A Historical Question About Confession and the Eucharist


Back in the first and second centuries, maybe longer, I’m not sure, believers were only allowed to confess their sins once after baptism. We know this from documents like “The Shepherd” by Hermas. Since it could only be received once, many, if not most, believers waited until they were dying to receive it. Since you can’t receive the Eucharist if you are in a state of mortal sin, does that mean that early Christians seldom, if ever, received the Eucharist?


staycatholic.com/ecf_confession.htm look over these quotes. I don’t see any limits to confession.


The Shepherd by Hermas , is not recognized as having any bearing on the faith. So what is written in it means nothing to a Catholic. Or any other Christian.


As I said, it was in “The Shepherd” by Hermas. That work is not quoted in the list you referenced.


I never said it had any bearing on the faith. I’m talking history, not doctrine.


There is commentary following this selection

The Shepherd, by Hermas, brother of Pope St.Pius I, who ruled 140-150.
Mandate 4.3.1-6: Hermas says to the angel of Penance:

“I have heard, sir, from some teachers that there is no other
means of repentance than the one when we went down into the
water and obtained remission of our previous sins. He said to
me, you have heard rightly, for that is true. He who has
received remission of sin should never sin again, but live in
purity. But since you ask carefully about everything, I will
explain this too to you, not to give an excuse to those who in
the future will believe or to those who have already believed in
the Lord. For those who have already believed or are going to
believe have no means of repentance of sins, but have the
remission of their previous sins. For those who were called
before these days, the Lord appointed means of repentance, For
the Lord knows the heart and since He knows in advance
everything, He knew the weakness of man, and the cunning
craftiness of the devil,that he will do some evil to the
servants of God and will deal wickedly with them. The Lord then,
since He is full of compassion had mercy on His creatures, and
established this means of repentance. And to me was given power
over this means of repentance. But I tell you, he said, after
that great and solemn calling, if a man should be tempted by the
devil and sin, he has one means of repentance. But if he sins
repeatedly and repents, it does him no good, for scarcely shall
he live.”

COMMENT: Most scholars think the passage is deliberately obscure, for
psychological reasons.It opens by saying there is only one means of
forgiveness, Baptism. But at once it adds that there is another, but not
all may use it. Implication is that repentance might not be real in many,
especially if they denied Christ in the Roman court, planning to use the
sacrament afterwards. Their repentance then would probably not be sincere -
it was preplanned, and there was no a real change of heart. But after long
and hard penance, there could be a change of heart. So,in Parable 9.16 we
read: “It is impossible for him to be saved who now denies His Lord, but
for those who denied Him long ago, repentance seems possible.” Also, the
angel, speaks of one means - which could imply that the Sacrament of
Penance could be used only once in a lifetime. It says one should never sin
again -this is the Baptismal seal, which marks one as God’s property, and
one should never break the seal. Yet we do see here,in spite of the
deliberate obscurity, that there was a Sacrament of Penance.

We use a regressive method: we go back to the first point at which a
doctrine is clear - earlier are only unclear statements. But since we know
that in the Patristic age any change in doctrine provoked a storm, if there
was no storm at the time of the first clear statement, we gather that the
teaching was around long before, even from the beginning. We know too that
the penetration by the Church into the deposit of revelation grows with
time: so we need not suppose everything was clear at the start, e.g.,the
case of the Immaculate Conception. This all stems from the promise at the
Last Supper, in John 16:13 that He would send the Holy Spirit to lead them
into all truth. It did not mean new revelations, but a deeper penetration.


That’s why I gave the quotes I did, to show that confession was not limited to one time.


We have to look at texts like the Shepherd and put them strictly into historical context.

Saying that “one cannot receive Communion in a state of mortal sin” (while true enough) is to use a contemporary phrase and a modern understanding of canon law.

Back in the 2nd century Christian theology of sin had not yet developed into what it is today. What they would have called “mortal sin,” in the vocabulary of their own time, were the truly extreme sins of murder, apostasy and adultery. Those who were guilty of these sins were placed outside of the community (though still Christians and still members of the Church), both figuratively and literally; until they completed a lengthy process of reconciliation.

For some history, see the Catholic Encyclopedia on Confession

It offers some brief commentary on the Shepherd.

Confession itself was available to all the Christians (for sins big and small), and historical sources support more the notion that they did practice Confession throughout their lives, than they support the idea of confession only once.

The bulk of the historical record that we have about confession and reconciliation deals with those who committed the Big 3.


