The Confessional in 19th century England


#1

Good Morning to you all.
I am not Catholic so have decided to ask those who know.
At present I am writing a historical novel set in Liverpool, England in 1862.
One of the characters, an unmarried, 15 year old, Irish, Catholic girl has consentual premarital sex with a 17 year old, unmarried, Protestant boy. As a consequence, she becomes pregnant. She regrets her actions and goes to confess at her local Catholic church.

Now my questions are these:
What sort of penance would a reasonable priest have stipulated for this sin, at those times? Would it have been regarded as a mortal sin? Or what kind of sin?
In addition to the penance, would the priest have recommended that they marry? If so, what would have been the complications, bearing in mind that the boy was Protestant? The couple were infatuated with each other, and he would have done anything to marry her.

As you can see, my ignorance of the Catholic church is enormous.
With best wishes for a Happy New Year.
Soreofhing


#2

[quote="soreofhing, post:1, topic:181395"]
Good Morning to you all.
I am not Catholic so have decided to ask those who know.
At present I am writing a historical novel set in Liverpool, England in 1862.
One of the characters, an unmarried, 15 year old, Irish, Catholic girl has consentual premarital sex with a 17 year old, unmarried, Protestant boy. As a consequence, she becomes pregnant. She regrets her actions and goes to confess at her local Catholic church.

Now my questions are these:
What sort of penance would a reasonable priest have stipulated for this sin, at those times? Would it have been regarded as a mortal sin? Or what kind of sin?
In addition to the penance, would the priest have recommended that they marry? If so, what would have been the complications, bearing in mind that the boy was Protestant? The couple were infatuated with each other, and he would have done anything to marry her.

As you can see, my ignorance of the Catholic church is enormous.
With best wishes for a Happy New Year.
Soreofhing

[/quote]

I don't know offhand what the penance might have been, however, I might be able to point you in the direction of finding-out. In the 19th century, confession "manuals" were very popular. These were books with lists of sins and suggested penances. They were a newer version of the old Irish or English Penitentials (which served the same purpose), although the older penitentials (going back to the middle ages) were more severe. A Catholic university library will probably have some copies (ie some kind of reprints) of "Penitentials" or "Confession Manuals" You might even get lucky and find a manual from the late 19th or early 20th century. It's worth a trip to a Catholic Univ. library, or even a non-Catholic one that would be large enough to have such things in their collection.

Be careful on the dates though, because you don't want to reference one from the middle ages, because the penance would be more severe, and possibly unrealistic

Here's a start
oce.catholic.com/index.php?title=Penance

Yes, it would have been regarded as a mortal sin.

It would not be adultery because neither is married; instead it would be "fornication" but most likely, it would be described in polite conversation as a "sin against the 6th commandment"

The priest might (but probably not) have recommended that they get married (he's your character after all), but most likely the fictional priest would recommend that the girl go to a convent, have the baby there, and give the baby up for adoption (ie, send the child to an orphanage or to be raised in a monastery). I don't know if that last part would fit in with your plot. He might even have recommended that the girl become a nun.

The priest would probably not recommend that a Catholic girl marry a Protestant boy--at the time, that sort of thing was possible, but very very much discouraged. The Catholic Church did not have a single code of canon law until 1918--much too late for your book, so canon law won't be of much help here; unless of course you can locate a canon law historian who would be familiar with the canons in place in England at the time. They would have needed a dispensation from the local bishop at the very least, most likely a dispensation from Rome.

If marriage was a consideration, the priest would have recommended that the boy convert to Catholicism first, then the priest would marry them in a somewhat private setting (like the rectory parlor, but not the church building). There was no RCIA back then, so the priest could have just "received him into the Church" (as we say today) in a brief ceremony that could have been done the same day.

Good luck with the book.


#3

FrDavid96
Thank you so much, your comments are really very helpful and I'll take them into consideration before putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard!).
According to my plot, the characters need to marry so I think I'll follow the route of convincing the errant lad to convert, or perhaps they'll ignore the good priest's advice and get married in a registry office, and then I suppose the lass would become a lapsed Catholic.
My wife (a Catholic) seems to think an appropriate penance might have been for the girl to pray the full Rosary every day for a year, to purge her sin, but that's what perhaps would happen nowadays. As you say, things were much stricter then.
I'm learning.
Thank you again
Best wishes


#4

[quote="soreofhing, post:3, topic:181395"]
FrDavid96
Thank you so much, your comments are really very helpful and I'll take them into consideration before putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard!).
According to my plot, the characters need to marry so I think I'll follow the route of convincing the errant lad to convert, or perhaps they'll ignore the good priest's advice and get married in a registry office, and then I suppose the lass would become a lapsed Catholic.
My wife (a Catholic) seems to think an appropriate penance might have been for the girl to pray the full Rosary every day for a year, to purge her sin, but that's what perhaps would happen nowadays. As you say, things were much stricter then.
I'm learning.
Thank you again
Best wishes

[/quote]

If she gets married in a registry office, she would be not only a lapsed Catholic, but an excommunicated Catholic.

When say "strict" I mean that a penance might have been "bread&water and sackcloth&ashes for 10 years" in the 800s, but not so strict in the 1800s Less strict than Hester in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter but probably not by very much.

