Historical evidence for private Confession


#1

I’m a history student. Historians often say that confession in the Church was first public confession and private confession was a later development.

I originally didn’t bother looking into the matter, it didn’t effect my faith. I thought, “what does it matter if the way confession is carried out has changed, confession was still instituted by Christ and was His will.”

then I read on the Catholic Encyclopedia this quote from the council of Trent:

“As regards the method of confessing secretly to the priest alone, though Christ did not forbid that any one, in punishment of his crimes and for his own humiliation as also to give others an example and to edify the Church, should confess his sins publicly, still, this has not been commanded by Divine precept nor would it be prudent to decree by any human law that sins, especially secret sins, should be publicly confessed. Since, then, secret sacramental confession, **which from the beginning has been **and even now is the usage of the Church, was always commended with great and unanimous consent by the holiest and most ancient Fathers; thereby is plainly refuted the foolish calumny of those who make bold to teach that it (secret confession) is something foreign to the Divine command, a human invention devised by the Fathers assembled in the Lateran Council”
newadvent.org/cathen/11618c.htm

Seems to suggest that it essential that I acknowledge that Private confession has always been a practice of the Church.

The Catholic Answers tract also asserts this: “though private confession to a priest was always an option for privately committed sins”
catholic.com/tracts/confession

Can anyone help point me to some historical evidence of confession being a private practice?


The origins of private confession
#2

I originally posed this question in the “Ask and Apologist” group (I think about a month ago). I understand they are busy and get a lot of questions but I was diapointed they chose not to answer it.

They do a great service of allowing the average lay Catholic access to people who have a specialty in apologetics but I’m disappointed that they often answer questions which could really be posed to the local parish priest (eg what is the proper thing to do with towels used to wipe up holy water) at the expense of questions that really couldn’t be answered by just any priest but really need an apologist- someone who has studied the area. I understand it is a free service and they are under no obligation to answer my question but it was an apologetics question so I approached a service on apologetics as it is unlikely I can find answers anywhere else.


#3

In the book “Salvation is from the Jews” it showed how the confession of sins was done on the day of atonement. A personal sacrificial offering was given for the sins of the person or family to the priest who brought it to the altar area in the temple. I don’t know if there was an exchange of words between the person and the priest but if I had to guess, there was not. To me this would be evidence of a private confession. If the sin offering was accepted the book says that the band around the head of the priest changed colors. After the temple was destroyed in 70 AD, this never happened again. But we have to realize that at that time Christ had already established the sacrament of reconciliation.


#4

Of course. But, first, I must ask you to point me to some historical evidence that PUBLIC confession was EVER required by the Catholic Church.

I will not deny that this was required sometimes, but I do not find public confession to be taught by the Catholic Church.


#5

You may have already considered this and may be looking for an outside source other than the bible but James 5:16 seems to suggest a personal confession: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.”


#6

If I remember correctly, in one of the many books about saints that I’ve read, Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Confession when He ‘washed the feet’ of the disciples at the Last Supper. In the saint’s vision, He went to each of them, individually. The saint also said that as He washed their feet, He privately whispered things to each of them, and they confessed their sins to Him. Some of them even wept as He spoke to them. The ‘washing of the feet’ was a symbol of absolution."John 13: [6] He cometh therefore to Simon Peter. And Peter saith to him: Lord, dost thou wash my feet? [7] Jesus answered, and said to him: What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. [8] Peter saith to him: Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him: If I wash thee not, thou shalt have no part with me. [9] Simon Peter saith to him: Lord, not only my feet, but also my hands and my head. [10] Jesus saith to him: He that is washed, needeth not but to wash his feet, but is clean wholly. And you are clean, but not all.

[11] For he knew who he was that would betray him; therefore he said: You are not all clean. [12] Then after he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, being set down again, he said to them: Know you what I have done to you? [13] You call me Master, and Lord; and you say well, for so I am. [14] If then I being your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another’ s feet. [15] For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also. "
“He that is washed, needeth not but to wash his feet”, is a reference to their already being ‘washed’ by their Baptism, so all they needed now was to ‘wash their feet’, meaning to confess and be absolved of the sins committed since that time.


#7

private confession is historical.

