Answer to a Jesuit. Chapter 4: Of Confession
29 min read
29 min read
Our Challenger here telleth us, that the Doctors, Pastors and Fathers of the primitive Church “exhorted the people to confess their sins unto their ghostly fathers.” And we tell him again, that by the public order prescribed in our Church, before the administration of the holy communion, the Minister likewise doth exhort the people, that “if there be any of them which cannot quiet his own conscience, but requireth further comfort or counsel,” he should come to him or some other discreet and learned Minister of God’s word, and open his grief, that he may receive such ghostly counsel, advice and comfort, as his conscience may be relieved; and that by the ministry of God’s word he may receive comfort and the benefit of absolution, to the quieting of his conscience and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness.” Whereby it appeareth, that the exhorting of the people to confess their sins unto their ghostly fathers maketh no such separation betwixt the ancient Doctors and us, but we may well for all this be of the same religion that they were of, and consequently that this doughty champion hath more will than skill to manage controversies, who could make no wiser choice of points of differences to be insisted upon.
Be it therefore known unto him, that no kind of Confession, either public or private, is disallowed by us, that is any way requisite for the due execution of that ancient power of the keys which Christ bestowed upon his Church. The thing which we reject is that new picklock of sacramental Confession, obtruded upon men’s consciences, as a matter necessary to salvation, by the canons of the late Conventicle of Trent, where those good Fathers put their curse upon every one that either shall “Many that sacramental Confession was ordained by divine right, and is by the same right necessary to salvation;” or shall “affirm that in the Sacrament of Penance it is not by the ordinance of God necessary, for the obtaining of the remission of sins, to confess all and every one of those mortal sins, the memory where of by due and diligent premeditation may be had, even such as are hidden, and be against the two last Commandments of the Decalogue, together with the circumstances which change the kind of the sin; but that this Confession is only profitable to instruct and comfort the penitent, and was anciently observed only for the imposing of canonical satisfaction.” This doctrine, I say, we cannot but reject, as being repugnant to that which we have learned both from the Scriptures and from the Fathers.
For in the Scriptures we find, that the confession which the penitent sinner maketh to God alone, hath the promise of forgiveness annexed unto it, which no priest upon earth hath power to make void upon pretence that himself or some of his fellows were not first particularly acquainted with the business:
I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid: I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.
And lest we should think that this was some peculiar privilege vouchsafed to the man who was raised up on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, (Psalm 32:1) the same sweet psalmist of Israel doth presently enlarge his note, and inferreth this general conclusion thereupon:
For this shall every one that is godly pray unto thee in a time when thou mayest be found.
King Solomon, in his prayer for the people at the dedication of the temple, treadeth just in his father”s steps. If they turn, saith “he, and pray unto thee in the land of their captivity, saying. We have sinned, we have done amiss, and have dealt wickedly ; if they return to thee with all their heart, and with all their soul, &c. forgive thy people which have sinned against thee all their transgressions wherein they have transgressed against thee. (2 Chronicles 6:37, 38; 1 Kings 8:47,50) And the poor ‘publican, (Luke 18:13, 14) putting up his supplication in the temple accordingly, God be merciful to me a sinner, went back to his house justified, without making confession to any other ghostly father, but only the Father of spirits; (Hebrews 12:9) of whom St John giveth us this assurance, that if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9) Which promise, that it appertained to such as did confess their sins unto God, the ancient Fathers were so well assured of, that they cast in a manner all upon this confession, and left little or nothing to that which was made unto man. Nay, they do not only leave it free for men to confess or not confess their sins unto others, which is the most that we would have; but some of them also seem, in words at least, to advise men not to do it at all, which is more than we seek for.