Actually, praying the rosary every day for a year might be a realistic penance for the 1860s although that still sounds a bit too light (in fact, as I re-read and edit my own post here, I keep thinking "it sounds much too light for the period"). It seems to me that something more "public" would have been imposed at that time. The mentality would have been "everyone can see that you're with child and knows that you aren't married, therefore they also have to see that you're doing penance for it." That would have been the mentality not only of the Church, but certainly of English society at the time--although hiding the pregnancy would probably have been the first priority. Perhaps a penance of wearing a plain, rough-cloth dress for a year might be more in keeping with the period--something even more plain than what the character would already be wearing, like literally sack-cloth. Of course, that might interfere with your storyline. Maybe wearing sackcloth under her other clothes for a year might be one "solution" here.

I wish I had access to the 19th century confession manuals. They really would be a good resource here. You might even have a line or two where the priest in the book consults a manual--that would be very realistic.

Keep us posted.


#5

[quote="soreofhing, post:1, topic:181395"]
Good Morning to you all.
I am not Catholic so have decided to ask those who know.
At present I am writing a historical novel set in Liverpool, England in 1862.
One of the characters, an unmarried, 15 year old, Irish, Catholic girl has consentual premarital sex with a 17 year old, unmarried, Protestant boy. As a consequence, she becomes pregnant. She regrets her actions and goes to confess at her local Catholic church.

Now my questions are these:
What sort of penance would a reasonable priest have stipulated for this sin, at those times? Would it have been regarded as a mortal sin? Or what kind of sin?
In addition to the penance, would the priest have recommended that they marry? If so, what would have been the complications, bearing in mind that the boy was Protestant? The couple were infatuated with each other, and he would have done anything to marry her.

As you can see, my ignorance of the Catholic church is enormous.
With best wishes for a Happy New Year.
Soreofhing

[/quote]

the northern Irish would probably kill her off. ;)


#6

FrDavid96
A Happy New Year to you and yours.
Your postings have been very constructive and useful to me. I Like the idea of wearing sackcloth (well, not me!), I think I'll get the priest to impose that penance, and then the girl, trying to avoid the public humiliation, wears it under her clothes. I'll also mention something about the Father consulting a penance manual...but surely he wouldn't have said "hang on a minute, while I consult the manual before I tell you your penance". Would he have said "come back tomorrow"? Would he have had the manual with him inside the confessional?
Any guidance would be gratefully received.
I don't live in the UK so I won't have access to a manual either, although before going away for the New Year I quickly found some references to these manuals on the Internet.
Best regards


#7

[quote="soreofhing, post:3, topic:181395"]
My wife (a Catholic) seems to think an appropriate penance might have been for the girl to pray the full Rosary every day for a year, to purge her sin, but that's what perhaps would happen nowadays.

[/quote]

Would any priest now-a-days ever give such a penance? A full rosary daily for a YEAR?


#8

[quote="soreofhing, post:6, topic:181395"]
FrDavid96
A Happy New Year to you and yours.
Your postings have been very constructive and useful to me. I Like the idea of wearing sackcloth (well, not me!), I think I'll get the priest to impose that penance, and then the girl, trying to avoid the public humiliation, wears it under her clothes. I'll also mention something about the Father consulting a penance manual...but surely he wouldn't have said "hang on a minute, while I consult the manual before I tell you your penance". Would he have said "come back tomorrow"? Would he have had the manual with him inside the confessional?
Any guidance would be gratefully received.
I don't live in the UK so I won't have access to a manual either, although before going away for the New Year I quickly found some references to these manuals on the Internet.
Best regards

[/quote]

He might have had the manual in the confessional--at least it would be entirely realistic for a priest in that period to do it this way. If I were writing the scene, I'd have the priest consult the manual, but not have him say so out loud (silence, pages rustling, that sort of thing). If it works for the story, you could also have him go to a bookshelf to get the manual. Probably not a "come back tomorrow" sort of thing though. "Wait a minute" would be more like it.

For the sackcloth, wearing it under the clothes would be a penance it itself--the purpose was twofold, not only public humiliation, but very uncomfortable. Imagine wearing a rough wool sweater with no shirt beneath it.

Happy writing.


#9

Excellent; I’m to beginning to imagine the confessional… the priest with a little inclined shelf in front of him, a flickering candle, then as you say, some rustling of pages.
Thanks for your help.


#10

It's 2.5 years after the original question was posted, so this may not be of much use to the original querant anymore, but I found a confession manual on Project Gutenberg:

gutenberg.org/ebooks/16920

It is written in Italian (translated from the French), but you can get a (better than nothing) English translation here (and you can mostly infer the parts that are not correctly translated, or at least get the gist):

microsofttranslator.com/BV.aspx?ref=IE8Activity&a=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.gutenberg.org%2Fcache%2Fepub%2F16920%2Fpg16920.html

Unfortunately, it does not help me with the question that I have, and for which I was seeking an answer when I came across this post.

Like Soreofhing, I am researching to write a novel, but this one is set in the French Colonial island of Martinique, also in the 19th century. Specifically, 1876.

My interest is in the rite of the "deathbed confession". I had read somewhere that in the 19th century, the confession in anticipation of one's imminent death could last several days, and involved going over all of one's sins as far back as they can remember.

First and foremost, I want to know if that is true, because otherwise I need to approach the entire book in a different way, as my current plan is to revolve the telling of the tale around my protagonist's deathbed confession. (She is 72 in 1876).

Secondly, while I'm familiar with the rituals of the current-day Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation, I would like to find an authoritative source for the ritual involved in a 19th century deathbed confession. (Particularly as it would have been performed by the French, but as "eldest daughter of the Church", French confession was likely very close to that prescribed by Rome, and my book will be in English anyway.)

Thirdly, given that the sinner is dying, what forms of penance would be prescribed, if any?

Any assistance in finding out this kind of information would be most welcome. Thank you!

Francoise


DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.