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Book II - Chapter XIV

Of Penance and Confession

In baptism all sin is washed away, and more particularly the guilt of original sin. For the remission of sins done after baptism, the Roman Catholic Church has invented the sacrament of penance. That mystic machinery by which Rome perfects men for heaven, without any trouble or pains of their own, is complete in all its parts. Holiness is conferred by one sacrament and maintained by another; and thus a mutual benefit is conferred. The people are enriched by the spiritual gifts of the Church, and the Church is amply recompensed and endowed with the temporal wealth of the people. "Penance is the channel through which the blood of Christ flows into the soul, and washes away the stains contracted after baptism,"1 says the Catechism of Trent. It might have added with equal truth, that it is a main channel by which the gold of the people flows into the treasury of Rome, and repairs the havoc which the luxury and ambition of the clergy are daily making in the possessions of the Church.

Penance Dens defines to be "a sacrament of the new law, by which those who have been baptized, but have fallen into sin, upon their contrition and confession obtain absolution of sin from a priest having authority."2 The Council of Trent requires all to believe, under pain of damnation, that "the Lord specially instituted the sacrament of penance when, after his resurrection, he breathed on his disciples, saying, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained."3 The fathers go on to argue, that the power of forgiving sins, which Christ undoubtedly possessed and exercised, was communicated to the apostles and their successors, and that the Church had always so understood the matter.4 Of this last, however, the council adduces no proof, unless we can regard as such the anathema with which it attempts to terrify men into the belief of this dogma. None can be saved, the Roman Catholic Church holds, without the sacrament of penance. It is "as necessary to salvation," says the Council of Trent, "for those who have sinned after baptism, as baptism itself for the unregenerate."5 "Without its intervention," says the Trent Catechism, "we cannot obtain, or even hope for, pardon." This sacrament, as regards its form, consists in the absolution pronounced by the priest; and as regards its matter, it consists in contrition, confession, and satisfaction, which are the acts of the penitent. These are the several parts which are held to constitute the whole. Let us speak briefly of each of these.

Contrition is defined by Dens to be "sorrow of mind and abhorrence of the sin, with a full purpose not to sin any more."6 This differs little from what Protestant divines are accustomed to call godly sorrow; and had the matter rested here, we might have congratulated Rome on retaining at least one portion of truth; but she has spoilt all by the distinction which immediately follows of perfect and imperfect contrition. Perfect contrition flows from love to God; and the penitent mourns for his sin chiefly because it has dishonoured God. This kind of contrition, the Council of Trent teaches, may procure reconciliation with God without confession and absolution; but then perfect contrition, according to that Council, includes a desire for the sacrament, and without that desire contrition cannot procure pardon.7 Imperfect contrition, or attrition, as it is called, does not arise, according to Dens, from the love of God, or any contemplation of his goodness and mercy, but from the desire of pardon and the fear of hell.8 Attrition of itself cannot procure justification. It fails of its end unless it be followed by the sacrament; that is, unless it lead the person to confession and absolution. It was attrition which the Ninevites showed on the preaching of Jonah, and which led them to do penance, and ultimately to share in the divine mercy. Perfect contrition, the Church of Rome admits, may justify without the intervention of the priest. But such is the infirmity of human nature, that contrition is seldom or never attained, according to that Church. The sorrow of the sinner in rare cases, if in any, rises above attrition; and therefore the doctrine of Rome on the head of penance is, in point of fact, briefly this,--that without auricular confession and priestly absolution no one can hope to escape the torments of hell.

