Friday, March 23, 2018
Friday, March 16, 2018
Last year came and went without any recognized appearances of Our Lady of Fatima to either encourage or discourage the world, something I found disappointing but not surprising. The wild-eyed events of St. John’s Apocalypse do not seem to be transpiring, but Christians all over America still look for the Second Coming around every military action, every papal inscrutability, and every presidential tweet.
The Apocalypse has not received a great deal of respect in the history of the Church. The early Fathers hotly debated its authenticity and thus its canonicity. It rarely appears in liturgical texts, Western or Eastern. (The Sanctus is originally from the prophecy of Isaias.) Even the old Catholic Encyclopedia deconstructs it into its component parts with no veneration shown to its inspired character. Scott Hahn’s more recent exposition of the book as a mirror of the liturgy—and the Novus Ordo, at that—has not especially increased its prestige.
The Jesus that appears in the Apocalypse is not entirely recognizable as the Jesus of the Gospels, at least at first glance. And different indeed is this picture of Christ from the effeminate Jesus of women mystics like Maria Faustina Kowalska and Julian of Norwich. He is completely glorified: surrounded by seraphic hosts, simultaneously grotesque and beautiful, clothed in immense power, and arrayed in mind-breaking symbols. Very far is the King of Kings trodding the winepress of his Father’s wrath from the mild Infant of Bethlehem.
St. John’s authorship has been questioned by many, some finding a middle ground by arguing that the “Seer” of the Apocalypse is the fifth or sixth “John” or “Johaninne community” to write Scripture. The difficulty of its authorship is increased by uncertainty about the biographies of the Apostles, many versions containing some odd chronologies if not outright impossibilities. The author names himself John but does not claim apostolic authority. Still, if this John was the brother of James, the first-martyred of the Apostles, it would add a certain poignancy to the vision of the souls of those slain for God under the celestial altar.
The visions recorded in the book are alternately exalting and incomprehensible. There appears to be little chronological coherence, and most exegetes posit that the same period of time is simply repeated with different emphases. The moral judgments upon the seven churches in the early chapters are the most coherent parts of the book, but even those tend to be allegorized into the Ages of the Church.
The citizens both of Heaven and Hell are monstrous. The human events on Earth too are couched in bestial and Babylonian imagery. Symbols are multi-layered and opaque. Some passages that seem straightforward, like that of the 1000 years, led to serious doctrinal error when read plainly.
Yet, the Apocalypse records some of the kindest words of comfort in all of Holy Writ. Promises of God’s good will toward his people abound, and the final chapters are the most tangible representations of eternal beatitude ever inspired. The book also shows the most terrible punishments against the wicked, and is perhaps not unlikely to inflame an uncharitable glee in certain minds.
Is this book something best left unread by the unready, as the ancient Jews were said to forbid younger men from reading the Canticle of Canticles? Who can say? Catholic theologians tend to gravitate towards books of clearer doctrine and surer usefulness. It is not without its difficulties, and its rewards are ambiguous. But if this book is dangerous, let us not pretend that the rest of Scripture is safe and cannot be twisted by heretical graspers. Always keep in mind that the best defense against errant readings is a strong orthodox reading. How can we develop that if we do not study the book at all?
Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Old Errors Return? Some Never LeftSome of us who took the time to read, or at least glance over, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's latest pamphlet, Placuit Deo, were bemused to learn that Pelagianism and Gnosticism had infiltrated on little cat feet the City of God while we weren't looking. After all, as actual doctrinal movements in the Church's past, they have both long since been condemned and abandoned.
Pelagius argued that the first movement of grace depended entirely on the will of the recipient, but then more or less held for the operation of supernatural grace, its essential nature, and the rest, along orthodox lines. The Gnostics did not so much deny the dogmas of the Creed as make all sorts of ridiculous additions, perhaps male sonans but more likely proximum haeresi. In any event, St. Irenaeus and others thoroughly lambasted and condemned the Gnostics' pathetic attempts to bend Christianity to the Neo-Platonist ideas then in vogue, while the great St. Augustine, the Council of Orange, and others again condemned the errors of Pelagius and his followers (who at least seemed to be motivated by a desire to discourage a kind of Quietism among some of the faithful).
