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