St Chrysostom of all others is most copious in this argument, some of whose passages to this purpose I will here lay down: “It is not necessary,” saith he, “that thou shouldest confess in the presence of witnesses: let the enquiry of thy offences be made in thy thought; let this judgment be without a witness; let God only see thee confessing.” (John Chrysostom, Homil. de Penitent. et Confession. Tom. v. edit. Latin. Col. 901, edit. Basil, ami. 1558.) “Therefore I intreat and beseech and pray you, that you would continually make your confession to God. For I do not bring thee into the theatre of thy fellow-servants, neither do I constrain thee to discover thy sins unto men unclasp thy conscience before God, and shew thy wounds unto him, and of him ask a medicine. Shew them to him that will not reproach, but heal thee. For although thou hold thy peace, he knoweth all.” (John Chrysostom, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, Homily 5, Section 56) “Let us not call ourselves sinners only, but let us recount our sins, and repeat every one of them in special. I do not say unto thee, Bring thyself upon the stage, nor, Accuse thyself unto others; but I counsel thee to obey the prophet, saying. Reveal thy way unto the Lord. Confess them before God, confess thy sins before the Judge, praying, if not with thy tongue, yet at least with thy memory; and so look to obtain mercy.” (John Chrysostom, Homilies on Hebrews. Homily 31 on Hebrews 12. Section 6.) “But thou art ashamed to say that thou hast sinned. Confess thy faults then daily in thy prayer. For do I say. Confess them to thy fellow-servant, who may reproach thee therewith? Confess them to God, who healeth them. For, although thou confess them not at all, God is not ignorant of them.” (John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Psalms. Homily 2 on Psalms 1.) “Wherefore then, tell me, art thou ashamed and blushest to confess thy sins? For dost thou discover them to a man, that he may reproach thee? Dost thou confess them to thy fellow-servant, that he may bring thee upon the stage? To him who is thy Lord, who hath care of thee, who is kind, who is thy physician, thou shewest thy wound.” (John Chrysostom, Discourses on Lazarus, Discourse 4. Section 102.) “I constrain thee not, saith God, to go into the midst of the theatre, and to make many witnesses of the matter. Confess thy sins to me alone in private, that I may heal thy sore, and free thee from grief.” (Ibid) “And this is not only wonderful, that he forgiveth us our sins, but that he neither discovereth them, nor maketh them open and manifest, nor constraineth us to come forth in public, and disclose our misdemeanours; but commandeth us to give an account thereof unto him alone, and unto him to make confession of them.” (John Chrysostom, The Homilies on the Statues to the People of Antioch. Homily 21)
Neither doth St Chrysostom here walk alone. That saying of St Augustine is to the same effect: “What have I to do with men, that they should hear my confessions, as though they should heal all my diseases?” (Augustine, Confessions, Book 10. Chapter 3.) And that Collection of St Hilary upon the two last verses of the 52d Psalm, “What David there teacheth us “to confess to no other,” but unto the Lord, “who hath made the olive fruitful with the mercy of hope (or, the hope of mercy) for ever and ever.” (Hilary on the 52nd Psalm) And that advice of Pinuphius, the Egyptian Abbot, which I find also inserted among the canons, collected for the use of the Church of England, in the time of the Saxons, under the title, De Paenitentia soli Deo confitenda:”Who is it that cannot humbly say, I made my sin known unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid, that by this confession he may confidently adjoin that which followeth: And thou forgavest the impiety of my heart? But if shamefacedness do so draw thee back that thou blushest to reveal them before men, cease not by continual supplication to confess them unto him from whom they cannot be hid, and to say, I know mine iniquity, and my sin is against me alway; to thee only have I sinned, and done evil before thee, whose custom is, both to cure without the publishing of any shame, and to forgive sins without upbraiding.” (John Cassian, Conferences. Conference 20. Chapter 8.) St Augustine, Cassiodore, and Gregory make a further observation upon that place of the 32d Psalm: I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin; that God, upon the only promise and purpose of making this confession, did forgive the sin. “Mark,” saith Gregory, “how great the swiftness is of this vital indulgence, how great the commendation is of God’s mercy, that pardon should accompany the very desire of him that is about to confess, before that repentance do come to afflict him; and remission should come to the heart, before that confession did break forth by the voice.” (Gregory the Great, Commentary on the Penitential Psalms. Exposition 2) So St Basil, upon those other words of the Psalmist, I have roared by reason of the disquietness of my heart, (Psalm 38:8), maketh this paraphrase: “I do not confess with my lips, that I may manifest myself unto many; but inwardly in my very heart, shutting mine eyes, to thee alone who seest the things that are in secret, do I shew my groans, roaring within myself. For the groans of my heart sufficed for a confession, and the lamentations sent to thee my God from the depth of my soul.” (Basil the Great, Commentary on the Psalms. Psalm 38.)
And as St Basil maketh the groans of the heart to be a sufficient confession, so doth St Ambrose the tears of the penitent. “Tears,” saith he, “do wash the sin, which the voice is ashamed to confess. Weeping doth provide both for pardon and for shamefacedness : tears do speak our fault without horror; tears do confess our crime without offence of our shamefacedness.” (Ambrose, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Chapter 22.) From whence he that glosseth upon Gratian, who hath inserted these words of St Ambrose into his collection of the Decrees, doth infer, that “if for shame a man will not confess, tears alone do blot out his sin.” (Decretum Gratiani. Distinct 1. Chapter 2) Maximus Taurinensis followeth St Ambrose herein almost verbatim. “The tear,” saith he, “washeth the sin, which the voice is ashamed to confess. Tears therefore do equally provide both for our shamefacedness and for our health: they neither blush in asking, and they obtain in requesting.” (Maximus of Turin, Homily on Penitence) Lastly, Prosper, speaking of sins committed by such as are in the ministry, writeth thus: “They shall more easily appease God, who being not convicted by human judgment, do of their own accord acknowledge their offence; who either do discover it by their own confessions, or, others not knowing what they are in secret, do themselves give sentence of voluntary excommunication upon themselves; and being separated (not in mind, but in office) from the altar to which they did minister, do lament their life as dead, assuring themselves, that God being reconciled unto them by the fruits of effectual repentance, they shall not only receive what they have lost, but also, being made citizens of that city which is above, they shall come to everlasting joys.” (Prosper of Aquitane, On the Contemplative Life. Book 2. Chapter 7) By this it appeareth, that the ancient Fathers did not think that the remission of sins was so tied unto external confession, that a man might not look for salvation from God, if he concealed his faults from man; but that inward contrition, and confession made to God alone, was sufficient in this case. Otherwise, neither they nor we do debar men from opening their grievances unto the physicians of their souls, either for their better information in the true state of their disease, or for the quieting of their troubled consciences, or for receiving further direction from them out of God’s word, both for the recovery of their present sickness, and for the prevention of the like danger in time to come.
