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Title: Confession and Absolution
Author: Capel, Thomas John, 1836-1911
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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Domestic Prelate of His Holiness, Leo XIII, happily reigning,
        Member of the Congregation of the Segnatura,
         Priest of the Archdiocese of Westminster.

       *       *       *       *       *

"_He hath placed in us the Ministry of Reconciliation."--2 Cor. v, 18._

       *       *       *       *       *








In the series of twenty-four conferences delivered in the Cathedral at
Philadelphia, during this Lent, was one on "God's Conditions for
Pardoning Sin." At the request of many, it is now published, but under
the title of "Confession and Absolution." There have been made such
modifications and additions as are necessitated by publication, and
such others as will cover aspects of the question treated by me
elsewhere in the United States.

The extracts from the Fathers which appear in the following pages are
taken from the accurate and judicious collection known as "Faith of
Catholics," a work in three volumes, well worthy the attention and
study of those who, not having a library of the Fathers, or not
conversant with the classical languages, are nevertheless anxious to
know the evidence of the early Christian writers concerning the
doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church.

                                   T. J. CAPEL.

Feast of Our Lady's Sorrows, 1884.

       *       *       *       *       *

To this SECOND EDITION there have been added certain statements and
passages, to meet sundry questions addressed to the Author on the
subject of Confession and Absolution.

     Feast of the Patronage of St. Joseph, 1884.


     TEXT: "God hath reconciled us to Himself by Christ, and hath
     given to us the ministry of reconciliation. For God indeed
     was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, and He hath
     placed in us the word of reconciliation; we are therefore
     ambassadors for Christ."--2 COR. v, 18.

No more important question can be submitted for consideration to those
who believe in the existence of God, in man's responsibility to his
Creator, and in divine revelation, than what are God's conditions for
pardoning sin committed after baptism. For however much men may doubt,
deny, or dispute about religion, they can never impugn the fact that
they are individually sinners. "If we say we have no sin, we deceive
ourselves, and the truth is not in us;"[1] "in many things we all
offend;"[2] even "the just man shall offend seven times."[3]

Good sense, as well as faith, tells us that having willingly committed
or consented to any thought, word, or deed prohibited by God, or
having knowingly and wilfully omitted any duty imposed by the divine
law, then have we revolted against our God. And should this be done
with full knowledge and deliberation in a matter deemed grave by the
Lawgiver, or grave in its own nature, or rendered so by circumstances,
then has there been a grievous transgression of our duty to God.

The moment we so act, are we and our crime abominable in the sight of
the All Holy. "Thou hatest all the workers of iniquity;"[4] and to the
Lord "the wicked and his wickedness are hateful alike."[5] Our sin
instantly merits eternal punishment: "If the just man turns himself
away from his justice, and do iniquity according to all the
abominations which the wicked man useth to work, shall he live? All
his justices which he had done shall not be remembered."[6] "But the
fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and
whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, they shall
have their portion in the pool burning with fire and brimstone, which
is the second death."[7] Finally, by our grievous sin do we destroy
habitual or justifying grace, the supernatural life of the soul,
rendering it incapable of doing aught that will have everlasting
reward. "When concupiscence hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin; but
sin, when it is completed, begetteth death."[8] Well, therefore, are
we told: "Flee from sins as from the face of a serpent; for if thou
comest near them, they will take hold of thee; the teeth thereof are
the teeth of a lion, killing the souls of men."[9]

Deadly sin accordingly puts us at enmity with God, and deprives us of
all claim on His justice. These are days when men talk much of their
own rights. Little do they think to assert and uphold the rights of
the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords. And so it escapes them that
having violated their obligations to their Creator, their Redeemer,
their Sanctifier, by grievous sin, they have no claim for pardon on
the ground of justice; they can only appeal suppliantly to the
infinite mercy and goodness of God, that their iniquities may be
blotted out, that they may be restored to the position whence they
have fallen, and that they may regain the habitual grace necessary for
keeping the solemn obligations of baptism. This being the case, the
Almighty can and does impose His conditions for reconciling the sinner
and for restoring the prodigal child to the lost sonship. It is not
for sinful man to dictate what such terms shall be. It is for an
outraged God to enact, for the transgressor to comply with the

Of these conditions, one flows from the infinite holiness of His own
nature, namely: contrition or repentance. The other, which is judicial
absolution from sin, implying previous confession of it, is imposed by
the revealed law of God, and is therefore a divine command obliging
all--popes and bishops, priests and people. Let us deal with these


[1] John i, 8.

[2] James iii, 2.

[3] Prov. xxiv, 16.

[4] Ps. v, 6.

[5] Wisd. xiv, 9.

[6] Ezech. xviii, 24.

[7] Rev. xxi, 8.

[8] James i, 15.

[9] Ecclus. xxi, 2.


The necessity of repentance as the essential condition for the sinner
obtaining God's forgiveness is plainly taught both in the Jewish and
Christian dispensations.

Prophets and penitents throughout the Old Testament bear evidence to
this truth. The words of the Psalms of David, the exhortations of
Jeremias and Isaias to the people of God to be converted, have become
household words in our books of piety, exciting the soul in sin to
arise and go to the God of mercy.

The New Dispensation was ushered in by the Forerunner of Christ
preaching the Gospel of Repentance: "Do penance, for the kingdom of
God is at hand." Our Lord announces His own mission to be to call
sinners to repentance: "Unless you all do penance, you shall all
likewise perish." He sent His Apostles that "penance and remission of
sin should be preached in His name among all nations." And, while on
earth, Jesus sent them, two and two, to preach that "men should do

And, after the ascension of the "Saviour whom God hath exalted with
His right hand to give penitence to Israel, and remission of
sins,"[10] the Apostles proclaimed the same truth. Peter's very first
sermon is: "Do penance and be baptized, every one of you."[11] He, on
the occasion of the cure of the lame man, preaches: "Be penitent and
be converted, that your sins may be blotted out."[12] The same Apostle
writes: "The Lord beareth patiently for your sake, not willing that
any should perish, but that all should return to penance."[13] St.
Paul, in like manner. "God commandeth all men, everywhere, to do
penance."[14] And again: "The benignity of God leadeth thee to

This contrition or repentance does not mean a mere cessation from
wrong doing, and starting anew in the way of goodness, drowning in the
past the evil done. On the contrary, as by sin we turned our backs on
God to go into a far-off country, to spend there our substance, so by
contrition must we turn main, retrace our steps, and journey to that
Father and home whence we departed. Hence is the process named
conversion to God, just as sin is defined to be an aversion from God.
Moses, expressing this thought, says: "When thou shalt be touched with
the repentance of thy heart, and return to Him, the Lord thy God will
have mercy on thee."[16] And still more explicitly does the prophet
Joel declare: "Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting, and
in weeping, and in mourning; and rend your hearts, and not your
garments, and turn to the Lord your God: for He is gracious and
merciful, patient and rich in mercy."[17] Again, the inspired Word
says: "Cast away from you all your transgressions, by which you have
transgressed, and make to yourselves a new heart and a new spirit; and
why will you die, O house of Israel?"[18]

The Lord God, whom we have outraged by sin, knows no past. "I am who
am," is His name. In His holy sight, we who have sinned, and our
transgressions, are ever abominable, unless we make to ourselves a new
heart and a new spirit. "Be converted to Me, and I will be converted
to thee," are the words of Him who exercises on us His great mercy.

