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The Faith of Our Fathers







 

The Faith of Our Fathers

XXVI. The Sacrament of Penance

I. The Divine Institution of the Sacrament of Penance--The Power of Forgiving Sins Left by Christ to His Church--The Necessity and Advantage of Confession

The whole history of Jesus Christ is marked by mercy and compassion for suffering humanity. From the moment of His incarnation till the hour of His death every thought and word and act of His Divine life was directed toward the alleviation of the ills and miseries of fallen man.

As soon as He enters on His public career He goes about doing good to all men. He gives sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, vigor to paralyzed limbs; He applies the salve of comfort to the bleeding heart and raises the dead to life.

But, while Jesus occupied Himself in bringing relief to corporal infirmities, the principal object of His mission was to release the soul from the bonds of sin. The very name of Jesus indicates this important truth: "Thou shalt call His name Jesus," says the angel, "for He shall save His people from their sins."[Matt. I. 21.]

For, if Jesus had contended Himself with healing the maladies of our body without attending to those of our soul, He would deserve, indeed, to be called our Physician, but would not merit the more endearing titles of Savior and Redeemer. But as sin was the greatest evil of man, and as Jesus came to remove from us our greatest evils, He came into the world chiefly as the great Absolver from sin.

Magdalen seems to have a consciousness of this. She casts herself at His feet, which she washes with her tears and wipes with her hair, while Jesus pronounces over her the saving words of absolution. The very demons recognized Jesus as the enemy of sin, for they dreaded His approach, knowing that He would drive them out of the bodies of men.

Our Lord makes the healing of the body secondary to that of the soul. When He delivers the body from its distempers His object is to win the confidence of the spectators by compelling them to recognize Him as the soul's Physician. He says, for instance, to the palsied man, "Thy sins are forgiven."[Matt. ix. 2.] The scribes are offended at our Savior for presuming to forgive sins. He replies, in substance: If you do not believe My words, believe My acts; and He at once heals the man of his disease. After he had cured the man that had been languishing for thirty-eight years He whispered to him this gentle admonition, "Sin no more, lest some worst thing may happen to thee."[John v. 14.]

As much as our spiritual substance excels the flesh that surrounds it, so much more did our Savior value the resurrection of a soul from the grave of sin than the resurrection of the body from that of death. Hence St. Augustine pointedly remarks that, while the Gospel relates only three resurrections of the body, our Lord, during His mortal life, raised thousands of souls to the life of grace.

As the Church was established by Jesus Christ to perpetuate the work he had begun, it follows that the reconciliation of sinners to God was to be the principal office of sacred ministers.

But the important question here presents itself: How was the man to obtain forgiveness in the Church after our Lord's ascension?

Was Jesus Christ to appear in person to every sinful soul and say to each penitent, as He said to Magdalen, "Thy sins are forgiven thee," or did He intend to delegate this power of forgiving sins to ministers appointed for that purpose?

We know well that our Savior never promised to present Himself visibly to each sinner, nor has He done so.

His plan, therefore, must have been to appoint ministers of reconciliation to act in His name. It has always, indeed, been the practice of Almighty God, both in the Old and the New Law, to empower human agents to execute His merciful designs.

When Jehovah resolved to deliver the children of Israel from the captivity of Egypt He appointed Moses their deliverer. When God wished them to escape from the pursuit of Pharaoh across the Red Sea, did He intervene directly? No; but, by His instructions, Moses raised his hand over the waters and they were instantly divided.

When the people were dying from thirst in the desert, did God come visibly to their rescue? No; but Moses struck the rock, from which the water instantly issued. When Paul, breathing vengeance against the Christians, was going to Damascus, did our Savior personally restore his sight, convert and baptize him? No; He sent Paul to His servant Ananias, who restored his sight and baptized him.

The same Apostle beautifully describes to us in one sentence of his Epistle to the Corinthians the arrangement of Divine Providence in the reconciliation of sinners: "God," he says, "hath reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation... For Christ, therefore, we are ambassadors; God, as it were, exhorting through us."[II. Cor. v. 18-20.] That is to say, God sends Christ to reconcile sinners; Christ sends us. We are His ambassadors, reconciling sinners in His name.

When I think of this tremendous power that we possess I congratulate the members of the Church, for whose benefit it is conferred; I tremble for myself and my fellow-ministers, for terrible is our responsibility, while we have nothing to glory in. Christ is the living Fountain of grace: we are but the channels through which it is conveyed to your souls. Christ is the treasure; we are but the packhorses that carry it. "We bear this treasure in earthen vessels." Christ is the shepherd; we are the pipe He uses to call His sheep. Our words sounding in the confessional are but the feeble echo of the voice of the Spirit of God that purified the Apostles in the cenacle of Jerusalem.

But have we Gospel authority to show that our Savior did confer on the Apostles and their successors the power to forgive sins?

We have the most positive testimony, and our Savior's words conferring this power are expressed in the plainest language which admits of no misconception. In the Gospel of St. Matthew our Savior thus addresses Peter: "Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church. ... And I will give to thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven."[Matt. xvi. 18, 19.]

And to all the Apostles assembled together on another occasion He uses the same forcible language: "Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loosed on earth shall be loosed also in heaven."[Matt. xviii. 18.] The soul is enchained by sin. I give you power, says our Lord, to release the penitent soul from its galling fetters, and to restore it to the liberty of a child of God.

In the Gospel of St. John we have a still more striking declaration of the absolving power given by our Savior to His Apostles.

Jesus, after His resurrection, thus addresses His disciples: "Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent Me, I also send you. ... Receive ye the Holy Ghost; whose sins ye shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins ye shall retain, they are retained."[John xx. 21-23.]