“If I shall sin, although it be in any small offence, and my thought do consume me, and accuse me, saying, Why hast thou sinned? what shall I do?” said a brother once to Abbot Arsenius. The old man answered, “Whatsoever hour a man shall fall into a fault, and shall say from his heart, Lord God, I have sinned, grant me pardon, that consumption of thought or heaviness shall cease forthwith.” (Respons. Patr. Egypt, a Paschasio diacono Latine vers. cap. 11.) And it was as good a remedy as could be prescribed for a green wound, to take it in hand presently, to present it to the view of our heavenly Physician, (Ambrose of Milan, Concerning Repentance. Book 2. Chapter 8) to prevent Satan by taking his office, as it were, out of his hand, and accusing ourselves first, that we may be justified. But when it is not taken in time, but suffered to fester and rankle, the cure will not now prove to be so easy; it being found true by often experience, that the wounded conscience will still pinch grievously, notwithstanding the confession made unto God in secret. At such a time as this then, where the sinner can find no ease at home, what should he do but use the best means he can to find it abroad? “Is there no balm in Gilead? is there no physician there?” (Jeremiah 8:22) No doubt but God hath provided both the one and the other for recovering of the health of the daughter of his people; and St James hath herein given us this direction : “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may he healed” (James 5:16). According to which prescription Gregory Nyssen, toward the end of his sermon of repentance, useth this exhortation to the sinner: “Be sensible of the disease wherewith thou art taken, afflict thyself as much as thou canst. Seek also the mourning of thy entirely affected brethren to help thee unto liberty. Shew me thy bitter and abundant tears, that I may also mingle mine therewith. Take likewise the priest for a partner of thine affliction, as thy Father. For who is it that so falsely obtaineth the name of a father, or hath so adamantine a soul, that he will not condole with his son’s lamenting? Shew unto him without blushing the things that were kept close; discover the secrets of thy soul, as shewing thy hidden disease unto thy physician. He will have care both of thy credit and of thy cure.” (Greg. Nyssen. de Paenitent. in Operum Appendice, edit. Paris, ann. 1618. p. 175, 176.)
It was no part of his meaning to advise us that we should open ourselves in this manner unto every hedge-priest; as if there were a virtue generally annexed to the order, that upon confession made, and absolution received from any of that rank, all should be straight made up: but he would have us communicate our case both to such Christian brethren, and to such a ghostly father, as had skill in physic of this kind, and out of a fellow-feeling of our grief would apply themselves to our recovery. Therefore, saith Origen, “Look about thee diligently unto whom thou oughtest to confess thy sin. Try first the physician, unto whom thou oughtest to declare the cause of thy malady, who knoweth to be weak with him that is weak, to weep with him that weepeth, who understandeth the discipline of condoling and compassionating; that so at length, if he shall say anything, who hath first shewed himself to be both a skilful physician and a merciful, or if he shall give any counsel, thou mayest do and follow it.” (Origen, Homily 11 on Psalm 37) For, as St Basil well noteth, “The very same course is to be held in the confession of sins, which is in the opening of the diseases of the body. As men therefore do not discover the diseases of their body to all, nor to every sort of people, but to those that are skilful in the cure thereof; even so ought the confession of our sins to be made unto such as are able to cure them, according to that which is written. Ye that are strong bear the infirmities of the weak, that is, take them away by your diligence.” (Basil the Great, Shorter Rule of St Basil, Resp 299.) He requireth care and diligence in performance of the cure; being ignorant, good man, of that new compendious method of healing, invented by our Roman Paracelsians, whereby a man “in confession of attrite is made contrite by virtue of the keys;” (Summa Summarum, quæ Sylvestrina dicitur, de Confess. Sacramental, cap. 1. sect. 1.) that the sinner need put his ghostly father to no further trouble than this. Speak the word only, and I shall be healed. And this is that sacramental confession devised of late by the priests of Rome; which they notwithstanding would fain father upon St Peter, from whom the Church of Rome, as they would have us believe, received this instruction: “That if envy, or infidelity, or any other evil did secretly creep into any man’s heart, he who had care of his own soul should not be ashamed to confess those things unto him who had the oversight over him; that by God’s word and wholesome counsel he might be cured by him.” (Clement, 1st Epistle) And so indeed we read in the apocryphal Epistle of Clement, pretended to be written unto St James, the brother of our Lord; where in the several editions of Crab, Sichardus, Venradius, Surius, Nicholinus, and Binius, we find this note also laid down in the margin; Nota de confessioiie sacramentali, “Mark this of sacramental confession.” But their own Maldonat would have taught them that this note was not worth the marking: forasmuch as the proper end of sacramental confession is the obtaining of remission of sins by virtue of the keys of the Church; whereas the end of the confession here said to be commended by St Peter, was the obtaining of counsel out of God’s word for the remedy of sins. (Juan Maldonado, Disputation on the Sacraments. Book 2: The Origin of Confession: Chapter2) Which kind of medicinal confession we well approve of, and acknowledge to have been ordinarily prescribed by the ancient Fathers for the cure of secret sins.