The Sacrament of Penance or Confession which Jesus gave us has had various forms down through the centuries.

First off remember in the early Church (as we do today) – “daily sins” (venial sins) could be forgiven by prayers during the liturgy and are forgiven by the Eucharist. Though other ways too where practiced – penance, alms, prayer,* the Our Father *etc…

Forgiveness of grave sins (mortal sins) could be rather more involved.

At least in some regions and in certain periods certain particular mortal sins were absolved only once (i.e. apostasy, murder, adultery)…but this does not mean that confession per se was only permitted once.

An example of the only once is that Origen (born 185) noted in one of his homilies that for the graver crimes (such as those mentioned above) there was only one opportunity for penance…

Which one would think – given the rigor involved in the penance – one would not likely fall again into apostasy (or idolatry), or adultery or murder too soon!!

This does not mean other mortal sins were not confessed…or could not be confessed more than one time…but in certain regions…for certain very serious sins (like idolatry) …there was but once going through that process to be reconciled… (though one could still “do penance and pray etc”) … but one should remember too that the Christian of those days was very aware of the reality of martyrdom that could happen to them …and was thus often very serious about following Christ by the Holy Spirit …otherwise he did not become a Christian…one really was always conscious of the reality of baptism…the reality of being a Christian…

The practice of frequent and private confession (including of venial sins) was spread via monasticism in the west in the 600’s


1447 Over the centuries the concrete form in which the Church has exercised this power received from the Lord has varied considerably. During the first centuries the reconciliation of Christians who had committed particularly grave sins after their Baptism (for example, idolatry, murder, or adultery) was tied to a very rigorous discipline, according to which penitents had to do public penance for their sins, often for years, before receiving reconciliation. To this “order of penitents” (which concerned only certain grave sins), one was only rarely admitted and in certain regions only once in a lifetime. During the seventh century Irish missionaries, inspired by the Eastern monastic tradition, took to continental Europe the “private” practice of penance, which does not require public and prolonged completion of penitential works before reconciliation with the Church. From that time on, the sacrament has been performed in secret between penitent and priest. This new practice envisioned the possibility of repetition and so opened the way to a regular frequenting of this sacrament. It allowed the forgiveness of grave sins and venial sins to be integrated into one sacramental celebration. In its main lines this is the form of penance that the Church has practiced down to our day.

1448 Beneath the changes in discipline and celebration that this sacrament has undergone over the centuries, the same fundamental structure is to be discerned. It comprises two equally essential elements: on the one hand, the acts of the man who undergoes conversion through the action of the Holy Spirit: namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction; on the other, God’s action through the intervention of the Church. the Church, who through the bishop and his priests forgives sins in the name of Jesus Christ and determines the manner of satisfaction, also prays for the sinner and does penance with him. Thus the sinner is healed and re-established in ecclesial communion.



Just sharing a few thoughts.

Re: consequence for certain sins. One can see from scripture that one won’t inherit heaven if they die in certain sins that are listed. That to me describes very simply as grave a sin and consequence for a sin, that one can commit. And the following lists were the teaching from the beginning from Jesus and the apostles. Sins and corresponding consequences that land a soul in hell if one dies in them, are very clearly laid out and taught from the beginning.

*]Titus 3: 10 Reject a factious ( [FONT=Calibri][FONT=Verdana]αρετικν )[/FONT]man after a first and second warning, 11knowing that such a man is )perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned. [/FONT]
*]Ephesians 5: 3-5 fornication, covetousness……5 Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.
*]Hebrews 10:25-26 missing the eucharist deliberately on Sunday, then no sacrifice for sin for THEM but a fiery judgement that consumes the adversaries of God. #17
*]Hebrews 12: 16 - 17 immoraliy, is selling your inheritance
*]Galatians 5: 19 - 21 sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies, will not inherit heaven
*]Romans 16:17… dividers don’t serve our Lord but themselves. Stay away from them. Satan will soon be crushed under your feet
*]Colossians 3: 5-6 immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry, …rath of God is coming
*]1 Corinthians 6: 9 - 10 no sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor male prostitutes, nor homosexual offenders ἀρσενοκοῖται]10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor slanderers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.
*]2 Peter 2:4-22
[/LIST]As an observation, while sexual sins appear often in those lists, they run the gammet of sexual sins, and aren’t limited to just adultery.

Just thinking outloud :wink:


Yes grave sins were not limited to only those three…or so. Those sins were particularly grave and required often (in various places or times) rather serious penitence etc. I think Father was noting that* much of the information about practice that is extant* (we still have 1900 or so years later)- is regarding those particular three or so extremely grave ones.