That peace which I give to you you will impart to repentant souls as a pledge of their reconciliation with God. The absolving power I have from My Father, the same I communicate to you. Receive the Holy Ghost, that you may impart this Holy Spirit to souls possessed by the spirit of evil. "If their sins are as scarlet, they shall be made as white as snow; and if they be red as crimson, they shall be white as wool."[Isaiah I. 18.] If they are as numerous as the sands on the seashore, they shall be blotted out, provided they come to you with contrite hearts. The sentence of mercy which you shall pronounce on earth I will ratify in heaven. From these words of St John I draw three important conclusions:

It follows, first, that the forgiving power was not restricted to the Apostles, but extended to their successors in the ministry unto all times and places. The forgiveness of sin was to continue while sin lasted in the world; and as sin, alas! will always be in the world, so will the remedy for sin be always in the Church. The medicine will co-exist with the disease. The power which our Lord gave the Apostles to preach, to baptize, to confirm, to ordain, etc., was transmitted by them to their successors. Why not also the power which they had received to forgive sins, since man's greatest need is his reconciliation with God by the forgiveness of his offences?

It follows, secondly that forgiveness of sin was ordinarily to be obtained only through the ministry of the Apostles and their successors, just as it was from them that the people were to receive the word of God and the grace of Baptism. The pardoning power was a great prerogative conferred on the Apostles. But what kind of prerogative would it be if people could always obtain forgiveness by confessing to God secretly in their rooms? How few would have recourse to the Apostles if they could obtain forgiveness on easier terms! God says to His chosen ministers: I give you the keys of My kingdom, that you may dispense the treasures of mercy to repenting sinners. But of what use would it be to give the Apostles the keys of God's treasures for the ransom of sinners, if every sinner could obtain his ransom without applying to the Apostles? If I gave you, dear reader, the keys of my house, authorizing you to admit whom you please, that they might partake of the good things contained in it, you would conclude that I had done you a small favor if you discovered that every one was possesed of a private key, and could enter when he pleased without consulting you.

I have said that forgiveness of sins is ordinarily to be obtained through the ministry of the Apostles and of their successors, because it may sometimes happen that the services of God's minister cannot be obtained. A merciful Lord will not require in this conjuncture more than a hearty sorrow for sin joined with a desire of having recourse as soon as practicable, to the tribunal of Penance; for God's ordinances bind only such as are able to fulfil them.

It follows, in the third place, that the power of forgiving sins, on the part of God's ministers, involves the obligation of confessing them on the part of the sinner. The Priest is not empowered to give absolution to every one indiscriminately. He must exercise the power with judgment and discretion. He must reject the impenitent and absolve the penitent. But how will he judge of the disposition of the sinner unless he knows his sins, and how will the Priest know his sins unless they are confessed? Hence, we are not surprised when we read in the Acts that "Many of them who believed came confessing and declaring their deeds"[Acts xix. 18.] to the Apostles. Why did they confess their sins unless they were bound to do so? Hence, also, we understand why St. John says: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all iniquity."[I. John I. 9.]

The strength of these texts of Scripture will appear to you much more forcible when you are told that all the Fathers of the Church, from the first to the last, insist upon the necessity of Sacramental Confession as a Divine institution. We are not unfrequently told by those who are little acquainted with the doctrine and history of the Church, that Sacrament Confession was not introduced into the Church until 1,200 years after the time of our Savior. In vindication of their bold assertion they even introduce quotations from SS. Basil, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Chrysostom. These quotations are utterly irrelevant; but, if seen in the context, they will tend to prove, instead of disproving, the Catholic doctrine of Confession. For the sake of brevity I shall cite only a few passages from the Fathers referred to. These citations I take, almost at random, from the copious writings of these Fathers on Confession. From these extracts you can judge of the sentiments of all the Fathers on the subject of Confession. "Ab uno disce omnes."

St. Basil writes: "In the confession of sins the same method must be observed as in laying open the infirmities of the body; for as these are not rashly communicated to every one, but to those only who understand by what method they may be cured, so the confession of sins must be made to such persons as have the power to apply a remedy."[In Reg. Brev., quaest, ccxxix., T. II., p. 492.] Later on he tells us who those persons are. "Necessarily, our sins must be confessed to those to whom has been committed the dispensation of the mysteries of God. Thus, also, are they found to have acted who did penance of old in regard of the saints. It is written in the Acts, they confessed to the Apostles, by whom also they were baptized."[Ibid., cclxxxviii., p. 516.] Two conclusions obviously follow from these passages of St. Basil: First, the necessity of confession. Second, the obligation of declaring our sins to a Priest to whom in the New Law is committed "the dispensation of the mysteries of God."

St. Ambrose, of Milan, writes: "The poison is sin; the remedy; the accusation of one's crime; the poison in iniquity; confession is the remedy of the relapse. And, therefore, it is truly a remedy against poison, if thou declare thine iniquities, that thou mayest be justified. Art thou ashamed? This shame will avail thee little at the judgment seat of God."[See Faith of Catholics, Vol. III., p. 74 and seq.]

The following passage clearly shows that the great Light of the Church of Milan is speaking of confession to Priests: "There are some," continues St. Ambrose, "who ask for penance that they may at once by restored to Communion. These do not so much desire to be loosed as to bind the Priest; for they do not unburden their conscience, but they burden his, who is commanded not to give holy things unto dogs--that is, not easily to admit impure souls to the Holy Communion."[Apud Wiseman's Doctrines of the Church]

Paulinus, the secretary of St. Ambrose, in his life of that great Bishop relates that he used to weep over the penitents whose confessions he heard.

St. Augustine write: "Our merciful God wills us to confess in this world that we may not be confounded in the other."[Hom. xx.] And again: "Let no one say to himself, I do penance to God in private, I do it before God. Is it then in vain that Christ hath said, 'Whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven?' Is it in vain that the keys have been given to the Church? Do we made void the Gospel, void the words of Christ?"[Sermo ccxcii.]

In this extract how well doth the great Doctor meet the sophistry of those who, in our times, say that it is sufficient to confess to God!

