Traditional Belief and Practice
How firmly rooted in the Catholic mind is the belief in the efficacy and
necessity of confession, appears clearly from the fact that the Sacrament of
Penance endures in the Church after the countless attacks to which it has
been subjected during the last four centuries. If at the Reformation or
since the Church could have surrendered a doctrine or abandoned a practice
for the sake of peace and to soften a “hard saying”, confession would have
been the first to disappear. Yet it is precisely during this period that
the Church has defined in the most exact terms the nature of penance and
most vigorously insisted on the necessity of confession. It will not of
course be denied that at the beginning of the sixteenth century confession
was generally practised throughout the Christian world. The Reformers
themselves, notably Calvin, admitted that it had been in existence for three
centuries when they attributed its origin to the Fourth Lateran Council
(1215). At that time, according to Lea (op. cit., I, 228), the necessity of
confession “became a new article of faith” and the canon, omnis utriusque
sexus, “is perhaps the most important legislative act in the history of the
Church” (ibid., 230). But, as the Council of Trent affirms, “the Church did
not through the Lateran Council prescribe that the faithful of Christ should
confess—a thing which it knew to be by Divine right necessary and
established—but that the precept of confessing at least once a year should
be complied with by all and every one when they reached the age of
discretion” (Sess., XIV, c. 5). The Lateran edict presupposed the necessity
of confession as an article of Catholic belief and laid down a law as to the
minimum frequency of confession—at least once a year.
In the Middle Ages
In constructing their systems of theology, the medieval doctors discuss at
length the various problems connected with the Sacrament of Penance. They
are practically unanimous in holding that confession is obligatory; the only
notable exception in the twelfth century is Gratian, who gives the arguments
for and against the necessity of confessing to a priest and leaves the
question open (Decretum, p. II, De poen., d. 1, in P.L., CLXXXVII, 1519-63).
Peter Lombard (d. about 1150) takes up the authorities cited by Gratian and
by means of them proves that “without confession there is no pardon” . . .
“no entrance into paradise” (IV Sent., d. XVII, 4, in P.L., CXCII, 880-2).
The principal debate, in which Hugh of St. Victor, Abelard, Robert Pullus,
and Peter of Poitiers took the leading parts, concerned the origin and
sanction of the obligation, and the value of the different Scriptural texts
cited to prove the institution of penance. This question passed on to the
thirteenth century and received its solution in very plain terms from St.
Thomas Aquinas. Treating (Contra Gentes, IV, 72) of the necessity of
penance and its parts, he shows that “the institution of confession was
necessary in order that the sin of the penitent might be revealed to
Christ’s minister; hence the minister to whom the confession is made must
have judicial power as representing Christ, the Judge of the living and the
dead. This power again requires two things: authority of knowledge and
power to absolve or to condemn. These are called the two keys of the Church
which the Lord entrusted to Peter (Matthew 16:19). But they were not given
to Peter to be held by him alone, but to be handed on through him to others;
else sufficient provision would not have been made for the salvation of the
faithful. These keys derive their efficacy from the passion of Christ
whereby He opened to us the gate of the heavenly kingdom”. And he adds that
as no one can be saved without baptism either by actual reception or by
desire, so they who sin after baptism cannot be saved unless they submit to
the keys of the Church either by actually confessing or by the resolve to
confess when opportunity permits. Furthermore, as the rulers of the Church
cannot dispense any one from baptism as a means of salvation neither can
they give a dispensation whereby the sinner may be forgiven without
confession and absolution. The same explanation and reasoning is given by
all the Scholastics of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They were
in practical agreement as to the necessity of jurisdiction in the confessor.
Regarding the time at which confession had to be made, some held with
William of Auvergne that one was obliged to confess as soon as possible
after sinning; others with Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas that it sufficed
to confess within the time limits prescribed by the Church (Paschal Time);
and this more lenient view finally prevailed. Further subjects of
discussion during this period were the choice of confessor; the obligation
of confessing before receiving other sacraments, especially the Eucharist;
the integrity of confession; the obligation of secrecy on the part of the
confessor, i.e., the seal of confession. The careful and minute treatment
of these points and the frank expression of divergent opinions were
characteristic of the Schoolmen but they also brought out more clearly the
central truths regarding penance and they opened the way to the conciliar
pronouncements at Florence and Trent which gave to Catholic doctrine a more
precise formulation. See Vacandard and Bernard in “Dict. de theol. cath.”,
s.v. Confession; Turmel, “Hist. de la theologie positive”, Paris, 1904;
Cambier, “De divina institutione confessionis sacramentalis”, Louvain, 1884.
