When Private Penance is Not Enough
(The Angelus Magazine, November, 2012)
Public confession and penance is not a topic that traditionalist Catholics much like to mention. In our minds it generally involves bad experiences with post-conciliar practices calling yet another sacramental doctrine of the Church into question. Nevertheless, all of the traditional Catholic reference books give ample space to a discussion of its importance in the early life of the Church. That discussion leads us to the commentaries on this subject of some of the greatest theologians of the first five centuries. The points that these thinkers make illustrate both the undeniable value that public as opposed to private confession and penance may have as well as the reasons why its practice had to be severely limited.
Let us briefly summarize their arguments by first noting Origen’s argument that the penitent will mercilessly torture himself if he does not reveal his sin to someone. Both Origen and St. Augustine then go on to indicate that this personal drive to personal admission of the performance of an evil action may sometimes well require public confession and penance.
Such would be the case, first and foremost, if public scandal had been given. This would create in the sanior pars (the healthier part) of the community the same psychological demand for revelation of the sin and the sinner Origen believed to be felt by the individual in question himself. Its public identification would thus be needed to restore the spiritual health of society at large in addition to that of the criminal himself.
Due to the troubled state of the sinner, as well as his lack of experience as a soul doctor, both Origen and St. Augustine insist that the decision for a public as opposed to a private cure must be left to experts in such matters: namely, trained priestly confessors and the legitimate Church authorities. Most traditionalists know that the public penances proscribed by such men were not of the sort that would please the contemporary local modernist. Tertullian tells us of prostrations, sackcloth, ashes, prayer, and fasting day and night, often for years on end. He organizes these in four lengthy stages of reconciliation--and all before absolution was even administered. The penitent remained cut off from the grace of the Church in the interim.
By the fifth century at the very latest, however, a reaction to the harshness of such procedures had definitively set in. Not only did they seem unnecessarily to risk the salvation of the sinner waiting to be restored to grace. They also appear to have become the cause of scandal themselves. One can well imagine why. On the one hand, they could entail public discussion of matters that St. Paul says should not even be spoken of among us, thereby arousing the prurient interest in a passerby happy to indulge in what might be construed as legitimate titillation. On the other hand, they may well have encouraged gossip and hypocrisy on the part of spectators who joined in the public outrage over wicked crimes that they would claim an inability to conceive of, much less commit. Given such circumstances, neither the spiritual edification of the community nor that of the sinner subject to public humiliation would in any way be ensured.
In one sense, sins that affect the public psyche in a truly serious way cannot help but be openly admitted. Such sins would, ipso facto, be the work of men and women publicly well known to the community. Insofar as Origen might be mistaken, however, and the sinner in question proved to be unmoved by his flaw, the burden of avoiding scandal and re-establishing public spiritual health would lay with the authorities of the Church. It would be their duty firmly to identify the evil that had been done and, hopefully, arouse personal contrition along with social outrage. If they did not fulfill their responsibilities in such a matter then they, too, would become public sinners whose confession and penance ought to be open in character.
Conscientious ecclesiastical authorities have to demand public penance of public sinners whether they feel contrition or not and whether the attempt to exact that penance is successful or not. We have many examples of such conscientious behavior all through Church History. St. Ambrose was able to exact contrition and penance from the Emperor Theodosius in 390 for his indiscriminate massacre of both the innocent and the guilty after a revolt in Thessalonica. St. John Chrysostom was not able to do so after his denunciation of the Empress Eudoxia for extravagant waste of money in 404. The pope and the English episcopacy forced Henry II to do public penance in 1174 for his semi-involvement in the murder of St. Thomas à Becket; those very few courageous prelates who demanded the same from Philip the Fair of France for his assaults on the Church in his own country and his intimidation of Pope Boniface VIII outside of it achieved nothing.
One particular long-term conscientious effort to curb public sin that also simultaneously avoided indulging spectators’ temptations hypocritically to overvalue their own sanctity was that which began in the “age of iron” of the 900’s and 1000’s and continued throughout the whole of the High Middle Ages. I describe this in detail in my recent book, Black Legends and the Light of the World, in the chapter entitled “The New Ascent of Mount Tabor”.