St. Chrysostom, in his thirtieth Homily, says: "Lo! we have now, at length, reached the close of Holy Lent; now especially we must press forward in the career of fasting, ... and exhibit a full and accurate confession of our sins, ...that with these good works, having come to the day of Easter, we may enjoy the bounty of the Lord. ... For, as the enemy knows that having confessed our sins and shown our wounds to the physician we attain to an abundant cure, he is an especial manner opposes us."

Again he says: "Do not confess to me only of fornication, nor of those things that are manifest among all men, but bring together also thy secret calumnies and evil speakings, ... and all such things."[Tom. vii. Comm. in Matt.]

The great Doctor plainly enjoins here a detailed and specific confession of our sins not to God, but to His minister, as the whole context evidently shows.

The same Father, in an eloquent treatise on the power of the sacred ministry, uses the following words: "To the Priests is given a power which God would not grant either to angels or archangels; inasmuch that what the Priests do below God ratifies above, and the Master confirms the sentence of His servants. For, He says, 'Whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.'

"What power, I ask, can be greater than this? The Father hath given all power to the Son; and I see all this same power delivered to them by God the Son.

"To cleanse the leprosy of the body, or rather to pronounce it cleansed, was given to the Jewish Priests alone. But to our Priests is granted the power not of declaring healed the leprosy of the body, but of absolutely cleansing the defilements of the soul."[Lib. iii., De Sacredotio.]

And again: "If a sinner, as becomes him, would use the aid of his conscience, and hasten to confess his crimes and disclose his ulcer to his physician, who may heal and not reproach, and receive remedies from him; if he would speak to him alone, without the knowledge of any one, and with care lay all before him, easily would he amend his failings; for the confession of sins is the absolution of crimes."[Ibid., Hom. xx.]

St. Jerome writes: "If the serpent, the devil, secretly bite a man and thus infect him with the poison of sin, and this man shall remain silent, and do not penance, nor be willing to make known his wound to his brother and master; the master, who has a tongue that can heal, cannot easily serve him. For if the ailing man be ashamed to open his case to the physicians no cure can be expected; for medicine does not cure that of which it knows nothing."[Comment in Eccles.]

Elsewhere he says: "With us the Bishop or Priest binds or looses--not hem who are merely innocent or guilty--but having heard, as his duty requires, the various qualities of sin he understands who should be bound and who loosed."[Comm. in Matt.]

Could the Catholic doctrine regarding the power of the Priests and the obligation of confession be expressed in stronger language than this?

And yet these are the very Fathers who are represented to be opposed to Sacramental Confession! With a reckless disregard of the unanimous voice of antiquity our adversaries have the hardihood to assert that private or Sacramental Confession was introduced at a period subsequent to the twelfth century. They do not, however, vouchsafe to inform us by what Pope or Bishop or Father of the Church, or by what Council, or in what country, this monstrous innovation was foisted on the Christian Republic. Surely, an institution which, in their estimation, has been fraught with such dire calamity to Christendom, ought to have its origin marked with more precision. It is sometimes prudent, however, not to be too particular in fixing dates.

I shall now, I trust, show to the satisfaction of the reader: First--That Sacramental Confession was not introduced. Second--That it could not have been introduced into the Church since the days of the Apostles, and consequently that it is Apostolic in its origin.

That Confession was not invented since the days of the Apostles is manifest as soon as we attempt to fix the period of its first establishment. Let us go back, step, by step, from the nineteenth to the first century.

It had not its origin in the present century, as everybody will admit.

Nor did it arise in the sixteenth century, since the General Council of Trent, held in that age, speaks of it as an established and venerable institution and Luther says that "auricular Confession, as now in vogue, is useful, nay, necessary; nor would I," he adds, "have it abolished, since it is the remedy of afflicted consciences."[Lib. de Capt. Babyl. cap de Poenit.] Even Henry VIII, before he founded a new sect, wrote a treatise in defence of the Sacraments, including Penance and Confession.

It was not introduced in the thirteenth century, for the Fourth Council of Lateran passed a decree in 1215 obliging the faithful to confess their sins at least once a year. This decree, of course, supposes Confession to be already an established fact.

Some Protestant writers fall into a common error in interpretting the decree of the Lateran Council by saying "Sacramental Confession was never required in the Church of Rome until the thirteenth century." The Council simply proscribed a limit beyond which the faithful should not defer their confession.

These writers seem incapable of distinguishing between a law obliging us to a certain duty and a statute fixing the time for fulfilling it. They might as well suppose that the revenue officer creates the law regarding the payment of taxes when he issues a notice requiring the revenue to be paid within a given time.

Going back to the ninth century we find that Confession could not have had its rise then. It was at that period that the Greek schism took its rise, under the leadership of Photius. The Greek schismatic church has remained since then a communion separate from the Catholic Church, having no spiritual relations with us. Now, the Greek church is as tenaciously attached to private Confession as we are.

For the same reasons Confession could not date its origin from the fifth or fourth century. The Arians revolted from the Church in the fourth century, and the Nestorians and Eutychians in the fifth. The two last-named sects still exist in large number in Persia, Abyssinia and along the coast of Malabar, and retain Confession as one of their most sacred and cherished practices.

In fine, no human agency could succeed in instituting Confession between the first and fourth century, for the teachings of our Divine Redeemer and of His disciples had made too vivid an impression on the Christian community to be easily effaced; and the worst enemies of the Church admit that no spot or wrinkle had yet deformed her fair visage in this, the golden age of her existence.

These remarks suffice to convince us that Sacramental Confession was not instituted since the time of the Apostles. I shall now endeavor to prove to your satisfaction that its introduction into the Church, since the Apostolic age, was absolutely impossible.

There are two ways in which we may suppose that error might insinuate itself into the Church, viz.: suddenly, or by slow process. Now, the introduction of Confession in either of those ways was simply impossible.

