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History Virtually from the moment of its founding, Christianity has endorsed the practice of penance both for the debasement of self and its purification. Not until 1215, however, under the auspices of Pope Innocent III and the Fourth Lateran Council, did a particular kind of penance, this involving the confession of one’s sins to a priest, become law. Up to this time the recognized , if rarely used, penitential rite was known as canonical penance. This did not involve the divulgence of sins so much as the conferral of a status, excommunication, which was grudgingly granted by bishops upon request by candidates themselves. Canonical penance was permitted only once after baptism, and for reasons listed in the following section it was usually undertaken only by the exceptionally religious (or exhibitionistic). To be sure, the Church was already employing a kind of private consultation with priests for therapeutic (as opposed to strictly salvific purposes) as early as the third century (Tentler, 1977: 20–21). But not until the fifth and sixth centuries is there evidence of a confessional ceremony for the absolution of sins proper. And this is found not in the Christian heartland of continental Europe, but in Celtic monasteries lying on the western reaches of the civilized world (Watkins, 1920: II, 578–632; McNeill, 1932b).1 It was the Celtic rite that the Fourth Lateran Council would recognize as compulsory for all believers, on pain of being “barred from entrance to the church” while alive, and “when dying . . . [of being] deprived a church burial” (Denzinger, 1957: 173, sec. 437; Watkins, 1920: II, 733–34, 748–49). 13 C H A P T E R 2 Roman Catholic Penance The handbooks used in the original Celtic confessional betray the influence of the so-called pillar saints and desert fathers of the ancient Syrian Church. The regimens of the latter in turn presumably are traceable to the influence of Hinduism (McNeill and Gamer, 1938: 3). (The period of Hindu cultural expansion in the Near East [ca. 320–570 CE] took place coterminous with the rise of Christian monasticism; it is worth noting that the Gaelic word amnchara [spiritual director] has the same root as the Sanskrit acharya.) It was also in Syrian monasteries where medical metaphors, later used by Irish confessors to prescribe medicamenta for sins, were first introduced. Whatever its alleged sources, Celtic penance involved the submission of a novice to an older “soul friend.” To this were wedded sometimes brutal injunctions from Canon Law and the Celtic folkway of compensation (eric), including mind-numbing recitations of psalms (which John McNeill and Helena Gamer compare to the penitential singing of the Brahmana codes in Hinduism [McNeill and Gamer, 1938: 27]), sleep deprivation by means of cold-water baths, stinging nettles, being placed in a coffin with a corpse, being scantily clad in frigid weather, flagellation, fasting on bread and water, solitary confinement, and in the most serious cases, exile (30–35). After its appearance in the Celtic world, private penance spread rapidly to Burgundy, Lombardy, and Switzerland (by 650 CE), to Saxon England (by 670 CE), and to Germany by the end of the first millennium. By the eighth century there is mention of persons of high rank having their own private confessors . Some bishops, sensing a challenge to their monopoly to absolve sins, railed against the procedure as “play-acting inanity, which carnal men presume to sanction” (Poschmann, 1964: 139; cf. 131–34). They defamed the penitential handbooks used in confession as “filled with errors and composed by unworthy authors” (Orsy, 1978: 43). In 829 CE the Council of Paris went so far as to order the books burned, but it was too late. The futility of resisting such a popular custom had become evident already to most Church authorities. Among the reasons for the enthusiastic reception of confession was that canonical penance (the earlier rite) had fallen 14 Confession and Bookkeeping into ill-fame and had practically disappeared by the ninth century . This is because while its object had been to promote moral discipline, its very rigors—which included a decade long excommunication, complete abstinence, the donning of hair shirts and ashes, the forswearing of marriage, public office, and the priesthood—tended to encourage the opposite. While an exemplary few might use the rite to theatrically display their piety before the congregation, the average believer tended to avoid it as long as possible, sometimes until the deathbed itself. As early as the fifth century, Pope Innocent I (reigned...


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