(emphasis mine)

“One document issued by Pope St. Leo the Great in the middle of the fifth century, deserves to be quoted in full. He is writing to the bishops of Campania in Italy, reproving them for demanding a public confession of sins before receiving absolution in the sacrament of Penance.
“I have recently heard that some have unlawfully presumed to act contrary to a rule of Apostolic origin. And I hereby decree that the unlawful practice be completely stopped.
“It is with regard to the reception of penance. An abuse has crept in which requires that the faithful write out their individual sins in a little book which is then to be read out loud to the public.
“All that is necessary, however, is for the sinner to manifest his conscience in a secret confession to the priests alone…It is sufficient, therefore, to have first offered one’s confession to God, and then also to the priest, who acts as an intercessor for the transgressions of the penitents” (Magna indignatione, March 6, 459).”
from this source therealpresence.org/archives/Sin/Sin_008.htm


#8

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

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.

So the Catechism itself, which is more authoritative than the Catholic Encyclopedia, states that public penance was practiced for particularly grave sins at one point.


#9

I remember the Columban Fathers (Missionary Society of St. Columban) at a parish I used to frequent mention that the practice of private confession can be traced back to their founder St. Columban. :slight_smile:

From Wikipedia:

Columbanus (Irish: Columbán, 543 – 21 November 615) was an Irish missionary notable for founding a number of monasteries on the European continent from around 590 in the Frankish and Lombard kingdoms, most notably Luxeuil Abbey in present-day France and Bobbio Abbey in present-day Italy. He is remembered as an exemplar of Irish missionary activity in early medieval Europe.

Columbanus taught a Celtic monastic rule and Celtic penitential practices for those repenting of sins, which emphasised private confession to a priest, followed by penances levied by the priest in reparation for the sins.


#10

Thank youv this does solve my problem- so it is not essential for me to believe that cohesion was necessarily instituted as a private issue. Of course it may have been, but this relieved the necessity of believing it.

Just curious how do you think this is reconciled with the quote from the council of Trent I quoted above?


#11

I don’t believe that was actually a quote from Trent, but rather from the text of the Encyclopedia article.


#12

That was a direct quote from Trent which was quoted on the encylopedia page. The document from Trent can be seen here, the quote can be seen in chapter 5:

ewtn.com/library/COUNCILS/TRENT14.HTM


#13

Public penance is not necessarily public confession, though. It does not necessarily follow that all the faithful knew why someone was admitted to the order of penitents.


#14

[quote=]1447 . 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.
[/quote]

It is interesting that the Catechism describes the practice of private penance as a “new practice”, even though it acknowledges that the Irish missionaries were inspired from the Eastern monastic tradition, indicating that it was certainly not a new practice.

At any rate, the Catechism is not clear that the aspect of confessing sins was changed from private to public, it simply states that the penance performed was no longer public and prolonged, thereby enabling quick and private reconciliation with the Church.

On the other hand, we have the quote from Trent, which explicity states that private confession of secret sins has always been employed by the Church.

[quote=]As regards the method of confessing secretly to the priest alone, though Christ did not forbid that any one, in punishment of his crimes and for his own humiliation as also to give others an example and to edify the Church, should confess his sins publicly, still, this has not been commanded by Divine precept nor would it be prudent to decree by any human law that sins, especially secret sins, should be publicly confessed. Since, then, secret sacramental confession, **which from the beginning has been **and even now is the usage of the Church, was always commended with great and unanimous consent by the holiest and most ancient Fathers; thereby is plainly refuted the foolish calumny of those who make bold to teach that it (secret confession) is something foreign to the Divine command, a human invention devised by the Fathers assembled in the Lateran Council
[/quote]


#15

Perhaps in the west, but St. Columban was inspired by a long-existing practice in the Christian East. :slight_smile:


#16

Is there a “founder” of sorts in the Christian East for this practice?


#17

So then we have clarified that the Church does in fact teach that private confession has always been available from the beginning, from Christ.

So then, can anyone point me to any description of this practice from the first few centuries. Some of the points have been interesting, especially regarding day of atonement, and of course from letter of St James, but is has mostly been speculative so far.

Anyone know of a source I can look to for this kind of evidence?


#18

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