First, nothing can be more absurd that to suppose that Confession was immediately forced upon the Christian world. For experience demonstrates with what slowness and difficulty men are divested of their religious impressions, whether true or false. If such is the case with individuals, how ridiculous would it seem for whole nations to adopt in a single day some article of belief which they had never admitted before. Hence, we cannot imagine, without doing violence to our good sense, that all the good people of Christendom went to rest one night ignorant of the Sacrament of Penance, and rose next morning firm believers in the Catholic doctrine of auricular Confession. As well might we suppose that the citizens of the United States would retire to rest believing they were living under a Republic, and awake impressed with the conviction that they were under the rule of Queen Victoria.

Nor is it less absurd to suppose that the practice of Confession was introduced by degrees. How can we imagine that the Fathers of the Church--the Clements, the Leos, the Gregories, the Chrysostoms, the Jeromes, the Basils and Augustines, those intrepid High Priests of the Lord, who, in every age, at the risk of persecution, exile and death have stood like faithful sentinels on the watch-towers of Israel, defending with sleepless eyes the outskirts of the city of God from the slightest attack--how can we imagine, I say, that they would suffer the enemy of truth to invade the very sanctuary of God's temple? If they were so vigilant in cutting off the least withered branch of error, how would they tamely submit to see so monstrous an exotic engrafted on the fruitful tree of the Church?

What gives additional weight to these remarks is the reflection that Confession is not a speculative doctrine, but a doctrine of the most practical kind, influencing our daily actions, words and thoughts--a Sacrament to which thousands of Christians have constant recourse in every part of the world. It is a doctrine, moreover, hard to flesh and blood, and which no human power, even if it had the will, could impose on the human race. It is only a God that, in such a case, could exact the homage of our assent.

In whatever light, therefore, we view the present question--whether we consider the circumstances of time, place, manner of its introduction--the same inevitable conclusion stares us in the face; that Sacramental confession is not the invention of man, but the institution of Jesus Christ.

But the doctrine of priestly absolution and the private confession of sins is not confined to the Roman Catholic and Oriental schismatic churches. The same doctrine is also taught by a large and influential portion of the Protestant Episcopal Church of England.

The Rev. C.S. Grueber, a clergyman of the Church of England, has recently published a catechism in which the absolving power of the minister of God, and the necessity and advantage of confession, are plainly set forth. I will quote from the Rev. gentleman's book his identical words:

Question. What do you mean by absolution?

Answer. The pardon or forgiveness of sin.

Q. By what special ordinance of Christ are sins committed after Baptism to be pardoned?

A. By the sacrament of absolution.

Q. Who is the minister of absolution?

A. A Priest.

Q. Do you mean that a Priest can really absolve?

A. Yes.

Q. In what place of the Holy Scripture is it recorded that Christ gave this power to the priesthood?

A. In John xx. 23; see also Matt. xviii. 18.

Q. What does the prayer-book (or Book of Common Prayer) say?

A. In the office for the ordaining of Priests the Bishop is directed to say, "Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven." In the office for the visitation of the sick it is said, "Our Lord Jesus Christ hath left in His Church power to absolve all sinners that truly repent and believe in Him." In the order for morning and evening prayer we say again, "Almighty God hath given power and commandment to his ministers to declare and pronounce to His people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins."

Q. For what purpose hath Christ given this power to Priests to pronounce absolution in His name?

A. For the consolation of the penitent; the quieting of his conscience.

Q. What must precede the absolution of the penitent?

A. Confession... Before absolution privately given, confession must be made to a Priest privately.

Q. In what case does the Church of England order her ministers to move people to private, or, as it is called, to auricular confession?

A. When they feel their conscience troubled with any weighty matter.

Q. What is weighty matter?

A. Mortal sin certainly is weighty; sins of omission or commission of any kind that press upon the mind are so, too. Anything may be weighty that causes scruple or doubtfulness.

Q. At what times in particular does the Church so order?

A. In the time of sickness, and before coming to the Holy Communion.

Q. Is there any other class of persons to whom confession is profitable?

A. Yes; to those who desire to lead a saintly life. These, indeed, are the persons who most frequently resort to it.

Q. Is there any other object in confession, besides the seeking absolution for past sin and the quieting of the penitent's conscience?

A. Yes; the practice of confessing each single sin is a great check upon the commission of sin and a preservative of purity of life.[See "A Catechism on the Church." By the Rev. C.S. Grueber, Hambridge, Diocese of Bath and Wells. London; Palmer, 1870.]

Here we have the Divine institution of priestly absolution and the necessity and advantage of Sacramental confession plainly taught, not in a speculative treatise, but in a practical catechism, by a distinguished minister of the Church of England; taught by a minister who draws his salary from the funds of the Protestant Episcopal church, and who is in strict communion with a Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church of England.

And these doctrines are upheld, not by one eminent Divine only, but by hundreds of clergymen, as well as by thousands of the Protestant Episcopalians of England.

What a strange spectacle to behold the same church teaching diametrically opposite doctrines! What is orthodox in the diocese of Bath and Wells is decidedly heterodox in the diocese of North Carolina. An ordinance which Rev. Mr. Grueber proclaims to be of Divine faith is characterized by Rt. Rev. Bishop Atkinson [The Protestant Episcopal Bishop of North Carolina.] as the invention of men. What Dr. Grueber inculcates as a most salutary practice Dr. Atkinson anathematizes as pernicious to religion. Confession, which, in the judgment of the former, is a great "check upon the commission of sin," is stigmatized by the latter as an incentive to sin. "Behold how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity."[Ps. cxxxii.]

Suppose that the venerable Protestant Episcopal Bishop of North Carolina, in passing through England, were invited by the Rev. Mr. Grueber to preach in his church in the morning, and that the Rt. Rev. Prelate chose for his subject a sermon on confession; and suppose that the Rev. Mr. Grueber selected in the evening, as the subject of his discourse, the doctrine advanced by him in his catechism.

