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Belief and Practice of The Early Church
 Penance & Reconcil. 

Belief and Practice of The Early Church

Among the modernistic propositions condemned by Pius X in the Decree “Lamentabili sane” (3 July, 1907) are the following:

  • “In the primitive Church there was no concept of the reconciliation of the Christian sinner by the authority of the Church, but the Church by very slow degrees only grew accustomed to this concept. Moreover, even after penance came to be recognized as an institution of the Church, it was not called by the name of sacrament, because it was regarded as an odious sacrament.” (46)

  • “The Lord’s words: ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost, whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain they are retained’ (John xx, 22-23), in no way refer to the Sacrament of Penance, whatever the Fathers of Trent may have been pleased to assert.” (47)

According to the Council of Trent, the consensus of all the Fathers always understood that by the words of Christ just cited, the power of forgiving and retaining sins was communicated to the Apostles and their lawful successors (Sess. XIV, c. i). It is therefore Catholic doctrine that the Church from the earliest times believed in the power to forgive sins as granted by Christ to the Apostles. Such a belief in fact was clearly inculcated by the words with which Christ granted the power, and it would have been inexplicable to the early Christians if any one who professed faith in Christ had questioned the existence of that power in the Church. But if, contrariwise, we suppose that no such belief existed from the beginning, we encounter a still greater difficulty: the first mention of that power would have been regarded as an innovation both needless and intolerable; it would have shown little practical wisdom on the part of those who were endeavouring to draw men to Christ; and it would have raised a protest or led to a schism which would certainly have gone on record as plainly at least as did early divisions on matters of less importance. But no such record is found; even those who sought to limit the power itself presupposed its existence, and their very attempt at limitation put them in opposition to the prevalent Catholic belief.

Turning now to evidence of a positive sort, we have to note that the statements of any Father or orthodox ecclesiastical writer regarding penance present not merely his own personal view, but the commonly accepted belief; and furthermore that the belief which they record was no novelty at the time, but was the traditional doctrine handed down by the regular teaching of the Church and embodied in her practice. In other words, each witness speaks for a past that reaches back to the beginning, even when he does not expressly appeal to tradition.

  • 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” (De poenit., I, ii,6).

  • Again he teaches that this power was to be a function of the priesthood. “It seemed impossible that sins should be forgiven through penance; Christ granted this (power) to the Apostles and from the Apostles it has been transmitted to the office of priests” (op. cit., II, ii, 12).

  • The power to forgive extends to all sins: “God makes no distinction; He promised mercy to all and to His priests He granted the authority to pardon without any exception” (op. cit., I, iii, 10).

  • Against the same heretics St. Pacian, Bishop of Barcelona (d. 390), wrote to Sympronianus, one of their leaders: “This (forgiving sins), you say, only God can do. Quite true: but what He does through His priests is the doing of His own power” (Ep. I ad Sympron, 6 in P.L., XIII, 1057).

  • In the East during the same period we have the testimony of St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 447): “Men filled with the spirit of God (i.e. priests) forgive sins in two ways, either by admitting to baptism those who are worthy or by pardoning the penitent children of the Church” (In Joan., 1, 12 in P.G., LXXIV, 722).

  • St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) after declaring that neither angels nor archangels have received such power, and after showing that earthly rulers can bind only the bodies of men, declares that the priest’s power of forgiving sins “penetrates to the soul and reaches up to heaven”. Wherefore, he concludes, “it were manifest folly to condemn so great a power without which we can neither obtain heaven nor come to the fulfillment of the promises. . . . Not only when they (the priests) regenerate us (baptism), but also after our new birth, they can forgive us our sins” (De sacred., III, 5 sq.).

  • 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).

