Saturday, November 26, 2022

A Brief History of Sacramental Confession

    I started out this week wanting to say a little more about the sacrament of confession & reconciliation, and specifically the part where the priest gives you your "penance" -- traditionally assigning some prayers to be recited, a few Hail Marys or Our Fathers. Which seems to me to be kind of ... well, kind of beside the point. For a number of reasons. But my purpose isn't just to make fun of how not to do it. My point is to sift through a tradition whose meaning has faded through the centuries, in hopes of finding what is really needed, what is truly valuable for helping us to grow into people with healthy functioning consciences, and healthy relationships with God, with ourselves, and with one another.

    As usual, I got very quickly lost in the weeds of this, what seemed like a very manageably limited topic; i.e., the ritual penance part of the sacrament. So I've decided to back up another step and just give a quick run-down of how this sacrament came to be, historically. Just as background, without trying, for now, to evaluate or delve into the meaning or relevance of any of it for us today.

    So there are two main scriptural justifications for the sacrament. One, which shows up in James 5:16 and 1 John 1:18-20, is exhortation to Christians to confess our sins. James, though, says we should confess "to one another," and John just says we should "acknowledge" our sins, without saying to whom we should confess. The other part of it is in John 20:23, where Jesus says to his apostles after the resurrection, "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained." Along with the parallels in Matthew, which speak of "binding and loosing," this is taken as the theological basis for the authority of ordained priests (as successors to the apostles) to sacramentally absolve sin.

    However ... that's not to say that it was understood that way in biblical times. I mean, the first part, from the epistles, about acknowledging our sins, yes. But not the part about sacramental absolution for serious sin. For the first couple of centuries after Christ, the only way to be absolved of serious sin was to be baptized. And you could only be baptized once. But that was OK, because being baptized didn't only wipe the slate clean of past sins, it meant being dead to sin, being filled with the Holy Spirit, with the grace of God that would prevent us from falling back into our old ways.

    And we all know how well that works, right? It's great in the first fervor of conversion. And the expectation that Jesus would be right back, any day, to whisk all those happy Christians off to glory, made it easy to sustain that fervor in the early years. But then, the Apocalypse didn't happen, and time passed, and fervor faded, and baptized Christians did bad things. And that was OK to a point. As James and John had said, they acknowledged their faults to each other, and they were OK absolving each other of most ordinary sins.

    There was a concept of mortal sins, unforgivable sins, which generally included murder, adultery, and apostasy. And bishops, priests, or community sentiment had discretion over what could be forgiven, and what kind of apology, penance, or amends were sufficient in any given case. But in any case, confession of sins was a serious thing, and public, and the penitent was expected to actually demonstrate repentance, make amends, and convincingly change their ways.  

    Which is tough! Think of the sex abuse scandals in the Church today. It's almost all about sins committed decades ago, back when the whole (Western) world was going a little nuts about throwing the good baby Chastity out with the dirty bathwater of Repression. Not that I doubt that there are still abusive priests out there, but for the most part we are confronting very serious sins committed, not recently, but by and against people still alive to reckon with the damage. And the thing that makes it so devastating isn't just that the sins were committed, but that until recently, there was no public acknowledgement, no confession, no penance, no amends, and no concrete changes to demonstrate a serious intention not to let it happen again. 

    The modern sex-abuse scandal might, in fact, end up being as major a catalyst for change in the Church as the crisis that finally introduced sacramental Confession & Reconciliation. That crisis was a particularly thorough, systematic persecution of Christians under the emperor Decius in the middle of the 3rd century after Christ. Everyone in the Empire was required to go to their local temple and make sacrifice to the gods, and if they couldn't produce a certificate of compliance they could be tortured, exiled, dispossessed of all their property, enslaved, including sexual slavery, or even killed, in all those creatively cruel ways the Romans were so good at inflicting. The pantheon of gods in Rome was very inclusive, so really, the only people who were effectively targeted by this were people who refused to sacrifice to any idol at all. Jews were exempted by law, but Gentile Christians were not, and the Church was decimated.

    Apostasy, remember, was right up there with murder and adultery as one of the unforgivable sins for Christians. Especially, sacrificing to pagan idols was anathema. But a lot of people folded under the overwhelming weight of persecution, and complied with the law. Others managed to avoid it by bribing corrupt officials to give them bogus certificates. Some hid. Some betrayed their neighbors. And, on the other hand, a whole lot of people stood firm in their Christian convictions, and suffered the consequences. 

    And when it was all over? When the horror was past, and the Church came out from hiding, the community had been broken apart. A lot of those who had apostasized wanted to come back into the fold; a lot of those who had suffered for refusing to sacrifice didn't want to take them back. The leadership, too, priests and bishops, had both preached and modeled the full gamut from fanatical zeal to prudent cowardice, so they were in no position to guide the Church back into reconciliation. Decius did not damage the Christian Church so much by taking away numbers, lives and property. He damaged it by taking away trust. Yes, there had always been martyrs, starting with Jesus himself. But they had always been individuals, or scattered groups here and there. By the extraordinarily broad reach of this mandate, Decius broke the unheroic ordinary middle, instead of making heroes out of a few prominent martyrs.

    This was a really, really major crisis for the Church, and it was not resolved quickly, easily, or evenly among different parts of the Empire. It was a whole schism, with rival Popes representing the lax and hardline parties. In the end, the lax party won out, with a ritual process for bringing sinners back into the fold, with a whole new body of theological justification to support it. Of course, the two tendencies had always existed, and exist still -- witness the 2022 drama among the U.S. bishops arguing over whether to deny Communion to politicians who support abortion rights. And not everyone accepted the compromise, either. But nonetheless, it was an important step back toward substantial reconciliation.

    This "simple backgrounder" has already taken me an extra week to write, and it may have some factual errors as well as still being vastly oversimplified. But if you're a geek like me and interested in reading more, here is a good article on the history and impact of the Decian persecution; and here is what the modern Catholic Catechism has to say about the "Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation," which if you're still curious enough, you might like to compare against the pre-Vatican II version, the Baltimore Catechism, here.


    And now you see, I've written 1,332 words on this subject, and I still haven't progressed from the historical background into thinking through how it might relate to our own lives here and now, our religious lives, or our communal lives, or our own individual lives of conscience and integrity. Which is at least three more whole posts right there, isn't it? So I'm going to leave it here, as a mere academic historical note, and come back next week to continue teasing out one more thread of this whole huge tangled web of interrelated topics. 

    Tomorrow is the first Sunday of Advent, so I will sign off with wishes for a happy new (liturgical) year to you all!




No comments:

Post a Comment