Let us imagine some benighted dissenter attending Mr. Grueber's church at the morning and evening service, with the view to being enlightened in the teachings of the Protestant church. Would not our dissenter be sorely perplexed, on returning home at night, as to what the Protestant Episcopal church really did teach?

Some Episcopalians are pleased to admit that confession may be resorted to with spiritual profit in certain abnormal cases--for instance, in time of sickness. So that, in their judgment, a religious observance which is salutary to a sick man is pernicious to him in good health. For the life of me, I cannot see how the circumstances of bodily health can affect the moral character of a religious act.

That a minister of the Baptist or the Methodist church should deny the power of priestly absolution I readily understand, since these churches disclaim, in their confessions of faith, any such prerogative for their clergy. But I cannot well conceive why a Protestant Episcopalian should repudiate the pardoning power, which is plainly asserted in his standard prayer-book.

Whenever an Episcopalian Bishop imposes hands on candidates for the ministry he employs the following words, which are found in the Book of Common Prayer: "Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained."[The Ordering of Priests.] If these words do not mean that the minister receives by the imposition of the Bishop's hands the power of forgiving sin, they mean nothing at all. When the Bishop pronounces this sentence, either he intends to convey this power of absolution, or he does not. If he intended to confer this power, he could not employ more clear and precise language to express his idea; if he did not intend to confer this power, then his language is calculated to mislead.

Just imagine that prelate addressing a candidate for Holy Orders, in the morning, with the words: "Whose sins thou dost forgive they are forgiven;" and after Divine service saying to the young minister: "Remember, sir, you have no power to forgive sins. The words of ordination are a mere figure of speech."

When a Catholic Bishop ordains Priests he uses the precise words which I have quoted, because the Book of Common Prayer borrows them from our Pontifical. But he means exactly what he says, viz: That the Priest receives through the ministration of the Bishop the power of forgiving sins.

To sum up: We have seen that the Sacrament of Penance and absolution by the Priest is taught in Scripture, proclaimed by the Fathers, upheld not only by Roman Catholics throughout the world, but also by all the schismatic Christians of the East. It is inculcated in those old and genuine editions of the Book of Common Prayer, which have not been enervated by being subjected to the pruning-knife in this country and the same practice is encouraged by an influential portion of the Protestant Episcopal church in England, and I will add, also, in the United States.

Again, some object to priestly absolution on the assumption that the exercise of such a function would be a usurpation of an incommunicable prerogative of God, who alone can forgive sins. This was precisely the language addressed by the Scribes to our Savior. They exclaimed: "he blasphemeth! who can forgive sins but God only?"[Mark ii. 7.] My answer, therefore, will be equally applicable to old and modern objectors. It is not blasphemy for a Priest to claim the power of forgiving sins, since he acts as the delegate of the Most High. It would, indeed, be blasphemous if a Priest pretended to absolve in his own name and by virtue of his own authority. But when the Priest absolves the penitent sinner he acts in the name, and by the express authority, of Jesus Christ; for he says: "I absolve thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." Let it be understood once for all that the Priest arrogates to himself no Divine powers. He is but a feeble voice. It is the Holy Spirit that operates sanctity in the soul of the penitent.

Not a few Protestant Episcopalians, I believe, still admit that original sin is washed away in the Sacrament of Baptism. If the minister is not guilty of blasphemy in being the instrument of God's mercy, in forgiving sins by Baptism, how can a Priest blaspheme in being the instrument of Divine mercy, in absolving sinners in the Sacrament of Penance? The same Lord who instituted Baptism for the remission of original sin established Penance for the forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism. Did not the Apostles exercise Divine power in raising dead bodies to life, and in raising souls that were dead to the life of grace? And yet no one but Scribes and Pharisees accused them of usurping God's powers. Cannot the Almighty, without the derogating from His own glory, give to men in the nineteenth century privileges which He accorded to them in the first age of the Church?

Far, then, from dishonoring, we honor God by having recourse to the earthly physician whom He has appointed for us, and, like the multitude in the Gospel, we "glorify God, who hath given such power to men."[Matt. ix. 8.]

Others object thus: Why confess to a Priest, when you may confess to God in secret. I will retort by asking, why do you build fine temples when you can worship God in the great temple of nature? Why pray in church when you can pray in your chamber? Why listen to a minister expounding the Word of God when you can read the Gospel at your leisure at home. You answer that the Lord authorizes these things. So does He authorize priestly absolution. This objection is not new. It is very old.

St. Augustine, who lived fourteen hundred years ago, will answer the objection for me: "Let no one," remarks this illustrious Doctor, "say to himself, I do penance to God in private; I do it before God. Is it, then, in vain that Christ has said: 'Whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven'? Is it in vain that the keys have been given to the Church?" The question for us is not what God is able to do, but what He has willed to do. God might have adopted other means for the justification of the sinner, as He might have created a world different from the present one. But it is our business to take our Father at His word and to have recourse with gratitude to the system. He has actually established for our justification. Now, we are assured by His infallible word that it is by having recourse to His consecrated ministers that our sins will be forgiven us.[John xx.]

It is related in the Book of Kings that Naaman, the Syrian, was afflicted with a grievous leprosy, which baffled the skill of the physicians of his country. He had in his household a Jewish maid-servant. She spoke to her master of the great prophet Eliseus, who lived in her native country, to whom the Lord had given the power of performing miracles. She besought her master to consult the prophet. Naaman, accordingly, set out for the country of Israel and begged Eliseus to heal him. The prophet told him to go and wash seven times in the Jordan; but Naaman, instead of doing as he was directed, became very angry, and said: "I thought he would have come out to me, ... and touched with his hand the place of the leprosy, and healed me. Are not the Abaan and the Pharfar rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel, that I may wash in them, and he made clean?"[IV Kings v.] But the servants of Naaman remonstrated with him, and besought him to comply with the prophet's injunction, telling him that the conditions were easy and the Jordan was at hand. Naaman went and washed and was cleansed. Our opponents, like Naaman, cry out: "Why should you go to a Priest, a sinner like yourself, when secretly, in your own room, you can approach God, the pure fountain of grace, to be washed from your sins?" I answer, because Jesus Christ, a prophet, and more than a prophet, has commanded you to do so.

