the point of death (one wonders if he’d be censured in the age of mercy). The rigorists eventually created their own schismatic movement which saw numerous Christians baptized, chrismated, communicated, and buried under parallel Sacraments. The same Cyprian denied the validity of these Sacraments and wanted former hardliners received as converts, with all the rites of initiation. By contrast, Pope St. Stephen held a public Confession and a life of penance would suffice. The difference of opinion persists to this day in Greek quarters. Cyprian and the Roman bishop differed less of their understanding of Confession as a means of forgiveness than in their understanding of whether or not the rigorists were properly Christians at all. If anything their views on public repentance and the Church’s absolution could reasonably be held as the same.

Confession and ecclesiastical absolution remained in common, but not exclusively common, to each other until the late first millennium. Absolution and the Church’s pardon came from the authority granted by Christ to His Apostles and their successors, bishops. In the controversy over the lapsed and the rigorists the common dispute was not between priests or theological writers, but rather between bishops and whether or not they could re-admit apostates under the traditional means. It would be wrong to limit Patristic Confession to the narrow issue of lapsing. Emperor Theodosius massacred thousands of Thessalonians in suppressing a revolt only to be refused entry into the churches of Milan by Saint Ambrose, who only welcomed the Emperor after months of public penance and changes to civil law.

Reconciliation of penitent on Mandy Thursday
source: Pitts Theological Library
Public and hierarchical Confession remained the norm in the Roman Church for some time and even survives in modern times in the traditional Pontificale Romanum of 1604 and 1962, when penitents are doused in ashes by the bishop on the first day of Lent and are reconciled to the Church through public absolution on Mandy Thursday. The latter ceremony is no longer observed because the former has been extended to all the faithful as a genera act of penance, but the intent remains.

A trend to private auricular Confession originated in oriental monasteries and slowly trickled to local churches East and West. Private spiritual counsel, accountability, and sacramental absolution did not fuse without as to who the proper minister of Confession was supposed to be or what constituted a valid Confession in the same way a priest, bread, and wine constitute a valid Eucharist. Saint Symeon the New Theologian veered into Donatism in his own writings on Confession:
 “Nor should you wish to become mediators for others before you have been filled with the Holy Spirit, and know, and are reconciled to the King of all, and can sense it in your soul. For neither can everyone who knows the earthly king be a mediator to him in behalf of others. Extremely few are able to do this, for they have acquired this familiarity before him because of their virtues and by their sweat and labours for him. And they do not have need of a mediator before him themselves but converse mouth to mouth with the king. Therefore, fathers and brothers, are we not going to keep the same order before God? Are we not going to honour the heavenly King even equally as we honour the earthly king? Are we going to usurp and grant ourselves the seat at His right and left before we even ask for it and receive it? Such recklessness! What shameful thing has taken hold of us? Why, even if we are called to give an account for nothing else, for this alone, that we are disdainful, we shall be disgraced and denied a seat of dignity and cast into eternal fire. Now what has been said is sufficient for the exhortation of those who wish to be careful about themselves. For this sake, our words have digressed a little beyond the subject at hand. But now, my son, we shall address what you asked to learn about.
 “Confession to a monk who does not have holy orders, you will find, was practised everywhere ever since monks existed and the garment of repentance and, the monastic life were given by God in His legacy, as it is recorded in the divinely inspired writings of the Fathers. And if you look into them, you will find that what we are saying is true. Prior to this, as successors to the holy Apostles, only bishops received the power to bind and loose. But as the time passed, the bishops became corrupt, and this fearful undertaking passed on to priests who had a blameless life and were worthy of grace. And later, the priests as well, as the bishops associated with and became just like the rest of the people. And many of them, just as now, would fall into spirits of delusion and vain, empty speech and would be lost. Then the power to bind and loose was transferred to the chosen among the people of God, that is to say, to the monks. It was not that it was removed from the priests and bishops, but that the priests and bishops estranged themselves from this grace. “For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God,” as the Apostle Paul says, and “he ought, as for the people, so also for himself offer” sacrifice” (Letter on Confession 10-11).

In the West the historical legacy of public Confession left lingering uncertainty as to whether or not a deacon could hear private Confessions in the same manner ministers of the Church witnessed them publically. Canon 32 of the Council of Elvira—more remembered and debated for what it says about clerical continence in canon 33 than, for instance, excluding those who get abortions from Communion until and including the moment of death—gives the deacon as an acceptable witness of a sinner’s penance if the bishop is unavailable. In a public setting the witness of penance seems to be something different from absolution, but by the 11th century a general uncertainty pervaded in England as to whether or not deacons ought to hear auricular, private confessions until St. Edmund of Canterbury and Bishop Walter of Durham both explicitly condemned the practice on the grounds deacons could not grant absolution. It would seem the early medieval church, in some places, confused the power to impose and witness penance in the name of the Church with the sacerdotal power to absolve confessed transgressions, a distinction the aforementioned Catholic Encyclopedia fails to make.

Latin regulation of the sacrament by local ordinaries restricted the right to hear confessions to parish priests or other specifically licensed ministers, be they monks or canons. The unique right of parish priests to absolve is key in the Middle Ages, a time when the proliferation of liturgical worship at the parish level meant guilds and wealthy laymen hired chaplains and “Massing priests” for no other purpose than to hold votive Masses and Offices every single day either in the patrons’ houses or devotional altars maintained at the parish; these men could not, however, provide spiritual guidance or forgiveness.