Bemusement resulted from the CDF monitum, it seems fair to say, because the errors that surround us on almost every side nowadays are nowhere near so pious or tentative as the Pelagians' and Gnostics' of old. We have instead the outright denial not just of grace but of the supernatural itself! There is ultimately no distinction between the uncreated God and the created world in Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Loisy, Teilhard, Rahner, et al. ad nauseam. If there is any substance to the broad category of Modernism, it is this particularly disastrous notion of Idealism. Once it's adopted, as has been rehearsed many times by Catholic theologians (worthy of the name), that's the end of the dogmas of creation, the fall, Original Sin, the Incarnation, the Sacraments, the Church, and the Resurrection of the Dead.
Even though the recent adherents and exponents of Idealism-Modernism (say, everyone post-Teilhard) have rarely if ever been condemned--some have received the red hat, for crying out loud--their sad little ideas have been, and not just in Pascendi and Lamentabili. Consequently, these contemporary adherents are simply uncondemned heretics, like the Arian bishops of the fourth century. In fact, some of them are bishops (and Arians, for that matter).
There is, however, an old error that has gone uncondemned--indeed, it received official shelter--throughout the long, violent centuries of the Modern Era. If we trace its muddy footprints through the household of the Faith, we just might find that it lent a hearty helping hand in bringing about the current crisis.
Meet Fr. Luis de Molina, S.J.
|Fr. Molina, SJ: about as much fun as he looks|
We should not make it a habit of speaking much of predestination. If somehow at times it comes to be spoken of, it must be done in such a way that the people are not led into any error. They are at times misled, so that they say: "Whether I shall be saved or lost, has already been determined, and this cannot be changed whether my actions are good or bad." So they become indolent and neglect the works that are conducive to the salvation and spiritual progress of their souls.Boldly stepping into the minefield so clearly posted with warning signs by the Saint comes the Reverend Luis de Molina. Not only did he not avoid "speaking much of predestination," he wouldn't shut up about it. However, it must be said that he did heed the second part of St. Ignatius' warning--there was no Calvinistic predeterminism in his ideas. Far from it. In fact, he exemplifies the old Latin adage:
Incidit in Scyllam dum vult vitare Charybdim ["He fell to Scylla while trying to avoid Charybdis"]Molina, you see, decided that the best answer to Calvin and his ilk regarding Predestination was to deny that God predestined souls without at least some glance into their future as it might play out in various circumstances. (Believe me, I am going to boil down and condense as much of this extremely prolix and protracted dispute as I can for the purposes of a blog post. For an atypical and amusing overview of Molina's life and works, you might consult the article in the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia, written by Fr. Pohle of the Society of Jesus, although the all-clarifying "SJ" is slyly omitted in the citation.)
Molina eventually called this "glance into the future" the scientia media, the "middle knowledge" of God: not God's knowledge in Himself, nor His knowledge of beings in existence or willed to come into existence, but a kind of what-if knowledge before the divine will decrees their existence. This way, don't you know, God can choose which "scenario" to decree so that a) the individual will actually cooperate with grace and be saved, or b) will do the least amount of bad so as not to merit too terrible a punishment.
How Was This Not Condemned as Heresy? Patronage, That's HowSo, what's so wrong with this theory, one might ask. There is, in the first (and last) place, a dependence in God: He becomes dependent on something that is not, ultimately, God: the scientia media. If He needs to consult, as it were, the "middle knowledge" to will if or how an individual human being will come into existence, how is this not a dependence? Obviously, it is just that. Immediately emanating from this initial error, like gangrene from a wound, comes a denial of all the divine attributes: God would not be the Prime Mover, would not be infinite, would not be the sole Creator, etc., etc. Molina and his fellow Jesuits denied such conclusions, of course, but more on the strength of their say-so than anything else, since explanations regarding the scientia media generated a flood of words, but not much clarity.
|Fr. Bañez: the hero of this story|
Thankfully for Catholic theology, the great Domingo Bañez, of the Order of Preachers, rescued Catholic theology, and in particular the thought of St. Thomas, from the tortured rationalizations of Molina. Like a good Catholic, Bañez formulated a concrete, explicit phrase to express God's absolute sovereignty (including predestination) and the creature's utter dependence on Him: physical premotion of the will. God moves the will physically (that is, directly by His own power) before the creature can do anything. Deny this, and you deny the nature of God. The Molinists realized this and spent the majority of their time attacking Bañez and his fellow Dominicans as "Determinists," as though they denied free-will.
