PILGRIM CHURCH, REVISED AND EXPANDED, 1991, by William J. Bausch.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH THROUGH THE AGES: A HISTORY, 2005, by John Vidmar, OP
CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA, New Advent . (newadvent.org/cathen/11618c.htm)
The persecutions led to a standardization of the sacrament of Confession. Unfortunately, there were Christins who denied their faith in the face of this crisis. They were called “lapsi”. Many desired to be reconciled with the Church. Some Church leaders did not feel they should be allowed to return. Many of them held that such serious sin could not be forgiven.The hard-liners were led by Novatian. (Vidmar, 28) But, Hermas argued that God wanted repentant sinners back, but not repeatedly. “For there is only one repentance for the servants of God”. (Bausch, 72) Pope Cornelius finally decided the issue. (Vidmar, 28) Confession then was normally given only once in a lifetime.
“Ignatius of Antioch at the close of the first century speaks of the mercy of God to sinners, provided they return” with one consent to the unity of Christ and the communion of the bishop". The clause "…He also says (Letter to the Philadelphians) “that the bishop presides over penance”. (newadvent.org/cathen/11618c.htm)
Tertullian (150-230AD) writes that deacons were sometimes the ordinary ministers of confession and reconciliation in the early days of the Church. (Bausch, 58)
At this time the Church held there were three sins which had to be confessed: adultery, apostacy, and murder. You appeared publicly before the bishop. You were enrolled in the “order of penitents”. The “new” Christians, after completing their public penance, were received back into the Church at the Easter Vigil. This “forgiveness only once” was the norm from the fourth through the sixth century. (Bausch, 72-73)
Irish monks in the 7th and 8th centuries introduced private confession. They were Celtic ascetics who frequently confessed their smallest sins. Since the monastery was an influential structure in Ireland, this practice spread to the laity. Eventually it was introduced to the mainland. (Bausch, 73)
By the 9th century, frequent confession was encouraged by Church leaders such as St. Boniface. Confession was not limited to three sins. (Bausch, 73)
The hearing of penance by deacons became an issue of the church in the 12th and 13th century.
“The Council of York (1195) decreed that except in the gravest necessity the deacon should not baptize, give communion, or “impose penance on one who confessed”…All these enactments,…make exception for urgent necessity.” . (newadvent.org/cathen/11618c.htm)
Use of Deacons as confessors was eventually abolished by the end of the 19th century.
In 1418, the idea of laymen hearing confessions arose.
“That this power does not belong to the laity is evident from the Bull of Martin V “Inter cunctas”… “whether he believes that the Christian . . . is bound as a necessary means of salvation to confess to a priest only and not to a layman or to laymen however good and devout” (Denzinger-Bannwart, “Enchir.”, 670)” . (newadvent.org/cathen/11618c.htm)
In 1520, this crisis reappeared when Martin Luther wrote that anyone could absolve since confession was merely a “symbol”. (Vidmar, 184)
“Luther’s proposition, that “any Christian, even a woman or a child” could in the absence of a priest absolve as well as pope or bishop, was condemned (1520) by Leo X in the Bull “Exurge Domine” (Enchir., 753).” . (newadvent.org/cathen/11618c.htm)
This, along with other issues brought to a head by the Reformation, resulted in the calling of the Council of Trent. "
"The Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, c. 6) condemns as “false and as at variance with the truth of the Gospel all doctrines which extend the ministry of the keys to any others than bishops and priests…”. (newadvent.org/cathen/11618c.htm)
The Council of Trent (1545-1563) is known for insisting that sins be confessed by number and kind. Dogma became difinitive, so there began a shift to moral theology. Confessions increased. Manuals were created outlining even the smallest sins to an excruciating degree. For instance, they would endlessly discuss exactly how much meat had to be consumed on a day of abstinence for it to become a mortal sin. This resulted in a very sin-conscious and scrupulous laity. (Bausch, 277)
Following Trent, things became very legalistic. Certain sins could only be forgiven by the bishop or the pope. Five steps for a good confession were required:
1. Examination of conscience
2. True sorrow for one’s sins
3. True commitment to change
4. Telling sins to the priest
5. Completion of one’s penance
Arguments over the strictness of the codes caused very divisive debates. (Bausch, 277)
While some in the 1600’s encouraged the sinner to confess to anyone present in the absence of the priest, this practice was never accepted by the Church.
“Since, therefore, the weight of theological opinion gradually turned against the practice and since the practice never received the sanction of the Church, it cannot be urged as a proof that the power to forgive sins belonged at any time to the laity.” . (newadvent.org/cathen/11618c.htm)
Following Vatican II, “the Decree on Religious Freedom recognized that all believers of any faith had the right to follow their consciences in matters of faith.” Catholics were unprepared to distinguish what is authentic Church doctrine. Since they no longer felt bound to certain practices, they ceased doing them. Confessions dropped off drastically. (Bausch, 423) This continues to be a problem in the Church.