Holy Church, in her General Council assembled at Trent, defined this
contrition or repentance to be "a sorrow of mind, and a detestation of
sin committed, together with a determination of not sinning for the
future"--"_animi dolor, ac detestatio de peccato commisso, cum
proposito non peccandi de catero_."[19] Or, as the same Council says:
"Penitence was indeed at all times necessary for all men who had
defiled themselves with any mortal sin, in order to the obtaining
grace and justice, * * * that so, their perverseness being laid aside
and amended, they might, with hatred of sin and a pious grief of mind,
detest so great an offence of God."[20] And, as the Roman Catechism
explains, this means no mere feeling, but a genuine act of the will. A
mother may show more sensible signs of grief at the loss of her only
child than when sorrowing for sin, yet this is not in the least
inconsistent with the most perfect contrition or repentance.

There are times when the intense sorrow for sin arouses the whole
being of man: exciting not only the higher, but also the lower and
sensitive part of his nature. St. Mary Magdalen, David, and many other
great penitents, wept bitter tears of sorrow for their past wrongs.
This, though a heavenly favor, is no necessary part of repentance.
Indeed, it is possible to weep and to have sensible sorrow without
having a contrite heart. The three essential elements in contrition
are: hatred of past sin, grief at having sinned, and a determined
purpose at all costs to avoid, in the future, sin and the occasions of
sin. These emanate from the will of man, not from the feelings; they
must be strong or intense enough to make the sinner prefer to endure
any evil, or sacrifice any good, rather than again offend God, so
infinitely good in Himself, and so infinitely good to man.

Unhappily, it is within our power to hate, to grieve, and to purpose
amendment very sincerely, and yet not have that sorrow which fulfills
God's condition for the pardon of sin. Some human motive--such as loss
of health or wealth, injury to reputation and influence, the ignominy
and servitude of wrong-doing--may lead a man to detestation of the
past and to a firm resolve to avoid wrong in the future. Excellent as
may be such a change of mind, yet it is not sufficient to obtain
forgiveness from on high. It is based entirely on the injury and loss
accruing to self. God is excluded from the whole idea; and yet it is
against Him, and against Him alone, that we have sinned.

The only sorrow acceptable to God is that which springs from a
supernatural motive, the soul excited thereto by divine grace. In this
is our utter helplessness shown; for while it is within our own power
to do wrong, we cannot return to the path of duty and repent without
the help of God. It is by the heavenly gift of grace operating within,
and by the co-operation of the sinner, that the heart is made
contrite. The remembrance of God's infinite love and perfections,
accompanied by earnest prayer for mercy, may rouse the soul to hatred
and grief for its sin, and thus is generated that contrition perfect
through charity for having offended God so sovereignly good, who is to
be loved above all things. For His own sake, and regardless of the
penal consequences of sin, the soul is touched with sincere
compunction. This sorrow, with the implicit or explicit desire to have
recourse to the Sacrament of Penance, reconciles the soul at once with
God, and restores the justifying or habitual grace lost by grievous
sin. "There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,
who walls not according to the flesh, but after the spirit. For the
law of the spirit of life iii Christ Jesus hath delivered me from the
law of sin and of death."[21] The soul about to go before God's
judgment-seat, if it be in deadly sin, and have not at hand the means
for obtaining absolution, is obliged to have this perfect contrition,
or otherwise the sin remains unforgiven.

Again, the soul, contemplating in the sight of God the turpitude of
sin, as made known to us by revelation, or the terror of God's
judgment on those condemned to hell, or the irreparable loss of the
sight of God consequent on sin, may be excited by fear of Him who hath
power to cast into everlasting prison. The soul, awe-stricken by the
painful sight of its own guilt, and by the sense of the judgment of
God, yet hoping for pardon and resolved to sin no more, makes an
initial act of the love of God, and appeals to His goodness for
forgiveness. Though the motive is less perfect, yet "He who desireth
not the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live" does
in His exceeding mercy accept this as sufficient for pardon, if there
be added to it the actual reception of the Sacrament of Penance. In
other words, in this case, unless the sinner shows himself to the
authorized minister of reconciliation and receives his absolution,
there is no pardon.

Whether this sorrow be of the perfect kind, arising purely from love
of God, or whether it be less perfect, caused by fear of God: in
either case, it is _internal_, seated in the mind and heart; it is
_supernatural_ in its motive, and springs from grace; it is
_universal_, extending to every deadly sin committed; it is
_sovereign_, displeasing the will more than any ill which could
happen. "The sorrow which is according to God worketh penance unto
salvation which is lasting: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.
For behold this selfsame thing that you were made sorrowful according
to God, how great carefulness doth it work: in you; yea defence, yea
indignation, yea fear, yea desire, yea zeal, yea revenge."[22] This,
then, is contrition: the first and necessary condition for the pardon
of sin. It is begun and perfected in the soul by the impulse and by
the assistance of the Holy Ghost. The grace of God, obtained through
the precious blood of Jesus Christ, commences and completes the work
of repentance. God, who is rich in mercy, through His exceeding
charity with which He loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath
quickened as together in Christ, by whose grace you are saved.[23]
"The blood of Jesus cleanseth us from all sin."[24] "We have
redemption through His blood, the remission of sins, according to the
riches of His grace."[25]


[10] Acts v, 31.

[11] Acts ii, 38.

[12] Acts iii, 19.

[13] Peter iii, 9.

[14] Acts xvii, 30.

[15] Rom. ii, 4.

[16] Deut. xxx, 1.

[17] Joel ii, 12.

[18] Ezech. xviii, 31.

[19] Con. Trid. Sess. xiv, cap. 4.

[20] Sess. xiv, c. 1.

[21] Rom. viii, 1, 2.

[22] 2 Cor. vi, 11.

[23] Eph. ii, 4.

[24] 1 John i, 7.

[25] Eph. i, 7.


It has pleased God, as we learn by the Christian revelation, to
institute a human and visible Ministry of Reconciliation for sinners.
St. Paul expresses this in the clearest way, writing to the
Corinthians: "If, then, any be in Christ, a new creature: old things
are passed away: behold, all things are made new. But all things are
of God, who hath reconciled us to Himself by Christ, and hath given to
us _the ministry of reconciliation_. For God indeed was in Christ,
reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing to them their sins; and
He hath placed in us _the word of reconciliation_; we are therefore
ambassadors for Christ." In this passage does the Apostle teach the
truth declared elsewhere: "Christ died for our sins, the just for the
unjust, that He might offer us to God, being put to death indeed in
the flesh."[26] Herein is it taught very plainly that we are redeemed
by Jesus, and that there is no other name under heaven given to men
whereby they must be saved. He alone paid the price of our redemption;
by His precious blood alone are we redeemed; and through Him alone is
sin forgiven.

But, in the same passage, St. Paul is equally explicit in declaring:
"He hath given to us"--namely, the Apostles--"the Ministry of
Reconciliation"--"the word of reconciliation."[27] In this there is no
pretension that the Apostles were the reconcilers by inherent right;
theirs is an agency of reconciliation, and hence does St. Paul speak
of their as ambassadors of Christ. And in virtue of this does the
Apostle, when exercising the office on the incestuous Corinthian,
unhesitatingly declare: "If I have forgiven anything, for your sakes
have I done it _in the person of Christ_."[28] What is here so
positively claimed and acted on by the Apostle was very definitely
instituted by our Lord, as is recounted in the Gospels.

