The Reign of Christ. Book One. Chapter Nine: The Ministry of the Discipline of Penance
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The discipline of penance properly pertains to those who have fallen into more serious sins. For as has been said above, the faithful ministers of Christ should not tolerate in the company of the Church, nor admit to the sacraments of Christ, those whom they cannot and should not acknowledge by their fruits, according to the precepts of the Lord, to be his true disciples and followers. Those who fall into more serious sins, i.e., crimes and wickedness, these obviously reject and break the yoke of Christ and deny by their deeds the piety that they profess with their lips. For this reason, such insults against God and defiance of the Son of God cannot be pardoned, unless the perpetrators earnestly acknowledge the horror of their impiety and deplore it, grieving with a living, productive repentance.
And when true repentance flourishes after such a lapse, it cannot fail at once to bring forth its fruits, i.e., a bitter regret for sins, deep humiliation of the flesh, and its crucifixion with its sick desires. To this end one must use not only an abdication of all the pleasures of the flesh, but also righteous fasting and ardent prayers, as the Holy Spirit teaches by very serious precepts in the first and second chapters of Joel (1:13-14; 2:12-17).
For this reason, penitents ought to frequent assiduously the religious services of the congregation in order that through the Word of God not only their fall may be pointed up by repentance but also a zeal to pray for pardon may be set aflame, so that they may not only by their own assiduous, burning prayers arouse God to pardon but also seek mutual help from the Church and the individual Brethren.
They must also expend themselves entirely in all kinds of good works and show themselves most temperate and holy in all their present conduct, in bearing adversities patiently and bravely, in helping their neighbor and deserving well of him, both with material things and by good deeds, in a kind and enthusiastic way. For loving God with one’s whole heart makes one also grieve deeply at every offense against God. But the Holy Spirit, as in his other gifts and works, so also in penance, is faithful to himself and brings about the same things in all his acts.
Now, it is evident that those whose repentance is proposed for an example to us in Scripture abundantly brought forth the fruits of penance which I have enumerated—David, the Ninevites, Manasseh, Peter, Paul, and the like (II Sam. 12:13; John 3:5-10; II Chron. 33:12-13; Matt. 26:75; Acts 9:3-6; II Cor. 2:5-11, 7:8-11, and 12:21). These fruits proceed so necessarily from the hearts of all who are truly and savingly moved by a living repentance for sins (as men can be well enough known by their genuine regret for offenses) that it cannot be doubted that those who do not exhibit such worthy fruits of penance when they have offended the Divine Majesty by more serious sins do not yet recognize the enormity of their wickedness, and so are not moved by a living repentance for them. Hence they must be reckoned serpents and vipers, as Saint John calls them, rather than disciples of Christ and participants in his Kingdom (Matt: 3:7).
It is within the office of rectors and elders in the churches to urge not only a true repentance of spirit concerning sins but also the doing of penance and the showing of its fruits, and to bind by the authority of Christ; and they are not to dissolve that bond until these persons have shown good faith to the Church concerning their true repentance and conversion to the obedience of Christ through those worthy fruits of repentance. For to hold that it is sufficient for someone only verbally to profess repentance for sins and to say that he is sorry for his sins and wishes to amend his life without the necessary concomitant signs and works of repentance which we have mentioned is of the priests of Antichrist, not of Christ.
Concerning not so much the severity as the necessity and the wholesomeness of this discipline of penance, would that there might be read and pondered what Saint Cyprian Martyr wrote in very many of his letters (Epistle 3, Book 1; Epistles 14 and 16, Book 3), and especially in the “Sermon on the Lapsed,” and what he demonstrated by the clear witness of Scripture. Saint Cyprian further recalls in his “Sermon on the Lapsed” that some people in his time confessed with unfeigned sorrow even the hidden sins of their spirit to the priests of God, made a confession of conscience, exposed the burden of their spirit, and sought a salutary remedy, namely, of practicing penance, by means of self-denial however small and modest. The holy martyr lauds these persons for their greater faith and deeper reverence. By the example of such consciences, this secret confession of sins gradually was received in the churches, but afterward it was wickedly exacted by false bishops, even from those who were unwilling. For we have no command of the Lord concerning this, as we have concerning the manifest performance of penance by those who have fallen into more serious sins which are known to the Churches.
Nor, indeed, would everyone make such a secret confession in a salutary way; it is a matter of individual consciences, and not without danger for any minister involved. This confession can be a salutary remedy only to those consciences which need either private instruction or consolation and furthermore request this of the ministers of Christ. This can happen in a salutary way only with those guardians of the churches who are so endowed with the spirit of Christ that they can on this occasion better catechize the more ignorant in faith, and help those who experience less contrition to a definite acknowledgement of their sins. They will arouse a righteous sorrow in them on account of sins, or raise up greatly dejected spirits to hope of divine mercy, and discover and demonstrate efficacious means for avoiding sins.
We have already indicated how severely, in a manner approved by the better part of the people of Christ, those who have committed more serious sins and refuse the path of repentance which the Lord gave to us must be cut off from any association with the Church and considered heathens and publicans. Concerning this, what the Lord and Holy Spirit commanded should be read diligently and pondered religiously (Matt. 18:15-18; I Cor. 5:4-5, and II Cor. 2:5-11, and also II Thess. 3:6).
“If, however” our King and Savior said, “he will not hear the church, let him be to you as a heathen and publican” (Matt. 18:17). These individuals were then kept from any association with the people of God either in religion or the rest of life. Therefore, the Pharisees rebuked the Lord because he ate with publicans (John 4:9; Matt. 9:11; Luke 15:2; and 19:5-7).
