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.