For as for notorious offences, which bred open scandal, private confession was not thought sufficient; but there was further required public acknowledgement of the fault, and the solemn use of the keys for the reconciliation of the penitent. “If his sin do not only redound to his own evil, but also unto much scandal of others, and the Bishop thinketh it to be expedient for the profit of the Church, let him not refuse to perform his penance in the knowledge of many, or of the whole people also; let him not resist, let him not by his shamefacedness add swelling to his deadly and mortal wound,” (August, in lib. de Paenitentia, quae postrema est Homilia ex L. in X. Tom. ) saith St Augustine. And more largely in another place; where he meeteth with the objection of the sufficiency of internal repentance in this manner: “Let no man say unto himself, I do it secretly, I do it before God; God who pardoneth me doth know that I do it in my heart. Is it therefore said without cause. Whatsoever you shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven ? Are the keys therefore without cause given unto the Church of God? do we frustrate the Gospel of God? Do we frustrate the words of Christ? Do we promise that to you which he denieth you? Do we not deceive you? Job saith. If I was abashed to confess vty sins in the sight of the people. So just a man of God’s rich treasure, who was tried in such a furnace, saith thus; and doth the child of pestilence withstand me, and is ashamed to bow his knee under the blessing of God? That which the emperor was not ashamed to do, is he ashamed of, who is not as much as a senator, but only a simple courtier? O proud neck! O crooked mind! Perhaps, nay it is not to be doubted, it was for this reason, God would that Theodosius the Emperor should do public penance in the sight of the people, especially because his sin could not be concealed: and is a senator ashamed of that whereof the emperor was not ashamed? is he ashamed of that who is no senator, but a courtier only, whereof the emperor was not ashamed? Is one of the vulgar sort or a trader ashamed of that whereof the emperor was not ashamed? What pride is this? Were not this alone sufficient to bring them to hell, although no adultery had been committed?” (Id. Hom. XLIX. Ex. 5O. cap. 3.) Thus far St Augustine concerning the necessity of public repentance for known offences: which being in tract of time disused in some places, long after this the Bishops of France, by the assistance of Charles the Great, caused it to be brought into use again according to the order of the old Canons.
Neither is it here to be omitted, that in the time of the more ancient Fathers this strict discipline was not so restrained to the censure of public crimes; but that private transgressions also were sometimes brought within the compass of it. For whereas at first public confession was enjoined only for public offences; men afterwards discerning what great benefit redounded to the penitents thereby, (as well for the subduing of the stubbornness of their hard hearts, and the furthering of their deeper humiliation, as for their raising up again by those sensible comforts which they received by the public prayers of the congregation and the use of the keys;) some men, I say, discerning this, and finding their own consciences burdened with the like sins, which, being carried in secrecy, were not subject to the censures of the Church; to the end they might obtain the like consolation and quiet of mind, did voluntarily submit themselves to the Church’s discipline herein, and undergo the burden of public confession and penance. This appeareth by Origen in his second Homily upon the 37th Psalm, Tertullian in his book de Paenitentia, chap. 9, St Cyprian in his Treatise de Lapsis, sect. 23, (or 11, according to Pamelius’s distinction), St Ambrose in his first book de Paenitentia, chap. l6, and others. And to the end that this publication of secret faults might be performed in the best manner, some prudent minister was first of all made acquainted therewith; by whose direction the delinquent might understand what sins were fit to be brought to the public notice of the Church, and in what manner the penance was to be performed for them. Therefore did Origen advise, as we heard, that one should use great care in making choice of a good and skilful physician, to whom he should disclose his grief in this kind. And “if he understand,” saith he, “and foresee that thy disease is such as ought to be declared in the assembly of the whole Church, and cured there, whereby peradventure both others may be edified, and thou thyself more easily healed; with much deliberation, and by the very skilful counsel of that physician, must this be done.” (Origen, Psalm 37. Homily 11.)
