The Origins of Mandatory Private Confession in the Catholic Church

In the “Stats” for this blog, I can review the search strings typed into engines like Google or Bing that bring visitors here. One such search string recently caught my eye, which surprised me because I’ve never written about the topic before:

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“when did mandatory private confession start in the catholic church?”

When I repeated the search myself, the question was left somewhat unanswered. So, to the person who was looking for an answer to this question, this is for you:

Private Penance is quite old in the Catholic Church; It is an Ancient Practice

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Primary documents are cited from this excellent compendium; click the picture of the cover for more information

In 1551, the Council of Trent, in its Doctrine on the Sacrament of Penance, stated that “…Peter, prince of the apostles, recommended penance to sinners who were about to receive baptism with the words: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you. [Acts 2:38f.]”

The Church teaches that Confession, or Penance (also Reconciliation) is one of the seven sacraments of the Church instituted by Christ. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “During his public life Jesus not only forgave sins, but also made plain the effect of this forgiveness: he reintegrated forgiven sinners into the community of the People of God from which sin had alienated or even excluded them.” (CCC 1443).

According to the Church, the sacrament of Penance is for baptized members who “…have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion… The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as ‘the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.'” (CCC 1446, citing Tertullian, De Paenit. 4, 2: PL 1, 1343; and Trent).

Regardless of whether penance of a particular time was private or public, “Beneath the changes in discipline and celebration that this sacrament has undergone over the centuries, the same fundamental structure is to be discerned.” (CCC 1447, 1448). That is, whether public or private (or some other potential form), sacramental penance has always comprised “two equally essential elements: …conversion through the action of the Holy Spirit… [and] God’s action through the intervention of the Church.” (CCC 1448).

The Council of Trent in Doctrine stated:

“…the Lord instituted the sacrament of penance, principally when after his Resurrection he breathed upon his disciples and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’ [Jn 20:22f.]. The universal consensus of the Fathers has always acknowledged that by so sublime an action and such clear words the power of forgiving and retaining sins was given to the apostles and their lawful successors for reconciling the faithful who have fallen after baptism…” (Chapter 5).

Confessional at Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Confessional at Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

In addition, the Council of Trent noted that “secret” [private] sacramental confession, was used by the Church “from her beginning” and “has always been commended by the most venerable and most ancient Fathers with great and unanimous agreement…” (Ibid., Chapter 5).

That was 1551. We faithful Catholics should trust the Council Fathers at Trent that there were private confessions in the Church “from her beginning.” You can stop reading now, unless you happen to like history.

For those who might not take the Council Fathers at their word, we can look for further proof of the assertion regarding the practice of private confession in the Church “from her beginning”. A handful of centuries to 1551 isn’t very long (unless you’re Protestant. Ooh, burn.). The Council refers to private confession from the “beginning” of the Church, but what is its basis for this claim?

First, we can follow the Council Fathers at Trent back a few hundred more years to 1215 and the [Fourth] Lateran Council [can. 8]: “…for the Church did not establish through the Lateran Council that Christ’s faithful should confess, which she had understood to be a necessary institution of divine law, but that the precept of confession should be discharged by one and all at least once a year on their reaching the age of discretion.” Trent is referring to the declaration of the Fourth Lateran Council which instituted “mandatory” private confession when it stated that “All the faithful… should individually confess all their sins in a faithful manner to their own priest at least once a year…” (Ibid., Chapter 21).

Trent noted that while “mandatory” private confession became the norm from the time of the Fourth Lateran, the general “non-mandatory” practice of private confession was a practice in the Church “from her beginning” by virtue of the Fourth Lateran dealing with confession in such a regulatory way.

The sequence would have been backwards to prescribe a specific action (i.e., mandatory annual, private confession during the season of Lent) if the custom (i.e., private confession) were not already embedded in the Christian life. It’s possible that non-private confession was also in use in some places, but as we’ll see below, it’s not likely, apart from isolated examples. And, these other forms of penance would not have been prescribed as “mandatory” while private confession remained only optional.

Although we can now see that the mandatory practice of privately confessing one’s sins to a priest is documented back to 1215, this is less than half the age of the Church. Does it go back any further? It does, according to James Hitchcock’s History of the Catholic Church (page 136): 

Martyrdom of St. John Nepomuk by Szymon Czechowicz, National Museum in Warsaw

Martyrdom of St. John Nepomuk by Szymon Czechowicz, National Museum in Warsaw

By the ninth century, private confession for lay people was required at least once a year, along with a whole new penitential discipline, including the silence of the confessor (the “seal of confession”) so absolute that if, for example, he learned from a penitent of a plot on his own life, he could do nothing to thwart it. (St. John Nepomucen [d. 1393], confessor to the queen of Bohemia, was drowned by order of the king, for refusing to divulge the contents of her confession.)”

