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The Confessor as Minister of the Sacrament
 Penance & Reconcil. 

The Confessor as Minister of The Sacrament

From the judicial character of this sacrament it follows that not every member of the Church is qualified to forgive sins; the administration of penance is reserved to those who are invested with authority. That this power does not belong to the laity is evident from the Bull of Martin V “Inter cunctas” (1418) which among other questions to be answered by the followers of Wyclif and Huss, has this: “whether he believes that the Christian . . . is bound as a necessary means of salvation to confess to a priest only and not to a layman or to laymen however good and devout” (Denzinger-Bannwart, “Enchir.”, 670). Luther’s proposition, that “any Christian, even a woman or a child” could in the absence of a priest absolve as well as pope or bishop, was condemned (1520) by Leo X in the Bull “Exurge Domine” (Enchir., 753). The Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, c. 6) condemns as “false and as at variance with the truth of the Gospel all doctrines which extend the ministry of the keys to any others than bishops and priests, imagining that the words of the Lord (Matthew 18:18; John 20:23) were, contrary to the institution of this sacrament, addressed to all the faithful of Christ in such wise that each and every one has the power of remitting sin”. The Catholic doctrine, therefore, is that only bishops and priests can exercise the power.

These decrees moreover put an end, practically, to the usage, which had sprung up and lasted for some time in the Middle Ages, of confessing to a layman in case of necessity. This custom originated in the conviction that he who had sinned was obliged to make known his sin to some one—to a priest if possible, otherwise to a layman. In the work “On true penance and false” (De vera et falsa poenitentia), erroneously ascribed to St. Augustine, the counsel is given: “So great is the power of confession that if a priest be not at hand, let him (the person desiring to confess) confess to his neighbour.” But in the same place the explanation is given: “although he to whom the confession is made has no power to absolve, nevertheless he who confesses to his fellow (socio) becomes worthy of pardon through his desire of confessing to a priest” (P. L., XL, 1113). Lea, who cites (I, 220) the assertion of the Pseudo-Augustine about confession to one’s neighbour, passes over the explanation. He consequently sets in a wrong light a series of incidents illustrating the practice and gives but an imperfect idea of the theological discussion which it aroused. Though Albertus Magnus (In IV Sent., dist. 17, art. 58) regarded as sacramental the absolution granted by a layman while St. Thomas (IV Sent., d. 17, q. 3, a. 3, sol. 2) speaks of it as “quodammodo sacramentalis”, other great theologians took a quite different view. Alexander of Hales (Summa, Q. xix, De confessione memb., I, a. 1) says that it is an “imploring of absolution”; St. Bonaventure ("Opera’, VII, p. 345, Lyons, 1668) that such a confession even in cases of necessity is not obligatory, but merely a sign of contrition; Scotus (IV Sent., d. 14, q. 4) that there is no precept obliging one to confess to a layman and that this practice may be very detrimental; Durandus of St. Pourcain (IV Sent., d. 17, q. 12) that in the absence of a priest, who alone can absolve in the tribunal of penance, there is no obligation to confess; Prierias (Summa Silv., s.v. Confessor, I, 1) that if absolution is given by a layman, the confession must be repeated whenever possible; this in fact was the general opinion. It is not then surprising that Dominicus Soto, writing in 1564, should find it difficult to believe that such a custom ever existed: “since (in confession to a layman) there was no sacrament . . . it is incredible that men, of their own accord and with no profit to themselves, should reveal to others the secrets of their conscience” (IV Sent., d. 18, q. 4, a. 1). Since, therefore, the weight of theological opinion gradually turned against the practice and since the practice never received the sanction of the Church, it cannot be urged as a proof that the power to forgive sins belonged at any time to the laity. What the practice does show is that both people -and theologians realized keenly the obligation of confessing their sins not to God alone but to some human listener, even though the latter possessed no power to absolve.