Not only was the obligation recognized in the Catholic Church throughout the
Middle Ages, but the schismatic Greeks held the same belief and still hold
it. They fell into schism under Photius in 869, but retained confession,
which therefore must have been in use for some time previous to the ninth
century. The practice, moreover, was regulated in detail by the Penitential
Books (q.v.), which prescribed thecanonical penance for each sin, and minute
questions for the examination of the penitent. The most famous of these
books among the Greeks were those attributed to John the Faster and to John
the Monk. In the West similar works were written by the Irish monks St.
Columbanus (d. 615) and Cummian, and by the Englishmen Ven. Bede (d. 735),
Egbert (d. 767), and Theodore of Canterbury (d. 690). Besides the councils
mentioned above (Minister) decrees pertaining to confession were enacted at
Worms (868), Paris (820), Châlons (813, 650), Tours (813), Reims (1113).
The Council of Chaleuth (785) says: “if any one (which God forbid) should
depart this life without penance or confession he is not to be prayed for”.
The significant feature about these enactments is that they do not introduce
confession as a new practice, but take it for granted and regulate its
administration. Hereby they put into practical effect what had been handed
down by tradition.
St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) teaches “the affliction of penance is
efficacious in blotting out sins when it is enjoined by the sentence of the
priest when the burden of it is decided by him in proportion to the offence
after weighing the deeds of those who confess” (In I Reg., III, v, n. 13 in
P.L., LXXIX, 207); Pope Leo the Great (440-61), who is often credited with
the institution of confession, refers to it as an “Apostolic rule”. Writing
to the bishops of Campania he forbids as an abuse “contrary to the Apostolic
rule” (contra apostolicam regulam) the reading out in public of a written
statement of their sins drawn up by the faithful, because, he declares, “it
suffices that the guilt of conscience be manifested to priests alone in
secret confession” (Ep. clxviii in P.L., LIV, 1210). In another letter
(Ep. cviii in P. L., LIV, 1011), after declaring that by Divine ordinance
the mercy of God can be obtained only through the supplications of the
priests, he adds: “the mediator between and men, Christ Jesus, gave the
rulers of the Church this power that they should impose penance on those who
confess and admit them when purified by salutary satisfaction to the
communion of the sacraments through the gateway of reconciliation. “The
earlier Fathers frequently speak of sin as a disease which needs treatment,
something drastic, at the hands of the spiritual physician or surgeon. St.
Augustine (d. 450) tells the sinner: “an abscess had formed in your
conscience; it tormented you and gave you no rest. . . . confess, and in
confession let the pus come out and flow away” (In ps. lxvi, n. 6). St.
Jerome (d. 420) comparing the priests of the New Law with those of the Old
who decided between leprosy and leprosy, says: “likewise in the New
Testament the bishops and the priest bind or loose . . . in virtue of their
office”, having heard various sorts of sinners, they know who is to be bound
and who is to be loosed” . . . (In Matt., xvi, 19); in his “Sermon on
Penance” he says: “let no one find it irksome to show his wound vulnus
confiteri) because without confession it cannot be healed.” St. Ambrose (d.
397): “this right (of loosing and binding) has been conferred on priests
only” (De pen., I, ii, n. 7); St. Basil (d. 397): “As men do not make known
their bodily ailments to anybody and everybody, but only to those who are
skilled in healing, so confession of sin ought to be made to those who can
cure it” (Reg. brevior., 229).
For those who sought to escape the obligation of confession it was natural
enough to assert that repentance was the affair of the soul alone with its
Maker, and that no intermediary was needed. It is this pretext that St.
Augustine sweeps aside in one of his sermons: “Let no one say I do penance
secretly; I perform it in the sight of God, and He who is to pardon me knows
that in my heart I repent”. Whereupon St. Augustine asks: “Was it then said
to no purpose, ‘What you shall loose upon earth shall be loosed in heaven?’
Was it for nothing that the keys were given to the Church?” (Sermo cccxcii,
n. 3, in P.L., XXXIX, 1711). The Fathers, of course, do not deny that sin
must be confessed to God; at times, indeed, in exhorting the faithful to
confess, they make no mention of the priest; but such passages must be taken
in connection with the general teaching of the Fathers and with the
traditional belief of the Church. Their real meaning is expressed, e.g., by
Anastasius Sinaita (seventh century): “Confess your sins to Christ through
the priest” (De sacra synaxi), and by Egbert, Archbishop of York (d. 766):
“Let the sinner confess his evil deeds to God, that the priest may know what
penance to impose” (Mansi, Coll. Conc., XII, 232). For the passages in St.