To the Apostles and their successors did Jesus Christ impart the power
to baptize all nations. By baptism is man purified from original
sin--from his own personal or actual sins, if there be any; there is
infused into him habitual or justifying grace, accompanied by faith,
hope, charity, as well as the gifts of the Holy Ghost; and he is made
the adopted child of God. The efficient cause of such spiritual
regeneration is Jesus Christ; and yet it is by a Minister of
Reconciliation, pouring water and saying the words "I baptize thee in
the name of the Father," etc., etc., that the cleansing is effected.
It is passing strange that those who believe in baptism as the
appointed means, whereby a minister reconciles a soul in original sin
should hesitate to admit the ministerial power of forgiving actual
sin. The principle is the same. Nearly fifteen hundred years ago, St.
Ambrose, writing against the Novatians, said: "If it be not lawful for
sins to be forgiven by man, why do you baptize? For, assuredly, in
baptism there is remission of all sins. What matters it whether
priests claim this right as having been given them by means of baptism
or penitence? One is the mystery in both. But thou sayest: 'It is the
grace of the mysteries that operates in baptism.' And what operates in
penitence! Is it not the name of God? Where you choose, you claim for
yourselves the grace of God: where you choose, you repudiate."[29]

For, in like manner, in the Sacrament of Penance, does the Minister of
Reconciliation say: "I absolve thee from thy sins, in the name of the
Father," etc., etc. Thereupon the words _produce_ what they signify,
if the penitent is genuinely contrite. But the Reconciler is Jesus
Christ, who uses priests as His delegated agents for effecting
forgiveness. On the day of the resurrection, Jesus Christ appeared to
the eleven, whom He had made priests at the Last Supper, and said:
"Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent one, I also send you. When
He had said this, He breathed on them, and He said to them: receive ye
the Holy Ghost; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them;
and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained."[30]

The passage is exceptionally clear, and for fifteen centuries was
accepted in its plain grammatical signification. Our Lord, who is
possessed of all power in heaven and on earth, makes His Apostles
"workers together with Him" in the forgiving of sin. They derive the
power from Him, and receive it by the inbreathing of the Holy Spirit.
It is no product of their learning, or experience, or piety, nor is it
any right inborn in them; but it is a divine gift, given by the
redeemer to His priests for the sanctification of souls. By it are His
legitimate ministers made co-operators in the work of reconciliation.
Already had the Scribes thought that Jesus blasphemed when He said to
the man sick of the palsy: "Son, be of good heart: thy sin is forgiven
thee." They realized not that the Almighty could impart the power of
pardoning to His creatures. To convince them that the Son _of Man_
hath power to forgive sin, Jesus performed this special miracle, and
healed the man of the palsy. The multitude, seeing this, feared and
glorified God, who had given such power _to men_.[31] The power is of
God, who alone can forgive sin, though He exercises it through men as
channels of His grace. The power of working miracles in like manner
belongs to God's omnipotence; yet did He condescend to allow His
Apostles and others to share in it. In this they were but His

The passage, in the next place, expresses judicial power: for the
commission draws the distinction between remitting sin and retaining
sin. This exercise of discretionary power does not depend on the
arbitrary will of the Apostles, but has to be decided according to the
Gospel law of true repentance described previously. The Apostles are
appointed ministerial judges of the dispositions of penitents, and of
the sins on which they are to pronounce sentence of remission or of
retention, and their sentence is as efficacious as if it were
pronounced by Christ himself.

Now, it is a primary condition of just judgment that the judge should
not only be cognizant of the law which is to be administered, but also
of the cause submitted for judgment. Applying this to the exercise of
the judicial power with which the Apostles are invested, two things
are needed: the first, that they should know the law and the
conditions on which sin is to be retained or remitted. This they can
only learn of God. The second, that they should know the sin
committed, its nature and its circumstances. This can only be learned
from the sinner; for sin is a deliberate and voluntary transgression
of God's law. And, therefore, as St. Thomas of Aquinas has it, "the
principle of sin is the will." It is in the recesses of the knowledge
and liberty which the soul has, that the guilt of sin is to be sought.
Who then but the individual offender can know the sins for which
forgiveness is asked? The disclosure can only come from the
wrong-doer. Clearly then, confession, in the ordinary course of
things, is the necessary and preliminary condition for seeking
absolution from sin. Whether this confession be made in public or in
private is a mere matter of convenience, to be decided by those who
absolve. The honest humble accusation of all deadly sins constitutes
the essential character of such confession or avowal of
transgressions. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to
forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity."[32]

That interior and supernatural contrition is to be followed by the
judicial sentence of a duly-appointed priest, to whom confession of
all deadly sins has been previously made, is the unanimous teaching of
the Christian writers from the earliest date. The existence of Penance
as the Sacrament of Reconciliation, at all times in the Church, is
permanent evidence to the belief and practice of early Christians.

1. In the History of the Church given in the Acts of the Apostles, we
learn that many of those who believed at Ephesus, after St. Paul's
preaching, "came _confessing and declaring their deeds_. And many of
those who had followed curious things brought their books together,
and burnt them before all."[33] Here is a clear instance of
contrition, confession, and determination of purpose.

Again, the incestuous Corinthian is judged by St. Paul, and sentenced
in the strongest language: "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, you
being gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of the Lord
Jesus, to deliver such a one to Satan."[34] The offender repented, and
lest he should "be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow," the Apostle
reversed sentence, and forgave the wrong done, "in the _person of
Christ_." A clearer case of retaining and remitting is unnecessary.

These instances are sufficient to show that the Apostles themselves
exercised the power of the keys in binding and loosing.

2. Among the living Greek Communions are to be found descendants of
those sects which either separated from or were cast off by the Church
centuries ago. The Photians date back to the tenth century; the
Nestorians, the Jacobites, the Abyssinians, the Copts, to the fifth
and sixth centuries. Differing as these do in some points of doctrine,
and parted by the bitterest antipathies, yet on the matter of
absolution and confession they have the same teaching and practice. It
is no question of unburdening a troubled conscience for peace and
counsel, but confession is exacted as a necessary condition for
obtaining pardon. In 1576, the patriarch Jeremias of Constantinople
sent to the Protestant theologians of Tübingen a declaration of the
belief of the Greeks. In it, among other doctrines, that of the
absolute necessity of detailed confession to a priest is asserted.
These sects then are, by their practice and teaching, witnesses to the
truth concerning the sacrament of reconciliation as taught by Holy
Church in our day.

3. Early heresies contribute, in like manner, their part to the mass
of irrefragable evidence in support of the doctrine. As early as the
second century, Eusebius says A. D. 171, the Montanists arose in Asia
Minor. Among other things, Montanus, their founder, taught that were
any to "commit grievous sin after baptism, to deny Christ, or have
been stained with the guilt of impurity, murder, or like crimes, they
were to be for ever cut off from the communion of the Church." While
admitting that power to forgive sin was given by Christ to the
Apostles and their successors, Montanus wished to restrict that power,
excluding from its domain idolatry, impurity, and homicide.

Some eighty years later, two schisms were created: the one in North
Africa, led by the priest Novatus, aided by the deacon Felicissimus,
the other by the anti-pope Novatian, in Rome. Both were prompted by
the question of receiving into the communion of the Church those who
had lapsed into idolatry, or had denied the faith during the times of
persecution. The African schism insisted on the laxest possible line
of action, namely, to receive indiscriminately without proof of
penitence. The schism in Rome pursued the most unyielding rigorism.
"Whoever," said Novatian, its leader, "has offered sacrifice to idols,
or stained his soul with the guilt of sin, can no longer remain within
the Church; and if he be of those who have denied the faith, he can
not again enter her communion: for her members consist only of pure
and faithful souls."