The last charge that I will notice is the most serious and the most offensive. We are told that private confession is lawless; that the conscience soon becomes "enfeebled and chained and starved" by it, and, worse and worse, that sins are more readily committed, if followed by an absolution conveying pardon--in other words, that the more attached Catholics are to the practice of their holy religion the more depraved and corrupt they become. Or, if they remain faithful to God, this is not by reason of, but in spite of, their religious exercises.

Surely, this was not the sentiment of the late Dr. Ives, once Protestant Bishop of North Carolina, and of many other illustrious converts, who, from the day of their conversion to the hour of their death never failed to receive consolation and strength from the sacred tribunal.

Nor is it the sentiment of Rev. Father Lyman, a Catholic Priest, of Baltimore, and brother of the assistant Protestant Bishop of North Carolina, nor of the present Archbishops of Baltimore and Philadelphia, of the Bishops of Wilmington, Cleveland, Columbus and Ogdensburg, and a host of others, both of the Protestant clergy and laity, who within the last fifty years have entered the Catholic Church.

If we compare the Protestant and Catholic systems for the forgiveness of sins, the Catholic system will not suffer by the comparison. According to the Protestant system, repentance is necessary and sufficient for justification. The Catholic system also requires repentance on the part of the sinner as an indispensable prerequisite for the forgiveness of sin. But it requires much more than this. Before the penitent receives absolution he must carefully examine his conscience and confess his sins, according to their number and kind. He is obliged to have a firm purpose of amendment, to promise restitution, if he has defrauded his neighbor, to repair any injury done his neighbor's character, to be reconciled with his enemies and to avoid the occasions of sins. Do not these obligations afford a better safeguard against a relapse into sin than a simple internal act of contrition?

Many most eminent Protestant, and even infidel writers, who were conversant with the practical workings of the confessional in the countries in which they lived, bear testimony to the moral reformation produced by it. The famous German philosopher, Leibnitz, admits that it is a great benefit conferred on men by God that He left in His Church the power of forgiving sins.[Systema Theol.]

Voltaire, certainly no friend of Christianity, avows "that there is not perhaps a more useful institution than confession."[Remarques sur l'Olympe.]

Rousseau, not less hostile to the Church, exclaims: "How may restitutions and reparations does not confession cause among Catholics!"[Emile.]

The Protestant authorities of Nuremberg, in Germany, shortly after the establishment of the reformed doctrines in that city, were so much alarmed at the laxity of morals which succeeded after the abolition of confession that they petitioned their Emperor, Charles V, to have it restored.

It is a favorite custom for the adversaries of the Catholic Church to refer to the alleged loose morals prevailing in France and in other Catholic countries as a proof of the interior standard of Catholic morality. This is a safe, and at the same time not the most honorable, mode of attack, as the people of these nations are too far off to defend themselves. For my part, I have spent a considerable time in various portions of France, and more edifying Christians I have never witnessed than those I met in that country. For six years I had for my professors French Priests, whose exemplary lives were a daily sermon to all around them.

I submit that the cosmopolitan city of Paris (waiving, for the present, the enormities of which it is accused), is not to be adduced as a fair criterion of French morality. Let us stay at home and judge of Catholic morals by the examples furnished under our eyes.

The influence of the confessional has been fairly tested in this country since the foundation of our Republic. Are practical Catholics enfeebled in conscience? Is their conscience chained and starved? Has the absolution they received whetted their appetites for more sin? Are they monsters of immorality? I think that an enlightened Protestant public will pronounce a contrary verdict.

I feel that I can say, with truth, that Catholics who frequent the confessional are generally virtuous in their private lives, just and honorable in their dealings with others, and that they cultivate charity and good-will toward their fellow-citizens.

It will not do to reply that it is the system, not the individual, that is attacked. How can we judge of a system unless by its practical working in the individual? "By their fruits ye shall know them," says our Redeemer.

Vices, indeed, we have to deplore among certain classes of our people, which are often superinduced by their migratory habits and irregular mode of life. But they are commonly sins of frailty, and these are not the persons that are accustomed to approach the confessional. If they did their lives would be very different from what they are.

The best of us, alas! are not what we ought to be, considering the graces we receive. But if you seek for canting hypocrites, or colossal dafaulters, or perpetrators of well-laid schemes of forgery, or of systematic licentiousness, or of premeditated violence, you will seek for such in vain among those who frequent the confessional.

There is another objection which it is difficult to kill. It dies hard and, like Banquo's ghost, it will not down. If you drive it from the city, it will fly to the town. If you expel it from the town, it will take refuge in the village. If you eject it from the village, it will hide itself like some noxious animal, in some desert place until it makes its rounds again.

I allude to the charge that a price has to be paid for remitting sins. "You have only (say these slanderers) to pay a certain toll at the confessional gate, and you can pass the biggest load of sin."

It is hard to treat these objections seriously. I have been hearing confessions for fifty years, and of all who have come to me, not one has had the sense of duty to offer me any compensation for absolving them, and this is true of every Priest with whom I have been acquainted. The truth is, the Priest who would solicit a fee for absolution knows that he would be guilty of simony, and would be liable to suspension.

But we are told that confession is an intolerable yoke, that it makes it votaries the slaves of the Priests.

Before answering this objection, let me call your attention to the inconsistency of our adversaries, who blow hot and cold in the same breath. They denounce confession as being too hard a remedy for sin and condemn it, at the same time as being a smooth road to heaven. In one sentence they style it a bed of roses; in the next a bed of thorns.

