Sacrament of Penance during the early centuries


#1

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.

Catechism of the Catholic Church Paragraph 1447].

Most people fall into grave sin more than once in a life time. What of those people in those regions which only permitted the sacrament once? As well, it seems that this very strict manifestation of the sacrament was only exercised in cases of very grave sins such as murder, abortion or adultery. What of other more common and more minor sins that still can constitute grave matter (ex. lustful thoughts, etc). Does anyone know how the Church dealt with such matters during these early centuries?

God bless.
Tyler


#2

I have read before that in the early church, because the Sacrament of Reconciliation could only be received once, many people held off from receiving until they were on their deathbeds.


#3

[quote=twf]Most people fall into grave sin more than once in a life time. What of those people in those regions which only permitted the sacrament once?
[/quote]

The Catechism is referring to those regions where the historical evidence unquestionably shows a limit of only one admittance to the Order of Penitents. However, it is more than likely that this limit applied in every region.

[quote=twf]As well, it seems that this very strict manifestation of the sacrament was only exercised in cases of very grave sins such as murder, abortion or adultery. What of other more common and more minor sins that still can constitute grave matter (ex. lustful thoughts, etc). Does anyone know how the Church dealt with such matters during these early centuries?
[/quote]

Forgiveness of venial sin was obtained through the Eucharist. Forgiveness of other mortal sin was obtained through perfect acts of contrition.

Karl Rahner has a book length theological study of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance in the Early Church, v. 15 of Theological Investigations, translated by Lionel Swain, New York: Crossroad, 1982) that deals with the practice of the early Church. It is way over my head, but I believe the common aspect across all the different Church practices over history was metanoia, basically a strong regret of having sinned together with a definite intent to reform one’s future conduct.


#4

Catholic2003: Thanks for the info. Isn’t that a bit harsh? What of charity and mercy? Those who did not exhbit perfect contrition would then be lost. As well, I thought perfect contrition only brought about the forgiveness of mortal sins if one intended to go through the sacrament later. Is this simply a point of canon law, to be bound and loosed at the Church’s discretion?


#5

[quote=twf]Catholic2003: Thanks for the info. Isn’t that a bit harsh?
[/quote]

You’re welcome. This was a concern of mine before I joined the Church. As for harsh, I guess harshness is in the eye of the beholder. Take the following scenario of a man who goes to confession every Saturday. But by Tuesday of many weeks, he has fallen into mortal sin again. And say 85% of the time, he has fallen into mortal sin by Thursday, and it’s a rare week that he makes it to the next Saturday without committing at least one mortal sin. Although the man is very good by human standards, and certainly when compared to the general population of Catholics, the end result is that whether or not this man ends up in heaven or hell depends on what day of the week he dies on. It seems pretty arbitrary, and therefore pretty harsh, to me. But whether something is harsh and whether it is true are two different questions.

[quote=twf]What of charity and mercy? Those who did not exhbit perfect contrition would then be lost.
[/quote]

I trust completely in the charity and mercy of God. I’m sure all the questions we have will be answered if and when we get to heaven. Another thing to consider is that one of the requirements for mortal sin is full knowledge, and perhaps the knowledge that there were many ways to commit grave sins wasn’t fully present in the very early Church. I can’t use my ignorance of what standard is applied to others to justify my deliberate disobedience.

[quote=twf]As well, I thought perfect contrition only brought about the forgiveness of mortal sins if one intended to go through the sacrament later. Is this simply a point of canon law, to be bound and loosed at the Church’s discretion?
[/quote]

It’s kind of an interaction between canon law and the requirements of perfect contrition. To have perfect contrition, one must intend to turn away from one’s previous sinful behavior and start following Christ, which includes obeying the requirements set down by His Church. In times when the canon law includes a requirement to go to sacramental confession after committing a mortal sin, then perfect contrition of necessity requires this as well.


#6

Thanks. That was a helpful response.

Do you know for a fact that less grave mortal sins were considered forgiven by an act of perfect contrition, or are you assuming? (Not to say that it isn’t a good assumption).

Were you suggesting that certain sins we now view as mortal were then viewed as venial? (Which I find unlikely, as that would seem to be a contradiction in the moral teaching of the Church). Surely if we today consider lustful thoughts, for example, grave, the early Church would as well.

In Christ through Mary,
Tyler


#7

I came across this quote at Scripturecatholic.com (in the “Confession” section):"
For although in smaller sins sinners may do penance for a set time, and according to the rules of discipline come to public confession, and by imposition of the hand of the bishop and clergy receive the right of communion: now with their time still unfulfilled, while persecution is still raging, while the peace of the Church itself is not vet restored, they are admitted to communion, and their name is presented; and while the penitence is not yet performed, confession is not yet made, the hands Of the bishop and clergy are not yet laid upon them, the eucharist is given to them; although it is written, ‘Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.’ Cyprian, To the Clergy, 9 (16):2 (A.D. 250).
This suggests to me that smaller penances were imposed for less severe sins. What do you think?


#8

[quote=twf]Do you know for a fact that less grave mortal sins were considered forgiven by an act of perfect contrition, or are you assuming? (Not to say that it isn’t a good assumption).
[/quote]

I’m assuming a lot of things - the Rahner book was way beyond my limited theological abilities. I’m fairly sure that today we consider that their mortal sins were forgiven by perfect contrition; however, I really don’t have any idea of what the people of the time thought themselves.

[quote=twf]Were you suggesting that certain sins we now view as mortal were then viewed as venial? (Which I find unlikely, as that would seem to be a contradiction in the moral teaching of the Church). Surely if we today consider lustful thoughts, for example, grave, the early Church would as well.
[/quote]

No, there are certain universals which cannot change. But one of those universals is that for a grave sin to be mortal, it must be committed with full knowledge and full involvement. I was making a personal conjecture that the full knowledge required may have been lacking on a wider basis in the early Church that it is today. I don’t really know, though.

The one historical practice that I haven’t been able to reconcile with universal Church teaching is during the Irish penitential period, when sinners were readmitted to the Eucharist after having confessed to someone other than a priest, and performing their penance, even for grave sins.


#9

[quote=twf]This suggests to me that smaller penances were imposed for less severe sins. What do you think?
[/quote]

It certainly seems like there were more sins being dealt with than murder, adultery, and idolatry. The Canons of St. Basil the Great (370 A.D.) has a fairly lengthy list.


#10

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