But within a while, shortly after the persecution raised in the days of Decius the Emperor, it was no longer left free to the penitent to make choice of his ghostly father; but by the general consent of the bishops it was ordained, that in every church one certain discreet minister should be appointed to receive the confessions of such as relapsed into sin after Baptism. This is that addition which Socrates, in his Ecclesiastical History, noteth to have been then made unto the penitential canon, and to have been observed by the governors of the Church for a long time; until at length in the time of Nectarius bishop of Constantinople, which was about one hundred and forty years after the persecution of Decius, upon occasion of an infamy drawn upon the clergy by the confession of a gentlewoman, defiled by a deacon in that city, it was thought fit it should be abolished; and that liberty should be given unto every one, upon the private examination of his own conscience, to resort to the holy Communion (Sozomon, Ecclesiastical History. Book 7. Chapter 16.). Which was agreeable both to the rule of the Apostle, (1 Corinthians 11:28), Let a man examine himself and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup; and to the judgment of the more ancient Fathers; as appeareth by Clemens Alexandrinus, who accounteth a man’s own conscience to be his best director in this case (Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata. Book 1. Chapter 1.) howsoever our new masters of Trent have not only determined, that sacramental confession must necessarily be premised before the receiving of the Eucharist; but also have pronounced them to be excommunicate ipso facto, that shall presume to teach the contrary. (Council of Trent. Session 13. Decree Touching the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. Chapter 8)
The case then, if these men’s censures were ought worth, would go hard with Nectarius and all the Bishops that followed him; but especially with St John Chrysostom, who was his immediate successor in the See of Constantinople. For thus doth he expound that place of the Apostle: “Let every one examine himself, and then let him come. He doth not bid one man to examine another, but every one himself; making the judgment private, and the trial without witnesses;” (John Chrysostom, 1 Corinthians 11. 28th Homily.) and in the end of his second Homily of fasting (which in others is the eighth de Poenitentia), frameth his exhortation accordingly: “Within thy conscience, none being present but God, who seeth all things, enter thou into judgment, and into a search of thy sins, and recounting thy whole life, bring thy sins unto judgment in thy mind: reform thy excesses, and so with a pure conscience draw near to that sacred Table, and partake of that holy Sacrifice.” (Id. Tom. Savil. p837) Yet in another place he deeply chargeth ministers not to admit known offenders unto the Communion. “But if one,” saith he, “be ignorant that he is an evil person after that he hath used much diligence therein, he is not to be blamed; for these things are spoken by me of such as are known.” (John Chryostom, Homily 82 on Matthew) And we find both in him and in the practice of the times following, that the order of public penance was not wholly taken away; but according to the ancient discipline established by the Apostles in the Church, open offenders were openly censured, and pressed to make public confession of their faults. Whereby it is manifest that the liberty brought in by Nectarius, of not resorting to any penitentiary, respected the disclosing of secret sins only; such as that foul one was, from whence the public scandal arose, which gave occasion to the repeal of the former constitution. For to suffer open and notorious crimes committed in the Church to pass without control, was not a mean to prevent but to augment scandals; nay, the ready way to make the house of God a den of thieves.
Two observations more I will add upon this part of the history. The one, that the abrogation of this Canon sheweth that the form of confession used hy the ancient was canonical, that is, appertaining to that external discipline of the Church, which upon just occasion might be altered; and not sacramental and of perpetual right, which is that our Jesuits stand for. The other, that the course taken herein by Nectarius was not only approved by St Chrysostom, who succeeded him at Constantinople, but generally in a manner by the Catholic Bishops of other places ; howsoever the Arians and the rest of the sectaries (the Novatians only excepted, who from the beginning would not admit the discipline used in the Church for the reconciliation of penitents,) retained still the former usage, as by the relation of Socrates and Sozomen more fully may appear. And therefore, when within some 21 years after the time wherein they finished their histories, and about 70 after that the publication of secret offences began to be abolished by Nectarius, certain in Italy did so do their penance, that they caused a writing to be publicly read, containing a profession of their several sins ; Leo, who at that time was Bishop of Rome, gave order, that by all means ^°that course should be broken off, “forasmuch as it was sufficient that the guilt of men’s consciences should be declared in secret confession to the priests alone. For although,” saith he, “the fulness of faith may seem to be laudable, which for the fear of God doth not fear to blush before men; yet because all men’s sins are not of that kind, that they may not fear to publish such of them as require repentance, let so inconvenient a custom be removed; lest many be driven away from the remedies of repentance, while either they are ashamed or afraid to disclose their deeds unto their enemies, whereby they may be drawn within the peril of the laws. For that confession is sufficient which is offered first unto God, and then unto the priest, who cometh as an intercessor for the sins of the penitent. For then at length more may be provoked to repentance, if that the conscience of him who confesseth be not published to the ears of the people.” (Leo. Epistle 86. The Bishops of Campania; Samnii and Piceno.)
