A week ago today from this very moment (8:14 AM) a group of us parked our cars near U.S. Route 33 in Elkton, Virginia. In the fog we found a break in the high-grassed forest, with a stone pillar indicating that we had indeed found the Appalachian Trail. The first day, which included hail, really did me in. But in an almost Biblical coincidence, the general store across the path from my cabin at the end of that day served free hot coffee continuously. How did they know I was coming?
Having survived that adventure I am back here in civilization and ready to pick up our “Morality Monday” theme of the development of the theological science of morality in the Church. If you are checking in to the Catechist Café for the first time today, the preceding recent Monday posts described the Irish Church’s development of books of sins and penances, called Penitentials, for the innovation of repeatable celebration of the Sacrament of Penance in the era of 500-900 A.D. This new practice of repeated confession to a cleric soon spread to England, and then to Western Europe, where slowly it made its was east toward Rome. Rome itself was slow to embrace the practice for a number of reasons.
I am indebted today to James F. Keenan’s A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century (2010), whose introduction is very helpful in explaining the transformation of the definition and organization of sinful acts from the early Irish organizational principles (the capital sins) to the exquisitely detailed legal catalogue of sinful acts known as “manuals.” The period of time after the Council of Trent (1545-1563) would be known as the Manualist Era of Mortal Theology.
Keenan makes an interesting point that in the Irish experience of the Penitential age, very few baptized Christians confessed with frequency. Those who did were generally monks, nuns, clerics, bishops and devout nobility. This explains the preponderance of clerical sins seen in many of the manuals. Conditions did not appreciably change when the practice of repeated confession was recognized throughout Europe. Such was the state of affairs until 1215 when Pope Innocent III mandated what would be known as “the Easter Duty” for all baptized persons. The Easter Duty regulation appeared in my elementary school Baltimore Catechism: it was Innocent’s instruction that every Catholic receive holy communion and make a good confession during the Easter Season, then defined as extending from the First Sunday of Lent till Trinity Sunday, a period of at least a dozen weeks.
Innocent III may be regarded as one of the most powerful popes in history. Though educated as a lawyer and a man of extraordinary political influence, he did have a genuine concern for Church reform. It is Innocent who gave his blessing to Francis of Assisi to embrace the mission of renewing the Church. The Easter Duty law was promulgated as a Church reform. I can remember very well as a little Catholic myself and a daily communicant that the Easter Duty seemed like small potatoes as far as religious practice was concerned. That Innocent’s pronouncement was viewed in the thirteenth century as a major reform gives us a good window into the limited sacramental experiences of the average medieval lay person.
[As to the current binding force of the Easter Duty law, the Catechism does not spell out the obligation directly, while para. 989 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law does so in a more generic, pastoral way. Here is an expert observation on confession, communion, and Easter Duty from the Catholic Education Resource Center.]
Keenan cites the eminent Church historian Henry Lea, who argues that Innocent’s decree is the most significant piece of legislation in the history of the Church. In the first instance, the very increase in lay confessions would create repercussions in church practice. Moreover, and even more to our theme today, there would be an immense need for catechetics for confessors—who would now be exposed to the wide diversity of behaviors of laity, whose sins they rarely heard—and even more challenging, the mass of the Catholic faithful would need instruction on precisely what was a sin. It is not an exaggeration to say that the science of moral theology as we would recognize it today took shape in the thirteenth century.
It is good to remember, too, that the thirteenth century was not the seventh century. Confession of sin began to take a psychological cast, if I may speak anachronistically. The first works for confessors in the Pope Innocent era were called Summa Confessorum (Summaries for Confessors) About these, Keenan writes: “These texts did not simply aim at assigning universal fixed penances; they also guided confessors to learn how to discover the source of sin in the individual penitent. Here, confessors became trained not simply as just judges, but as physicians of souls.” (Page 2, footnote 1) The importance of this effort to connect the sacrament of Penance with the healing influence of virtue is hard to overstate and remains a challenge to the Church of our present day. The Council of Trent would draw from this earlier trend in its decrees in 1563, and many popes of the twentieth century treated of the connection between confession of sin and the growth of human holiness and virtue.
