I pulled it down and blew off the dust, with the idea that it might be interesting to see the Roman Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation in terms of moral theology. The titanic struggle of Catholics versus reformers included a great many areas of Church life including morality. Before looking at the text, it is worthwhile to remember that Luther’s most basic challenge to the Church had been the nature of the forgiveness of sins and the satisfaction owed to God for sins whether they were confessed and absolved or not. The concept of indulgences—the Church remission of afterlife punishment in Purgatory—and the manner they were made available, often through cash purchase, led the young monk to nail his famous 95 Theses for public viewing in Wittenberg, Germany, on Halloween of 1517.
The Protestant/Catholic clash, in terms of moral theology itself, was less about the conduct of sinning than the power of religion to absolve sin, and more importantly to Luther, the irrelevance of rites, money and good works to God, whose forgiveness was free, extravagant, and trustworthy to those who believed in the words of Sacred Scripture. Roman Catholicism’s most significant statement of principle in this debate was its insistence that Jesus had instituted a sacrament of forgiveness necessary for salvation, that through the Holy Spirit Jesus’ power to forgive was willed to the Church, and that the Church had the right and duty to establish the liturgical and juridical ways that forgiveness was granted.
As Luther continued his writing, he would come to accuse the Church of “man-made sins,” so to speak. Abstinence from eating meat on Friday, fasting during lent, and mandatory celibacy were among the early targets of reformers. On the other hand, a number of Luther’s German followers, the “radical reformers,” began small scale civil wars during the decade after 1517 directed toward civil authorities over social and economic reform. Luther’s writing during this era (he was in hiding from papal forces who sought to arrest him) reveal his rage and anger at the disobedience of his erstwhile followers in disrupting the civil order ordained by God. He evidently did not believe that the “freedom of the children of God” was without limits. Modern day Baptists abstain from alcohol, and Christian Evangelicals have been leaders in the Pro-Life Movement for decades, to this day.
The Catholic Council of Trent, of course was intent upon preserving its tradition of authority, and as I noted above, this included matters of Biblical tradition, sacramental history, and confessional discipline. The teachings of the Council on morality, as such, are wrapped together with the Sacrament of Penance in the documents from Chapter 14 of the Council, November 25, 1551, by Pope Julius III. This teaching begins with the insight that if everyone remained faithful to baptismal purity and dedication, a sacrament of later forgiveness would never have been necessary. But, to quote the translation directly, “God, rich in mercy, knowest our frame.” (p. 88) There is a note of realism here that has distinguished Catholic morality throughout the ages.
Chapter 14 places the institution of the sacrament of Penance on Easter Sunday night, when the risen Christ breathed the forgiving Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. It goes on to describe the difference between baptism and penance, as both sacraments do forgive sins. The forgiveness associated with baptism falls upon those who have been outside of Christian life and thus are in many respects less culpable than the Catholic making confession, where some element of judgment of guilt is necessary on the part of the confessor.
It is clear from the Trent documents that while the proper rites of forgiveness must be observed (remember ex opere operato, or “by the work of the work” or rite?), the fathers saw nothing mechanical or magical about sacramental forgiveness of sins. Paragraph Two contains an insight that speaks powerfully today: “We are by no means able to arrive by the sacrament of penance without many labors and tears on our part, divine justice demanding this, so that penance has rightly been called by the holy Fathers a laborious kind of baptism.” (p. 90) In Chapter Four the importance of contrition of sin is emphasized, calling for a new resolution to reform with a hatred of one’s old life of sin.
Paragraph Four recognizes that our contrition for sin will not always be perfect, and it goes to pains to say that the penitential sacrament, even if embraced haltingly, does not make one a hypocrite [emphasized in text] but opens doors to an ongoing and a more intensive penitential spirit. Chapter Five reiterates the need to confess all mortal sins in confession, with a side bar that sins of the ninth and tenth commandments (the “coveting commandments”) are sometimes more harmful to the soul than sins of actual behavior, a wise psychological insight. Likewise, the document urges the confessor to engage and educate the penitent on the nature of the sin and levels of engagement, so to speak, and to exercise caution in not upsetting the penitent more so than necessary.
Chapter Eight addresses Luther’s charge regarding indulgences, stating that forgiveness of sins does not include a full remission of the punishments for the sin. As the text puts it, “And it is in keeping with divine clemency that sins be not thus pardoned us without any satisfaction, lest seizing the occasion and considering sins as trivial and offering insult and affront to the Holy Spirit, we should fall into graver ones, treasuring up to ourselves wrath against the day of wrath.” [Emphasis in text, p. 97]
The Council of Trent, as a product of its times, reflects the fear of death and punishment in the afterlife so ingrained in the human psyche of the times. I often wonder if our forebears of five centuries ago weren’t wiser than us in their sacramental sense of guilt and restitution. In the years following the Council, 1563 through the twentieth century, Catholicism would find itself in conflict with itself about the attitudes of its new books of guidance for confessors, the manuals, swinging between strict and compassionate interpretation of the penitential guidance books. Today, incidentally, is the feast of St. Alphonsus Ligouri, the eighteenth century Doctor of the Church noted for, among other things, his wisdom as a moralist and confessor, who according to legend denied absolution in the confessional to no one.