Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

The Father William Most Collection

Sacrament of Penance in the Early Church

[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]

1. Epistle of Pope St. Clement, probably c 95 AD: 51.3: "For it is good for a person to confess his transgressions and not to harden his heart."

COMMENT: This could mean only generally admitting faults, or a liturgical Confiteor.

2. Didache 14, perhaps between 100 and 150 AD: "And on the Lord's own day, gather together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions that your sacrifice may be pure."

COMMENT: Again this could have same sort of meaning as that of the Epistle of Clement.

3. The Shepherd, by Hermas, brother of Pope St. Pius I, who ruled 140-150. Mandate 4.3.1-6: Hermas says to the angel of Penance: "I have heard, sir, from some teachers that there is no other means of repentance than the one when we went down into the water and obtained remission of our previous sins. He said to me, you have heard rightly, for that is true. He who has received remission of sin should never sin again, but live in purity. But since you ask carefully about everything, I will explain this too to you, not to give an excuse to those who in the future will believe or to those who have already believed in the Lord. For those who have already believed or are going to believe have no means of repentance of sins, but have the remission of their previous sins. For those who were called before these days, the Lord appointed means of repentance, For the Lord knows the heart and since He knows in advance everything, He knew the weakness of man, and the cunning craftiness of the devil, that he will do some evil to the servants of God and will deal wickedly with them. The Lord then, since He is full of compassion had mercy on His creatures, and established this means of repentance. And to me was given power over this means of repentance. But I tell you, he said, after that great and solemn calling, if a man should be tempted by the devil and sin, he has one means of repentance. But if he sins repeatedly and repents, it does him no good, for scarcely shall he live."

COMMENT: Most scholars think the passage is deliberately obscure, for psychological reasons. It opens by saying there is only one means of forgiveness, Baptism. But at once it adds that there is another, but not all may use it. Implication is that repentance might not be real in many, especially if they denied Christ in the Roman court, planning to use the sacrament afterwards. Their repentance then would probably not be sincere - it was preplanned, and there was no a real change of heart. But after long and hard penance, there could be a change of heart. So, in Parable 9.16 we read: "It is impossible for him to be saved who now denies His Lord, but for those who denied Him long ago, repentance seems possible." Also, the angel, speaks of one means - which could imply that the Sacrament of Penance could be used only once in a lifetime. It says one should never sin again - this is the Baptismal seal, which marks one as God's property, and one should never break the seal. Yet we do see here, in spite of the deliberate obscurity, that there was a Sacrament of Penance.

We use a regressive method: we go back to the first point at which a doctrine is clear - earlier are only unclear statements. But since we know that in the Patristic age any change in doctrine provoked a storm, if there was no storm at the time of the first clear statement, we gather that the teaching was around long before, even from the beginning. We know too that the penetration by the Church into the deposit of revelation grows with time: so we need not suppose everything was clear at the start, e.g., the case of the Immaculate Conception. This all stems from the promise a the Last Supper, in John 16:13 that He would send the Holy Spirit to lead them into all truth. It did not mean new revelations, but a deeper penetration.

4. Tertullian, De Paenitentia 4: (written 200-206 while not yet a heretic): "For all sins, then, whether of the flesh or the spirit, whether committed in act or [only] in will, He who destined punishment by judgment, also promised pardon, though the door of forgiveness and intinction [Baptism] has been closed and fastened. He allowed something to yet be open, for He placed in the vestibule a second penance, which is open to those who knock, but now once, since it already the second time."

COMMENT: Here the Sacrament can be used not only for the big three, apostasy, murder, adultery, but for all graver sins of flesh or spirit, and even for sins committed only interiorly, not in action. But he says it can be used only once.Yet, in 7.13 he at least hints the sacrament could be used more than once: "Let it be irksome to sin again, but let it not be irksome to repent again. Let it be irksome to be in danger again, but not to be freed again." So his words seem to be psychological, like those of Hermas.