Given the major emphasis upon Penance in the thirteenth century, one would expect the great university Church fathers to weigh in on the subject, and indeed they did. From Oxford to Paris to Padua, the writings of that remarkable scholastic era—Aquinas, Abelard, Peter Lombard, Albert the Great, Bonaventure, Scotus, and William of Ockham)—began to take shape in anthologies or summas that embodied attempts to bring the natural world and the divine into an understandable, logical harmony. Without going into great detail, these writers and university professors integrated human behavior into their treatments of grace, divine mercy, and just satisfaction for sin.
From the thirteenth century forward, moral theology would serve two masters: the practical needs of the actual confessing experience for priest and penitent, and the philosophical/theological matters of the nature of sin and motive and the role of confessing sin in the infinite panorama of God’s divine providence.
I was tempted to take an off day today, as I spent the morning in the coffee lounge of my Kia service center. But then I came home and discovered that there are already a lot of “hits” on Morality Monday—buzzards circling for more sin and evil—and the AC in my office loft was 99 degrees (AC only shows two digits), desk temperature 122. So I sit here this afternoon with you contemplating the pains of hell, particularly the heat, as we continue to review the Irish Penitentials and the unique Celtic wisdom in its pastoral practice toward sin and morality.
Last week we looked at the categories of gluttony and avarice; today I turn our attention toward the Penitentials’ treatment of lust and attendant sexual sins. As with last week’s treatment of gluttony, the monastic authors saw the fall into sexual excesses as destructive of the will. The majority of commentaries did not analyze sinful acts, preferring to draw from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, which condemned adulterers and homosexuals.
Hugh Connolly has attempted to categorize sexual sins found in the Penitentials, and he begins with “natural fornication.” In terms of the punishment prescribed, there was no difference in fornication whether it was of heterosexual or homosexual nature; the prescribed penance was three years of fasting. Distinctions of severity appear in terms of clerical rank and marital state. Finnian makes a difference between a cleric who “loses his crown” (i.e., virginity) and a serial clerical fornicator. In both cases the penance or satisfaction entails fasting and abstinence (presumably from meat); the habitual clerical offender is stripped of his clerical office as part of his punishment.
The violation of a woman in vows was considered much more serious than the violation of a single woman; similarly, the violation of a married woman was more serious than that of a single woman. It is interesting to note that that while the act of illicit sexual activity is constantly considered a serious sin, the gravity rests upon the circumstances of the coupling. Some of the specifics of the sins give us an interesting view of the times. A man who leaves his wife and family and takes monastic vows would sometimes go back to her home to resume sexual contact. The Penitentials treats this case as though “he had been a cleric from his youth and sinned with a strange girl.” (Connolly, 81) The sin, Finnian explains, is against the sanctity of the vow. A man who commits fornication while married must abstain from sexual intimacy with his wife for three years.
Sexual relations between married men and female slaves was sinful, the penalty being a year’s fasting and abstinence from spousal relations for one year. I noted wryly that some feminist websites accuse certain writers, notably Finnian, as unduly harsh on women. However, it does seem from Connolly’s text that in discussion of marital abandonment, the innocent party—man or woman—was expected to help a repentant spouse by not engaging in sexual union.
The term “unnatural fornication” is applied by Connolly to several types of sins: homosexuality, bestiality, masturbation, and incest. The penalties for homosexual acts varied from seven to two years, again depending upon the difference of a one-time offender or a habitual practitioner, and the age of the parties involved, men or teens. Clerical homosexuality carried a ten-year penance and a prohibition against ever living again with his partner (presumably another cleric.) There was recognition that teenagers and even children engaged in homosexual acts with each other, and their penances were significantly reduced from adult offenders.
With regard to masturbation, a great deal of attention was paid to whether the individual had brought upon himself the pleasure that led to ejaculation. The occurrence of nocturnal emission seems to have been a dilemma to confessors; in the fourteenth century the Chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, would actually write a treatise about priests’ offering Mass after experiencing a nocturnal experience. The grades of guilt and penance are too lengthy to enumerate here, but we saw last week that monastic spirituality put a high premium on self-control. Authors also discussed sexual arousal of children and teens at play.