By this place of Leo we may easily understand how, upon the removal of public confession of secret faults, (together with the private made unto the penitentiary, which was adjoined as a preparative thereunto,) auricular confession began to be substituted in the room thereof; to the end that by this means more might be drawn on to this exercise of repentance ; the impediments of shame and fear, which accompanied the former practice, being taken out of the way. For indeed the shame of this public penance was such, that in the time of Tertullian, when this discipline was thought most needful for the Church, it was strongly “presumed, that many did either shun this work as a publication of themselves, or deferred it from day to day, being more mindful,” as he saith, “of their shame than of their salvation.” (Tertullian, On Repentance, Chapter 10) Nay, St Ambrose observed, that “some who for fear of the punishment in the other world, being conscious to themselves of their sins, did here desire their penance, were yet for shame of their public supplication drawn back after they had received it.” (Ambrose, Concerning Repentance. Book 2. Chapter 9. Section 86.) Therefore the conjecture of Rhenanus is not to be contemned, that from this public confession the private took its original; which by Stapleton, (in his Fortress, Part II. Chapter 4), is positively delivered in this manner: “Afterward this open and sharp penance was brought to the private and particular confession now used, principally for the lewdness of the common lay-Christians, which in this open confession began at length to mock and insult at their brethren’s simplicity and devotion.” Although it may seem by that which is written by Origen (Origen, Psalm 37. Homily 11.), that the seeds of this lewdness began to sprout long before; howsoever Tertullian imagined, that no member of the Church would be so ungracious as to commit such folly. (Tertullian, On Repentance, Chapter 9)
The public confession therefore of secret sins being thus abolished by Nectarius first, for the scandal that came thereby unto others, and by the rest of the Catholic Bishops after him, for the reproach and danger whereunto the penitents by this means were laid open ; private confession was so brought in to supply the defect thereof, that it was accounted no more sacramental, nor esteemed, at least generally, to be of more necessity for the obtaining of remission of sins, than that other. So that whatsoever order afterward was taken herein, may well be judged to have had the nature of a temporal law, which, according to the definition of St Augustine, “although it be just, yet in time it may be justly also changed.” (Augustine. De lib. Arbitr. Lib 1. Chapter 6.) Nay, we find that Lawrence, Bishop of Novaria, in his Homily de Paenitentia, doth resolutely determine, that for obtaining remission of sins a man needeth not to resort unto any priest, but that his own internal repentance is sufficient for that matter. “God,” saith he, “after baptism hath appointed thy remedy within thyself, he hath put remission in thine own powder, that thou needest not seek a priest when thy necessity requireth; but thou thyself now, as a skilful and plain master, mayest amend thine error within thyself, and wash away thy sin by repentance.” (Laur. Novar. Tom. VI. Biblioth. Patr. part. 1. p. 337. edit. Colon.) “He hath given unto thee,” saith another, somewhat to the same purpose, “the power of binding and loosing. Thou hast bound thyself with the chain of the love of wealth; loose thyself with the injunction of the love of poverty. Thou hast bound thyself with the furious desire of pleasures; loose thyself with temperance. Thou hast bound thyself with the misbelief of Eunomius; loose thyself with the religious embracing of the right faith.” (Auctor Homiliae in illud. Quaecunque ligaveritis, &c. inter opera Chrysostom, Tom. 7. edit. Savil. p. 268.)
And that we may see how variable men’s judgments were touching the matter of confession in the ages following, Bede would have us “confess our daily and light sins one unto another, but open the uncleanness of the greater leprosy to the priest.” (Bed. in Jacob. V.) Alcuinus, not long after him, would have us “confess all the sins that we can remember.” (Alcuin. de Divin. Offic. cap. 13, in capite Jejunii.) Others were of another mind. For some (as it appeareth by the writings of the same Alcuinus (Id. Epist. XXVI.), and of Haymo (Haymo. Halberstatt. in Evangel. Dominic, xv. post Pentecost. Ad illud: Ite ostendite vos sacerdotibus.)) would not confess their sins to the priest; but “said it was sufficient for them that they did confess their sins to God alone;” (Ibid) provided always, that they ceased from those sins for the time to come. Others confessed their sins unto the priests, but “not fully;” (Concil. Cabilon. ii. cap. 32.) as may be seen in the council of Cavaillon (Avignon), held in the days of Charles the Great: where, though the Fathers think that this had “need to be amended;” yet they freely acknowledge that it remained still a question, whether men should only confess to God, or to the priests also; and they themselves put this difference betwixt both those confessions, that the one did properly serve for the cure, the other for direction in what sort the repentance, and so the cure, should be performed. Their words are these:
“Some say that they ought to confess their sins only unto God, and some think that they are to be confessed unto the priests : both of which, not without great fruit, is practised within the holy Church. Namely thus, that we both confess our sins vinto God, who is the forgiver of sins, (saying with David: I acknowledge my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said I will confess against myself my transgressions unto the Lord: and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin:) and, according to the institution of the Apostle, confess our sins one unto another, and pray one for another, that we may be healed. The confession therefore which is made unto God, purgeth sins; but that which is made unto the priest, teacheth in what sort those sins should be purged. For God, the author and bestower of salvation and health, giveth the same sometime by the invisible administration of his power, sometime by the operation of physicians.”
Ibid. cap 33.
