For The Road Of Joy

What follows is an excerpt from Kenelm Henry Digby’s Compitum: or, The Meeting of the Ways at the Catholic Church, published in 1869. Reading books like this is just another example of why I am Catholic. [Read more...]

For Thoughts Like These On Confession

What follows are thoughts on the Sacrament of Reconciliation written by Kenhelm Henry Digby in his classic, Mores Catholici.

Thoughts on Sin, the Church, and Forgiveness

Now the Church had far more mysterious relations than could exist in any mere domestic society, so that by persons who viewed it from without, a right understanding respecting it could only be formed by an act, in the first instance, of confidence in the truth of God who has founded the Church. They must at first have been satisfied with the evidence that it was a divinely constituted household, and then after being received into it as members, they would assuredly in due time have discovered how it was holy in all its doctrines, and just in all its ways. As the Athenian says to the blind wanderer who interrogates him respecting the laurel groves to which he has come—”These things, O stranger, are to be venerated, not from the words of men, but rather from long custom and experience.”

Cicero, indeed, says, that “the medicine of the soul is not only not desired before discovered, but that it is not even valued after it is known;” but such a complaint applies only to philosophy, for it was ungrounded in relation to the remedies which the Church administers, insomuch that a man accustomed to confession, when asked for arguments to prove its divine origin as an integral part of religion, must have felt as if he had been called upon to prove the reality of his own existence.

Its proofs were in the deepest roots of his spiritual life. His own amendment, the recovery of long lost joy, the renovation of his heart, this was the evidence that must have convinced him so feelingly that each argument beside would seem blunt and forceless in comparison. It is dangerous to follow men into the deepest recesses of their heart and behold what passes there: I will not, therefore, invite “the moderns” to search into the grounds of their hatred for confession. To persons obstinate in the conclusions of prejudice, reader, I would turn not, when viewing historically the supernatural features in the morality of the Catholic Church. On confession and indulgence I will speak not as if to an ignorant multitude, nor to judges, nor to senators, more accustomed to action than to the contemplation of things, but as to a man interiorly philosophic who understands and loves philosophy.

Respecting the hatred of truth and the love of deceiving and of being deceived observable in many men, (Blaise) Pascal says,

Mark a proof of this which fills me with horror. The Catholic religion does not oblige one to discover his sins indifferently to all the world; it permits him to remain concealed from all other men excepting one only, to whom it commands him to disclose the bottom of his heart, and to show himself such as he really is. 


There is only this one man in the world that it orders us to undeceive, and he is obliged to an inviolable secrecy, so that this knowledge is in him as if it was not in him. Can one imagine any thing more charitable and more gentle? Nevertheless, the corruption of man is such that he finds this a hard law, and it is one of the principal reasons which have made a great part of Europe revolt against the Church. (Thoughts, #100)

You have heard the great thinker of modern times; let us now attend to the philosophy of the middle ages. “Silence respecting sin,” says the Master of the Sentences,

arises from pride of heart. For a man wishes not to confess his sin in order that he may not be reputed externally such as he exhibits himself in the sight of God, which desire springs from the fountain of pride. For it is pride in a sinner to wish to be esteemed just, and it is hypocrisy to palliate or deny our sin like our first parents, or like Cain to bury it in silence. Now where there is pride and hypocrisy there can be no humility, and without humility there is no forgiveness. 


Therefore, where there is silence respecting sin there can be no hope of pardon. Here then, we see how detestable is the silence of sin, and how necessary is confession, which is the evidence of a conscience fearing God; for he who fears the judgment of God does not blush to confess. Perfect fear dissolves all shame. The confession of sin has shame, and that shame is a heavy punishment : and for this reason we are commanded to confess, that we may suffer shame, for this is part of the divine judgment.

Thus the words of St. John, beginning with “if we confess our sins,” were not understood as implying merely, “If we say that we are sinners generally with all the world,” but as teaching the necessity of suffering the shame and humiliation of confessing one’s personal particular sins; nor was there found any one formerly to maintain that this could be an immoral shame which would injure rather than repair the soul’s purity.

That extreme horror on finding that one has been suspected of crime, which Tieck’s hero evinces in his conversation with Balthasar, only proved in fact an unillumiuated heart: moreover, this overstrained and false honor reveals its own weakness, for by its very indignation it evinces its conviction that the fall was possible.

It is worthy of remark, that while the Church inflicted penance on all who ever made mention of expiated sins,— for among the penitential canons of the rule of St. Columban, we read, ‘”He who relates a sin already expiated shall fast on bread and water for a day,”—the very men who denounced the act of humility that she imposed as injurious, made no scruple not only as we before observed, in resting in self-contemplation, but also in confessing the sins of their past life; or rather exulted in being able to recall the rememberance of them, disclosing them in detail with effrontery: their own retrospective narration differing £rom the confession which they renounced and stigmatized, only in the circumstance that theirs was made in defiance of the law of God, in hardened impenitence insensible to shame.

“O fearful thought!” cries St. John Climacus, “there are moments of delirium in the career of sin, when man fears not God, esteems as nothing the memory of eternal punishment, execrates prayer, looks at the relics of the dead as if they were senseless stones.” True, indeed ; but what is it to reflect that in consequence of a new instruction, widely imparted and legally established in some places, this is the case with men now, not during moments of delirum, for which they might repent and make amends, but throughout their whole lives, which pass in an uninterrupted career of self-esteem and congratulation? To the fundamental objection of the moderns, the best mode of reply would be simply to relate in the clear and precise language of the middle ages, what was the Catholic doctrine.

Taking, then, Hugo of St. Victor for their representative, let us hear what he says respecting sacerdotal absolution.

Solus Deus peccata dimittit (Only God forgives sins) ; yet authorities have that power by which priests forgive sins, and that by which God forgives them. But priests are said to forgive sins, because they administer the sacraments in which, and by which, sins are by the divine authority, forgiven.

When it was said that the form of absolution which had been in use thirty years before was deprecatory, and that William of Auxerre, William of Paris, and cardinal Hugo thought that this was the only ancient form, St. Thomas Aquinas replied, that ”he did not know whether this were true or not; but in any case no authority of antiquity could do prejudice to the words of our Lord, ‘Whatever you shall bind on earth.’”

Thus instead of being tempted to enter with them upon subtle, antiquarian investigations, he embraced the spirit of antiquity. It is clear, however, from the Roman council under pope Zacharia, that the form of the sacrament of confession was then similar to what it is at present. Strictly judicial is the sacerdotal office so that with accurate precision has the church retained the name of Basilica, which signified that upper part of the forum, where justice was administered to the people.

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