Bestiality or sex with animals is condemned across the board. As we might expect, the penances vary along lines of vocation and age. The literature devotes considerable attention to fellatio or oral sex. The penalty could be as high as four years, seven years if habitual. The writers considered the act a defilement of the lips and apparently make little distinction as to the sex or rank of the parties involved. The sin of incest—sex between closely related parties—is deemed sinful by the Penitentials that treat of it. Sexual intercourse with one’s mother incurred a three-year penance. Columbanus, however, treats of the subject in our contemporary meaning of “child abuse,” where penalties could extend as long as seven to fifteen years.
The Penitentials go on to treat of a number of unclassified sexual sins, including kissing, impure thoughts, immodest words or actions, love potions or aphrodisiacs, etc. Connolly does not treat of birth control, but the subject does come up in other treatments of the age. Reproductive science of this era was primitive, but there was a sense that positions during sex acts might induce or lessen the odds of pregnancy. Monastic moral teaching would have seen an intention against pregnancy as a violation of God’s command to be fruitful and multiply.
This will be my final treatment of the Irish Penitential era, which extended till about the end of the first millennium. In summary, it is important to give credit to the Irish monks of this age as the first to do two things: (1) to organize Church thinking on sin for the advantage of the celebration of Penance; and (2) to treat sin through the medium of virtue, to correct loss of personal control with the acts of restraint and self-sacrifice that would lead to replacing a tendency toward a particular sin with an inclination toward its opposite virtue or value.
In the time it has taken me to type this, the temperature on my desktop thermometer has dropped from 122 to 109—I have attained a more agreeable spot in hell. And no hot coffee now!
As my blog statistics indicate that the Monday readership just loves evil and sin, I will try to put out a good smorgasbord today by focusing on precisely what kinds of sins one finds in the Irish Penitentials, the first written systematic arrangements for the assistance of confessors in Ireland (and eventually elsewhere) from the sixth through the ninth centuries. Before jumping in, it is worth noting a caveat from historian Hugh Connolly’s treatment: “As penitentials, these manuals were written in some sense on the ‘underside’ of moral theology. They were not intended primarily to be primers or text books for the student of human moral behavior, but rather as practical aids to the confessor engaged in the cure of souls. Our task then is one of reconstruction: by sifting through these penitential writings we hope to arrive at a more complete understanding of how the early Irish monks perceived the Christian moral life.” (p. 37) In other words, hold your judgments on the Irish!
Unlike today’s Catechism of the Church which arranges sins around the Ten Commandments, Irish Penitentiaries are divided into eight vices, which correspond to the virtues of a holy Christian life. This listing of eight (gluttony, avarice, anger, dejection, lust, languor, vainglory, and pride) dates back to early monasticism and particularly the writings of John Cassian, whose fourth century treatment on the “eight faults” is a true internet treasure for those interested in the monastic experience.
Using Cassian’s priorities, Penitentials begin with gluttony. There is considerable wisdom in this, as very recent psychological studies indicate that one of the two best predictors of health for priestly candidates is self-control (the other is a favorable attitude toward people in general.) Now that I think of it, self-control is the backbone of mental health and professional success. The monastic authors must have seen gluttony as a kind of “gateway” evil that rendered one vulnerable to greater evils down the road. Cummean’s Penitential quotes St. Luke about the evils of dissipation and drunkenness, rendering one unprepared for the Master’s return.
Gluttony is described in terms of our modern day “binging” with mention of subsequent sickness and distended stomach. Excessive drinking falls under this heading. Gildas writes that the monk who has drunk to the point where he is “benumbed and speechless” is to be chastised with deprivation of his supper. The sin is considered to be the failure to perform monastic responsibilities. David’s treatment of drinking is more complex, as are the penances. He breaks down excessive drinking into a number of circumstances—getting drunk from ignorance, from neglect, and (I like this one) “out of contempt for the superior.” Columbanus, in discussing drunkenness among the laity, makes a significant distinction between companionship drinking and deliberately getting another person drunk; the perpetrator he terms a homicida animarum and the penances are equated to those of killers, the heart of the sin being seen as hatred.
