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:
“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
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).
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):
“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.
Private 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.
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!