CONFESSION (Lat. confession, from confiteor, acknowledge, confess), a term meaning in general the admission and acknowledgment that one has done something which otherwise might remain undisclosed, especially the acknowledgment of guilt or wrong-doing, either in public or to somebody specially entitled to such knowledge. The term has a special importance (1) in religion, (2) in law.
1. Religion.—Among the Jews it was ordered that on the Day of Atonement the high priest should make confession of sins in the name of the whole people, and the day is still kept by the Jews with fasting and confession of sins. The Jews were also enjoined to confess their sins individually to God, and in certain Cases to man.
In the Gospels confession is scarcely mentioned. But much is said about forgiveness, and the church is empowered to administer God’s pardon (John xx. 23 and Matt. xviii. 18). But it should be noted that the primary reference of “binding and loosing” is, according to rabbinical usage, rather to the laying down of rules than to condoning breaches of them; and nothing is said to confine the words “Whose soever sins ye forgive” to the offences of Christians already baptized, and they should be held to include preaching the Gospel and baptizing converts as well as the administration of internal discipline.
The rest of the New Testament is scarcely more explicit on the subject, which did not become so urgent in the days of early enthusiasm, and when the second coming of the Lord was expected immediately. Baptism conveys the forgiveness of sins, and therefore ought to result in freedom from all wilful sin. But what was to be done with the baptized Christian who fell into grievous sin? On the one hand the Epistle to the Hebrews (vi. 4-6) declared that renewals of the lapsed are impossible. On the other, the confession of sins was ordered in James v. 15, 16 and 1 John i. 9, and the exercise of discipline is referred to in 1 Cor. v. and 2 Cor. ii. 5-11 (the identification of the two cases is precarious), Gal. vi. 1 and other passages. Though nothing was as yet systematized, the governing principle is laid down that the sin of the member affects the whole body, and therefore the society is bound to deal with it both from pity for the sinner, and for the sake of its own purity.
It soon became necessary to face the various questions involved more systematically. The definite discussion of the problems dates from The Shepherd of Hermas (published at Rome about A.D. 145). Hermas rejects both the extreme opinions, viz. that to the baptized Christian there is either no such thing as sin, or no such thing as further forgiveness. He represents the church as a woman who offers sinful Christians a unique opportunity for conversion and restoration, which must be seized at once or lost for ever. But while he insists on repentance and mortification, he says nothing about public confession or discipline. Soon bitter controversies arose, especially in the West, where questions of discipline have always been to the fore (see Montanism; Novatianus; Donatists). Speaking broadly the development was from rigour to indulgence, and the three schisms referred to voiced the protests of the puritan minority.
At the beginning of the 3rd century something like a definite system had been established at Carthage and elsewhere. Three groups of sins, classified as (1) idolatry, which included apostasy, (2) adultery or fornication, and (3) murder, were held to exclude the guilty person from sharing in the Eucharist until death, that is to say, if he had committed the sin after baptism. Not that it was asserted that he, therefore, could not be forgiven by God; indeed he was urged to pray and fast and undergo church discipline; but the church refused to venture on any anticipation of the divine decision. For other grave sins the baptized person was allowed to undergo discipline once, but only once in his life; if he relapsed again, he must remain excommunicate like the adulterer. Baptism was the first plank thrown out to save the drowning man, “confession” the second, and there was no third chance. It was largely due to the rigour of this rule that men so frequently deferred baptism till late in life. Less serious sins, again, were held to be adequately dealt with by ordinary prayers, such as the Lord’s Prayer, or by the public prayers of the church. Public but general confession of sins and intercession for penitent sinners have from early times formed a normal part of public worship in the Christian church.
The process of public confession or penance (exomologesis, Greek for public confession) was as follows (see Tertullian, De paenitentia IX., and other writers). The sinner was admitted to it as to a privilege by laying on of hands. He wore sackcloth, made his bed in ashes, and fasted or used only the very plainest fare. In secret he gave himself up to ceaseless prayer; in public he threw himself at the brethren’s feet to entreat their intercessions. This went on for a time proportionate to the gravity of the offence, perhaps for years; then, if his sin allowed it, he was readmitted by the bishop and clergy with further laying on of hands. He must still (at least according to later rules) live in strict abstinence, forgoing, e.g., the use of marriage. And if he fell away, he could never be restored again. One can hardly be surprised that Tertullian says that few faced such an ordeal. In this account nothing is said of confession; but it would appear that in early days the sins were made known to the congregation, and in notorious cases they would take the initiative and expel the offender. It was also common for a penitent to take advice as to the necessity in his case of undergoing exomologesis, and this, of course, involved confession. Origen implies that in his days the penitent might choose his own spiritual physician. It is to be noticed that the clergy were never admitted to this public discipline; but a cleric might be deposed and then admitted as a layman. Ordinarily the sinful cleric prayed and fasted at his own discretion, and nothing is said of his confessing his sins. In fact far more importance was attached to the discipline than to confession.
