St. John’s Seminary, Boston, MA
In my last post, I began with an appeal to open a new conversation on Confession, with a hope to rediscover the beauty of the sacrament so that we may learn what marvelous fruits it imparts to the human heart and society. But any proper rediscovery must start at the beginning, so I take some time this month to highlight some of the important history behind the sacramental rite. The rite which emerged in the early Church looks quite different from what we know today, although it has always retained its essential elements (Rites of the Catholic Church, 523). For a long time, the sacrament was celebrated only once during a lifetime, and completed only after an intense period of public penance. Furthermore, this order of penitents was established primarily to deal with what the Church considered the three great sins: murder, adultery, and apostasy. The lengthy and public process was reformed only upon the arrival of the Irish monks in western Europe, who introduced private and repeatable penance. By the 13th century, and the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the Irish model had been widely accepted and the sacrament had become an entirely private affair. This same Council asserted that Christians were expected to receive Holy Communion at least once a year; the reasonable pre-requisite being that the Christian also had to confess their grave sins at least once a year, in order to be in a proper state to receive Communion. This has remained the norm ever since, although the last century or so has seen a shift toward more frequent confession.
The four parts of the sacrament each serve the ultimate purpose of penance, which is “that we should love God deeply and commit ourselves completely to him.” (Rites, 528) The Rite defines the first part, contrition, as the “heart-felt sorrow and aversion for the sin committed along with the intention of sinning no more.” (Rites, 529) It is a sorrow that is born out of a love for God, who is praised above all things, and who has made us for no other end than to walk with him. (Chris Aridas, Reconciliation: Celebrating God’s Healing Forgiveness, 49) The confession “comes from the true knowledge of self before God”, and is always made “in the light of God’s mercy.” (Rites, 529) The act of penance is oriented to the renewal of life and urges the penitent to forget the things that are behind. (Philippians 3:13) And, finally, absolution marks the moment when Christ “places the lost sheep on his shoulders and brings them back into the sheepfold.” (Rites, 530) Love, mercy, praise, thanksgiving, and renewal: if the scene were to visibly reflect the operation of sanctifying grace occurring in this moment of history, then fireworks, feasting and confetti would be in order. The sacrament of confession celebrates a return to our baptismal state. It is this sense of celebration which has, unfortunately, been somewhat dampened over time. The entire sacramental apparatus has been increasingly perceived as a means to bind the penitent to a written law, rather than a means to restore his or her relationship with God.
Today’s Catholics have inherited a tradition of confession which continues to be significantly affected by the shifts within the field of moral theology after St. Thomas Aquinas. Where St. Thomas had given precedence to the virtues, some of his successors focused much more on the morality of obligation. By the 17th century, the “manuals” of moral theology began to circulate, primarily in the seminaries, where young men were preparing to hear confessions. The Jesuits, in particular, were enthusiastic about promoting a certain work called Institutiones morales, written by the Spanish Jesuit, Juan Azor (1536-1603). The manual was intended to carry on Aquinas’ work, but, in its effort to be simpler and more accessible to both priests and lay people, it reduced moral theology to little more than following a specific and rigid set of precepts and laws. It must be said that the manuals served an important function in providing a fundamental education of moral principles, but the:
primary reproach that one can make against the moralities of obligation…is that they have restricted considerably the domain of moral theology. Because of its focus on obligations, moral theology has detached itself from everything that goes beyond legal imperatives: from the search for perfection, which is henceforth reserved to an elite; from the interior mystical movement of the heart so closely linked to love; and from spirituality in general. The moral theology of the manuals lost sight of essential questions: the treatise on happiness and the destiny of the human person. (Servais Pinckaers, Morality: The Catholic View, 40)
In other words, this movement to a morality of obligation essentially deadened the sense of heavenly objectives in the general Catholic consciousness. Consequently, the sacrament of confession ceased to be primarily a matter of striving for holiness, and became something of a sophisticated “checklist”, an attitude which has lasted well into our present century. But one does not drop off sins like they would dirty laundry at the cleaners, and nor is it quite as simple as everything just coming clean in the wash. That attitude hardly touches the edge of wonder, conversion and interior renewal. To recover a genuine sense of the sacrament of reconciliation, one must go the way of recovering the true sense of all the sacraments. Next time, we will see how one theologian by the name of Louis-Marie Chauvet travels this way, and begins the journey in the company of the disciples walking toward Emmaus.