Friday, October 05, 2012

A Brief History of the Sacrament of Penance

Jason Stellman made the claim “There’s a rich case that has been made from Scripture and the early fathers about the sacrament of reconciliation, in case you’re interested”.

As a cradle Catholic, I knew it as “confession”. Only later did it become “reconciliation”. Of course, whatever it was, the Council of Trent was quite adamant about it:

Canon 1. If anyone says that in the Catholic Church penance is not truly and properly a sacrament instituted by Christ the Lord for reconciling the faithful of God as often as they fall into sin after baptism, let him be anathema.

Canon 3. If anyone says that those words of the Lord Savior, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit, whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” are not to be understood of the power of forgiving and retaining sins in the sacrament of penance, as the Catholic Church has always understood them from the beginning, but distorts them, contrary to the institution of this sacrament, as applying to the authority of preaching the gospel, let him be anathema.

Canon 6. If anyone denies that sacramental confession was instituted by divine law or is necessary to salvation; or says that the manner of confessing secretly to a priest alone, which the Catholic Church has always observe from the beginning and still observes, is at variance with the institution and command of Christ and is a human contrivance, let him be anathema.

[Council of Trent, 1551].

For a variety of reasons, I’ve decided to follow up with that. Bavinck noted that “It was the Roman Catholic penitential system that prompted Luther’s reformational activity” (Vol 3, pg 517).

Alister McGrath gives something of a brief history of the sacrament:

“The systematic development of sacramental theology is a major feature of the medieval period, particularly between the years 1050 and 1240” (Cited in Alister McGrath,Iustitia Dei, A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, Third Edition, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, ©2005), pg. 117.

McGrath also notes that Peter Lombard’s inclusion of penance among the seven sacraments was “an inclusion which is of major significance to the development of the doctrine of justification within the sphere of the western church” (120-121). He also says, “It may be noted, however, that there was no general agreement upon the necessity of sacerdotal confession: in the twelfth century, for example, the [Peter] Abelardian school rejected its necessity, while the Victorine school insisted upon it (121). It was not until the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) that “penance” officially became a “sacrament”. That council “laid an obligation upon believers to confess their sins to their priest annually” (122).

Not coincidentally, Thomas Doyle traces the advent of priestly sexual abuse to the practice of private confession around this time:

With the advent of the private confession of sins came the abuse known as solicitation for sex in the act of sacramental confession. Unscrupulous priests began to use the intimacy of confession as an opportunity to seduce the penitent into some form of sexual contact. This abuse is particularly heinous because it takes advantage of a person when he or she is most vulnerable and susceptible to the abuse of priestly power. It is not known when the very first reports of solicitation became known, but by the 16th century the Church had begun to pass legislation to control and eradicate this vile form of abuse.

The first work mentioning anything resembling a “second plank” (which is what “the sacrament of reconciliation” was originally called) is Tertullians work “De paenitentia, or on repentence”. gives this summary of the work:

A short work in 12 chapters discussing whether forgiveness for major public sins is available after conversion, and outlines the position generally held at that time - once only, with public repentance. (De pudicitia 3 tells us the penitent can still be saved; but cannot be received in the church).

Here is Tertullian’s practice in his own words.

The narrower, then, the sphere of action of this second and only (remaining) repentance, the more laborious is its probation; in order that it may not be exhibited in the conscience alone, but may likewise be carried out in some (external) act. This act, which is more usually expressed and commonly spoken of under a Greek name, is exomologesis whereby we confess our sins to the Lord, not indeed as if He were ignorant of them, but inasmuch as by confession satisfaction is settled, of confession repentance is born; by repentance God is appeased. And thus exomologesis is a discipline for man's prostration and humiliation, enjoining a demeanor calculated to move mercy. With regard also to the very dress and food, it commands (the penitent) to lie in sackcloth and ashes, to cover his body in mourning, to lay his spirit low in sorrows, to exchange for severe treatment the sins which he has committed; moreover, to know no food and drink but such as is plain,----not for the stomach's sake, to wit, but the soul's; for the most part, however, to feed prayers on fastings, to groan, to weep and make outcries unto the Lord your God; to bow before the feet of the presbyters, and kneel to God's dear ones; to enjoin on all the brethren to be ambassadors to bear his deprecatory supplication (before God). All this exomologesis (does), that it may enhance repentance; may honour God by its fear of the (incurred) danger; may, by itself pronouncing against the sinner, stand in the stead of God's indignation, and by temporal mortification (I will not say frustrate, but) expunge eternal punishments. Therefore, while it abases the man, it raises him; while it covers him with squalor, it renders him more clean; while it accuses, it excuses; while it condemns, it absolves. The less quarter you give yourself, the more (believe me) will God give you.

