Because of a number of outside matters that demanded attention today, it is midmorning and today's Monday entry on morality has not gotten off the ground yet. I don't think I'm going to get a worthwhile entry ready, so I'm going to hold this entry till next week. I hate to do that; Mondays are a heavy traffic day at the Café. I guess the old show biz adage is true: "Give the people what they want" and everyone wants sin. So I will be back tomorrow. In the meantime, "Go thou, and sin no more."
The Roman Emperor Constantine (r. 306-337 A.D.) proved to be a mixed blessing to the Christian Church. On the one hand, his reign officially brought an end to an era when Christianity was considered atheistic, treasonous, and thus subject to persecution at a moment’s notice. On the other hand, his establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the empire created major challenges for the very existence and practice of the Church. Over the fourth century Christianity was no longer able to maintain its strict penitential identity watered by the blood of the martyrs. When a religion becomes state established, citizens of ambition are wise to embrace the state faith for social advantage. There is nothing new or ancient about this practice; post-Reformation Europe is famous for the phrase cuius regio, eius religio, roughly translated as “whoever is king picks the religion.”
Nonetheless, the waves of new converts from Roman society did not have the faith or the patience to embrace the muscular practices of the early Church. This was particularly true regarding the two sacraments of forgiveness of sins: baptism and penance. Baptism involved the detailed and lengthy process of the catechumenate; penance involved at least a year of significant public repentance and practice of good works. Constantine himself, like many of his countrymen, postponed his baptism until his deathbed so as to avoid the rigors of the penitential sacraments. It is an interesting footnote of history that the Christian Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. called by Constantine (which passed on to us the Nicene Creed of today’s Mass) also granted local bishops the power to waive the full requirements of penance in circumstances of “danger of death.”
Joseph Martos, in Doors to the Sacred (2014) observes that Canonical Penance was gradually disappearing from European life by the fifth century, except for a simplified sprinkling of ashes on Ash Wednesday and a reconciliation service on Holy Thursday. As Martos writes, “Hardly anyone did lengthy penances anymore, except in the monasteries.” (p. 335) The fact that Martos singles out monasteries as the one institution where hard penance and confession of sin would survive underscores a very basic truth about Catholic moral theology: without the monks, there would have been no surviving ritual of forgiveness of sins, and no scientific study of the good and evil of acts that we call today moral theology.
As the Roman Empire shifted its headquarters to the East, with Byzantium renamed Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) the Italian peninsula fell to barbarians and civil decay. Thus began the Dark Ages, though they were not dark in the Eastern Empire or the coming Moslem Empire, for that matter. Popes who reigned during the Dark Ages are remarkable in their foresight to encourage adventurous missionaries to preach in the very lands where the new invaders—the Goths, the Franks, the Normans, etc.—originated.
One such missionary who had acquired a zeal for spreading the faith was a man named Sucat. A Brit who was carried off to slavery in Ireland, Sucat eventually found freedom and made his way to Gaul, where he joined a monastery, and at age 40 was ordained a bishop and charged with bringing the Christian faith to the land of his captivity, Ireland. This was a daunting challenge; the Romans declined to organize the island in its empire-building days because of its bellicose reputation, and as a region of fierce family/tribal rivalries, there were no cities from which to manage missionary efforts; the “diocesan model,” so to speak, would not be effective here.
Sucat made his way to Ireland with other intrepid monks; in Gaul, his name had been Romanized to Patrick. Although the conversion of Ireland and the expansive civilization of Ireland is one of the great stories of Western civilizations, suffice here to say that Patrick and his monks, originally from the European mainland but eventually with indigenous converts, established monastery structures as homes, bases of spiritual life, and starting points for missionary journeys among the various tribes. Not surprisingly, “the wild clan folk did not adjust easily to the moral norms of the new religion,” according to Martos, a problem complicated by the long absences of the monks, whose ministry can best be described as “circuit riding.” The monks evidently employed the strict Roman style of penance at first, but given the Irish terrain and the limited number of priest-monks, there was no guarantee that a Celtic tribesman would have access to a priest confessor before he died.
The answer—and it is one of the most inspired innovations of all sacramental theology, and certainly moral theology—was to incorporate the Irish laymen into the internal practices of the monastery. The monks, in the isolation of Ireland, were in the custom of making repeated confessions to the abbot/priest and undertaking penance on a daily basis. This represented a monumental departure from the mainstream of the Christian Church on multiple levels. Let me count the ways.