The next act in the sacrament of penance is, confession. The Bible teaches the sinner to acknowledge his guilt to that Majesty against whom the offence has been done, "who is rich in mercy, and ready to forgive:" Rome requires all to make confession to her priests; and if any refuse to do so, she sternly denies them pardon, and shuts against them the gates of paradise. It is "incumbent on every penitent," says the Council of Trent, "to rehearse in confession all mortal sins which, after the most rigid and conscientious scrutiny of himself, he can recollect; nor ought he to conceal even the most secret."9 Perrone lays it down as a proposition, that "the confession of every mortal sin committed after baptism is of divine institution, and necessary to salvation."10 The confession of venial sins, "by which we are not excluded from the grace of God, and into which we so often fall," the Church of Rome has not made obligatory; nevertheless she recommends the practice as a pious and edifying one. For the confession of sins to man not even the shadow of proof can be produced from Scripture. But the Church of Rome proves to her own satisfaction the duty of auricular confession, by that convenient logic of which she makes such abundant use, and by which all her more difficult and extraordinary positions are established: she first lodges in the priest the power to pardon sin, and argues from that, that it is necessary to confess to the priest, in order to obtain the pardon he is authorized to bestow.11 He is a judge, says Dens; he sits there to decide the question whether such a sin is to be remitted or retained. But how can a judge pronounce sentence without hearing the case? and he can hear the case only by the confession of the sinner, to whom alone the sin is known.12

Those sins only that are confessed can be pardoned. Concealment is held to be mortal sin. And thus the sinner conceals his offences at the peril of his salvation. How Rome, consistently with this doctrine, provides for the pardon of those sins which the memory of the penitent does not enable him to recollect, she does not explain. Nor is it only the bare fact the penitent is bound to mention: he must state all the circumstances and peculiarities of his sin, whether these aggravate or extenuate it. Nor is the penitent to be left to his own discretion: the confessor is bound to interrogate and cross-question, and, in doing so, is at liberty to suggest new crimes and modes of sinning hitherto unthought of, and, by sowing insidiously the seeds of all evil in the mind, to pollute and ruin the conscience he professes to disburden. There is no better school of wickedness on earth. History testifies, that for every offender whom the confessional has reclaimed, it has hardened thousands;--for one it may have saved, it has destroyed millions. And what must be the state of that one mind,--the confessor's,--into which is daily poured the accumulated filth and vice of a neighbourhood? He cannot decline the dreadful office although he were willing. He must be the depository of all the imagined and of all the acted wickedness around him. To him it all gravitates, as to its centre. Every purpose of lust, every deed of vengeance, every piece of villany, flows thither, forming a fresh contribution to the already fearful and fathomless mass of known wickedness within him.13 This black and loathly mass he carries about with him,--he carries within him. His bosom is a very sepulchre of rottenness and stench,--"a closet lock and key of villanous secrets." Wherever he is, alone or in society, or at the altar, he is chained to a corpse. The rank effluvia of its putrescence encompasses him like an atmosphere. Miserable doom! He cannot rid himself from the corruption that adheres to him. His efforts to fly from it are in vain.

"Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell."

To his mind, we say, this mass of evil must be ever present, mingling with all his feelings, polluting all his duties, and tainting at their very spring all his sympathies. How ghastly and foul must society appear to his eye! for to him all its secret wickedness is naked and open. His fellow-men are lepers foul and loathsome, and he sniffs their horrid effluvia as he passes them. An angel could scarce discharge such an office without contamination; but it is altogether inconceivable how a man can discharge it and escape being a demon. The lake of Sodom, daily fed by the foul and saline springs of the neighbourhood, and giving back these contributions in the shape of black and sulphurous exhalations, which scathe and desolate afresh the surrounding region, is but a faint emblem of the action and reaction of the confessional on society. It is a moral malaria,--a cauldron from which pestiferous clouds daily ascend, which kill the very souls of men. Hell itself could not have set up an institution more ingeniously contriven to demoralize and destroy mankind.

But the crowning point in the blasphemy here is the pardon which the priest professes to bestow. Protestants grant that Christ has committed to the office-bearers in his house the power of "binding and loosing," in the sense of excluding from or admitting to the communion of the Church visible. But it is a very different thing to maintain that ministers have the power, authoritatively and as judges, to pardon sin. This is the power which Rome claims. There is no sin which her priests may not pardon; only the remission of the more heinous offences she reserves to the higher orders of the clergy; while the most aggravated of all, namely, those done against the persons and property of ecclesiastics, can be forgiven only by the Pope.14 Nevertheless, lest any true son of the Church should die in mortal sin, and so perish, the Church has given power to all her priests to administer absolution to persons in articulo mortis. But it is only in the article of death that they have such power; and then it is absolute, extending to all censures and crimes whatsoever.