John Chrysostom, see Hurter, “Theol. dogmat.”, III, 454; Pesch,
“Praelectiones”, VII, 165.
The Fathers, knowing well that one great difficulty which the sinner has to
overcome is shame, encourage him in spite of it to confess. “I appeal to
you, my brethren”, says St. Pacian (d. 391), “. . . you who are not ashamed
to sin and yet are ashamed to confess . . . I beseech you, cease to hide
your wounded conscience. Sick people who are prudent do not fear the
physician, though he cut and burn even the secret parts of the body”
(Paraenesis ad poenit., n. 6, 8). St. John Chrysostom (d. 347) pleads
eloquently with the sinner: “Be not ashamed to approach (the priest) because
you have sinned, nay rather, for this very reason approach. No one says:
Because I have an ulcer, I will not go near a physician or take medicine; on
the contrary, it is just this that makes it needful to call in physicians
and apply remedies. We (priests) know well how to pardon, because we
ourselves are liable to sin. This is why God did not give us angels to be
our doctors, nor send down Gabriel to rule the flock, but from the fold
itself he chooses the shepherds, from among the sheep He appoints the
leader, in order that he may be inclined to pardon his followers and,
keeping in mind his own fault, may not set himself in hardness against the
members of the flock” (Hom. “On Frequent Assembly” in P.G., LXIII, 463).
Tertullian had already used the same argument with those who, for fear of
exposing their sins, put off their confession from day to day—“mindful more
of their shame than of their salvation, like those who hide from the
physician the malady they suffer in the secret parts of the body, and thus
perish through bashfulness. . . . because we withhold anything from the
knowledge of men, do we thereby conceal it from God? . . . Is it better to
hide and be damned than to be openly absolved?” ("De poenit.”, x). St.
Cyprian (d. 258) pleads for greater mildness in the treatment of sinners,
“since we find that no one ought to be forbidden to do penance and that to
those who implore the mercy of God peace can be granted through His priests.
. . . And because in hell there is no confession, nor can exomologesis be
made there, they who repent with their whole heart and ask for it, should be
received into the Church and therein saved unto the Lord” (Ep. lv,
“Ad Antonian.”, n. 29). Elsewhere he says that many who do not do penance
or confess their guilt are filled with unclean spirits; and by contrast he
praises the greater faith and more wholesome fear of those who, though not
guilty of any idolatrous action, “nevertheless, because they thought of
[such action], confess [their thought] in sorrow and simplicity to the
priests of God, make the exomologesis of their conscience, lay bare the
burden of their soul, and seek a salutary remedy even for wounds that are
slight” ("De lapsis”, xxvi sqq.). Origen (d. 154) compares the sinner to
those whose stomachs are overloaded with undigested food or with excess of
humours and phlegm if they vomit, they are relieved, “so, too, those who
have sinned, if they conceal and keep the sin within, they are distressed
and almost choked by its humour or phlegm. But if they accuse themselves
and confess, they at the same time vomit the sin and cast off every cause
of disease” (Homil. on Ps. xxxvii, n. 6, in P.G., XII, 1386). St. Irenæus
(130-102) relates the case of certain women whom the Gnostic Marcus had led
into sin. “Some of them”, he says, “perform their exomologesis openly also
[etiam in manifesto], while others, afraid to do this, draw back in silence,
despairing to regain the life of God” ("Adv. haer.”, I, xiii, 7, in P.G.,
VII, 591). This etiam in manifesto suggests at least that they had
confessed privately, but could not bring themselves to make a public
confession. The advantage of confession as against the concealment of sin
is shown in the words of St. Clement of Rome in his letter to the
Corinthians: “It is better for a man to confess his sins than to harden his
heart” (Ep. I, “Ad Cor.”, li, 1).
This outline of the patristic teaching shows:
that the Fathers insisted on a manifestation of sin as the necessary
means of unburdening the soul and regaining the friendship of God;
that the confession was to be made not to a layman but to priests;
that priests exercise the power of absolving in virtue of a Divine
commission, i.e., as representatives of Christ;
that the sinner, if he would be saved, must overcome his shame and
repugnance to confession.
And since the series of witnesses goes back to the latter part of the first
century, the practice of confession must have existed from the earliest
days. St. Leo had good reason for appealing to the “Apostolic rule” which
made secret confession to the priest sufficient without the necessity of a
public declaration. Nor is it surprising that Lactantius (d. c. 330) should
have pointed to the practice of confession as a characteristic of the true
Church: “That is the true Church in which there is confession and penance,
which applies a wholesome remedy to the sins and wounds whereunto the
weakness of the flesh is subject” ("Div. lnst.”, IV, 30).
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