5. Tertullian, De pudicitia (dated 213 to 223 -- he was then a heretical Montanist).

18.3: "But if the clemency of God is open yet to those who are ignorant [of Him] and infidels, surely also penitence invites clemency to itself, that kind of penitence being still on hand after believing [after Baptism] which can obtain pardon for the [relatively] lesser faults, from the bishop, for greater and unforgivable ones from God alone."

19.24-26: "For to whom does it not happen that he is unjustly angry, and beyond the setting of the sun, or that he lays violent hands [on someone] or that he easily curses or swears rashly or violates the faith of a contract, or that he lies out of shame or necessity, in businesses, in duties, in making money, in manner of living, in looking, in hearing - what great temptations! so that if there be no pardon for these things salvation would be open to no one."

COMMENT: Tertullian thinks the great three cannot be forgiven by the Church, but he lists many others which he thinks are mortal, since without forgiveness there is no salvation, and pardon can be had for these, apparently from the Bishop, who is mentioned specifically in 18.8. And in the same work, in section 1, he [now a heretic] ridicules the "peremptory" edict of the "Bishop of Bishops" who says he can remit the sins of adultery and fornication. This may mean Pope Callistus - debated.

6. Tertullian, on Baptism 18.4:(between 200 and 206 AD): "For no less reason the unmarried should put off [Baptism], for in them there is an aptness to temptation --in virgins because of their ripeness, as also in the widowed on account of their freedom - until either they are married, or are made stronger for continence. One who understands the seriousness of Baptism will fear to receive it more than to defer it."

COMMENT: Extreme view of the baptismal seal, reflecting also the difficulty of the sacrament of penance.

St. Cyprian, Epistle 10 (16).written in 250 to priests and deacons: "Whereas in the case of lesser sins, sinners do penance for the fixed time, and according to the order of discipline come to confession, and through the imposition of the hands of bishop and clergy receive the right of communion, now, while the unripe time of persecution still lasts, when the peace of the Church herself has not yet been restored, they are admitted to communion, and offering is made in their name though penance has not yet been done, nor confession made,and through the hand of the bishop and clergy has not yet been imposed on them, the Eucharist is given them.

St. Cyprian, On the Lapsed [in persecution] 251 AD: "Then how much greater and better the fear of those who though bound by no guilt of sacrifice or certificate, yet, since they have even thought of doing this, sorrowfully and simply confessing this very thing before the priests of God, make their confession of conscience."

COMMENT: This is the persecution of Decius, who ordered all to have a certificate saying they had sacrificed. Some bought these, but then, showing them, was a denial of Christ. Here Cyprian speaks of those who had not done either thing, but only considered it, but yet came to confession for the sin of thought.

Origen, On Leviticus 14. after 244 AD: "There is always an opening for recovery when, for example, some mortal guilt [culpa mortalis] has found us out that does not consist in mortal crime [crimen mortale] like blaspheming the faith, but in some vice of speech or habit.... Such guilt can always be repaired, and penance is never denied for sins of this kind. In the case of the graver crimes, only once is there given place for penitence; but these common things, which we frequently incur, always admit of penance, and without intermission they are redeemed."

COMMENT: Origen speaks of mortal sins that are not mortal crimes, such as blaspheming the faith. For ordinary mortal sins, he says, there is always penance - for the crimes, only once. We must remember that technical terms, such as mortal sin, had not yet become precise by his time.

Origen, On Psalm 37.6. Homily 2: "Only look around very carefully to whom you should confess your sin. First test the physician to whom you should explain the cause of your sicknesses. If he understands and foresees that such is your sickness that it should be explained in the gathering of the whole church and be cured, so that perhaps others may be edified and you yourself may more easily be healed, this is to be carried out with much deliberation and with the very skilled counsel of that physician."

COMMENT: Here seems to be a preliminary private confession, to decide if public penance is needed or not. Written before 244 AD.



To Most Collection home page