- L'infamia e il perdono: Tributi, pene e confessione nella teologia morale della prima età moderna
Many years ago, when completing my philosophy studies, I became interested in theories of punishment among various medieval philosophers. In examining the [End Page 621] nature of punishment in Thomas Aquinas, I was struck by his distinction between censure (culpa) absolved by penance and penalty (reatus) that remains owed in the temporal realm. A person who is truly penitent, confesses sacramentally, and is absolved with penance imposed, may have all censure for sins remitted in heaven even while owing restitution or being liable to civil punishment here below. The full implication of this distinction escaped me until I began reading Vincenzo Lavenia's L'infamia e il perdono: Tributi, pene, e confessione nella teologia morale della prima età moderna. As the précis on the back cover states, the volume explores "the context in which the separation emerged (at the end of the Middle Ages) between censure and penalty; sin and civil crime; penance and earthly punishment." These distinctions underline two distinct realms for dealing with human delicts: the internal sacramental forum of confession in the Church, with its seal of secrecy, and the external forum of public trial in ecclesiastical or civil tribunes, which require public denunciation and testimony.
Lavenia begins his work with an examination of the thesis of John Bossy that points to a "Copernican revolution" in the understanding of sacramental penance between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. While Lavenia criticizes Bossy's "English optic" and "medieval nostalgia," he accepts his theory of a radical shift from a system for resolving social conflicts to a more interior-oriented examination of conscience, a result of the Christian humanism promoted by the devotio moderna (15).
Renaissance historians will appreciate the treatment of Desiderius Erasmus. The Exomologesis sive modus confitendi imagined a different way of celebrating the sacrament of Confession. "[I]t should be exercised frequently, be merciful, and have the capability to instruct" (82). The sacrament would be reformed through a careful selection of confessors and their manuals. Erasmus argued for a greater freedom on the part of penitents in choosing their confessors. While this humanist reform of penance did not dominate in the reforms at Trent, the Council Fathers did assert that the secrecy of the confessional was of divine origin.
Lavenia's central topic concerns the question facing a confessor when hearing a confession of heresy. The question is not as simple as it might be today with the benefit of a strongly developed wall protecting sacramental confession. Since a heretic was outside of the Church, it appeared that the sacrament should not protect a "non-believer" from a public denunciation to the tribunal. Lavenia's critical case recounts the story of Inquisition officials in Sicily torturing priests to obtain information from the confessional. Lavenia observes, "The zealous inquisitor wouldn't have acted [in this way] if it weren't in part in accordance with rules and exceptions sanctioned by law" (101). In fact, canonists such as Raymond of Penyafort suggested that if in hearing sins a confessor doesn't find sufficient contrition to grant absolution, then there is no sacrament within which to oblige the priest to silence. This interpretation, rejected by both Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, placed the integrity of the sacrament in grave danger.
The pressure from governments to condemn civil disobedience in the confessional is also treated in Lavenia's research. The thesis that civil law cannot bind [End Page 622] under pain of mortal sin had been proposed by late medieval theological scholars such as Jean Gerson. But the condemnation by the Holy Office in 1665 of a similar proposition promoted by the Jesuits indicated the continuing controversy between the two schools. The Jesuits responded to the condemnation by defending it at their Fourteenth General Congregation in 1696 with an appeal that was sustained directly by Pope Innocent XII.
This book, written in a dense and scholarly Italian...