This ought to make us solicitous to recall that discipline of penitence, because the Lord here added, using his customary formula of emphasis, “Amen I say to you, whatever you bind upon earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose upon earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18). From these words of the Lord we learn that these are heavenly remedies against sins, to bind those who have fallen into more serious sins to the doing of penance, and to loose from that bond those who have shown repentance by its worthy fruits. How great a crime it is that those to whose trust and care our salvation has been committed should be plainly and seriously deficient in any remedy which our Savior handed on and commanded to be used! How great an impiety against both God and his people!
How gravely and sharply the Holy Spirit rebuked the Corinthians to arouse them to this discipline of penance, when, with an incestuous man masquerading among them, he caused to be written by the apostle Paul: “And are you puffed up, and do you not rather mourn, that he who did this might be removed from among you?” (I Cor. 5:2) ! Let us observe and devoutly ponder these words of the Holy Spirit. The Corinthians are accused of being puffed up, i.e., they pleased themselves more than was righteous and did not acknowledge their wrongs, because the entire church did not begin to mourn, i.e., fast and pray to avert the divine wrath on account of this wickedness, and reject that incestuous man from their association, because the wrath of God was justly kindled against the whole body of the Church, when the vice and ruin of only one member went unheeded. Let the examples of Achan and the Benjamites be pondered (Josh. 7:10-26; Judg., ch. 20, passim). Let us also observe in this text that the Holy Spirit wished the whole Church to be gathered, in the spirit of Paul, for that man not only to be excommunicated by the common judgment of all, but also by the ministry of the same apostle “to be handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit might be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 5:4-5).
Evidently, by the castigation and affliction of the flesh accomplished through this handing over to Satan, whatever that was, that incestuous man was driven to such repentance for his wickedness that there was a danger that he be overwhelmed in extreme sickness of spirit. Hence, Saint Paul in the Spirit of God urged the Corinthians no less gravely to receive him into the favour of the Lord and of the Church, once he had sufficiently demonstrated his repentance of spirit for his sin. They were to dissolve the bond of doing penance for the man whom they had ordered to be excluded from the communion of the Church (before his declaration of penitence). The rebuke by many, i.e., notice and infliction of this punishment, which was his rejection from the company of the saints, profited this man (II Cor. 2:6-8).
From these things, therefore, it is clearly evident that entire churches bind themselves over to the ruin of those for whom they do not make the effort to use this remedy of salvation with utmost gravity and severity when it is needed.
It must also be considered that the Holy Spirit, among other things, said: “Do you not know that a little leaven ferments the whole batter? Clean out, therefore, the old leaven, that you may be a fresh dough,” etc. (I Cor. 5:6-7). For in these words the Holy Spirit teaches that whole churches are corrupted and perish by the contagion of a few evil persons, indeed, of one wicked man. For if only one little crack is open for Satan to creep into the Church with Christian discipline relaxed, in the just judgment of God a great many evils are permitted to ensure, as we perceive has happened for so many centuries and still occurs today. Therefore, the Holy Spirit here prescribes not even to eat with openly wicked persons and to remove the evil from among us (I Cor. 5:11 and 13). Let us then perceive the reasons for religiously restoring this discipline; let us permit what ought to prevail among us to do so both because the Holy Spirit strictly requires this and because he teaches that it is so salutary to all the people of Christ, for those who have sinned as well as for the churches themselves. Let us put into practice, finally, what the Holy Spirit wrote through Saint Paul to the Thessalonians concerning the avoidance of brethren living lawlessly, i.e., not keeping their place in the body of the Lord, not following their vocation to contribute something to the common good; they behave in a lazy way and as busybodies. For the Holy Spirit orders such brethren to be avoided and shunned by all the others and affirms that this is of profit to lazy and noisy brethren so that they are shamed, and feeling shamed, recalled to their duty, especially when they are not completely rejected as enemies but are warned and corrected as brethren (II Thess. 3:6, 11-15).
From this text, we realize both how much authority has been given to us in order to apply to sinful brethren this remedy of salutary abstention and avoidance and how much the Lord wishes this very thing to work in healing the wounds of brethren. For those who are not entirely hopeless, it is an intolerable torment of mind to be excluded from the company of the brethren and of the whole Church, and to be avoided by all, like men profane and alien to Christ the Lord. When such pressure is used, sinning brethren are moved to repentance and brought back to their duty much more effectively than by any other punishments.
As their poets and historians testify, the pagan nations that had their governments organized rather tolerably realized this by the light of nature which remained. By this means the Lacedaemonians certainly aroused their citizens wonderfully to a concern for virtue and kept them concerned; no one would give scoundrels and wrongdoers the dignity of lodging, or physical exercise in common, or a part in games, or many another and more serious involvement in life, as Xenophon testifies of them in a book about their republic. Hence let us think over how much we harm both the sinning brethren and the entire Church when we deprive those brethren who are involved in misdeeds of this medicine of holy severity. So much about the discipline of penance; those who do not labour with utmost zeal for its total restoration according to the precepts of Christ which we have enumerated cannot say in truth that they seek the Kingdom of Christ. It is necessary that those who love the Lord Jesus and truly want his blessed sovereignty to prevail among them know from the Lord’s very words what we have brought out about the supremely salutary discipline of penance and work energetically to recall its practice.