Church practice was not the same everywhere at the same time; just because Scripture only gave the ruling principles, therefore the different churches worked out their application in different ways. It is, therefore, natural that we should trace the stages of development through the friction they caused. Thus Calixtus, bishop of Rome 219–223, decided to admit adulterers to exomologesis and so to communion; and Tertullian, now become a Montanist, pours out his scorn on him. Thirty years later, first at Carthage, then at Rome, the same step has been taken with regard to penitent apostates, at least the less guilty of them. But the church was thereby involved in a double conflict; for while on the one hand the Novatianist schism represents the puritan outcry against such laxity, on the other the martyrs (not indeed for the first time) claimed a position above church law, and gave trouble by issuing libelli pacis, i.e. requests or even orders that so-and-so, and sometimes the name was not inserted, should be readmitted to communion forthwith without undergoing the discipline of exomologesis. It was out of this practice that later on Indulgences grew up.
A further relaxation appears about the same time. Those under discipline were allowed to receive the eucharist when in articulo mortis. As this was sometimes effected by means of the reserved sacrament without any formal reconciliation, even without the presence of bishop or priest, it affords further evidence of the emphasis being laid on contrition and submission to discipline rather than on absolution. Cyprian, Epist. xviii., sanctions a dying man's making confession (exomologesis) of his sin before a deacon in case of necessity, and being reconciled by laying on of hands.
At the beginning of the 4th century a system came into use by which penitents undergoing discipline were divided into four grades, the lowest being the mourners, then the hearers, the kneelers and the consistentes (standing). Thus by the 11th canon of Nicaea certain who had been guilty of apostasy were to be three years among the hearers, seven among the kneelers, and two among the consistentes. These grades were distinguished by their admission to or exclusion from parts of the church and of divine service; none of them were allowed to communicate until their penance was complete, except in articulo mortis.
In the same century at Rome and at Constantinople we hear of “penitentiaries,” that is priests appointed to act for the bishop in hearing the confession of sins, and deciding whether public discipline was necessary and, if it was, on its duration; in other words they prepared the penitents for solemn reconciliation by the bishop. A scandal at Constantinople in 391 led to the suppression in that city not only of the office of penitentiary, but practically of public exomologesis also, and that seemingly in Eastern Christendom generally, so that the individual was left to assess his own penance, and to present himself for communion at his own discretion. This inevitably led on to the reiteration of confession after repeated lapses, and Chrysostom (bishop of Constantinople, 398–407) was attacked for allowing such a departure from ancient rule.
But in the West public discipline continued, though under less and less rigorous conditions. Persecution having ceased, the question of apostasy had lost its chief significance, and as church life became public and influential the evils of scandal were intensified. Penitents, therefore (as a rule), were excused the painful ordeal of public humiliation, but performed their penances in secret; only at the end they were publicly reconciled by the bishop. This was at Rome and Milan appointed to be done on the Thursday before Easter, and gradually became a regular practice, the same penitent year after year doing penance during Lent, and being publicly restored to communion in Holy Week. Towards the end of the 4th century priests began to be allowed to take the bishop’s place in the re-admission of penitents and to do it privately. And with this step the evolution of the system was completed. The abandonment of plenary penitence (i.e. the full rigour of exomologesis), the extension of the system in which there was nothing public about the penitence except the solemn reconciliation on Maundy Thursday, the allowing of repeated recourse to this reconciliation, the delegation to priests of the power to reconcile penitents in private; such were the successive stages in the development.