Under the category of gluttony is included eating “unlawful food,” which can include tainted carrion, blood, and roasted dogs and horses. The latter two are condemned as holdovers from Druid religious custom. Curiously, there is also mention of eating foods handled by unwashed hands or exposed to insects, though the penances for these infractions are not particularly stringent. As one might expect, the most common penance for the various forms of gluttony was fasting as prescribed numerically in the Penitentials, typically 15 to 45 days.
Somewhat surprisingly, the sin of “excessive talking” is included under gluttony. (I can think of a lot of places were too much eating, drinking, and talking is occurring at the same time.) The placement of talking sins here may have something to do with the physical layout of monasteries—monks lived in solitary cells and gathered in common only to eat and pray. The Penitentials make an insightful distinction between idle chit-chat and character assassination, the latter being punished more severely. The penance for the first case was one day of total silence; for the second, the singing of twelve psalms. Connolly makes the point that the same sins were sometimes included in multiple categories; the purpose here was to help the confessor discover the underlying vice or character flaw, and thus prescribe a penance most appropriate to the disease. In general, the best spiritual treatment for sins of gluttony were those that nurtured temperance.
The second category of sin fell under the title of avarice, and the gravity of the sins and the severity of penances increased significantly. Finian understood this vice as contrary to Christ’s command to love one’s neighbor and thus particularly grave matter, as our Catechism would say today. Stealing heads the list; the Penitentials recognized the tendency of repeat offending by upping the penances almost exponentially with each confession. Gildas prescribed one year of fasting for theft; Finian adds to this the obligation of restitution, inspired perhaps by Zacchaeus’ promise to Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. Finian’s most severe penances are reserved for those who collect money under false pretenses, the most common pretext being the raising of funds to ransom captives. (St. Patrick himself had been carried off to Ireland as a slave in his youth.) Along with restitution, the penance for this sin was abstinence from wine and meat for two years.
The underlying purpose of the Penitentials treatment of avarice and greed was to instill a sense of obligation for the welfare of fellow Christians. This is a trademark of the Irish approach to morality. While it is true that monastic introduction of confession and a detailed moral code certainly served a practical purpose in keeping public order and later creating an environment of character where scholarship and worship would flourish, the original nature of the Penitentials, indeed of repeatable penance, was the flowering of virtue, and the confessing experience was designed to turn evil deeds toward habitual virtue. The monks themselves, the “green martyrs,” understood themselves as the living embodiment of the life God desired for all the baptized. There was a certain hubris, to be sure, in this attitude, but the monks of Ireland sincerely addressed the penitential process with the idea of turning souls with very concrete life-changing interventions.
If you are mentally drawing a comparison between the Irish experience and the present day practice of the Sacrament of Penance, then I guess we didn’t waste our time here today.
Two weeks ago we looked at the remarkable development of the Sacrament of Penance in Ireland in the years beyond St. Patrick, how Ireland became the first region of Christianity to adopt repeatable canonical or sacramental penance. The custom of regular confession to a priest developed in the fifth century and beyond, which led to the first systematic writing on morality, the “penitentials,” or catalogues of sins and appropriate penances or satisfactions.
The penitentiaries are indeed quite different from any other literature in Christianity at the time given both their purpose and organization. The only English work I have come across is Hugh Connolly, The Irish Penitentials and their Significance for the Sacrament of Penance Today (1995). (I add parenthetically that the book comes from Four Courts Press, a publishing company dedicated to a rich array of Irish religion and culture and very much worth a visit if you have the time to check the link.)
The concept of sin and justice in Ireland was considerably different from the continent, even from England. Irish life was totally isolated from the larger body of Christian practice as well as even Roman Law. The communal ethics of the island can truly be called indigenous, and Connolly explains how Patrick and his successors were able to work with the unique character of Irish practice in establishing Christian Penance. In 400 A.D. Ireland had no cities; its political terrain was tribal, with each having a king (in a limited use of the term) serving from within an entrenched aristocracy. Patrick immediately took to the practice of bringing his message to the kings and nobilities first.