To pardon sin is the prerogative of God alone; and it must needs be awfully criminal in a poor mortal to mount the tribunal of heaven's justice, and affect the high prerogatives of mercy and of condemnation. Of what avail is it that man forgives, if still we underlie the condemnation of heaven? Will the fiat of a man like ourselves, standing in the same need of pardon with us, release us from the claims or shield us from the penalty of a violated law? It is with God we have to do; and if he condemn, alas! it matters little that the whole world absolve. The pardon of Rome it is equally impious to bestow or to receive. It is hard to determine whether the priest or the penitent acts the more guilty part. Rome's scheme of penance entirely reverses that of the gospel. In the one case pardon is free; in the other it must be bought. It is not of grace, but of merit; for the penitent has complied with all the requirements of the Church, and is entitled to demand absolution. There is no discovery of the rich grace of God, nor of the boundless efficacy of a Saviour's blood, nor of the sovereign power of the Spirit; all these are carefully veiled from the sinner, and he sees nothing but his own merit and the Church's power. In the holy presence of God the true penitent discovers at once his own and his sin's odiousness; and he goes away with the steadfast purpose that, as he has done iniquity, so, by the Spirit's help, he will do so no more for ever. In the impure atmosphere of the confessional the person is morally incapable of discerning either his own or his sin's enormity. He confesses, but does not repent; is absolved, but not pardoned; and departs with a conscience stupified, but not pacified, to resume his old career. He returns after a certain interval, laden with new sins, which are remitted on as easy terms, and to as little purpose, as before.15 Thus is he deluded and cheated through life, till all opportunity of obtaining the pardon which the Bible offers, and which alone is of any value, is gone for ever.

1 Cat. Rom. pars ii. cap. v. q. ix.

2 Theol. Mor. et Dog. Petri Dens, tom. vi. p. 1.

3 John, xx. 22, 23.

4 Concil. Trid. sess. xiv. cap. i.

5 Ibid. sess. xiv. cap. ii.

6 Theol. Mor. et Dog. Petri Dens, tom. vi. p. 47.

7 Concil. Trid. sess. xiv. cap. iv

8 Theol. Mor. et Dog. Petri Dens, tom. vi. p. 53, et seq.

9 Concil. Trid. sess. xiv. cap. v.

10 Perrone's Praelectiones Theologicae, tom. ii. p. 340.

11 Concil. Trid. sess. xiv. cap. v.

12 Theol. Mor. et Dog. Petri Dens, tom. vi. p. 2.

13 The Rev. L. J. Nolan, who was many years a priest of the Church of Rome, but is now a Protestant clergyman in connection with the Established Church of Ireland, after his conversion published his experience of the confessional. He says "The most awful of all considerations is this, that through the confessional I have been frequently apprized of intended assassinations and most diabolical conspiracies; and still, from the ungodly injunctions of secrecy in the Romish creed, lest, as Peter Dens says, the confessional should become odious, I dared not give the slightest intimation to the marked-out victims of slaughter." He then proceeds to narrate a number of cases in which he was made the depository, beforehand, of the most diabolical purposes of assassination, parricide, &c., all of which were afterwards carried out." (A Third Pamphlet, by the Rev. L. J. Nolan, pp. 22-27 ; Dublin, 1838.) See also "Auricular Confession and Popish Nunneries, by W. Hogan;" Lond. 1851.

14 Concil. Trid. sess. xiv, cap, vii.

15 Bellarmine (De Penit. lib. iv. c. xiii.) says, that "Papal pardons discharge us from obedience to the commandment of God, which enjoins to 'do works worthy of repentance.'" Some Popish divines have maintained that absolution is to be withheld, if the person falls often into the same sin, and gives no hope of amendment; but this is not the common opinion. "They ought not to be denied or delayed absolution," says Bauny (Theol. Mor. tr. iv. q. xv. and xxii.), "who continue in habitual sins against the laws of God, nature, and the Church, though they discover not the least hope of amendment." "And if this were not true," adds Caussin (p.211), "there would be no use of confession as to the greatest part of the world, and there would be no other remedy for sinners than the bough of a tree or a halter." By the help of the confessional, then, men can live easily under sins which otherwise would drown them in despair. To what a rank height must villains and villanies grow under the friendly shade of the confessional!

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