The irruptions of the barbarians revolutionized the whole system of daily life. The various tribes were indeed converted to the faith one after another; but it took centuries to break them in to anything like obedience to Christian principles of morality. In consequence the Christian world tended to be divided into two classes. The first, the religious, including women and laymen as well as clergy, still maintained the old ideals of purity and mutual responsibility. Thus in the chapter-house of a monastery there constantly took place acts of discipline that depended on the theory that the sin of the individual is the concern of the society; open confession was made, open penance exacted. On the other hand, the still half-heathen world outside broke every moral law with indifference; and in the effort to restrain men's vices church discipline became mechanical instead of sympathetic, penal rather than paternal. The penance was regarded (not without precedent in earlier times) as the discharge of a liability due to God or the Church; and so much sin was reckoned to involve so much debt. Thus we reach what has been called la pénitence tarifée. Penitentials or codes defined (even invented) different degrees of guilt, and assessed the liability involved much as if a sin gave rise to an action to recover damages. The Greek penitentials date from about 600; the Latin are a little later; the most influential was that of Theodore of Tarsus, who was archbishop of Canterbury from 668 to 690. Two disastrous results not infrequently arose: a money payment was often allowed in lieu of acts of penance, and the prayers and merits of others were held to supply the inadequacy of the sinner's own repentance (see Indulgence). Meanwhile the constant repetition of confession and reconciliation, together with the fact that the most tender consciences would be the most anxious for the assurance of forgiveness, led to the practice being considered a normal part of the Christian life. It came to be allowed to be used by priests as well as by laymen. Absolution was reckoned one of the sacraments, one of the seven when that mystic number was generally adopted; but there was no agreement as to what constituted the essential parts of the sacrament, whether the confession, the laying on of hands, the penance, or the words of dismissal. It was more and more regarded as the special function of the priest to administer absolution, though as late as the 16th century we hear of laymen confessing to and absolving one another on the battlefield because no priest was at hand. Moreover, the idea of corporate responsibility and discipline was overshadowed by that of medicine for the individual soul, though public penance was still often exacted, especially in cases of notorious crime, as when Henry II. submitted to the scourge after the murder of Becket.
At last in 1215 the council of the Lateran decreed that every one of either sex must make confession at least once a year before his parish priest, or some other priest with the consent of the parish priest. Treating this rule as axiomatic the Schoolmen elaborated their analyses of the sacrament of penance, distinguishing form and matter, attrition and contrition, mortal and venial sins. The Council of Trent in 1551 repudiated the worst corruptions and repelled as slanders certain charges which were made against the medieval system; but it retained the obligation of annual confession, and laid it down that the form of the sacrament consisted in the priest's words of absolution. (See Absolution.)
As confession is now administered in the Roman Church, the disciplinary penance is often little more than nominal, the recitation of a psalm or the like—stress being laid rather on the fulness of the confession and on the words of authoritative absolution. No one is allowed to receive holy communion, if guilty of “mortal” sin, without resorting to confession; only if a priest has to celebrate mass, and there is no other priest to hear his confession, may he receive “unabsolved” after mortal sin. The faithful are bound to confess all “mortal” sins; they need not confess “venial” sins. It is common to go to confession, even though there are only venial sins to be confessed; and in order to excite contrition people are sometimes advised to confess over again some mortal sin from which they have been previously absolved. No priest may hear confessions without licence from the bishop. Certain special sins are “reserved,” that is, the ordinary priest cannot give absolution for them; the matter must be referred to the bishop, or even the pope. Children begin to go to confession at about the age of seven.
In the Greek Church confession has become obligatory and habitual. Among the Lutherans auricular confession survived the Reformation, but the general confession and absolution before communion were soon allowed by authority to serve as a substitute; in Württemberg as early as the 16th century, in Saxony after 1657, and in Brandenburg by decree of the elector in 1698. Private confession and absolution were, however, still permitted; though as may be seen from Goethe’s experience, related in his Dichtung und Wahrheit, it tended to become a mere form, a process encouraged by the fact that the fees payable for absolution formed part of the pastor’s regular stipend. Since the beginning of the 19th century the practice of auricular confession has been to a certain extent revived among orthodox Lutherans (see Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopädie s. “Beichte”).
To come to England, Wesley provided for spiritual discipline (1) through the class-meeting, whose leader has to advise, comfort or exhort as occasion may arise; and (2) through the ministers, who have to bear the chief responsibility in the reproof, suspension or expulsion from communion of erring brethren. In the Salvation Army people are continually invited to come forward to the “penitent form,” and admissions of past evil living are publicly made. Among the Calvinistic bodies in the British Isles and abroad kirk-discipline has been a stern reality; but in none of them is there private confession or priestly absolution.