These contentions had one great advantage: they brought into
prominence the teaching of the Church concerning "the forgiveness of
sin," and occasioned a more scientific and dogmatic statement of the
doctrine concerning the Sacrament of Penance. In the controversy,
figure the names of St. Cornelius, Pope, of St. Cyprian, of St.
Athanasius, of St. Pacian, of St. Gregory Nazianzen, of Tertullian.
Until the schismatics were driven to extremities, it is plain both
sides take it for granted that the Ministry of Reconciliation was
given to the Church by Jesus Christ, and that the exercise of the
ministry consisted in pronouncing judicial sentence of pardon on those
who had shown repentance and had confessed their grievous sins.
Religious strife in this case produces the interesting evidence that,
as early as the second and third centuries, Confession and Absolution
were held and practised as necessary for the pardoning of sin under
the Christian dispensation.

4. The Penitential Canons of the first ages of the Church are another
evidence to the doctrine of Absolution and Confession. The Apostolic
Constitutions,[35] and Tertullian,[36] give us a picture of the severe
penitential discipline to which sinners were subjected. Many painful
circumstances obliged the Church modify and almost abrogate these
public penances.

The accounts of the suppression given by the historians, Socrates and
Zozomen, afford ample proof of confession made publicly, of the
retaining of certain deadly crimes until a long time had been spent in
rigid penitential exercises, and, lastly, of the absolution finally
granted by bishops and priests.

These authors, as well as many who come after them, are clear in
discriminating between the _public_ confession, which is a matter of
discipline, and confession the necessary condition for the pardon of
sin. "Since," says Zozomen, the Greek ecclesiastical historian of the
fifth century, "it is absolutely necessary to confess our sins in
order to receive the pardon of them, it was thought too onerous and
too painful to exact that this confession should be made in public, as
in a theatre."

5. We may now turn to the writings of the Fathers of the first five
centuries. It will be seen that throughout, when treating of the
forgiveness of sin, it is always assumed that the priests of Holy
Church were endowed with the power of absolution, and exercised it on
those who had sinned after baptism. The sacrament of pardon is
constantly referred to under different names: "penance," "confession,"
"absolution," "exomologesis," "reconciliation," "the second baptism,"
"the laborious baptism," "the second plank after the shipwreck." Of
these, "exomologesis" occurs very frequently. Its meaning varies: at
one time it signifies manifestation of sin, whether in private or in
public, and at another it expresses the public penance and confession
in vogue in the first ages of the Church.

_At the end of the first century_, St. Clement of Rome, the third Pope
after St. Peter, who died in the year one hundred, and whom St. Paul,
in his Epistle to the Philippians, numbers among "his fellow-laborers
whose names are in the book of life," writes, in the Second Epistle
ascribed to him and addressed to the Corinthians: "As long as we are
in this world, let us repent with our whole heart of the evil deeds
which we have done in the flesh, that we may be saved by the Lord
whilst we have time for repentance. For after that we have gone forth
from this world, we are no longer able _to confess_ or repent

_In the middle of the second century_, appeared the "Teaching of the
Twelve Apostles," causing, at this moment, no small attention in the
religious world. Its date is variously stated from 120 to 160 A. D. To
it does St. Clement of Alexandria, who lived into the second decade of
the third century, make reference. The text, together with a
translation, is now published. Therein (Chap. IV) do we read: "Thou
shalt by no means forsake the Lord's commandments, but shalt guard
what thou hast received, neither adding thereto nor taking therefrom.
In the Church thou shalt _confess thy transgressions_, and thou shalt
not come forward for thy prayer with an evil conscience." And again
(Chap. XIV): "But on the Lord's Day do ye assemble and break bread,
and give thanks, after _confessing your transgressions_, that your
sacrifice may be pure."

_In the latter part of the second century_, the pupil of the great St.
Polycarp, St. Irenæus, Bishop of Lyons, born about 120 A. D., and who
died in 202, writing against the Valentinians and certain Gnostics led
by Marcus, states explicitly that many of the women who had been led
into heresy and impurity, and who afterwards returned to the Church,
_confessed even publicly_, and wept over their defilement. "But
others, ashamed to do this, and in some manner secretly despairing
within themselves of the life of God, apostatized entirely."[38]

The same writer, styled "the Light of the Western Gauls," mentions
that "Cordon who appeared before Marcion, he also under Hyginus, the
eighth bishop, having come into the Church _and confessing_, thus
completed his career."

_In the last decade of the second century_, and in the first twenty
years of the third century, the famed Tertullian, who was born at
Carthage about the year 160, and who lived and labored in Rome and
North Africa, ending his life, it is variously stated, from 220 to
240, wrote, before joining the Montanist sect: "If thou drawest back
_from confession (exomologesis), consider in_ thine heart that
hell-fire which _confession shall quench for thee_; and first imagine
to thyself the greatness of the punishment, that thou mayest not doubt
concerning the adoption of the remedy. * * * When, therefore, thou
knowest that against hell-fire, after that first protection of the
baptism ordained by the Lord, there is _yet in confession
(exomologesis) a second aid_, why dost thou abandon thy salvation? Why
delay to enter on that which thou knowest will heal thee? Even dumb
and unreasoning creatures know at the season the medicines which are
given them from God. * * * Shall the sinner, _knowing that confession
has been instituted by the Lord_ for his restoration, pass over that
which restored the king of Babylon to his kingdom? * * * Why should I
say more of _these two planks_, I may call them, for saving men?"[39]

_In the middle of the third century_, Origen, pupil of St. Clement of
Alexandria, was born in that town about 184, labored there for a time,
and afterwards at Cæsarea in Palestine. He died at Tyre in 253. Again
and again does he make reference to confession of sin and its
absolution by a priest. "Hear therefore now," says he, "how many are
the remissions of sin in the Gospels. The first is this by which we
are baptized unto the remission of sins. * * * There is also yet a
seventh, although hard and laborious: the remission of sins through
penitence when the sinner washeth his bed with tears, and his tears
become his bread day and night, and when he is not _ashamed to declare
his sin to the priest of the Lord, and seek a remedy_."[40] And
commenting on the words of the Psalmist--"Because I declare my
iniquity"--Origen writes: "Wherefore see what divine Scripture teaches
us, that we must not hide sin within us. * * * But if a man become his
own accuser, while he accuses himself and confesses, he at the same
time ejects the sin, and digests the whole cause of the disease. Only
look diligently round to whom then oughtest _to confess thy sin_.
Prove first the physician, * * * that so in fine then mayest do and
follow whatever he shall have said, whatever counsel he shall have
given."[41] Again does Origen write: "For if we have done this, and
revealed our sins not only to God, but also to _those who are able to
heal our wounds and sins_, our sins will be blotted out by Him who
saith: 'Behold, I will blot out thy iniquities as a cloud, and thy
sins as a mist.'"[42]

_In the first half of the third century_, flourished St. Cyprian,
Bishop of Carthage. Born in North Africa, he became a Christian about
240, and was beheaded in 238 "as an enemy of the gods, and a seducer
of the people." He repeatedly refers to the practice of confession and
absolution. The following passage from his work "De Lapsis" will
suffice to show his mind: "God perceives the things that are hidden,
and considers those that are hidden and concealed. None can escape the
eye of God: He sees the heart and breast of every person, and He will
judge not only our actions, but also our words and thoughts. He
regards the minds of all, and the wishes conceived in the hidden
recesses of the breast. In fine, how much loftier in faith and in fear
(of God) superior are they who, though implicated in no crime of
sacrifice, or of accepting a certificate, yet because they have only
had thought thereof, this very thing _sorrowingly and honestly
confessing before the priests of God, make a confession (exomologesis)
of their conscience_, expose the burthen of the soul, seek out a
salutary cure even for light and little wounds, knowing that it is
written 'God will not be mocked.'"