Eventually, the Holy Father got wind of all the controversy in Spain stirred up by the devil, or rather Molina and his co-religionists, and had the entire matter transferred to Rome. According to another great Thomist, René Billuart (in his commentary on the Summa), the Pope, Clement VIII, was at length determined to condemn Molina's ideas, once he'd had time to consider the Dominicans' objections. In a conversation with St. Robert Bellarmine (SJ, don't forget), Pope Clement stated that Molinism was simply Pelagius in a new form. St. Robert countered that Pelagius had his good points. The Pope flew into a rage and shouted at Bellarmine: "Now you would defend even Pelagius!" Shaken, St. Robert withdrew and feared the worst, and rightly so: the Holy Father had the condemnation drawn up, ready for his signature, but--alas!--he died before he could put his name to the document.
|Paul V of the Borghese: the Spoiler|
ConclusionIt's amusing, in a sad way, to think that if Pelagianism and the fog of Gnosticism have returned, they did so by way of the Jesuit influence on Catholic thought, through the medium of the scientia media. In the end, however, although scholars like to complicate the matter with talk of "schools of thought" and "intellectual influences" and the like, it really comes down to a fundamental error about man as creature and God as Creator: some refuse, however subtly or partially, to admit that creation is wholly dependent on the Trinity in every way. They would like to reserve some aspect--our choices, our "conscience"--to ourselves alone, apart from the divine will. And so, perhaps, just as Molina could argue that, after all is said and done, we have a part to play in determining the divine will, so his intellectual heirs can argue that conscience, so called, has an independent role in determining the extent and the power of Christ's law, e.g. in the reception of Holy Communion (to choose a random example).
Of course, one day all this confusion about the divine sovereignty will be cleared up in a manner quite unmistakable to each one of us, just as it already has been for Molina and Paul V. May that day not find us unprepared. The old Latin poem, after all, warns us all: Media vita, in morte sumus: quem quaerimus Adjutorem nisi te, Domine? ["In the midst of life, we are in death: who besides Thee, O Lord, shall we seek for our helper?]
Tuesday, March 13, 2018
"In exitu Israël de Ægypto..."
The words of the one-hundred and thirteenth psalm are sung by the souls being ferried by an angel to Purgatory in Dante's Commedia. It is a psalm of victory and joy, of a triumph so wondrous that the earth and sea tremble at the entry of the Twelve Tribes into the Promised Land. "Our God is in heaven," the psalmist declares, while idols are "the work of human hands." The souls of the repentant dead in need of purification appropriate this hymn as their own, its spiritual meaning found in their progress toward the face of God.
Israel's exodus from Egypt is abundant with spiritual and allegorical meaning, capable of appropriation in many ways. The crossing through the Red Sea is a prefigurement of Baptism for St. Paul, and his moral exhortations to the Corinthian Christians are based on the wanderings of the Hebrews in the desert. Both danger and glory are present in the narrative from Egypt to Canaan. Some were saved, but many were destroyed in God's wrath. The pilgrimage of Israel from bondage is as much an allegory for the Christian life as it is historical record.
The first seven books of Holy Writ have been much on my mind as I approach a notable anniversary of my reception into the Catholic Church. From the famine that brought Jacob and his sons to Egypt, all the way to the laxity of the settled tribes after the death of Joshua, the pilgrim sons of Abraham offer ample material for spiritual reflection.
The wanderings in the desert are a type of our exile on Earth, and also of the purifying fire in Purgatory: that which is gold and precious remains while that which is straw and wood burns away, just as an entire generation of Israel had to die before they could cross the Jordan. The campaign to take the Promised Land is a type of Christ conquering the territory of the Devil, and also a symbol of the Christian conquering his own sin. Allegorically, Jericho is an impenetrable fortress of sin, and its walls can only be razed by divine intervention. The Hebrews made compromises with the local heathens for the sake of peace, and they were troubled for many years by those unrooted weeds; just so is it difficult to rid ourselves of evil once we have called it our master.