First, the Irish introduced the concept that canonical penance (what we call today the Sacrament of Penance) was repeatable. The old “last plank” thinking of the third century was replaced with the comforting notion that forgiveness of “capital sins” was available multiple times in the life of an Irish Christian. Minor sins (venial, in today’s lingo), in the advice of the monks, could be confessed to fellow Christians (not priests) and lesser acts of penance undertaken at one’s personal discretion.
Secondly, the act of confession was undertaken first, followed by the performance of works of penance. Then, when the monk/priest returned to the region, they would pray with the penitent, who presumably had met his conditions. Since the confessor was not a bishop, he would not lay hands on the repentant sinner but give him a blessing. (At some point in the future this blessing would become an absolution with judicial repercussions.) This is a reversal of the old Roman rite where the penitent, after a year of severe fasts and other behaviors of reparation, was received back to the Eucharistic table by the laying on of hands by the bishop, probably on Holy Thursday.
Third, in the Irish practice, the precise confession of serious sin would dictate the nature of the penance. What was beginning to emerge was more specific attention to the nature of the sin. In third century Rome the emphasis had fallen upon the general rupture of a sinner from God and the Eucharistic table. Irish penance began to take on a more practical form where justice took greater attention: the appropriate punishment for the crime. While it is true that the Irish penance offered more latitude to sinners, the penances were still severe.
In fact, given the diverse regions of the island, there was concern that the penances or acts of reparation be uniform and fair. Toward this end Irish monks developed a new genre of Christian writing, the “penitential.” This was a catalogue of every sin in considerable detail with its appropriate satisfaction. The Penitentials were the first true moral texts in the history of Christendom, and were the fathers of the medieval books of decretals and the post-Reformation moral manuals. I will be posting more about the manuals down the road (though Wikipedia’s entry is good for a quick introduction.)
One interesting characteristic about the Penitentials is their outline: they are not arranged around the Ten Commandments, as one might expect, but the seven deadly sins. This may reflect pastoral needs and conditions of the time, as the Penitentials are widely recognized as an important element of the development of Irish spirituality and culture.
It is worth closing today’s entry with a historical note that through the network of monks in Ireland, England, and Western Europe, the Irish practice of penance spread throughout Western Europe. In 650 A.D. a Council in Chalon, France, approved confession to priests as “a medicine for the soul” and “helpful to people,” according to Martos (p. 337)
Last Monday’s post provided a close-up picture of how Roman persecution in the third century shaped the Church’s definition of grave sins—apostasy, adultery, and murder—and a description of the ritual or rite of penance that developed to restore such fallen members to the Eucharistic table. This is the beginning of the sacramental rite of Penance as we know it today, though the third century model was exceptionally strict and could be undertaken only once in a lifetime—hence its nickname as “the last plank.” For our morality considerations here, the development of this sacrament marked the first significant “cataloguing of sins” between grave acts that severed a relationship from God’s saving body, the Church, and the more common and pedestrian human failings.
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.
There will be times on our “Morality Monday” posts when topics overlap with “Sacramental Saturday” posts, which is not surprising given that morality is about human action and conduct in pursuit of salvation. Today is one of those days in that the definition of grave sin, as determined by the Church in the third century, is arrived at in conjunction with the Church’s first formal liturgies of forgiveness of baptized persons. [Baptism, then and now, is the first sacrament of forgiveness, chronologically speaking, in the life of a Christian believer.]
In the last Monday post we noted the beginning of the Age of the Martyrs with episodic persecutions. There were few “casual” Catholics in the second century, as the identity and morality of the Church was shaped by intense loyalty to the Eucharistic banquet and the courage to face death. The Church father Tertullian would write in the second century that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
And yet people did sin. Joseph Martos, in his Doors to the Sacred (2014), observes that forgiveness of sins was always a feature of Christian life. Baptism was noted above, but Christians seemed to understand Eucharist, the consummate act of unity, as a restoring of wayward members. This understanding of the Mass shapes our present day form, as the Eucharist begins with a formal penitential rite that indeed forgives what we would call today “venial” sins. (See the Catechism, paras. 1846-1876, for a summary of present day teaching on sin.) Venial sins are forgiven, by the way, by the penitential rite of the Mass if one is so disposed to acknowledge sin and open to the forgiveness.