The same exaggerated notion appears in the practice of confessing to the deacons in case of necessity. They were naturally preferred to laymen when no priest was accessible because in virtue of their office they administered Holy Communion. Moreover, some of the earlier councils (Elvira, A. D. 300; Toledo, 400) and penitentials (Theodore) seemed to grant the power of penance to the deacon (in the priest’s absence). The Council of Tribur (895) declared in regard to bandits that if, when captured or wounded they confessed to a priest or a deacon, they should not be denied communion; and this expression “presbytero vel diacono” was incorporated in the Decree of Gratian and in many later documents from the tenth century to the thirteenth. The Council of York (1195) decreed that except in the gravest necessity the deacon should not baptize, give communion, or “impose penance on one who confessed”. Substantially the same enactments are found in the Councils of London (1200) and Rouen (1231), the constitutions of St. Edmund of Canterbury (1236), and those of Walter of Kirkham, Bishop of Durham (1255). All these enactments, though stringent enough as regards ordinary circumstances, make exception for urgent necessity. No such exception is allowed in the decree of the Synod of Poitiers (1280): “desiring to root out an erroneous abuse which has grown up in our diocese through dangerous ignorance, we forbid deacons to hear confessions or to give absolution in the tribunal of penance: for it is certain and beyond doubt that they cannot absolve, since they have not the keys which are conferred only in the priestly order”. This “abuse” probably disappeared in the fourteenth or fifteenth century; at all events no direct mention is made of it by the Council of Trent, though the reservation to bishops and priests of the absolving power shows plainly that the Council excluded deacons.

The authorization which the medieval councils gave the deacon in case of necessity did not confer the power to forgive sins. In some of the decrees it is expressly stated that the deacon has not the keys—claves non habent. In other enactments he is forbidden except in cases of necessity to “give” or “impose penance”, poenitentiam dare, imponere. His function then was limited to the forum externum; in the absence of a priest he could “reconcile” the sinner, i.e., restore him to the communion of the Church; but he did not and could not give the sacramental absolution which a priest would have given (Palmieri, Pesch). Another explanation emphasizes the fact that the deacon could faithfully administer the Holy Eucharist. The faithful were under a strict obligation to receive Communion at the approach of death, and on the other hand the reception of this sacrament sufficed to blot out even mortal sin provided the communicant had the requisite dispositions. The deacon could hear their confession simply to assure himself that they were properly disposed, but not for the purpose of giving them absolution. If he went further and “imposed penance” in the stricter, sacramental sense, he exceeded his power, and any authorization to this effect granted by the bishop merely showed that the bishop was in error (Laurain, “De l’intervention des laïques, des diacres et des abbesses dans l’administration de la pénitence”, Paris, 1897). In any case, the prohibitory enactments which finally abolished the practice did not deprive the deacon of a power which was his by virtue of his office; but they brought into clearer light the traditional belief that only bishops and priests can administer the Sacrament of Penance. (See below under Confession.)

For valid administration, a twofold power is necessary: the power of order and the power of jurisdiction. The former is conferred by ordination, the latter by ecclesiastical authority (see JURISDICTION). At his ordination a priest receives the power to consecrate the Holy Eucharist, and for valid consecration he needs no jurisdiction. As regards penance, the case is different: “because the nature and character of a judgment requires that sentence be pronounced only on those who are subjects (of the judge) the Church of God has always held, and this Council affirms it to be most true, that the absolution which a priest pronounces upon one over whom he has not either ordinary or delegated jurisdiction, is of no effect” (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, c. 7). Ordinary jurisdiction is that which one has by reason of his office as involving the care of souls; the pope has it over the whole Church, the bishop within his diocese, the pastor within his parish. Delegated jurisdiction is that which is granted by an ecclesiastical superior to one who does not possess it by virtue of his office. The need of jurisdiction for administering this sacrament is usually expressed by saying that a priest must have “faculties” to hear confession (see FACULTIES). Hence it is that a priest visiting in a diocese other than his own cannot hear confession without special authorization from the bishop. Every priest, however, can absolve anyone who is at the point of death, because under those circumstances the Church gives all priests jurisdiction. As the bishop grants jurisdiction, he can also limit it by “reserving” certain cases (see RESERVATION) and he can even withdraw it entirely.


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

 Penance & Reconcil. 
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