Lent is the salvation from famine by the brother thought dead but found alive. Lent is the endurance of plagues until the firstborn is slaughtered. Lent is a desert between slavery and paradise. Lent is a renewal of the campaign against the Philistines and Ammonites. Lent is a series of judges being raised up by God to deliver us from our captors.
Is not Eglon the exceedingly fat king of Moab an allegory of gluttony? Is not Samson an allegory of lust and vainglory? On the side of virtue, Joshua becomes an allegory of fortitude and Joseph an allegory of prudence. Phinees spears the sacrilegious fornicators without delay, just as we ought to exterminate sin in its first stirrings. Our spiritual warfare is writ large in the sacred histories.
Dante's mount of purgation is an allegory as well as a more literal image of the world to come. The soul crosses the waters, endures many pains, and finally comes to the earthly paradise where he receives illumination and forgetfulness of his past sins. There finally the last of the poet's pagan influence falls away; Virgil cannot linger in the presence of Beatrice.
"The dead shall not praise thee, O Lord; nor any of them that go down to Hell. But we that live bless the Lord."
Sunday, March 11, 2018
Saturday, March 3, 2018
The speculation of a new papal encyclical hitting the shelves at the start of this month sadly fizzled out when a letter from the CDF to the bishops was released instead. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been a rather dull affair since Ratzinger temporarily moved up in the world. Cdl. Joseph was an unexpected lightning rod for accusations of doctrinal extremism and fundamentalism, but Apb. Ladaria has scarcely created a ripple in the pond since his appointment.
The letter Placuit Deo warns the bishops against the rising dual threats of neo-Pelagianism and neo-Gnosticism, clearly the most immanent threats against the Pax Romana in our day. The concern is so palpable that neither the USCCB nor the local diocese can be bothered to comment upon it on their websites. Meanwhile, the pope’s “ten steps backwards” approach to sexual abuse allegations remains unrectified and he continues to stand erect as an equal in the presence of Almighty God.
It is a good year to give up reading Catholic news and commentary for Lent. The traddies have no shortage of material to work with, the liberals never lose cause for celebration, and the sycophants never stop praising the powerful while giving lip service to the Faith the powerful are disintegrating. The worst part of reading news from the Vatican and bishops conferences is the logical consequence of reading between the lines. After decades of obfuscation, doctrinal creativity, sexual scandals, and imposition of truly bad taste, one infallibly comes to the conclusion that many if not most of the men running the Church simply hate us.
In many ways this realization is liberating. Accepting it makes sense of many horrors that would remain otherwise unintelligible. Popes, bishops, and parish priests demand an obedience which is used to slap defenders of the Faith, to dismantle Tradition in all its aspects, and ultimately to bully those with evidence of clerical reprobation into silence. Accusations of cynicism—usually coming from the sycophants—should not prevent one from being on guard against the enemy within the gates. We cannot be too careful for our safety, the safety of our loved ones, and even the safety of good priests and religious who stand in danger of intrigues.
As the prayers of Compline remind us, the Devil goeth about seeking whom he may devour. Sometimes he wears the skin of a lion, sometimes that of a serpent, and sometimes that of a spiritual father demanding docility. “Be sober and watch.”
|Saturn Devouring His Son, Peter Paul Rubens|
Thursday, March 1, 2018
According to a quick Google search the Sacrament of Confession is the place where Catholic “receive absolution for the sins committed against God and neighbor.” This summary is neither wrong nor far off from how the average Catholic layman construes Confession, but it is not the whole story of the Sacrament. That people are forgiven their sins in Confession is but one of its many purposes and benefits. The reduction of Confession to the mechanical forgiveness of sins and nothing else is among the reasons it has become the “Forgotten Sacrament” in our sinless, post-Christian world. Confession has many purposes, none of which ought to be divorced from each other, that can be witnessed in its long and much changed history.
“And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man: and the Lord shall raise him up: and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess therefore your sins one to another: and pray one for another, that you may be saved. For the continual prayer of a just man availeth much.”