It was at this time that “robber barons” and their minions, soldiers whom the population no longer referred to with the proper Latin term as militia but as malizia---that is to say a gang of evildoers---dominated much of Western Europe. Once again, courageous clerics, in this case often bishops and abbots of monasteries, publically attacked the sinners in most vigorous of terms and before large masses of the population (Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, p. 123).
How then are these robbers Christians, or what do they deserve who slay their brothers for whom they are commanded to lay down their lives? You have only to study the books of antiquity to see that the most powerful are always the worst. Worldly nobility is due not to nature but to pride and ambition. If we judged by realities we should give honour not to the rich for the fine clothes they wear but to the poor who are the makers of such things—nam sudoribus pauperum praeparatur unde potentiores saginantur (for the banquets of the powerful are cooked in the sweat of the poor).
Contrite or not, these robber barons were forced by their clerical prosecutors to admit their crimes and swear to correct their immoral behavior: by subscribing to those rules for more just warfare that were referred to as the Peace and the Truce of God. The thirst for justice in the social realm was thereby sated and spiritual health restored. But this was accomplished without canonizing the victimized---but always potentially also titillated and hypocritical---population at large. In fact, this mass of men, now and in the centuries to come, living out its life in a variety of different vocations and corporate institutions, was told that it, too, had to demonstrate its commitment to the Way, the Truth, and the Life through working towards transformation in Christ. And when the men and women of this variegated Christian corporate order did not fulfill their responsibilities in ways that impinged upon the community as a whole, they, too, were publically called to task as bourgeois or peasant “robber barons” in their own right. All men and groups were, at times, capable of public chastisement; all were equally capable of being publically forgiven and improved.
Allow me now to bring this all down to our own time and place. Private confession and penance are ignored like never before in most of the Catholic world, Catholic America included. It is no wonder therefore that prelates are so lax in stimulating men and women to what is in effect a more severe open confession and penance by refusing access to the Eucharist to public sinners. This laxity is an encouragement of spiritual disease---not only that of the persons directly involved, but that of the entire body politic, which does not see public wickedness chastised and becomes either cynical or demoralized in consequence.
Yes, we have been blessed with a few courageous prelates in the United States who have made moves to deal with public sinfulness by singling out liberal supporters of the monstrous crime of abortion, particularly from the Democratic Party. Origen and St. Augustine would have blessed their labors. Nevertheless, they are only the start of the massive call to order that the contemporary world requires. For many of those who cheer this praiseworthy assault on a libertinism striking at the right to life itself are perfectly happy to encourage an individual economic libertinism and a national patriotic libertinism with horrendous public consequences of a horrible anti-Catholic character. And here the problem comes from conservative supporters of anti-social Enlightenment ideas with tremendous influence over the Republican Party. The call for public confession of the sin of unrestrained individual libertinism has to be a complete one. If not, the “robber barons” stealing our chance to make Christ the King of the social order will gain on one by attack front what they may seem to have lost on another.
All of England begged for pardon for the crimes of Henry VIII and Edward VII under Queen Mary and Cardinal Reginald Pole in the 1550’s. England fell back into an unacceptable relationship with the Church of Rome and then, ultimately, with Christianity in general, falling prey to the charms of that Whig Alliance that won the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It was this Whig England with its political philosophical guru in the person of John Locke, that created the American system of a religious toleration that reduces religious groups to clubs having no right to an impact on the public sphere and a politics of checks and balances that seeks to guarantee that government exists purely for the sake of protecting individual private property. Would that a new Mary and a new Pole would emerge in both countries! They could then do what no alternation in power between impossibly individualist liberal Democrats and impossibly individual conservative Republicans would ever be able to do: confess both England and America’s social sins and do penance for them. That would be a real inaugural ceremony worth attending; one ushering in a new era where the “truth that sets men free” and “the peace that passeth all understanding” might finally get a chance to work their transforming abilities again.
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