The Church of England holds in this matter as in others a central position. The method of confession adopted in the public services of the Church of England, with which the Book of Common Prayer is primarily concerned, may be described as one of general confession to God in the face of the church, to be in secret used by each member of the congregation for the confession of his own particular sins, and to be followed by public absolution. But three other methods of confession for private use are mentioned in the exhortations in the communion service, which constitute the principal directory for private devotions among the authoritative documents of the English Church. First, all men are urged to practise secret confession to God alone, and in it the sins are to be acknowledged in detail. Secondly, where the nature of the offence admits of it, the sinner is to acknowledge his wrongdoing to the neighbour he has aggrieved. And, thirdly, the sinner who cannot satisfy his conscience by these other methods is invited to open his grief to a minister of God's word. Similarly, the sick man is to be moved to make a special confession of his sins if he feels his conscience troubled with any weighty matter. The priest is bound, under the most stringent penalties, never to divulge what he has thus learnt. See the 113th canon of 1604, which, however, excepts crimes “such as by the laws of this realm the priest’s own life may be called into question for concealing the same.” It is, however, maintained by some that, except in the case of the sick, the only legitimate method of receiving absolution in the Church of England is in the public services of the congregation; and the Church of Ireland has recently made important alterations even in the passages that concern the sick, while the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States has omitted that part of the visitation service altogether. It is probable that auricular confession never altogether died out in the Church of England, but it is obvious that evidence on the subject must always be hard to find. Certainly there has been a great increase and development of the practice since the Oxford movement in the early part of the 19th century. Two chief difficulties have attended this revival. In the first place, owing to the general disuse of such ministrations, there were none among the English clergy who had experience in delicate questions of conscience; and there had been no treatment of casuistry since Sanderson and Jeremy Taylor (see Casuistry). Those, then, who had to hear penitents unburden their souls were driven to the use of Roman writers on the subject. A book called The Priest in Absolution was compiled, and at first privately circulated among the clergy; but in 1877 a copy was produced in parliament, and gave rise to much scandal and heated debate, especially in the House of Lords and in the newspapers. In the following year Dr Pusey published a translation of the Abbé J. J. Gaurne’s Manual for Confessors, abridged and “adapted to the use of the English Church.” The other chief difficulty arose from the absence of any authoritative restraint on the hearing of confessions by young and unqualified priests, the Church of England merely directing the penitent who wishes for special help to resort to any “discreet and learned minister.” In 1873 a petition signed by four hundred and eighty-three clergy was presented to Convocation asking for the “education, selection and licensing of duly qualified confessors.” The bishops declined so to act, but drew up a report on the subject of confession. The question excites the keenest feeling, and extreme views are held on either side. On the one hand, it is opposed as the citadel of sacerdotal authority and as a peril to morals. On the other hand, there are those who speak as if auricular confession were a necessary element in every Christian life, and hold that post-baptismal sin of a grave sort can receive forgiveness in no other way. Such a view cannot be found within the covers of the English Prayer-Book.
Bibliography.—Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, book vi.; Morinus, Commentarius historicus de sacramento paenitentiae; Marshal, Penitential Discipline (1717); F. W. Robertson, Sermons, third series—Absolution (London, 1857); Mead, “Exomologesis” and “Penitence” in Dictionary of Christian Antiquities (London, 1875); E. B. Pusey, Advice, &c., being the Abbé Gaume’s Manual for Confessors, &c. (Oxford, 1878); Carter, The Doctrine of Confession in the Church of England (London, 1885); H. C. Lea, A History of Auricular Confession and Indulgences in the Latin Church (Philadelphia, 1896); Boudinhon in Revue d’histoire et de littérature religieuses (1897 and 1898); H. Wace, Confession and Absolution. Report of Fulham Conference (London, 1902); H. B. Swete, in Journal of Theological Studies (April 1903); P. Batiffol, Études d’histoire et de théologie positive, première série (4th ed., Paris, 1906). (W. O. B.)
2. Law.—In criminal procedure confession has always, of course, played an important part, and the attempt to obtain such a confession from the incriminated person, whether by physical torture or by less violent means, was formerly, and in certain countries still remains, a recognized expedient for securing the conviction of the guilty. This method was carried to ruthless extremes by the Inquisition (q.v.), but was by no means unknown in countries in which this institution never gained a foothold; as in England, where torture was practised, though never legalized, for this purpose. In spite of a general tendency to relinquish the inquisitorial method, it is still prevalent in certain countries, notably in France, where the efforts of the prosecution, especially during the preliminary investigations, are directed to extracting a confession from the accused. In English law, on the other hand, the confession of an incriminated person can be received in evidence against him only if it has been free and voluntary. Any threat or inducement held out to a person to make a confession renders the confession inadmissible, even if afterwards made to another person, it having been held that the second confession is likely to be induced by the promise held out by the person to whom the first confession was made. Any inducement to a person to make a confession must refer to some temporal benefit to be gained from it. In conformity with the principle of English law that a person ought not to be made to incriminate himself, it is usual, when a person in custody wishes to make a statement or confession, to caution him that what he says will be used in evidence against him. Particular facts may have an important bearing on the admissibility or otherwise of a confession—innumerable decisions will be found in Archbold’s Criminal Pleading (23rd ed.). In divorce law, the confession of a wife charged with adultery is always treated with circumspection and caution, for fear of collusion between the parties to a suit. Where, however, such a confession is clear and distinct, the court will usually receive it as evidence against the wife, but not against a co-respondent. In a case where a Wife's confession was obtained by falsely stating to her that the suspected co-respondent had confessed, such confession was held admissible. (T. A. I.)