These extracts show that the Fathers recognized in penance a power and a utility quite distinct from that of baptism. Repeatedly they compare in figurative language the two means of obtaining pardon; or regarding baptism as spiritual birth, they describe penance as the remedy for the ills of the soul contracted after that birth. But a more important fact is that both in the West and in the East, the Fathers constantly appeal to the words of Christ and given them the same interpretation that was given eleven centuries later by the Council of Trent. In this respect they simply echoed the teachings of the earlier Fathers who had defended Catholic doctrine against the heretics of the third and second centuries. Thus St. Cyprian in his “De lapsis” (A.D. 251) rebukes those who had fallen away in time of persecution, but he also exhorts them to penance: “Let each confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession can be received, while satisfaction and the forgiveness granted by the priests is acceptable to God” (c. xxix). (See LAPSI.) The heretic Novatian, on the contrary, asserted that “it is unlawful to admit apostates to the communion of the Church; their forgiveness must be left with God who alone can grant it” (Socrates, “Hist. eccl.”, V, xxviii). Novatian and his party did not at first deny the power of the Church to absolve from sin; they affirmed that apostasy placed the sinner beyond the reach of that power—an error which was condemned by a synod at Rome in 251 (See NOVATIANISM.)

The distinction between sins that could be forgiven and others that could not, originated in the latter half of the second century as the doctrine of the Montanists, and especially of Tertullian. While still a Catholic, Tertullian wrote (A.D. 200-6) his “De poenitentia” in which he distinguishes two kinds of penance, one as a preparation for baptism, the other to obtain forgiveness of certain grievous sins committed after baptism, i.e., apostasy, murder, and adultery. For these, however, he allows only one forgiveness: “Foreseeing these poisons of the Evil One, God, although the gate of forgiveness has been shut and fastened up with the bar of baptism, has permitted it still to stand somewhat open. In the vestibule He has stationed a second repentance for opening to such as knock; but now once for all, because now for the second time; but never more, because the last time it had been in vain. . . . However, if any do incur the debt of a second repentance, his spirit is not to be forthwith cut down and undermined by despair. Let it be irksome to sin again, but let it not be irksome to repent again; let it be irksome to imperil oneself again, but let no one be ashamed to be set free again. Repeated sickness must have repeated medicine” (De poen., VII). Tertullian does not deny that the Church can forgive sins; he warns sinners against relapse, yet exhorts them to repent in case they should fall. His attitude at the time was not surprising, since in the early days the sins above mentioned were severely dealt with; this was done for disciplinary reasons, not because the Church lacked power to forgive.

In the minds, however, of some people the idea was developing that not only the exercise of the power but the power itself was limited. Against this false notion Pope Callistus (218-22) published his “peremptory edict” in which he declares: “I forgive the sins both of adultery and of fornication to those who have done penance.” Thereupon Tertullian, now become a Montanist, wrote his “De pudicitia” (A. D. 217-22). In this work he rejects without scruple what he had taught as a Catholic: “I blush not at an error which I have cast off because I am delighted at being rid of it . . . one is not ashamed of his own improvement.” The “error” which he imputes to Callistus and the Catholics was that the Church could forgive all sins: this, therefore, was the orthodox doctrine which Tertullian the heretic denied. In place of it he sets up the distinction between lighter sins which the bishop could forgive and more grievous sins which God alone could forgive. Though in an earlier treatise, “Scorpiace”, he had said (c. x) that “the Lord left here to Peter and through him to the Church the keys of heaven” he now denies that the power granted to Peter had been transmitted to the Church, i.e., to the numerus episcoporum or body of bishops. Yet he claims this power for the “spirituals” (pneumatici), although these, for prudential reasons, do not make use of it. To the arguments of the “Psychici”, as he termed the Catholics, he replies: “But the Church, you say, has the power to forgive sin. This I, even more than you, acknowledge and adjudge. I who in the new prophets have the Paraclete saying: ‘The Church can forgive sin, but I will not do that (forgive) lest they (who are forgiven) fall into other sins” (De pud., XXI, vii). Thus Tertullian, by the accusation which he makes against the pope and by the restriction which he places upon the exercise of the power of forgiving sin, bears witness to the existence of that power in the Church which he had abandoned.