_In the early part of the fourth century_, Lactantius, who is said to
have been converted about the year 290, and to have been put to death
about 326, writes: "As every sect of heretics thinks its followers are
above all other Christians, and its own the Catholic Church, it is to
be known that is the true Catholic Church wherein _is confession and
penitence_ which wholesomely heals the wounds and sins to which the
weakness of the flesh is subject."[43]

_In the first half of the fourth century_, Eusebius, the well-known
ecclesiastical historian and Bishop of Cæsarea, in Palestine, who was
born about 270, flourished during the reigns of Constantine and
Constantius, and died in 340, leaves on record that the Emperor
Philip, who wished to join in the prayers of the Church, was not
permitted to do so "until he made his _exomologesis_ (_confession_),
and classed himself with those who were separated on account of their

_In the same century_, St. Hiliary, Bishop of Poietiers, in Gaul, who
died in 368, writes: "There is the most powerful and most useful
medicine for the diseases of deadly vices _in their confession_. * * *
_Confession of sin is this_, that what has been done by thee thou
confess to be a sin, through thy conviction that it is sin."[45]

_In the fourth century_, St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria, born
about the year 296, who lived till 373, and whose name is identified
with the General Council of Nice, is equally explicit. "As man," says
he, "is illuminated with the grace of the Holy Spirit by the priest
that baptizes, so also _he who confesses in penitence receives through
the priest_, by the grace of Christ, the remission of sin."

_In this same century_, St. Pacian, who died Bishop of Barcelona about
373, and who wrote on Baptism and Penance, asserts: "'But you will say
you forgive sin to the penitent, whereas in baptism alone it is
allowed you to loose sin.' Not to me at all, but to God only, who both
in baptism forgives the guilt incurred, and rejects not the tears of
the penitent. But what I do, I do not by my own right, but by the
Lord's. * * * Wherefore, whether we baptize, whether we constrain to
penitence, or _grant pardon to the penitent_, Christ is our authority.
It is for you to see to it, whether Christ hath this power, whether
Christ have done this. Baptism is the Sacrament of our Lord's passion;
_the pardon of penitents is the merit of confession._"[46]

_In the latter half of this same century_, St. Ambrose, born in Gaul
about 340, who lived till 397, the last twenty-two years Bishop of
Milan, writes: "Sins are remitted by the word of God, of which the
Levite is the interpreter and also the executor; they are also
remitted by the _office of the priest and the sacred ministry._"[47]

"It seemed impossible," says this writer elsewhere, "that water should
wash away sin. Then Naaman the Syrian believed not that his leprosy
could be cured by water; but God, who has given so great a grace, made
the impossible to be possible. In the same manner, it seemed
impossible for _sins to be forgiven by penitence_. Christ _granted
this_ to His Apostles, which has been from the Apostles _transmitted_
to the offices of the priests."[48]

And, in similar strain, does St. John Chysostom, Archbishop of
Constantinople, who was born about 344, and died in 407, comment on
the words "Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth," etc., etc.: " * * *
this bond touches the very soul itself, and reaches even unto heaven;
and _what the priests shall do below_, the same does God ratify above,
and the Lord confirms the sentence of his servants."[49]

The great St. Jerome, born in 342, and after a life spent at
Alexandria, at Rome as Secretary to Pope Damasus, in Syria, and
finally in Bethlehem translating the Scripture, died in 420. He
writes: "In the same way, therefore, that _there_ (among the Jews) the
priests make the leper clean or unclean, so also here (in the Church)
does the _bishop or priest bind and loose_ not those who are innocent
or guilty, but, according to his office, after _hearing the various
kinds of sins_, he knows who is to be bound and who loosed."[50]

And St. Augustine, born 354, who was converted by the preaching of St.
Ambrose, mentioned above, who was later made Bishop of Hippo, in North
Africa, and who died in 430, writes: "For this end are sins signified
by these curtains, that they may be _expressed by confession_, and
may, by the grace which _is given to the Church, be abolished_."[51]

This same Father says: "Let a man judge himself of his own will,
whilst he has it in his power, and reform his manners, lest, when he
shall have it no longer in his power, he be judged by the Lord against
his will; and when he shall have passed upon himself the sentence of a
most severe remedy, but still a remedy, let him come to _the prelates
by whom the keys are ministered_ to him in the Church, and as one now
beginning to be a good son, let him receive the manner (or amount) of
his satisfaction from those who are set over the sacraments."[52]

Writer after writer continues in the same strain, in this and the
following century. The passages cited clearly indicate that
confession and absolution are assumed to be the ordinary channel
whereby sin is pardoned. Throughout they, as the Fathers of the
preceding centuries, make the true dispenser of forgiveness, God in
general, or, at other times, Jesus Christ, or again, the Holy Spirit;
but they are equally explicit in declaring the earthly visible organ
whereby the pardon is exercised to be, the Bishop, the Priest, the
Ministers of the Church. These Christian writers constantly prove the
Ministry of Reconciliation by reference to the passages concerning
loosing and binding, in the eighteenth chapter of St. Matthew, and
forgiving and retaining sin, in the twentieth chapter of St. John.

The authors we have cited, and in whose writings many other passages
are to be found, are representatives during the first five centuries
of the Church in North Africa, in Egypt, in Asia Minor, in Palestine,
in Greece, in Italy, in Gaul, and in Spain. They are unanimous in
upholding the power of absolution and the necessity of confession.

6. But a most unexpected witness is to be found in one of the great
Protestant Communions. The English Government, under the Tudor
dynasty, threw off its allegiance in things ecclesiastical to the Holy
See. The sovereigns of England then claimed that spiritual authority
heretofore exercised by the Pope. Henceforth, the Church was not _in_,
but _of_ England. It became a State Department, the archbishops and
bishops receiving their appointment, care of souls, and jurisdiction,
from the king, just as the judges, the officers of the army and navy,
are commissioned to their circuits, their regiments, and their ships.
The Crown is not only the fountain-head of all spiritual
governing-power, but the Crown, aided later by its Council, became the
final Court of Appeal in all disputes about doctrine.

The Established Communion, in its doctrinal code, the Thirty-nine
Articles, which each clergyman declares he accepts _ex animo_,
asserts that "Penance is not a sacrament of the Gospel." And in the
Book of Homilies, which the said Articles commend as containing "good
and wholesome doctrine," do we read: "We ought to acknowledge none
other priest for deliverance from our sins but Jesus Christ. * * * It
is most evident and plain that this auricular confession hath not the
warrant of God's word. * * * I do not say but that, if any do find
themselves troubled in conscience, they may repair to their learned
curate or pastor, _or to some other godly learned man_, and show the
trouble and doubt of their conscience to them, that they may receive
at their hand the comfortable salve of God's word; but it is against
the true Christian liberty that any man should be bound to the
numbering of his sins, as it hath been used heretofore in the time of
blindness and ignorance."[53] It is clear that both the Articles and
the Book of Homilies deny the power of absolution and the necessity of
confession as essential conditions, in the ordinary course of things,
for the forgiveness of sin.

