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)