This Canon is cited by Gratian out of the Penitential of Theodorus (Grat. de Paenit. Distinct. 1. cap. ult. Quidam Deo.). Archbishop of Canterbury, but clogged with some unnecessary additions. As when in the beginning thereof it is made the opinion of the Grecians, that sins should be confessed only unto God; and of the rest of the Church, that they should be confessed to priests: where those words, ut Graeci, in Gratian, seem unto Cardinal Bellarmine “to have crept out of the margin into the text, and to have been a marginal annotation of some unskilful man, who gathered by the fact of Nectarius, that sacramental confession was wholly taken away among the Grecians. For otherwise,” saith he, “in the Capitular itself of Theodorus, whence that Canon was transcribed, those two words, ut Grceci, are not to be had ; nor are they also to be had in the second Council of Cavaillon, c. 33, whence Theodorus seemeth to have taken that chapter : neither yet doth the Master of the sentences, in his 4th book and 17th distinction, bringing in the same sentence, add those words, ut Grceci.” (Bellar. de Paenitent. lib. iii. cap. 5. ) But the Cardinal’s conjecture of the translating of these words out of the margin into the text of Gratian is of little worth; seeing we find them expressly laid down in the elder collections of the decrees made by Burchardus (Burchard. Decret. lib. xix. cap. 140) and Ivo (Ivo, Decret. part. xv. cap. 155.); from whence it is evident that Gratian borrowed this whole chapter, as he hath done many a one beside. For as for “the Capitular itself of Theodorus, whence” the Cardinal too boldly affirmeth “that Canon was transcribed” as if he had looked into the book himself; we are to know, that no such Capitular of Theodorus is to be found : only Burchardus and Ivo (in whom, as we said, those controverted words are extant) set down this whole chapter as taken out of Theodore’s Penitential, and so misguided Gratian; for indeed in Theodorus’ Penitential, which I did lately transcribe out of a most ancient copy kept in Sir Robert Cotton’s treasury, no part of that chapter can be seen; nor yet any thing else tending to the matter now in hand, this short sentence only excepted, Confessionem suam Deo soli, si necesse est, licebit agere; “It is lawful that confession be made unto God alone, if need require.” And to suppose, as the Cardinal doth, that Theodorus should take this chapter out of the second council of Cavaillon, were an idle imagination; seeing it is well known that Theodore died Archbishop of Canterbury in the year of our Lord 690, and the council of Cavaillon was held in the year 813, that is, 123 years after the other’s death. The truth is, he who made the additions to the Capitularia of Charles the Great and Ludovicus Pius, gathered by Ansegisus and Benedict, translated this Canon out of that council into his collection: which Bellarmine, as it seemeth, having some way heard of, knew not to distinguish between those Capitularia and Theodore’s Penitential; being herein as negligent as in his allegation of the fourth book of the sentences: where the Master (Peter Lombard) doth not bring in this sentence at all, but having among other questions propounded this also for one, “Whether it be sufficient that a man confess his sins to God alone, or whether he must confess to a priest,” (Peter Lombard, The Sentences, Book 4. Dist 17.) doth thereupon set down the diversity of men’s opinions touching that matter, and saith, that “unto some it seemed to suffice if confession were made to God only, without the judgment of the priest, or the confession of the Church, because David said, I said I will confess unto the Lord (Psalm 32:5): he saith not. Unto the priest; and yet he sheweth that his sin was forgiven him.” For in these points, as the same author had before noted, “even the learned were found to hold diversely; because the doctors seemed to deliver divers and almost contrary judgments therein.” (Ibid)
The diverse sentences of the doctors touching this question, whether external confession were necessary or not, are at large laid down by Gratian; who in the end leaveth the matter in suspense, and concludeth in this manner: “Upon what authorities, or upon what strength of reasons both these opinions are grounded, I have briefly laid open. But whether of them we should rather cleave to, is reserved to the judgment of the reader. For both of them have for their favourers both wise and religious men.” (Gratian, De Paenit. Dist. i. cap. 89. Quamvis.) And so the matter rested undetermined 1150 years after Christ; howsoever the Roman correctors of Gratian do tell us, that now the case is altered, and that “it is most certain, and must be held for most certain, that the sacramental confession of mortal sins is necessary, used in that manner, and at such time, as in the Council of Trent after other Councils it is appointed.” (Rom. Correct. Ibid) But the first Council wherein we find any thing determined touching this necessity, is that of Lateran under Innocent the Third, wherein we heard that transubstantiation was established: for there it was ordained, that “Omnis utriusque sexus fidelis, every faithful one of either sex, being come to years of discretion, should by himself alone, once in the year at least, faithfully confess his sins unto his own priest; and endeavour according to his strength to fulfil the penance enjoined unto him, receiving reverently at least at Easter the Sacrament of the Eucharist: otherwise, that both being alive he should be kept from entering into the Church, and being; dead should want Christian burial.” (Concil. Lateran. cap. 21.) Since which determination Thomas Aquinas, in his exposition of the text of the fourth book of the Sentences, distinct. 17, holdeth “the denial of the necessity of confession unto salvation to be heresy; which before that time, saith Bonaventure, in his Disputations upon the same fourth book, was not heretical; forasmuch as many Catholic doctors did hold contrary opinions therein, as appeareth by Gratian.