The Catechism’s teaching, though, does indicate that at some point in history the Church felt the need to differentiate between sins representative of the human condition, and grievous acts that, in third century language, would have separated an individual from the saving community of Christ. In modern day Church statements like the Catechism, such grave sins are now referred to as mortal, where there is a death of charity and man has turned away from God. Martos writes that a possible flashpoint in the development of Church morality was the first Empire-wide persecution of Christians in 249-250 A.D. under the Emperor Decius. Wikipedia’s account of the Decian persecution actually summarizes the situation accurately if briefly.
Decius decreed that everyone in the Roman Empire was required to burn incense to the gods for the good of the Empire and the emperor himself, in the presence of a Roman magistrate who then issued a certificate or libellus. The failure to do so could result in death, and Church history does record that Fabian, bishop of Rome, was martyred and his feast is celebrated universally today on January 19. On the other hand, the decree itself was not targeted directly at Christians. Jews were exempt from the offering on the grounds that Romans had long recognized Judaism’s history of faith and in many ways respected it. Christianity, by contrast, was seen either as a defection from Judaism, or more often as atheism.
In any event, a great number of Christians did offer the sacrifice before magistrates, a betrayal to the Church known as apostasy. Decius’ persecution was brief; he was killed in 251 putting down rebellion in modern day Bulgaria. (As his entire army was annihilated in a decisive battle, one can only ponder on the effectiveness of his offering decree.) Not surprisingly, a number of the Christian apostates began coming home, so to speak, and there was considerable debate among the survivors of the persecution about what to do with them. Positions ranged from immediate forgiveness from local bishops, to a period of public penance and readmission something akin to the catechumenate, to a flat denial of the possibility of forgiveness, a heresy known today as Novatianism. (See Chapter IX, “Reconciliation,” pp. 317-373 of Martos’ book cited above.)
Concurrently in the third century, a party of Christian extremists or rigorists developed under a man named Montanus. A staple of Montanist belief was extreme purity, and as a rule condemned the forgiveness of adultery by bishops. Montanism was declared heretical by the Church but the severity of the sin of adultery was well established. To this list of adultery and apostasy was added murder. It is fair to say that by the second half of the third century there was general agreement that these three sins placed one outside of the Christian communion—damned, if you will. And so we get the first categorization of sin in the Christian era.
Naturally, a number of these broken former members wished to return to the Eucharistic table. And thus in the late third century we have the first stand-alone right of forgiveness, the liturgical act we know today as canonical penance or the Sacrament of Penance. Although the formula was celebrated in a variety of ways in different places, as one might expect, the general rule went something like this. Because of the gravity of the sin, the Church deemed it proper that the penance rite reflected the gravity of the sin, and so the process lasted at least a year, at times longer. The sinner approached his bishop, confessed, and asked for admission to the order of penitents in the diocese. This “order” was a publicly known and observed collection of grave sinners.
This ordeal of penance was no small thing. Tertullian wrote, “Is it better to be damned in secret than to be absolved in public?” A sinner might wear penitential clothing, and beg for alms at the door of the worship place for the poor. He or she was denied (by the bishop) access to public entertainment; marital intercourse might be forbidden. A prison letter of recommendation from a sentenced martyr carried great weight in the sinner’s favor. What the local church looked for was a true sentiment of grief and demonstrable repentance. Church theology of that time held that God’s forgiveness was extended over the time of the change. In other words, at the end of the penitential period, when the bishop laid hands upon the repentant sinner (often on Holy Thursday) he was not bringing a juridical release as much as he was recognizing God’s work already accomplished. The sinner, once restored by the climactic laying on of hands, was readmitted to the Eucharistic banquet and the hope of eternal life.
In our present day Church law and catechetics, we place great stock in the juridical power of the confessor; this is an influence of Roman law from the fourth century and beyond. I do find the third century thinking rather compelling: do the conversion work first and then celebrate penance as the climax of the process. But I admit I am probably centuries too soon to introduce that concept. But it is a part of our sacramental history.
I should also note that procession through the order of penitents was a once-in-a-lifetime event. The unfortunate who committed one of the “big three” a second time, after restoration with the Church, was truly doomed. The Church of the third century had no pastoral remedy for this situation, which may be why the first rite of canonical penance was nicknamed in its day as “the last plank for a drowning man.”
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