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.”