The Book of Common Prayer--the Liturgy of the Anglican Communion--in
the office for visiting the sick, does urge the confession of the sick
person, and gives the form of absolution to be used by the minister.
It also bids the minister to exhort those approaching communion, who
cannot quiet their conscience, to seek absolution, together with
ghostly counsel and advice. In the Book of Common Prayer used by the
Episcopalians in the United States, these directions concerning
confession and absolution are omitted.

The result of the teaching of the Articles was the complete
destruction, in the mind of the people of England, during three
centuries, of the need of confession and absolution. And, until some
fifty years ago, it was unknown for Anglicans to go to confession.
They lived and died without the faintest conception that such an
ordinance was divinely instituted, or that it was necessary or even
advisable. A change came, and certain of the clergy of the Established
Communion began to teach the necessity of confession. This produced
open revolt in their camp; the matter became so serious that the
Convocation sitting in 1873 gave it consideration, and the Bishop of
Salisbury boldly said: "Habitual confession is unholy, illegal, and
full of mischief." The Bishop of Lichfield, in indignation, declared:
"I would rather resign my office than hold it, if it was supposed that
I was giving young men the right to practice habitual confession." The
Archbishop of Canterbury said: "I am ready to revoke the license of
any curate charged with hearing confessions." And the Bishop of Ely
declared: "In no other communion would it be possible for a man to set
himself up as the general confessor of a district, without any other
authority than his own."

The assembled bishops, who of course represented the living teaching
body of the Establishment, published a formal document, wherein they
declare: "The Church of England, in the Twenty-fifth Article, affirms
that penance is not to be counted for a sacrament of the Gospel, and,
as judged by her formularies, knows no such words as Sacramental
Confession." And in this same declaration, commenting on the two
instances wherein the Book of Common Prayer recommends seeking the aid
of a clergyman, is it said: "Thus special provision, however, does not
authorize the ministers of the Church to require, of any who may
resort to them to open their grief, a particular or detailed
enumeration of their sins; or to require private confession previous
to receiving the holy communion; or to enjoin, or even encourage, any
practice of habitual confession to a priest; or to teach that such
practice of habitual confession, or the being subject to what has been
termed the direction of a priest, is a condition of attaining to the
highest spiritual life." By far the greater majority of the clergy and
laity endorse, heart and soul, this declaration.

Notwithstanding these clear utterances in Convocation, young curates
and vicars took to themselves authority, and began to hear confession
and pronounce absolution. These gentlemen had never been prepared for
the work: in their course of ecclesiastical studies the hearing of
confessions and the absolving from sin were never contemplated; they
had to obtain their knowledge from the manuals in use among Catholic
priests. Their bishops neither would nor could give them authority;
and so these clergymen became an authority to themselves, and declared
they had power to forgive sin, merely because they were ordained
priests. Such a pretension could not be made by any priest or bishop
of the Catholic Church, however valid may be his orders. To the
sacramental power of orders must be added juridical authority to
absolve. This, in the divine economy, as will be shown later, is the
means whereby the exercise of such a power can be duly controlled.

Such was the movement in England. I find it transported to the United
States. And I am told by honorable trustworthy people that in Boston,
New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and other cities, there are
Episcopalian clergymen who insist that their penitents shall confess
at regular intervals.[54] That such a fact is possible, or that
persons should be found ready to submit themselves to such a
self-asserted ministry, is simply incredible in face of the clear
declaration of the Thirty-nine Articles, the official commentary of
the Book of Homilies cited above, the formal condemnation of the
English bishops, and the intentional omission of the only two
passages referring to confession from the Book of Common Prayer used
in America.

In the United States it is the more inexplicable, inasmuch as by the
Declaration of Independence there could be no jurisdiction derived
from the Crown of England. And, consequently, the Episcopal Church,
formed as it was after the Independence, could not, from the nature of
the case, receive jurisdiction from without. It formed itself into a
corporation, and its only authority was generated by itself. But that
of confessing and absolving from sin could not have been so created:
no more than it could have been done by the Episcopal Methodist, the
Presbyterian, the Quaker, or any other religions corporation. It is
not unreasonable in a matter so grave, affecting the eternal salvation
of men, to ask of these gentlemen, calling themselves Reverend Father
Confessors, by what authority do they these things, and who gave them
this authority. Assuredly, their bishops declare they do not, and
cannot. Excellent and beyond reproach as are these clergymen,
well-instructed as they may be in the casuistry of the Roman Catholic
moral, theological, and ascetical works, their absolutions are null
and void, and of no more avail than if pronounced by mere laymen. The
joy and peace produced in the souls of many who submit to these
ministrations, arise not from the genuineness of the ordinance. God in
His goodness rewards the honest intentions, the good dispositions, and
faith of those who receive them. The same manifestations of grace are
found among Methodists and Presbyterians; Episcopalians would be the
first to deny the reality and truth of Sacraments in these bodies.

But, it may be asked, how has such a change been wrought in the minds
of Episcopalians on both sides of the Atlantic? The Oxford movement of
some forty-five years ago turned men's minds to the early history of
the Church: and, finding confession and absolution then to be the
ordinary and necessary conditions for reconciliation with God, the
practice was introduced, but without seeing the important truth that,
besides valid ordination, there is needed jurisdiction from the
Church, so as to make absolution of avail.

This new school of religions opinion among Anglican and Protestant
Episcopalians contributes its share of testimony to uphold what the
Church of God has always taught, namely, that over and above having a
genuine supernatural sorrow for sin, there is ordinarily required on
the part of the sinner confession of sin, followed by the judicial
absolution of God's minister, approved and commissioned by the Church,
who alone possesses the power of the keys to remit or retain sin, and
who has therefore the sole right to approve and authorize confessors.

       *       *       *       *       *

The constant practice of the Roman Church; the belief and practice of
the earliest schismatics; the existence of the Penitential Canons; the
statements of the Fathers, representatives of all Christian lands in
the first five centuries, when Latins and Greeks were in the
"Undivided Church"; the discovery made by High Churchmen in our day:
render, separately and cumulatively, evidence to the belief in
"Confession and Absolution" which no reasonable man can or ought to
reject. It is plain that had so painful a task as the confessing of
sin to man not been of Apostolic origin, assuredly its introduction to
the Christian Church would have caused the bitterest struggle, and the
date of such a movement would have been indelibly impressed on the
page of history. But no such strife is recorded.

Well, therefore, did the Church, assembled in General Council at
Trent, having first taught and defined the nature of contrition or
repentance, sum up the question of confession: "It is certain that, in
the Church, nothing else is required of penitents but that, after each
has examined himself diligently, and searched all the folds and
recesses of his conscience, he confess those sins by which he shall
remember that he has mortally offended his Lord and God; whilst the
other sins, which do not occur to him after diligent thought, are
understood to be included, as a whole, in that same confession; for
which sins we confidently say with the prophet: 'From my secret sins
cleanse me, O Lord.' Now, the difficulty of a confession like this,
and the shame of making known one's sins, might indeed seem a grievous
thing, were it not alleviated by the so many and so great advantages
and consolations which are most assuredly bestowed by absolution upon
all who worthily approach to this sacrament. For the rest, as to the
manner of confessing secretly to a priest alone, although Christ has
not forbidden that a person may, in punishment of his sins, and for
his own humiliation, as well for an example to others for the
edification of the Church that has been scandalized, confess his sins
publicly, nevertheless, this is not commanded by a divine precept;
neither would it be very prudent to enjoin, by any human law, that
sins, especially such as are secret, should be made known by a public
confession. Wherefore, whereas the secret sacramental confession,
which was in use from the beginning in Holy Church, and is still also
in use, has always been commended by the most holy Fathers with a
great and unanimous consent, the vain calumny of those is manifestly
refuted who are not ashamed to teach that confession is alien from the
divine command and is a human invention."[55]


[26] 1 Pet. iii. 18.