Hitchcock’s summary is factually consistent with the Catechism, which states that “During the seventh century Irish missionaries, inspired by the Eastern monastic tradition, took to continental Europe the ‘private’ practice of penance”. (CCC 1447).

Thus, we can see that private confession was practiced in one form or another, and that it was mandatory in many places in Europe back to the 600s, inspired by an even more ancient practice in the “Eastern monastic tradition”. Having gone this far, we might as well push to the origins of the Church to see if we can find any earlier references to private confession.

20131030-003114.jpgPrivate confession is implied in Canon 13 of the First Council of Nicaea (325). In addition, in the Letter Consulenti tibi to Bishop Exsuperius of Toulouse (405), Pope Innocent I referred to penance being granted for those who need it. In 459, Pope St. Leo I the Great wrote a letter Magna indignatione to All the Bishops of Campania, etc., stating:

With regard to penance, what is demanded of the faithful is clearly not that an acknowledgement of the nature of individual sins written in a little book be read publicly, since it suffices that the states of consciences be made known to the priests alone in secret confession.

Saint Leo Magnus by Francisco Herrera the Younger, in the Prado Museum, Madrid

Saint Leo Magnus by Francisco Herrera the Younger, in the Prado Museum, Madrid

Private confession was a practice in the Church “from her beginning” but may not have been the exclusive practice from the beginning; what has varied over the centuries is the “concrete form in which the Church has exercised this power.” (CCC 1447):

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 very rigorous discipline, according to which penitents had to do public penance for their sins, often for years, before receiving reconciliation.

According to this article, there is reference to confession in the ancient first-century apostolic writings known as the Didache (Did-uh-kay), which was “lost to history” and only rediscovered in 1873. In Chapter 14, the Didache commands Christians to gather on Sundays for the celebration of the Eucharist, “…after having confessed your transgressions” and establishes that from the very origins of the early Church, the tradition was that confession was a requirement for the worthy reception of Communion.

Tradition developed private confession as a mercy (rather than penalty) to penitents: instead of publicly confessing — which was the norm in the very early centuries of the Church, and where the penances assigned were oftentimes harsh and severe — the Church developed a mechanism for private and anonymous reception of the sacrament, and total secrecy regarding the contents of the confession. Holy priests choose martyrdom over revealing what penitents confess.

Therefore, it is historically myopic when Protestants accuse the Church of creating private confession for some nefarious purpose. Luther correctly noted the prevalence of human abuses with regard to the sacrament at the time of the Reformation, but his failure was in attributing these entirely human abuses to the holiness of the Church, which is an error that has taken a great many earnest Christians away from a source of priceless grace and mercy.

Finally, private confession is regarded as somewhat uncomfortable, particularly for non-Catholics seeking to convert to Catholicism but who are unfamiliar with the practice. The point is that it is the Protestant approach to sin and forgiveness that is without precedent or basis. Penance was a sacrament of the Church from the first centuries. The fact that it developed over the centuries into a “mandatory” private practice was and is a mercy for sinners (i.e., all of us), if you take the historical view.

So, go to confession! Give thanks that our Lord gave penance to us as a sacrament, and give thanks that our Church has seen fit to pour out God’s mercy by giving us the means by which to receive the sacrament privately and confidentially!

20 thoughts on “The Origins of Mandatory Private Confession in the Catholic Church

  1. From Matthew Chapter 9 vs 6-8We see that confession came from Christ Himself even before His rising from the dead! Here in the Bible it says clearly that He give the power to forgive sins to His Apostles and when He did that the crowds were in awe!
    “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic, “Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.”
    7
    He rose and went home.
    8
    * When the crowds saw this they were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such authority to human beings.”

    • In AD 1215 confession once in year was made mandatory.That means many catholics lived and died without going to confession before that.This is not to say that they did not sin or that their sins were not fogiven.
      In some oriental churches there was no private confession for a long time even after 1215.
      All this show that private confession is not indispensable for salvation.
      In fact it was made compulsory only during the times when popes weilded great power.So to add to those powers Private confession was made mandatory.
      One must also remember that there are non catholis who lead virtuous lives but never go to confession. Do they all go to hell? I cant believe it.
      I feel that this is a man made arrangement and there is nothing divine about it.
      Even otherwise when God is so close to each one of us and He undetstands us better thsn any one else why should we approach a deputee to confess our sins?