But Medina will not admit by any means, “that it should be accounted “strictly heresy;” but would have it said, that “it savours of heresy.” (Jo. Medina, Tractat. ii. de Confessione, Quaest. IV.) And for this decree of confession to be made once in the year, he saith, “that it “doth not declare nor interpret any divine right of the thing, but rather appointeth the time for confession.” (Ibid. Quaest. II) Durand thinketh that it may be said, that this Statute containeth “an holy and wholesome exhortation of making confession, and then adjoineth a precept of the receiving of the Eucharist, backed with a penalty;” (Durand. in lib. iv. Sentent. Distinct, xvii. Quaest. XIV.) or if both of them be precepts, that “the penalty respecteth only the precept of communicating (of the transgression whereof knowledge may be taken), and not the precept of confession;” (Ibid) of the transgression whereof the Church can take no certain notice, and therefore can appoint no certain penalty for it. But howsoever, this we are sure of, that the canonists afterward held no absolute necessity of obedience to be required therein, as unto a sacramental institution ordained by Christ for obtaining remission of sins; but a canonical obedience only, as unto an useful constitution of the Church. And therefore, where Gratian in his first distinction de Paenitentia had, in the 34th chapter and the three next following, propounded the allegations which made for them, who held “that men might obtain pardon for their sins without any oral confession of them, and then proceeded to the authorities which might seem to make for the contrary opinion; Johannes Semeca, at the beginning of that part, upon those words of Gratian, Alii e contrario testantur, putteth to this gloss: “From this place until the section. His auctoritatibus, he allegeth for the other part, that sin is not forgiven unto such as are of years without confession of the mouth, which yet is false,” saith he. But this free dealing of his did so displease Friar Manrique, who, by the command of Pius Quintus, set out a censure upon the glosses of the Canon Law, that he gave direction these words, “which yet is false,” (De Paenit. Dist.it. cap. 34. Convertimini. Vide initium ejusdem Distinct. et Glossam, ibid. verb. Sunt enim.) should be clean blotted out. Which direction of his, notwithstanding, the Roman correctors under Gregory xiii. did not follow; but letting the words still stand, give them a check only with this marginal annotation: “Nay it is most true, that without confession, in desire at least, the sin is not forgiven.” (Rom. Correct. Ibid. in marg.)
In like manner, where the same Semeca holdeth it to be the better opinion, that confession was “ordained by a certain tradition of the universal Church, rather than by the authority of the new or old Testament,” (Gloss, de Paenitent. init. Distinct, v. In Paenitentia.) and inferreth thereupon, that it is necessary among the Latins, but “not among the Greeks, because that tradition did not spread to them;” (Ibid) Friar Manrique commandeth all that passage to be blotted out; but the Roman correctors clap this note upon the margin for an antidote: “Nay, confession was ordained by our Lord, and by God’s law is necessary to all that fall into mortal sin after baptism, as well Greeks as Latins.” (Rom. Correct, ibid, in marg.) And for this they quote only the 14th Session of the Council of Trent; where that opinion is accursed in us, which was held two or three hundred years ago by the men of their own religion, among whom Michael of Bononia, wlio was prior general of the order of the Carmelites in the days of Pope Urban the Sixth, doth conclude strongly out of their own received grounds, “that confession is not necessary for the obtaining of the pardon of our sin.” (Michael Augrianus in Psal. 29.) And Panormitan, the great canonist, professeth that the opinion of Semeca doth much please him, which referreth the original of confession to a general tradition of the Church ; “because,” saith he, “there is not any clear authority which sheweth that God or Christ did clearly ordain that confession should be made unto a priest.” (Panorm . in V. Decretal, de Paenitent. et Remiss. cap. 12. Omnis utriusque, sect. 18.) Yea, “all the canonists, following their first interpreter, say that confession was brought in only by the law of the Church,” (Maldon. Disp. de Sacrament. Tom. II. de Confess. Orig. cap. 2.) and not by any divine precept, if we will believe Maldonat; who addeth notwithstanding, that “This opinion is either already sufficiently declared by the Church to be heresy, or that the Church should do well if it did declare it to be heresy.” (Id. ibid, de Praecepto Confess, cap. 3.)
And we find indeed, that in the year of our Lord 1479, which was 34 years after the death of Panormitan, by a special commission directed from Pope Sixtus the Fourth unto Alfonsus Carillus, Archbishop of Toledo, one Petrus Oxomensis, Professor of Divinity in the University of Salamanca, was driven to abjure this conclusion, which he had before delivered as agreeable to the common opinion of the doctors, “that confession of sins in particular was grounded upon some statute of the universal Church, and not upon divine right.” (Complutens. sub Alfonso Carillo, apud Carranzam in summa Concil. sub Sixto IV.) And when learned men for all this would not take warning, but would needs be meddling again with that which the Popish Clergy could not endure should be touched, (as Johannes de Selva, among others, in the end of his treatise de Jurejurando, Erasmus in divers of his works, and Beatus Rhenanus in his argument upon Tertullian’s book de Paenitentia,) the Fathers of Trent, within 72 years after that, conspired together to stop all men’s mouths with an anathema (Concil. Trident. Sess. xiv. Can. 6), that should deny sacramental confession to be of divine institution, or to be necessary unto salvation. And so we are come to an end of that point.