[27] 2 Cor. v. 18.

[28] 2 Cor. ii. 10

[29] De Poent. c. viii.

[30] John xx, 21.

[31] Matt. ix, 2.

[32] 1 John i, 9.

[33] Acts xix, 18.

[34] 1 Cor. v, and 2 Cor. ii.

[35] Ap. Con. ii, 16.

[36] De Poent. c. 9.

[37] Ep. ii, ad Cor. n. 8.

[38] Adv. Hæres. l. i. cxiii, n. 4, 5, 6, 7.

[39] De Pænit. n. 8-12.

[40] Hom. in Levit. n. 4.

[41] In Ps. xxxvii, n. 6.

[42] Hom. xvii in Lucam.

[43] Divin. Inst. l. iv, c. 30.

[44] Hist. Ecc. Bk. vi, c. 34.

[45] Tract. in Ps. cxxxviii.

[46] Ep. iii, n. 7-9.

[47] De Cain et Abel, l. 2, c. 4.

[48] De Pænit. cii, n. 12.

[49] Vol. I, Lib. iii, n. 5, de Sacerd.

[50] Com. in Matt. c. xviii.

[51] In Exod. n. cviii.

[52] Serm. cccli, n. 9.

[53] Homily on Repentance, part ii.

[54] While this Second Edition is passing through the press, the
following statement is reported by the New York Herald, May 5th, to
have been made the precious Sunday, by the new pastor of St. Ignatius'
Episcopal Church, New York: "And of the confessional, we believe that
auricular confession is a part of the preaching of God's ministers. I
should be unfaithful to my trust if I held back from proclaiming, by
my words and by my practice, _that confession is necessary to
salvation, and that God's ministers have the poorer to forgive sins_."

[55] Con. Trent, Sess. xiv, cap. 5.


So far, the doctrine concerning God's conditions for reconciling the
sinner has been limited to the interior supernatural repentance,
together with absolution and confession. The other
element--satisfaction--which is not of the essence of contrition, but
perfects it, has not been treated, simply because in another
conference it is intended to deal with this question in connection
with the works of penance and the doctrine of indulgences.

Before closing the question now under consideration, it is right that
certain objections, urged oftentimes in good faith, sometimes in
ignorance, sometimes in malice, should be duly met.

1. It is, as was said elsewhere, by no inherent power that the
Apostles and their successors are able to remit sin. God, and God
alone, can do so, though He can delegate this to others. This He has
done. But to secure so transcendent an authority from abuse, two
elements are necessary before it can be exercised.

First, from God, and through the appointed sacrament, must man be
constituted a priest--that is, an offerer of sacrifice. This comes
direct from God, and is called the power of Order, and is obtained by
ordination. This was given to the Apostles at the Last Supper, when
our Lord said: "Do this in commemoration of me." After His
resurrection, there was given the power or capability to forgive sin,
by the words "Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose sins you shall forgive,
they are forgiven; and whose sins you shall retain, they are

The second element comes also from God, but indirectly, as it reaches
the individual minister through the Church. It is the authority or
commission of the Church to a priest or bishop to exercise the power
of pardoning which he has received of God. This is called
jurisdiction. It is included in the words said to Peter: "To thee will
I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatsoever thou shalt bind
on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever then shalt
loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven."[56] Of the which,
Tertullian, writing more than sixteen centuries ago, says: "For if
then thinkest heaven is still closed, remember the Lord left here the
keys thereof to Peter, and through him to the Church."[57] Many a man
has all the innate and acquired talent to be an excellent judge, a
proficient ambassador, an efficient naval or military officer; but
over and above capability, there is needed commission or appointment
by competent authority. So, in like manner, bishops and priests
possess the power to pardon, but jurisdiction is needed to say on whom
and where this power is to be exercised. Merely because a man is
ordained validly, this does not give him the power to absolve; without
jurisdiction, his absolution has no more value than would that of a

It will be evident that as jurisdiction comes from God but through the
Church, she can control those who are to exercise the power of
pardoning sin. Hence, she insists that her priests shall carefully
study the moral law, just as a lawyer does civil law. She exacts that
those who hear confessions shall, by examination, prove their
competency in the way of knowledge. She trains from boyhood her
Levites to the sacred work they have to do, and she permits only those
to be admitted to the Ministry of Reconciliation whose piety, past
conduct, and judgment commend them for confessions. To those so
approved she gives jurisdiction--or, as it is technically called,
"faculties"--specifying where and on whom such power may be exercised.
This jurisdiction is always granted for a limited period of time,
during which it may be withdrawn if deemed advisable by the grantor.

Thus, then, is every care taken in the selection and in the
preparation of priests for the work of hearing confessions and
absolving from sin. Even after they are duly appointed, the
restriction of the power to time, places, persons, and causes,
together with the varied tests of competency afforded by the
conferences on cases of conscience and other theological knowledge,
held at frequent and regular intervals in each diocese, under the
direction of the bishop, constitute a solid control over those
exercising the Ministry of Reconciliation. Then the priest's own
belief and conscience, as well as the obligation to confess his sins
and seek absolution for them, add to the faithful exercise of his
duties as confessor.

Beyond these human precautions and considerations, the very fact that
God instituted the Tribunal of Penance as the usual channel for
pardoning sin, obliges us to realize that He himself would protect the
administration of the sacrament. For this sacred work, His priests,
during many years, are trained to a life of piety, prayer, and
mortification. The spiritual education of their own souls, by
meditation and examination of conscience, fits them to know the
workings of the souls of others. Before undertaking the study of
painfully distressing treatises on certain parts of the moral law, the
Levite strengthens his soul by prayer, enters thereon simply for the
glory of God and the good of souls, and is aided by experienced
discreet professors.

Medical men and lawyers are not trained and selected for their
profession as are priests, nor are they aided in their duties by
special divine protection. Yet, relying on them as gentlemen and on
their professional honor, clients, without fear or suspicion, entrust
to these, themselves and their affairs.

Why then not concede to priests at least this same measure of
honorability? They, like doctors and lawyers, must for their work be
theoretically cognizant of the crimes, iniquities, and weaknesses of
mankind. But they, no more than doctors or lawyers, speak of these
things, unless the penitent has been guilty of and confesses some such
offence. On the contrary, those who enter the Ministry are taught to
be most prudent and discreet in putting questions; never to ask more
than what may be necessary. The rule is to err on the side of too
little. Nay, rather than suggest or make known that which a penitent
may be ignorant of, the minister must consult more what is for the
good of the soul than for the integrity of the Confession.