In a preceding objection it was charged that the votaries of confession had no moral constraint at all. Now it is said that their conscience is bound in chains of slavery. Surely, confession cannot be hard and easy at the same time.

I have already refuted, I trust, the former charge. I shall now answer the second. I am not aware in what sense our people are less independent than those of any other class of the community. The only restraint, as far as I know, imposed on Catholics by their Priests is the yoke of the Gospel, and to this restraint no Christian ought to object. In my estimation, no body of Christians enjoys more Apostolic freedom than those of the Catholic communion, because they are guided in their conduct, not by the ever-changing ipse dixit of any minister, but by the unchangeable teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ.

But if to love their Priest, to reverence his sacred character, to obey his voice as the voice of God; if to be willing to make any sacrifice for their spiritual father; if, I say, you call this slavery, then our Catholic people are slaves, indeed, and what is more, they are content with their chains.

Even our Manuals of Devotion have not escaped the lash of wanton criticism. They have excited the pious horror of some modern Pharisees because they contain a table of sins for the use of those preparing for confession. The same flower that furnishes honey to the bee supplies poison to the wasp; and, in like manner, the same book that gives only the honey of consolation to the devout reader has nothing but moral poison for those that search its pages for nothing else.

How can anyone object to the table of sins in our prayer-books and consistently advocate the circulation of the Bible, which contains incomparably plainer and more palpable allusions to gross crimes than are found in our books of devotion? Let us not forget the adage, "Honi soit qui mal y pense."

I may be permitted, in concluding this subject, to add the testimony of my own experience on the beneficent influence of the confessional; for, like my brethren in the ministry, I am in the language of Dryden,

"One bred apart from worldly noise,
To study souls, their cures, and their diseases."

Since the time of my ordination up to the present hour I have been accustomed to hear confessions almost every day. I have, therefore, had a fair opportunity of ascertaining the value of the "system." The impressions forced upon my mind, far from being peculiar to myself, are shared by every Catholic Priest throughout the world charged with the care of souls. The testimony of ten experienced confessors ought, in my estimation, to have more weight in enabling men to judge of the moral tendencies of the confessional than the gratuitous assertions of a thousand individuals who have no personal experience of it, but who draw on their heated imaginations or on the pages of sensational novels for the statements they offer.

My experience is that the confessional is the most powerful lever ever erected by a merciful God for raising men from the mire of sin. It has more weight in withdrawing people from vice than even the pulpit. In public sermons we scatter the seed of the Word of God; in the confessional we reap the harvest. In sermons, to use a military phrase, the fire is at random, but in confession it is a dead shot. The words of the Priest go home to the heart of the penitent. In a public discourse the Priest addresses all in general, and his words of admonition may be applicable to very few of his hearers. But his words spoken in the confessional are directed exclusively to the penitent, whose heart is open to receive the Word of God. The confessor exhorts the penitent according to his spiritual wants. He cautions him against the frequentation of dangerous company and other occasions of sin, or he recommends special practices of piety suited to the penitent's wants.

Hence missionaries are accustomed to estimate the fruit of a mission more by the number of penitents who have approached the sacred tribunal than by the number of persons who have listened to their sermons.

Of all the labors that our sacred ministry imposes on us, there is none more arduous or more irksome than that of hearing confessions. If I may make a revelation of my own life, I deferred receiving Holy Orders for two years, from a sense of the dread responsibility connected with the confessional. It is no trifling task to sit for six or eight consecutive hours on a hot summer day, listening to stories of sin and sorrow and misery. It is only the consciousness of the immense good he is doing that sustains the confessor in the sacred tribunal. He is one "who can have compassion on the ignorant and erring, because he himself is also encompassed with infirmity."[Heb. v. 2.]

I have seen the man whose conscience was weighed down by the accumulated sins of twenty winters. Upon his face were branded guilt and shame, remorse and confusion. There he stood by the confessional, with downcast countenance, ashamed like the Publican, to look up to heaven. He glided into the little mercy-seat. No human ear will ever learn what there transpired. The revelations of the confessional are a sealed book.

But during the brief time spent in the confessional a resurrection occurred more miraculous than the raising of Lazarus from the tomb--it was the resurrection from the grave of sin of a soul that had long lain worm-eaten. During those precious moments a ray from heaven dispelled the darkness and gloom from that self-accuser's mind. The genial warmth of the Holy Spirit melted his frozen heart, and the purifying influence of the same Spirit that came on the Apostles, "like a mighty wind from heaven," scattered the poisonous atmosphere in which he lived and filled his soul with Divine grace. When he came out there was quickness in his step, joy on his countenance, a new light in his eye. Had you asked him why, he would have answered: "Because I was lost, and am found. Having been dead, I am come to life again."[Luke xv. 32.]

 

II. On the Relative Morality of Catholic and Protestant Countries

It has been gravely asserted that the confession of sin and the doctrine of absolution tend to the spread of crime and immorality. Statistics are produced to show that murder and illegitimate births are largely in excess in countries under Catholic influence, and that this prevalence of wickedness is the result of confession and easy absolution.

If our system of absolving those only who both repent and confess leads to laxity of morals, how much more must the Protestant system, which omits that which is most humiliating and admits the sinner to reconciliation on condition of mere interior dispositions? As all our catechisms teach, and as every Catholic knows, there is no pardon of sin without sorrow of heart and purpose of amendment. It is a great mistake to suppose that the most ignorant Catholic believes he can procure the pardon of his sins by simply confessing them without being truly sorry for them. The estimate which so many Protestants set on the virtue of even the lower classes of Roman Catholics is clearly enough evinced in the preference which they constantly manifest in their employment of Catholics--practical Catholics--Catholics who go to confession. I maintain, therefore, that confession, far from being an incentive to sin, as our adversaries have the hardihood to affirm, is a most power check on the depravity of men and a most effectual preventive of their criminal excesses.