Saint James’ catholic epistle and this excerpt from it are the most explicit testimonies of confessing sins in the Apostolic age, the days after the Ascension during which the Apostles still lived. These brief sentences convey the Confession’s root intentions: the remission of sins and their associated punishments, penance, the reconciliation between a sinner and the Church, and accountability between one sinful human being another. Forgiveness comes from Christ through the Church, which Christ Himself made clear in giving His Apostles the power to remit sins even before sending the Holy Spirit upon them; a power held only by God was given by God to men before He descended upon them and dwelt within them.
In the primitive days of the Church sinners confessed their sins before the assembled faithful, recounting their sins in public and asking for forgiveness from the appointed ministers. That Confession took place in the ancient Church the Catholic Encyclopedia makes clear, with extensive quotations from the contemporary Fathers—something the proto-modernists of the early 20th century denied as an innovation.
- St. Augustine (d. 430) warns the faithful: "Let us not listen to those who deny that the Church of God has power to forgive all sins" (De agon. Christ., iii).
- St. Ambrose (d. 397) rebukes the Novatianists who "professed to show reverence for the Lord by reserving to Him alone the power of forgiving sins. Greater wrong could not be done than what they do in seeking to rescind His commands and fling back the office He bestowed. . . . The Church obeys Him in both respects, by binding sin and by loosing it; for the Lord willed that for both the power should be equal" (On Penance I.2.6).
- St. Athanasius (d. 373): "As the man whom the priest baptizes is enlightened by the grace of the Holy Ghost, so does he who in penance confesses his sins, receive through the priest forgiveness in virtue of the grace of Christ" (Frag. contra Novat. in P.G., XXVI, 1315).
Confession and the accompanying absolution became a point of dispute early on in the Church and, inadvertently, drove the first wedge between Eastern and Latin Christianity. During the Decian persecution many lapsed from the Church either by burning incense before the image of the Emperor or assuaged their consciences by merely bribing officiates to write licenses testifying that they had done so. Rigorists, perhaps the Jansenists of the third century, under the influence of Novatian refused re-entry of the lapsed into the Church and even constructed their own virtue dioceses in Rome and Carthage. The numerous “lax” communities and bishops received the lapse after a public Confession and years of penance. In the middle St. Cyprian of the aforementioned Carthage suggested a compromise wherein the lapsed would be received back into the Church at the point of death (one wonders if he’d be censured in the age of mercy). The rigorists eventually created their own schismatic movement which saw numerous Christians baptized, chrismated, communicated, and buried under parallel Sacraments. The same Cyprian denied the validity of these Sacraments and wanted former hardliners received as converts, with all the rites of initiation. By contrast, Pope St. Stephen held a public Confession and a life of penance would suffice. The difference of opinion persists to this day in Greek quarters. Cyprian and the Roman bishop differed less of their understanding of Confession as a means of forgiveness than in their understanding of whether or not the rigorists were properly Christians at all. If anything their views on public repentance and the Church’s absolution could reasonably be held as the same.
Confession and ecclesiastical absolution remained in common, but not exclusively common, to each other until the late first millennium. Absolution and the Church’s pardon came from the authority granted by Christ to His Apostles and their successors, bishops. In the controversy over the lapsed and the rigorists the common dispute was not between priests or theological writers, but rather between bishops and whether or not they could re-admit apostates under the traditional means. It would be wrong to limit Patristic Confession to the narrow issue of lapsing. Emperor Theodosius massacred thousands of Thessalonians in suppressing a revolt only to be refused entry into the churches of Milan by Saint Ambrose, who only welcomed the Emperor after months of public penance and changes to civil law.
|Reconciliation of penitent on Mandy Thursday|
source: Pitts Theological Library
Public and hierarchical Confession remained the norm in the Roman Church for some time and even survives in modern times in the traditional Pontificale Romanum of 1604 and 1962, when penitents are doused in ashes by the bishop on the first day of Lent and are reconciled to the Church through public absolution on Mandy Thursday. The latter ceremony is no longer observed because the former has been extended to all the faithful as a genera act of penance, but the intent remains.