2. Again, let it be remembered that it is not as in a court of
justice, where the plea of "not guilty" is set up, and all has then to
be wormed out by examination in the most detailed manner. For the
penitent enters the confessional as self-accuser, states the offence,
together with the number of times it has happened, and any
circumstances which may alter or aggravate the deed. There are,
therefore, in Confession, none of the nauseous details and
descriptions of crime which may be heard in our courts and read in our

The remarkable testimony of a Protestant gentleman--Doctor Forbes--may
here be of much value. In his memorandums, made in Ireland in the
autumn of 1852, he says: "At any rate, the result of my inquiries is
that--whether right or wrong in a theological or rational point of
view--this instrument of Confession is, among the Irish of the humbler
classes, a direct preservative against certain forms of immorality at
least."[58] "Among other charges preferred against Confession in
Ireland and elsewhere, is the facility it affords for corrupting the
female mind, and of its actually leading to such corruption. * * * So
far from such corruption resulting from the Confessional, it is the
general belief in Ireland--a belief expressed to me by many
trustworthy men in all parts of the country, and by Protestants as
well as by Catholics--that the singular purity of female life among
the lower classes there is, in a considerable degree, dependent on
this very circumstance."[59] "With a view of testing, as far as was
practicable, the truth of the theory respecting the influence of
Confession on this branch of morals, I have obtained, through the
courtesy of the Poor Law Commissioners, a return of the number of
legitimate and illegitimate children in the work-houses of each of
the four provinces in Ireland, on a particular day, viz: the 27th of
November, 1852. * * * It is curious to mark how strikingly the results
there conveyed correspond with the confessional theory: the proportion
of illegitimate children coinciding almost exactly with the relative
proportions of the two religions in each province; being large where
the Protestant element is large, and small where it is small."[60]

Good sense ought to make objectors remember that priests have mothers
and sisters and relations whom they love; and priests would be the
first to prevent these beloved ones from the demoralizing influences
which enemies ignorantly attribute to the confessional.

3. Once more let it be remembered that the Tribunal of Penance is for
the accusation and absolution of sin. Name, nor abode, nor fortune,
nor domestic concerns, have any place there. The priest is the
spiritual physician, and it is the disease which is submitted to him;
all else is foreign to his office, nor has he the right to ask of
other matters. Nay, more: a sacramental secret surrounds his work;
this involves obligations greater than any natural or promised
secrecy. Information obtained in Confession the priest can never use,
be it in his own interest, or in that of a family, or of the State, or
of the Pope, or of the Church. Therefore, to imagine the Tribunal of
Penance to be an engine for obtaining and using information in
domestic concerns and family secrets, is to be sorely ignorant of the
nature of confession and of the obligations of a confessor.

4. Objectors of another kind urge that confession induces persons to
sin more readily, or at least it transfers the keeping of conscience
to the priest.

Seeing that all which is demanded by Protestants for repentance must
be in the mind of the Catholic before he can be absolved, it is clear
the objection comes ill from them, and can have no foundation. Of
course, for those who believe that Catholics obtain pardon by payment
of money, the objection would have weight. But it can hardly be
imagined that in the nineteenth century, among an intelligent people
like Americans, there are to be found persons who believe that
Catholics are so bereft of reason as to imagine that sin can be
forgiven by the giving of silver and gold.

Every Catholic knows that to speak falsely in Confession would be to
lie to the Holy Ghost, as did Ananias and Saphira; that to confess as
Judas did, without sorrow, would not only bring no pardon, but, on the
contrary, would add the sin of sacrilege to his soul. The Catholic
knows that without a firm efficacious determination of purpose to
avoid sin and its occasions, and to satisfy for injuries done, there
can be no forgiveness of sin.

Nowhere is the soul of man more prone to self-deception than in the
matter of true repentance. Temptation may cease, and with it comes
cessation of wrong-doing. This, under self-deception, may be easily
construed into conversion. Self-interest and passion may so blind a
man that he may imagine himself truly repentant, notwithstanding that
he has not pardoned injuries, or reconciled himself to enemies, or
restored ill-gotten goods, or retracted calumny, or compensated for
wrongs inflicted, or is not disposed to avoid occasions of sin, and
the like.

The confessor has to intervene, remind the penitent of these duties,
and secure that they shall be done, before he can absolve from sin.
Instead of becoming the keeper of the sinner's conscience, the
confessor is but its instructor: duty and responsibility remain in all
their extent to the penitent. And the penitent has to test the
genuineness of his contrition by unmistakable obligations to be
complied with, if forgiveness of sin is to be obtained.

All this, instead of encouraging the sinner, as opponents have it, to
return and wallow in the mire of iniquity, does, on the contrary, make
him gird up his loins, and walk with a firm but cautious step for the
future. And this apart from the fact that one of the supernatural
effects of this sacrament of penance is the bestowal of actual
medicinal graces, whereby the soul is strengthened against relapsing,
and for which reason regular and frequent confession is so earnestly

5. To have a wise prudent spiritual adviser, to have an experienced
physician of the soul, to have a merciful but strict judge of moral
duty: is to have the greatest spiritual support on earth, even apart
from the superadded sacramental character of such a minister. It is
this blessed gift which the Catholic has in his legitimately-approved
and authorized confessor.

Prejudice or ignorance can alone construe such an inestimable
treasure, which brings peace of conscience and heavenly consolation,
into "making the priest the keeper of a man's conscience, and the
destroyer of man's spiritual liberty and of his responsibility to his

How different are the opinions of thoughtful men, concerning this
Tribunal of Penance, will be seen from the following: One is a
Frenchman, who, unhappily, apostatized from the Catholic Church; the
second is a distinguished German philosopher, who lived and died a
Protestant; the third is one of the profoundest thinkers of our day,
who, born in the Episcopal Church in England, served her some forty
years, and then left her to enter the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman

The first of these--Voltaire--thus writes:

"The enemies of the Roman Church, who have assailed the salutary
institution of confession, appear to have removed the strongest
restraint which can be put upon secret crimes. The sages of antiquity
themselves felt the importance of it."[61]

The second--Leibnitz--in his "System of Theology" says:

"The institution of sacramental confession is assuredly worthy of the
divine wisdom, and, of all the doctrines of religion, it is the most
admirable and the most beautiful. It was admired by the Chinese and
the inhabitants of Japan. The necessity of confessing sin is
sufficient to preserve from it those who still preserve their modesty;
and yet, if any fail, confession consoles and restores them. I look on
a grave and prudent confessor as a great instrument of God for the
salvation of souls. His counsels regulate the sentiments, reprove
vices, remove occasions of sin, cause the restitution of ill-acquired
property, and the reparation of wrongs; clear up doubts, console under
afflictions--in fine, cure or relieve all the evils of the soul; and
as nothing in the world is more precious than a faithful friend, what
is the value of that friend when he is bound by his functions and
fitted by his knowledge to devote to you all his care, under the seal
of the most inviolable secrecy?"

The third--Cardinal Newman--says, in "Anglican Difficulties":

"If there is a heavenly idea in the Catholic Church--looking at it
simply as an idea--surely, next after the Blessed Sacrament,
confession is such. And such is it ever found, in fact; the very act
of kneeling, the low and contrite voice, the sign of the
cross--hanging, so to say, over the head bowed low--and the words of
peace and blessing. Oh, what a soothing charm is there which the world
can neither give nor take away! Oh, what piercing heart-subduing
tranquility, provoking tears of joy, is poured almost substantially
and physically upon the soul--the oil of gladness, as Scripture calls
it--when the penitent at length rises, his God reconciled to him, his
sins rolled away for ever! This is confession as it is in fact, as
those bear witness to it who know it by experience."[62]


[56] Matt. xvi, 19, and xviii, 18.

[57] Scorpiace, n. x.

[58] Vol. ii, p. 81.

[59] Vol. ii, p. 83.

[60] Vol. ii, p. 215.

[61] Annales de l'Empire, vol. i, p. 41.

[62] Card. Newman, Ang. Diff. p. 351.

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