After Lateran IV imposed Confession at least once a year on every Catholic parish priests began to use the encounter of the sacrament to test people’s knowledge of their faith and correct it where it was lacking. Primers from the late Middle Ages recount basic articles of faith a Confessor might test; similarly, manuals of generic penances also contain basic questions that every Catholic should be able to answer, something of a 15th century Baltimore Catechism. Confession, like Communion, was something the medieval Church only demanded one do once a year, but unlike Communion it could be visited more frequently without demonstrating to one’s worth to one’s pastor. At the very least people would make their annual confessions after the morning vesperal Mass on Holy Saturday, reconcile to the rest of the community after Mattins that evening, and Communicate prior to the Mass of the Resurrection the following morning.

Greek churches, by contrast, rarely sought out the parish priest for Confession, normally a married man. Instead the faithful preferred, and today many still prefer, to confess to an ordained monk. Monasticism in Greek rite cities is less exotic and other worldly than in the Latin Church, making monks normative and accessible ministers of Confession. Indeed, confessing to a monk remains a desirable component to any fruitful visit to a Greek rite monastery.

Then came the Reformation.

Much like how all priests became sermonists in the wake of Trent, so Latin bishops also generally gave any priest within their dioceses the faculties to hear confessions, something novel in practice but consistent in principle with sacramental power descending from the bishop. I cannot say if the ceremony of repeating Christ’s words in John 20 and the unfolding of the priest’s chasuble at ordination was given to all ordinands, even “Massing priests”, before Trent, but it was after Trent. The Tridentine expansion of Confession’s availability proved prescient for the needs of Western Christendom over the next several centuries as it empowered missionaries to South America and Asia as well as Jesuits who would operate furtive ministries in England and Ireland.

In the baroque, post-Tridentine Latin Church sacramental Confession and repentance reclaimed their prominence in a manner missing since the first millennium, when not all the Western world was Christian. While the medieval Latin Church valued Confession and prized great penitents like Ss. Mary Magdalen and Anthony of Egypt, Christians of those days emphasized maximal liturgy, the Mass and Office, as well as the intercession of the saints more in quotidian piety. The post-Reformation shift towards a world wherein Catholicism was merely the majority religion meant individuals could no longer rely on a presumptively traditional culture to strengthen their virtues, to say nothing of those returning from heresy or schism. So Confession occupied an important role in living a life of constant repentance and virtue in the years between the Reformation and the mid-20th century. The ascendant Jesuit order became famous for its ability to provide spiritual counsel for laymen within the context of Confession. St. Philip Neri began the Oratory long before becoming a priest and was only ordained so that he might be able to hear the confessions of his brethren. And above all the general conscience of Latin Christianity evaluated the ministry of certain priests based on their capabilities as Confession fathers; St. Jean Vianney’s sermons illuminated few, but his Confessions converted a city.
Confession by Pietro Longhi
source: Wikipedia
It must be said, however, that however capable the early Jesuits or the Cure d’Ars were as Confessors, a general sensibility had set into Latin Christianity by the start of the 20th century that the purpose of Confession was to get rid of sins and enable one to Communicate. While this is true, the possibility under Canon Law and modern transportation to confess to anyone has diluted the traditional aspects of repentance and accountability to a particular individual. Here in Texas, where the Hispanic community keeps the Confession lines long and populous, the “box” is little more than an absolution factory with myriad choices of venue every day of the week. Behind the screen, something invented for the chastity of women and not the anonymity of men, one can be absolved and elude any lasting rebuke of sin.

In this regard the Eastern Churches have kept the spirit of Confession better preserved, at least structurally; a Latin Christian with the right perspective can, of course, do Confession properly. In the Greek tradition one’s Confession father is the regular source of spiritual counsel and advice. He is the man who keeps a sinner accountable for his sins and, although he may not assign a penance, guides the penitent in an on-going process of penance. Although anonymous Confession was invented in the Latin Church to keep women free of felonious priests, the trend toward the screen caught on for men everywhere. In the Greek tradition Confession is not “face-to-face”, but there is no barrier; one confesses before an image of Christ with the priest baring witness and welcoming the penitent back into the fold by wrapping his epitrachelion (stole) over his head while giving absolution, symbolizing a shepherd protecting a recovered lamb.

Confession is many things. Above all it is a Sacrament of repentance, and for that reason it is worth considering in its purpose and use during this season of Lent. As we confess our sins let us recall that we ought to want to sin no more and that Confession is part of the design in getting us to refrain from our old ways. A link to Saint James, to Augustine, to the medieval Church, and the modern spiritual masters, Confession is another way to connect to the Cross, dying to the self so that Christ may live.

A blessed Lent to all.


  1. A blessed Lent, sir. Great article.

    What about the modern practice of general Confessions? Can they be traced through the older public and hierarchical Confessions?

  2. The canon you mentioned is 63.

    "Monasticism in Greek rite cities is less exotic and other worldly than in the Latin Church[...]" Could you elaborate a bit more on this?

    Some years ago chance arranged things that I confessed and received absolution in an almost Eastern fashion: on my knees before the altar. That day it really came home to me how the sacrament is one of healing [the priest absolved me with a literal laying on of hand on my head] and reconciliation to the Church [taking place in sight of the altar, whence we receive the Eucharist - the bond of communion].

  3. "Saint Ambrose, who only welcomed the Emperor after months of public penance and changes to civil law." (...) "Above all it is a Sacrament of repentance".

    I've been thinking that the Early Church has had a view that the penance/repentance/conversion is the actual matter of the sacrament. The penitent is assigned a penance, he does it, the Church confirms with authority that he's done it, and then witnesses, implores and intercedes for the penitent with that which he has done hoping more in God's abundant mercy then in good works of her own.

    If you take a sacrament as a sign, you can say that in sacrament of penance, penitents penance is a sign of his repentance, and that sign, joined by the prayer of the Church, becomes effective for the forgiveness of sins.