A trend to private auricular Confession originated in oriental monasteries and slowly trickled to local churches East and West. Private spiritual counsel, accountability, and sacramental absolution did not fuse without as to who the proper minister of Confession was supposed to be or what constituted a valid Confession in the same way a priest, bread, and wine constitute a valid Eucharist. Saint Symeon the New Theologian veered into Donatism in his own writings on Confession:
“Nor should you wish to become mediators for others before you have been filled with the Holy Spirit, and know, and are reconciled to the King of all, and can sense it in your soul. For neither can everyone who knows the earthly king be a mediator to him in behalf of others. Extremely few are able to do this, for they have acquired this familiarity before him because of their virtues and by their sweat and labours for him. And they do not have need of a mediator before him themselves but converse mouth to mouth with the king. Therefore, fathers and brothers, are we not going to keep the same order before God? Are we not going to honour the heavenly King even equally as we honour the earthly king? Are we going to usurp and grant ourselves the seat at His right and left before we even ask for it and receive it? Such recklessness! What shameful thing has taken hold of us? Why, even if we are called to give an account for nothing else, for this alone, that we are disdainful, we shall be disgraced and denied a seat of dignity and cast into eternal fire. Now what has been said is sufficient for the exhortation of those who wish to be careful about themselves. For this sake, our words have digressed a little beyond the subject at hand. But now, my son, we shall address what you asked to learn about.
“Confession to a monk who does not have holy orders, you will find, was practised everywhere ever since monks existed and the garment of repentance and, the monastic life were given by God in His legacy, as it is recorded in the divinely inspired writings of the Fathers. And if you look into them, you will find that what we are saying is true. Prior to this, as successors to the holy Apostles, only bishops received the power to bind and loose. But as the time passed, the bishops became corrupt, and this fearful undertaking passed on to priests who had a blameless life and were worthy of grace. And later, the priests as well, as the bishops associated with and became just like the rest of the people. And many of them, just as now, would fall into spirits of delusion and vain, empty speech and would be lost. Then the power to bind and loose was transferred to the chosen among the people of God, that is to say, to the monks. It was not that it was removed from the priests and bishops, but that the priests and bishops estranged themselves from this grace. “For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God,” as the Apostle Paul says, and “he ought, as for the people, so also for himself offer” sacrifice” (Letter on Confession 10-11).
In the West the historical legacy of public Confession left lingering uncertainty as to whether or not a deacon could hear private Confessions in the same manner ministers of the Church witnessed them publically. Canon 32 of the Council of Elvira—more remembered and debated for what it says about clerical continence in canon 33 than, for instance, excluding those who get abortions from Communion until and including the moment of death—gives the deacon as an acceptable witness of a sinner’s penance if the bishop is unavailable. In a public setting the witness of penance seems to be something different from absolution, but by the 11th century a general uncertainty pervaded in England as to whether or not deacons ought to hear auricular, private confessions until St. Edmund of Canterbury and Bishop Walter of Durham both explicitly condemned the practice on the grounds deacons could not grant absolution. It would seem the early medieval church, in some places, confused the power to impose and witness penance in the name of the Church with the sacerdotal power to absolve confessed transgressions, a distinction the aforementioned Catholic Encyclopedia fails to make.
Latin regulation of the sacrament by local ordinaries restricted the right to hear confessions to parish priests or other specifically licensed ministers, be they monks or canons. The unique right of parish priests to absolve is key in the Middle Ages, a time when the proliferation of liturgical worship at the parish level meant guilds and wealthy laymen hired chaplains and “Massing priests” for no other purpose than to hold votive Masses and Offices every single day either in the patrons’ houses or devotional altars maintained at the parish; these men could not, however, provide spiritual guidance or forgiveness.
After Lateran IV imposed Confession at least once a year on every Catholic parish priests began to use the encounter of the sacrament to test people’s knowledge of their faith and correct it where it was lacking. Primers from the late Middle Ages recount basic articles of faith a Confessor might test; similarly, manuals of generic penances also contain basic questions that every Catholic should be able to answer, something of a 15th century Baltimore Catechism. Confession, like Communion, was something the medieval Church only demanded one do once a year, but unlike Communion it could be visited more frequently without demonstrating to one’s worth to one’s pastor. At the very least people would make their annual confessions after the morning vesperal Mass on Holy Saturday, reconcile to the rest of the community after Mattins that evening, and Communicate prior to the Mass of the Resurrection the following morning.