It would seem that Ireland was blessed with at least some uniformity of language, which allowed for more commonality of culture and order than one might expect. Ancient Irish law was based upon custom. Crimes against individuals had to be paid for through compensation of the injured party. Compensation, Connolly writes, may have been the underlying principle of Irish monastic authors. Contract law was surprisingly advanced and common law distinguished breaking contracts with the intention to swindle in the first place, “Malice aforethought.” Early Irish law provided for what we would call today “damages.” A crime resulting in physical injury might be placated by the perpetrator’s reimbursing the family for lost wages and perhaps medical care. Irish law was certainly not lacking in sensitivity to the common good, and it rightly held the upper echelons of society to higher standards. Lest I forget, the office of “druid” in the Irish pagan religion known as Druidism included responsibilities of teaching and counseling, perhaps an early paradigm for the Christian confessor.
Druid religion, in truth, contained a triadic moral code: (1) Adore God; (2) Do no wrong to anyone; and (3) Act justly toward everyone. Druids believed in three great “fears;” (1) offending God; (2) contravening the love of another; and (3) unduly accumulating riches. Druid virtues were considered to be knowledge, love, and courage. Now from this great distance it is hard to know the precise depth of Druid commitment among the Irish peoples themselves, but from what we do know, it is not hard to imagine that Patrick and the monk missionaries certainly found common ground and a receptivity to the concept of one God and a society built around principles of justice.
Connolly makes the interesting point that Ireland is the only Christian land where no martyr’s blood was shed—another hint that the populace was congenial to the preaching of Christianity. The monastic literature of the time spoke of three kinds of martyrdom known as while, green, and red. “White martyrdom” involved forsaking all worldly possessions for the love of God; the second was seen as a kind of purifying process where a person threw himself into the monastic life and purged himself of all evil through a life of prayer, fasting, work, and study. Red martyrdom was the traditional form of bodily death for the faith, an event unknown in Ireland of that time.
The early Irish monks came to believe that their “living martyrdom” of austere living, denials, and punishments enriched the Church and make connection with the Druid virtue of courage. Irish monastic penances for even modest faults were austere, but the purpose of such pain was redemptive, not punitive. This is an attitude that went into the production of the penitentials: no matter how austere a penance might be administered in confession, it was always corrective in nature, the goal in mind to restore the penitent into a living representation of Christ.
The authors of the Penitentials—Finian (d. 549 A.D.); Columbanus (615); Cummean (662); Adamnan (704); along with some later English and Welch writers—saw themselves as writing spiritual guides to Christ, for the use of the priest confessor in extending forgiveness and change of attitude. The specificity of the sinful acts in their works might easily lead one to believe that the primary purpose of writing was primarily juridical—i.e., defining in razor-sharp detail the limits of human behavior. But the true purpose of this style was medicinal, to empower a confessor to give targeted advice and reparational acts most likely to assist a penitent in turning from a way of conduct and taking on its opposite.
The organizational pattern of the Penitentials seems to follow what we would call today the “seven deadly sins,” a term applied to long-term and solidly entrenched ways of living. As doctors of the soul, so to speak, the authors provide both the diagnosis and the treatment plan. Most authors begin with gluttony, a violation of right order by eating exclusively for pleasure and not for need. Cummean, in his text, connects overeating with Luke 21: 34-35) where excessive consumption dulls the senses and renders us unprepared for the Second Coming. The Bigotian author describes gluttony as something of a “gateway drug” to general dissipation of excessive sleeping and general carelessness. The same author distinguishes between occasional abuse of alcohol and habitual drinking—particularly among the clergy.
The authors draw from an earlier monastic tradition of fighting vices with “contraries.” For sins of gluttony, the sacramental penance most often employs fasting. However, the authors could become quite imaginative, and the Old Irish Penitential recommends such penances as remorse of heart, rare meals, frequent self-questioning, feasting the poor and solacing the hungry. Connolly comments here that the penitent is thus led away from his own self-centeredness toward a true empathy for those who are hungry through no choice of their own. (p. 46)
In future installments the spread of the Irish penitential model will be traced through mainland Europe and eventually to Rome, the last holdout against this model, rather surprisingly.