Not content with assailing Callistus and his doctrine, Tertullian refers to the “Shepherd” (Pastor), a work written A.D. 140-54, and takes its author Hermas to task for favouring the pardon of adulterers. In the days of Hermas there was evidently a school of rigorists who insisted that there was no pardon for sin committed after baptism (Simil. VIII, vi). Against this school the author of the “Pastor” takes a resolute stand. He teaches that by penance the sinner may hope for reconciliation with God and with the Church. “Go and tell all to repent and they shall live unto God. Because the Lord having had compassion, has sent me to give repentance to all men, although some are not worthy of it on account of their works” (Simil. VIII, ii). Hermas, however, seems to give but one opportunity for such reconciliation, for in Mandate IV, i, he seems to state categorically that “there is but one repentance for the servants of God”, and further on in c. iii he says the Lord has had mercy on the work of his hands and hath set repentance for them; “and he has entrusted to me the power of this repentance. And therefore I say to you, if any one has sinned . . he has opportunity to repent once”. Repentance is therefore possible at least once in virtue of a power vested in the priest of God. That Hermas here intends to say that the sinner could be absolved only once in his whole life is by no means a necessary conclusion. His words may well be understood as referring to public penance (see below) and as thus understood they imply no limitation on the sacramental power itself. The same interpretation applies to the statement of Clement of Alexandria (d. circa A.D. 215): “For God being very merciful has vouchsafed in the case of those who, though in faith, have fallen into transgression, a second repentance, so that should anyone be tempted after his calling, he may still receive a penance not to be repented of” (Stromata, II, xiii).

The existence of a regular system of penance is also hinted at in the work of Clement, “Who is the rich man that shall be saved?”, where he tells the story of the Apostle John and his journey after the young bandit. John pledged his word that the youthful robber would find forgiveness from the Saviour; but even then a long seriouspenance was necessary before he could be restored to the Church. And when Clement concludes that “he who welcomes the angel of penance . . . will not be ashamed when he sees the Saviour”, most commentators think he alludes to the bishop or priest who presided over the ceremony of public penance. Even earlier, Dionysius of Corinth (d. circa A.D. 17O), setting himself against certain growing Marcionistic traditions, taught not only that Christ has left to His Church the power of pardon, but that no sin is so great as to be excluded from the exercise of that power. For this we have the authority of Eusebius, who says (Hist. eccl., IV, xxiii): “And writing to the Church which is in Amastris, together with those in Pontus, he commands them to receive those who come back after any fall, whether it be delinquency or heresy”.

The “Didache” (q.v.) written at the close of the first century or early in the second, in IV, xiv, and again in XIV, i, commands an individual confession in the congregation: “In the congregation thou shalt confess thy transgressions”; or again: “On the Lord’s Day come together and break bread . . . having confessed your transgressions that your sacrifice may be pure.” Clement I (d. 99) in his epistle to the Corinthians not only exhorts to repentance, but begs the seditious to “submit themselves to the presbyters and receive correction so as to repent” (c. lvii), and Ignatius of Antioch at the close of the first century speaks of the mercy of God to sinners, provided they return” with one consent to the unity of Christ and the communion of the bishop”. The clause “communion of the bishop” evidently means the bishop with his council of presbyters as assessors. He also says (Ad Philadel,) “that the bishop presides over penance”.

The transmission of this power is plainly expressed in the prayer used at the consecration of a bishop as recorded in the Canons of Hippolytus: “Grant him, 0 Lord, the episcopate and the spirit of clemency and the power to forgive sins” (c. xvii). Still more explicit is the formula cited in the “Apostolic Constitutions” (q.v.): “Grant him, 0 Lord almighty, through Thy Christ, the participation of Thy Holy Spirit, in order that he may have the power to remit sins according to Thy precept and Thy command, and to loosen every bond, whatsoever it be, according to the power which Thou hast granted to the Apostles.” (Const. Apost., VIII, 5 in P. (i., 1. 1073).


Written by Edward J. Hanna. Transcribed by Donald J. Boon.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York

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