Greek churches, by contrast, rarely sought out the parish priest for Confession, normally a married man. Instead the faithful preferred, and today many still prefer, to confess to an ordained monk. Monasticism in Greek rite cities is less exotic and other worldly than in the Latin Church, making monks normative and accessible ministers of Confession. Indeed, confessing to a monk remains a desirable component to any fruitful visit to a Greek rite monastery.
Then came the Reformation.
Much like how all priests became sermonists in the wake of Trent, so Latin bishops also generally gave any priest within their dioceses the faculties to hear confessions, something novel in practice but consistent in principle with sacramental power descending from the bishop. I cannot say if the ceremony of repeating Christ’s words in John 20 and the unfolding of the priest’s chasuble at ordination was given to all ordinands, even “Massing priests”, before Trent, but it was after Trent. The Tridentine expansion of Confession’s availability proved prescient for the needs of Western Christendom over the next several centuries as it empowered missionaries to South America and Asia as well as Jesuits who would operate furtive ministries in England and Ireland.
In the baroque, post-Tridentine Latin Church sacramental Confession and repentance reclaimed their prominence in a manner missing since the first millennium, when not all the Western world was Christian. While the medieval Latin Church valued Confession and prized great penitents like Ss. Mary Magdalen and Anthony of Egypt, Christians of those days emphasized maximal liturgy, the Mass and Office, as well as the intercession of the saints more in quotidian piety. The post-Reformation shift towards a world wherein Catholicism was merely the majority religion meant individuals could no longer rely on a presumptively traditional culture to strengthen their virtues, to say nothing of those returning from heresy or schism. So Confession occupied an important role in living a life of constant repentance and virtue in the years between the Reformation and the mid-20th century. The ascendant Jesuit order became famous for its ability to provide spiritual counsel for laymen within the context of Confession. St. Philip Neri began the Oratory long before becoming a priest and was only ordained so that he might be able to hear the confessions of his brethren. And above all the general conscience of Latin Christianity evaluated the ministry of certain priests based on their capabilities as Confession fathers; St. Jean Vianney’s sermons illuminated few, but his Confessions converted a city.
It must be said, however, that however capable the early Jesuits or the Cure d’Ars were as Confessors, a general sensibility had set into Latin Christianity by the start of the 20th century that the purpose of Confession was to get rid of sins and enable one to Communicate. While this is true, the possibility under Canon Law and modern transportation to confess to anyone has diluted the traditional aspects of repentance and accountability to a particular individual. Here in Texas, where the Hispanic community keeps the Confession lines long and populous, the “box” is little more than an absolution factory with myriad choices of venue every day of the week. Behind the screen, something invented for the chastity of women and not the anonymity of men, one can be absolved and elude any lasting rebuke of sin.
In this regard the Eastern Churches have kept the spirit of Confession better preserved, at least structurally; a Latin Christian with the right perspective can, of course, do Confession properly. In the Greek tradition one’s Confession father is the regular source of spiritual counsel and advice. He is the man who keeps a sinner accountable for his sins and, although he may not assign a penance, guides the penitent in an on-going process of penance. Although anonymous Confession was invented in the Latin Church to keep women free of felonious priests, the trend toward the screen caught on for men everywhere. In the Greek tradition Confession is not “face-to-face”, but there is no barrier; one confesses before an image of Christ with the priest baring witness and welcoming the penitent back into the fold by wrapping his epitrachelion (stole) over his head while giving absolution, symbolizing a shepherd protecting a recovered lamb.
Confession is many things. Above all it is a Sacrament of repentance, and for that reason it is worth considering in its purpose and use during this season of Lent. As we confess our sins let us recall that we ought to want to sin no more and that Confession is part of the design in getting us to refrain from our old ways. A link to Saint James, to Augustine, to the medieval Church, and the modern spiritual masters, Confession is another way to connect to the Cross, dying to the self so that Christ may live.
A blessed Lent to all.