Your comments leave me with a lot of questions but one in particular sticks out. You said:

“Back in the 2nd century Christian theology of sin had not yet developed into what it is today. What they would have called “mortal sin,” in the vocabulary of their own time, were the truly extreme sins of murder, apostasy and adultery.”

It is my understanding that 1 John 5:16-17 provide the basis for the difference between mortal and venial sins. This was written around the end of the first century AD. It seems to me that any changes in what constitutes a mortal sin after public revelation was sealed would constitute adding to it. If the mortal sins which John (and the earliest Church Fathers) were referring to were murder, adultery and apostasy, how do we defend considering birth control using condoms which don’t kill the fetus a mortal sin. It doesn’t fit into either. (To clarify, I am not saying that using a condom is not a mortal sin. I’m just at a loss to justify that belief.)

Also, what about stealing or lying? If they were not part of the original list of deadly sins, how do we justify considering them so today? Why wouldn’t the early church consider them mortal sins given that they were included in the Ten Commandments just as murder and adultery were?

How does 1 Cor 6:9-10 fit in. Paul lists a variety of sins that, if they remain unforgiven, will prevent the sinner from entering the Kingdom of God. That list includes sexual immorality but not murder or apostasy. (Ditto for Rev 21:8.) Why would the early church just pick out three for requiring confession?


See my posts above. I think Father was tying quickly (see the later part of his post) and just was not being clear there. While the more in depth theology regarding mortal sin certainly developed -as did much of the Faith (development of doctrine) -yes there were many many other mortal sins (grave sins).

Yes there were many mortal sins (grave sins) noted that were *not *those three or four etc that in some places and times only permitted one confession of.

Yes contraception and abortion were condemned…(and I would imagine abortion was in the order of murder…thus of more serious penance…)


Again such is not about the “only grave sins” but those listed -the three or four or so (see the Catechism too in my post up above) where of the more grave - requiring* more serious penance*. Than other grave sins.

Those three or four often in *some places and times *only permitted one time to be confessed! One could not return to confession for murder again…one would be in the order of penance til death.

Catechism: “Christians who had committed particularly grave sins after their Baptism (for example, idolatry, murder, or adultery) was tied to a very rigorous discipline, according to which penitents had to do public penance for their sins, often for years, before receiving reconciliation. To this “order of penitents” (which concerned only certain grave sins), one was only rarely admitted and in certain regions only once in a lifetime.”

As to theft and lying -one should note that they admit of parvity of matter (smallness of matter) that is there is often venial matter there not grave. Often lies are venial.


I can’t respond if you misread what I wrote the first time.


And I can’t help it if you weren’t clear. Gee, this will be the first time I’ve added a priest to my twit list.


If anyone read or heard the epistles of St. Paul, he would not receive unworthily, whatever that meant to him or her. The matter of being free from mortal sin in order to receive came much later, I believe. (St. Pius X?)


Speaking of Pius X

When we speak of the historical account in this case (the primitive Church) Re: confession (penance), we find that there are those in, and also outside the CC, who take the following position for example on penance.

In the primitive Church there was no concept of the reconciliation of the Christian sinner by the authority of the Church, but the Church by very slow degrees only grew accustomed to this concept. Moreover, even after penance came to be recognized as an institution of the Church, it was not called by the name of sacrament, because it was regarded as an odious sacrament.

That’s a modernist / liberal position which is error #(46) out of 65 errors listed and condemned by Pius X

: papalencyclicals.net/Pius10/p10lamen.htm

It’s unfortunate to see how many people today hold views on that list


Thanks for that list, steve.


:tiphat: you’re welcome

As a followup, consider just these 5 errors listed by Pius X (out of the list of 65 errors) presented.

(emphasis mine)

  1. Simon Peter never even suspected that Christ entrusted the primacy in the Church to him.

  2. The Roman Church became the head of all the churches, not through the ordinance of Divine Providence, but merely through political conditions.

  3. The Church has shown that she is hostile to the progress of the natural and theological sciences.

  4. Truth is no more immutable than man himself, since it evolved with him, in him, and through him.

  5. Christ did not teach a determined body of doctrine applicable to all times and all men, but rather inaugurated a religious movement adapted or to be adapted to different times and places.

In eternity The Great Heresies as well as all those to follow, all collapse in their errors, as do those who follow errors instead of the truth.

And we know the pillar and foundation of truth is the Catholic Church which Jesus established.


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