  2. Jesus told Saint Faustina that whenever we approach the confessional, that He, Himself is waiting there for us, that the priest is only a screen for Him, and to never analyze the priest He is using.

  3. The post is good but Jesus nevere ordered confession as a sacrament to be private—the fact that it was not private in the early church shows that –but as a dsicipline it can change or change back –obviously Catholics are not using confession as they should…why not? Calling it reconciliation is the same as saying Jesus used a chalice at the last supper (new translation of the Mass). People are not dumb…..something has to change to make it a real celebration –individual confession seems in the minds of many to miss the mark of celebration…the church needs to do something or confession as a sacrament will go the way of the reformation.

      • The point is: the part of the sacrament that is a discipline (private confession and/or public) can and has changed. Perhaps it is time to restudy the sacrament and the “disciplinary’ options and go on from there. We need to find the reason why people are neglecing the sacrament as well and then adapt. Once Rome speaks, then we can move on again, and Rome must do something in this era of evangelization since Catholics need evangelization as well.

  4. Pingback: Origins of Mandatory Private Confession in the Church - BigPulpit.com

  5. Pingback: Penance: Is It Necessary for Salvation? - Agnoscere Novissimis Diebus

  6. What we don’t see in Scripture is someone confessing to a priest, the priest giving a penance of some kind and then being absolved of their sins. This kind of thing is an invention of men and denies the direct access we have to God through Christ. I john 1:9

    • Confession is a sacrament instituted by Christ Himself. “Whatever you bind on earth…” (Matthew 18:18). Inadequate “direct access” to God isn’t a Catholic problem: every church has a tabernacle and every Catholic can receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord and Savior.

      What’s an invention of man is reliance upon Scripture as the sole source of Christian teaching. Jesus taught against that.

      • Jesus never instituted a sacrament of confession. Its in none of His teachings nor do we see the apostles teaching it or demonstrating it either.
        Our access to God has nothing to do with a tabernacle or your Eucharist.

        The sacrament of confession is not an apostolic teaching nor practice. It is a doctrine of men.

      • Ralph, sorry, but you’re simply incorrect.

        John 20:19-23: “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. [Jesus] said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’”

        Jesus gave the apostles the authority to forgive, and not to forgive. Jesus conferred this power upon the apostles by breathing on them, and He did it on Easter Sunday. There is only one other reference in Scripture to God breathing on anyone: in Genesis 2:7, God breathed life into the first human being. If God breathed life the first time….

        Also, compare 2 Corinthians 5:17-20, where St. Paul says that “God reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation” and that the apostles “are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us.”

        Finally, note James 5, beginning at verse 13. James makes clear that a sick or suffering person “should summon the presbyters of the church” [i.e., priests] who will pray and anoint the person, and “If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.” He goes on to say that we should confess our sins – not directly to God, but to “one another”, “…that you may be healed.” (Verse 16).

        We can see from John 20 that since the Father sent Jesus to redeem humanity by the forgiveness of sins, Jesus likewise sends His apostles to continue that same mission.

        Jesus knows who we are. We are human. We sin. We all fall short. Sacramental Confession is Providential Medicine.

        Study the early Church Fathers, and you will see that the claim that the “sacrament of confession is not an apostolic teaching nor practice” is entirely without basis or merit.

        Oh, and the Eucharist isn’t my or your anything. It is Jesus.

  7. The passage in John 20:19-23 is not about a sacrament or a priest hearing confession of sins and giving a penance or absolution.

    Where do we see in Scripture the apostles practicing the sacrament of penance i..e forgiving someone their specific sins and then giving penance and absolution? If the apostles did teach this kind of thing we should see examples of it and instructions how to do it. Book, Chapter and verse please that shows this.

    The reconciliation that we have in Christ is not about some sacrament of confession but on the preaching of the gospel. When a man believes in the gospel, he is reconciled to God and his sins are forgiven. This is why we don’t see any apostle hearing a confession and then giving a penance and absolution. It is the gospel that the apostles are preaching and not a sacrament of confession.

    James 5 does not help you either since that is not a description of the sacrament of confession. Notice that the confessing of sins to one another does not entail that their sins are forgiven. by another person.

    • Ralph:

      In John 20, Jesus clearly gives the apostles the power to forgive sins. Your argument that the passage is “not about a sacrament or a priest hearing confession” is disingenuous. The apostles did teach “this kind of thing”, both in Scripture and in early Church writings:

      2 Cor. 2:10: “Whomever you forgive anything, so do I. For indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for you in the presence of Christ.”