This of course, was quite a public ceremony.

In the “rich tradition of the early church”, [instituted by Christ], a third-century Christian has the opportunity to go through this process precisely once, after which he is “cemented to contumacy”.

This no doubt is the “undeveloped” third-century view of the Catholic sacrament, instituted by Christ, “the manner of confessing secretly to a priest alone”, “as the Catholic Church has always understood them from the beginning”, according to Trent.

So what this shows is that maybe Tertullian actually “misunderstood” what Christ actually meant when he instituted that sacrament?

Now, let me ask, if Christ instituted this “sacrament”, what makes Trent think that the “developments” since this important early third-century “interpretation” are better than what Tertullian practiced? Isn’t this what Christ told the Apostles to practice? Or did Tertullian somehow get this wrong, only to have the later church get it right again? To have re-found the “original” apostolic practice?

McGrath follows up on this:

The ninth century, however, saw the Anglo-Irish system of private penance become widespread in Europe of private penance become widespread in Europe, with important modifications to the theology of penance following in its wake.

These are the ones who, upon further “reflection” on the practice that “Christ instituted”, softened the experience for our tender 21st century sensibilities, who think “penance” actually consists of saying three Hail Mary’s.

Although earlier writers considered that penance could be undertaken only once in a lifetime, as a ‘second plank after a shipwreck’ (tabula secunda post naufragiam -- see Jerome Epistola 130) this opinion was gradually abandoned, rather than refuted, as much for social as for pastoral reasons. Thus the eighth-century bishop Chrodegang of Metz recommended regular confession to a superior at least once a year, while Paulinus of Aquileia advocated confession and penance before each mass. Gregory the Great’s classification of mortal sins [sixth century] became incorporated into the penitential system of the church during the ninth century, so that private penance in the presence of a priest became generally accepted. Penitential books began to make their appearance throughout Europe, similar in many respects to those which can be traced back to sixth-century Wales.

The spread of the practice in the Carolingian [French] church appears to have been due to the formidable influence of Alcuin, who has greater claim than any to be considered the founder of the Carolingian renaissance [ninth century]. It is therefore of considerable significance that Alcuin specifically links penance with justification….

A further development of this idea may be found in the works of Rabanus Maurus, who became the leading proponent of private confession in the Frankish church after Alcuin; justification here is linked, not merely with the act of penance, but specifically with sacerdotal confession. The relationship between justification, baptism and penance was defined with particular clarity in the ninth century by Haimo of Auxerre:

Our redemption, by which we are redeemed, and through which we are justified, is the passion of Christ, which, joined with baptism, justifies humanity through faith, and subsequently through penance. These two are joined together in such a way that it is not possible for humanity to be justified by one without the other.

McGrath, pgs. 117-118.

So it really seems that the ninth century church, thus having the authority to “develop” doctrines, developed it in such a way that removed some of the severity from the third-century doctrine (articulated by Tertullian presumably as it was “instituted by Christ” directly to the Apostles).

Or is there some step in “the Tradition” that maybe we don’t know about at this point, where Christ really did advocate the private confessional, and Tertullian somehow made the mistake of thinking it was that “one-time plank”, complete with “sackcloth and ashes”, after which time (“it is impossible to be brought to repentance”, Hebrews 6:6)?

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