The persecutions would end for good with the conquest of the Emperor Constantine. Christianity would enjoy a new favored status in Rome. Constantine himself invoked the Church Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., from which our Nicene Creed at Mass was formulated. At that Council the bishops reaffirmed the practice of admitting apostates, adulterers, and murderers back into the Church, and they gave local bishops the right to administer the eucharist to dying penitents who had not completed the full rite of reconciliation, and even to those who had relapsed after experiencing canonical penance, a major departure from form. The door had been opened—though only a crack—to the possibility of repeated forgiveness through the Sacrament of Penance.
However, with the change in the status of the Church in the Roman Empire, so too was there a change in the function of bishops, who were now empowered to rule on civil suits as well as Church matters. In a true sense the bishop was seen as acting in the Emperor’s stead as well as God’s, and this change in function led the faithful to regard bishops as judges and lawyers, so to speak. This new image carried over into the Church practice of sacramental penance.
In Doors to the Sacred (2014) Joseph Martos puts this well: “As a result, sin—which earlier had been thought of as a break in the relationship of love and trust between members of the community and as a violation of the covenant relationship between the community and God—was increasingly conceived of in legal terms, as a breaking of a divine law or the violation of an ecclesiastical law. In a similar way, repentance—which had originally been understood as a reconversion, a change of heart that was needed to reestablish the relationship—was regarded more and more as a penalty imposed for violating the law. Long and severe penances were often seen in the same light as criminal sentences; they were needed to satisfy the demands of the law, to expiate or pay for the offense committed, or to fulfill the requirements of divine justice.” (p. 328)
There is a major shift in Church thinking about sin here. Once a breach in a Christian relationship, sin became a “thing” in its own right, and by Augustine’s time the identity of bishops and priests became much more closely attached to the juridical power to release from sin, a literal interpretation of Jesus’ words that “whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them.”
That said, there were other factors in play as well. The strictness and severity of penance had been born in the second century’s age of martyrs. By the end of the fourth century the Church could not maintain this intensity of commitment at a time when martyrdom was a distant memory and Rome was, well, still a place to have a good time even with the Goths starting to press forward after 400. The detailed public penitential rites were no longer practical; Bishop Caesarius of Arles perhaps summed it up best when he wondered out loud, “If I am an officer in the army and have a wife, how can I possibly do penance?”
There is no other way to say it, but Christianity did suffer a kind of watering down in the Constantinian era and beyond, which troubled the more seriously minded and devout Christians. Nowhere is this better exemplified that in the life of St. Jerome (347-420 A.D.), who in his early life as a priest served as secretary to Pope Damasus I in Rome. Ascetical by nature, Jerome retired from the temptations of urban living and followed the example of some who preceded him into the desert. Jerome spent the last three decades of his life in Palestine where he lived as a hermit and produced the famous Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible, used in Catholic worship into the twentieth century.
Jerome was not the first to flee the corruption of the big city. For at least once century before him, possibly more, men and women had drifted into the isolation of the desert. In some cases, as Martos reports, these were priests and bishops who were undertaking lifelong penance for serious sins. Others, such as the famous saint Antony of Egypt, undertook the rigors of the solitary life drawn by ascetic motivations of closeness to God. What is quite interesting is that the motivation of doing penance for sin—one’s own, or the general sins of the world—seems to have served as the underpinning of primitive monastic and hermit life. In a true sense the gravity of sin and the need for reparation seemed to have motivated the first establishments of organized isolated living we would call today religious life, in this case primitive monasticism. The impact of both the early and later monastic establishments—particularly those later in Ireland—would have major impact on what we understand today as the science of morality.