But is it true that crimes, especially murder and illegitimacy, are more prevalent in Catholic than in Protestant countries? I utterly deny the assertion, and also appeal to statistics in support of the denial. Whence do our opponents derive their information? Forsooth, from Rev. M. Hobart Seymour's "Nights Among Romanists" and similar absolutely unreliable compilations, the false statements of which have been again and again refuted.

Rev. Mr. Seymour gives the following list of the number of murders in England, France and Ireland:

Ireland ... 10 homicides to the million inhabitants
France ... 31
England ... 4

The reader of the above might well draw back in astonishment and exclaim, "Truly moral atmosphere of England!" But how do these statements compare with the official records which I submit to the unprejudiced reader? Recent returns from the "Hand-Book" for France, and "Thom's Official Directory for England and Ireland, 1869," are as follows:

Year Country Convictions Executions
1864 France 9 5
1867 England and Wales 27 10
Ireland 3 0

These figures, which are from authenticated sources, do not bear out our accusers in their assertion that murders are more prevalent in Catholic than in Protestant countries. The statistics of this crime are limited, or they are not in very general circulation. But we have more extensive information in reference to the other great crime which, it is charged, prevails to a much more alarming extent in countries under Catholic influence, viz., illegitimacy. Here again we shall meet statistics with counter-statistics to refute unjust declarations. We do not wish to be understood as advocating the immaculateness of Catholic communities. We frankly admit and heartily deplore the disorders which Catholics commit, but we deny that they are worse than their Protestant neighbors; and still more emphatically do we deny that the Church is responsible for their disorders.

The Journal of the Statistical Society of London, of the years 1860, '62, '65, '67, gives the number of illegitimate births in England and Wales as 6 1/2 in every hundred, whilst in the Catholic kingdom of Sardinia the number is slightly over two in the hundred, and in Ireland there in every hundred. If the test of illegitimacy is a correct index of the morality of a country, how refreshing to pass from Protestant England across to Catholic Ireland or to the Continent and visit Sardinia! The moral atmosphere of these countries, compared with England, must be as a healthful breeze to a pestilential marsh.

That we may see at a glance the real condition of European countries in reference to this species of crime, I will here insert as correct a table as can be made from the latest reports. (Vid. Catholic World, Vol. XI, p. 112.)

Percentage of Illegitimacy in Protestant and Catholic Countries of Europe
Protestant %
Holland 4.0
Switzerland 5.5
Prussia (Protestant) 10.0
England and Wales 6.5
Sweden and Norway 9.6
Scotland 10.1
Denmark 11.0
German States 14.8
Wurtemburg 16.4
Catholic %
Italy 5.1
Spain 5.5
France 7.2
Prussia (Catholic) 6.5
Belgium 7.2
Austria 11.1
Ireland 3.0

We have divided Prussia into Protestant and Catholic because statistics are kept according to the religious creed of the people; and we discover that, whilst among the Catholic portion of the empire there is but a percentage of six and a half of illegitimate births, among the Protestants it runs up to 10 per cent. And the same remark is applicable to Ireland.

The Scotman, whose statements are based on the report of the British Registar-General, publishes the following statistics:

"The proportion of illegitimate births to the total number of births is in Ireland 3.8 per cent.; in England the proportion is 6.4; in Scotland 9.9; in other words, England is nearly twice, and Scotland nearly thrice worse, than Ireland. Something worse can be added, from which no consolation can be derived. The proportion of illegitimacy is very unequally distributed over Ireland, and the inequality rather humbling to us as Protestants, and still more as Presbyterians and Scotchmen. Taking Ireland according to the registration divisions, the proportion of illegitimate births varies from 6.2 to 1.3. The division showing this lowest figure is the western, being substantially the Province of Connaught, where about nineteen-twentieths of the population are Celtic and Roman Catholic. The division showing the highest proportion of illegitimacy is the northeastern, which comprises, or almost consists of, the Province of Ulster, where the population is almost equally divided between Protestants and Roman Catholics, and where the great majority of Protestants are of Scotch blood and of the Presbyterian church. The sum of the whole matter is, that semi-Presbyterian and semi-Scotch Ulster is fully three time more immoral than wholly Popish and wholly Irish Connaught--which corresponds with wonderful accuracy to the more general fact that Scotland, as a whole, is three times more immoral than Ireland as a whole."

It is worthy, too, of notice, that in the tabular statement above presented the percentage of illegitimacy in Holland and Switzerland, where there are large Catholic minorities, is lower than in any other Protestant country.

We have at hand evidence, furnished by Protestant writers, of the hideous immoralities of certain European nations that are more thoroughly Protestantized than England itself. Thus, Mr. Laing writes: "Of the 2,714 children born in Stockholm, 1,577 were legitimate, 1,137 illegitimate; making only a balance of 440 chaste mothers out of 2,714; and the proportion of illegitimate to legitimate children not as one to two and three-tenths, but as one to one and a half."--A Tour in Sweden in 1838.

But we are not disposed to parade these monstrous vices, no matter by whom committed. We allude to them with feelings of shame, not of pleasure; and give them a passing notice merely in self-defence against the gratuitous assertions of our adversaries. We certainly do not wish to excuse or palliate the evil deeds of Catholics, who, with all the blessed aids which their religion affords, ought to be much better than they are. Yet we will add, quoting the words of the Catholic World: "If we are not very much better than our neighbors, we are not any worse; and are not to be hounded down with the cry of vice and immorality by a set of Pharisees who are constantly lauding their own superiority and thanking God they are so much better than we poor Catholics."


Previous: XXV. Ceremonies of the Mass--The Missal--Latin Language--Lights--Flowers--Incense--Vestments: Let us now, dear reader, walk together into a Catholic Church in time to assist at the late Mass, which is the most solemn service of the Catholic Liturgy.

Next: XXVII. Indulgences: There are few tenets of the Catholic Church so little understood, or so grossly misrepresented by her adversaries, as her doctrine regarding Indulgences.