      2 Cor. 5:17-21 (which you disregarded in my prior response).

      Acts 19:18: “Many of those who had become believers came forward and openly acknowledged their former practices. 19 Moreover, a large number of those who had practiced magic collected their books and burned them in public.”

      1 Tim. 6:12 discusses confessing both faith and sins in the presence of witnesses. (See also Matt. 3:6, Mark 1:5).

      Do not come to prayer with a guilty conscience.” Epistle of Barnabas, 19:12 (A.D. 74).

      “In church confess your sins, and do not come to your prayer with a guilt conscience. Such is the Way of Life…On the Lord’s own day, assemble in common to break bread and offer thanks; but first confess your sins, so that your sacrifice may be pure.” Didache, 4:14,14:1 (c. A.D. 90).

      “Moreover, it is in accordance with reason that we should return to soberness[of conduct], and, while yet we have opportunity, exercise repentance towards God. It is well to reverence both God and the bishop.” Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyraeans, 9 (c. A.D. 110).

      “Moreover, that this Marcus compounds philters and love-potions, in order to insult the persons of some of these women, if not of all, those of them who have returned to the Church of God–a thing which frequently occurs–have acknowledged, confessing, too, that they have been defiled by him, and that they were filled with a burning passion towards him. A sad example of this occurred in the case of a certain Asiatic, one of our deacons, who had received him (Marcus) into his house. His wife, a woman of remarkable beauty, fell a victim both in mind and body to this magician, and, for a long time, travelled about with him. At last, when, with no small difficulty, the brethren had converted her, she spent her whole time in the exercise of public confession, weeping over and lamenting the defilement which she had received from this magician.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:13 (A.D. 180).

      “Such are the words and deeds by which, in our own district of the Rhone, they have deluded many women, who have their consciences seared as with a hot iron. Some of them, indeed, make a public confession of their sins; but others of them are ashamed to do this, and in a tacit kind of way, despairing of [attaining to] the life of God, have, some of them, apostatized altogether; while others hesitate between the two courses, and incur that which is implied in the proverb, ‘neither without nor within;’ possessing this as the fruit from the seed of the children of knowledge.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:13 (A.D. 180).

      “Father who knowest the hearts of all grant upon this Thy servant whom Thou hast chosen for the episcopate to feed Thy holy flock and serve as Thine high priest, that he may minister blamelessly by night and day, that he may unceasingly behold and appropriate Thy countenance and offer to Thee the gifts of Thy holy Church. And that by the high priestly Spirit he may have authority to forgive sins…” Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 3 (A.D. 215).

      “The Pontifex Maximus–that is, the bishop of bishops–issues an edict: ‘I remit, to such as have discharged (the requirements of) repentance, the sins both of adultery and of fornication.'” Tertullian, Modesty, 1 (A.D. 220).

      “In addition to these there is also a seventh, albeit hard and laborious: the remission of sins through penance…when he does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord.” Origen, Homilies on Leviticus, 2:4 (A.D. 248).

      Sins are not forgiven “by another person” – they are forgiven by God. During the sacrament, the priest uses the following formula:

      “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

      • I’m late to the party, but whatever…
        Your quotes at the beginning all refer to confession as something said either to the community at large or directly to God/Jesus. As far as the disciples go, yes Jesus told THEM to hear confessions, but he said nothing about thousands of years worth of priests hearing confessions privately. I feel like too many Christians confuse directions given to a specific person or group with directions everyone should follow forever. Just because the disciples were commanded to do this, that doesn’t mean priests were being commanded to do likewise. And for your last few quotes, to me they seem to prove Ralph’s point that the rules of private confession were instituted by people, not God, about 200 years (by your dates) after Jesus died.

        And honestly, as a Protestant, the Priest’s ‘formula’ concerns me: regular people go to school, are accepted by the church, and then gain the power to speak God’s Truth and Will in regards to forgiveness and appropriate amends to be made. I know people disagree, and that’s fine, but I think it’s untrue to say that today’s confession was practised by Jesus or was directly ordered by God.

      • Sarah: I invite you to provide some actual support for any of the assertions in your comment. I’ll respond to your points when they are supported by something other than your feelings or opinions.

        It’s peculiar how you make the Sacrament of Confession into a negative or punitive thing, rather than the gift that it is. And it’s even more peculiar that you’d think it reasonable that the apostles would be able to forgive sin but then somehow between then and now people stopped sinning having need of Confession, which is simply an outpouring of God’s mercy.

        I for one need every Gift that Christ gave us, including Confession and Himself in the Eucharist.

  8. Pingback: Good Stuff on the Catholic Heritage of Confession | Quartermaster of the Barque

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