ARTICLE NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 27
A few week's ago a number of people requested Tom McMahon provide an overview article on Penance following his recent series on the subject. In today's lead commentary Tom provides that overview. It is a commentary that will provoke considerable reader interest from a number of points of view: firstly it provides a good overview of the history and links to further interesting reading. He urges that whatever kind of Christian or Catholic communities emerge in the future undertake a major re-think of the mercy and forgiveness modelled by Jesus.
A history of Penance as seen thru the eyes of Tom … a resume of past ideas
A question in Catholica's Forum invited this writer to bring together in one article ideas about the Sacred Sign/Sacrament of PENANCE, aka "going to confession". Tom digests here different eras of his understanding of handling mercy and forgiveness, the human experience necessary to have good mental health and happiness. Personally I believe that human beings are vested with the want and ability to forgive by creation itself and that great physical and mental harm is done to the body by continued hostility. Hatred and revenge can activate harmful chemicals that weaken the immune system of the human body. Followers of the historical Jesus note that the Master offered mercy to all, offering the model for the practices of forgiveness that would follow in centuries to come. Down through the centuries the human experience has not always been ideal.
I keep in mind the warning of theologian Edward Schillebeeckx that hard facts are difficult to come by in early periods. I take clues and my own personal experience putting together a mosaic of the way it appears to me. My 26 years active in the confessional box and my 35 years as professionally licensed therapist/counselor has been an advantage in my understanding human behavior.
By the way the past and present scandal of indulgences is really not connected to the Sacrament of Penance. Luther and his Whittenburg nailing precedes the Council of Trent and the seven sacred signs.
ERA ONE: Jesus never heard a confession; no mention of confessing or penance is found in the Jerusalem church, nor in the New Testament. The Hellenic world was hard and cruel, unforgiving. Early Christian communities dealt with disruptive, public and interior problems (apostasy/denial of being a follower of Jesus, murder, and adultery/stealing of another's wife; this conduct would not be tolerated in the community but forgiveness could be earned). The Christians used penitential groups, special forums authorized by the community; the punishment was meted out by community as no clerical priesthood yet existed. Early Christians felt the return of Jesus was immanent, one needing to be ready to go with him at any moment. As the practice of exile in the penitential groups came to be of long duration — up to 30 years or a life time for example — and Jesus had not shown up, interest in this practice waned, particularly as the Roman Empire was falling into ruin.
Early Christians seem to have had a negative attitude toward marriage and human sexuality, especially as seen in Paul's letters; virtually ignoring marriage for ordinary people there is no early mention of sin or fault concerning marriage. With the Fall of the Empire security for persons and communities was endangered. We do have the Confessions of St. Augustine, more of an apology for his lifestyle with little to do with the sacrament of Penance as we know it. A youthful Augustine erred in his direction of life and he may use the word sin differently. I see his sins as the misdirections of his life.
ERA TWO: The first latin general council of the Roman Church is in 1123 ce, the First Lateran Council. It is the first called by a pope as compared to eight Greek-speaking Ecumenical Councils previously called by civil authority. The annihilation in 1139 ce of priestly marriage was a major factor in burying the Christian communities, the monastery and monks taking over with a woeful lack of involvement with the peasant class. Ken Follett's books WORLD WITHOUT END and PILLARS OF THE EARTH offer keen insight into church matters of the Feudal System in the Middle Ages (a 700+ year period, roughly 900 to 1600 ce???), especially the separation of ordinary people from the hierarchy; his depiction of the well-off priory monks and the impoverished lowly secular priest hints at truthful insight into the clerical climate of the Medieval Period. Chaucer refers to the "shity" priest in his Canterbury tales. Pope Innocent the 3rd wants priests to be "lean and hard, ready to wield the crusader's sword, unburdened by family matters". When Follett, who is not of the Catholic tradition, writes of people going to confession he seems to me to be presenting in a 1200's setting ideas that will come to a budding fruition after the 1600's and only in the 20th century for common people as they become literate.
Annual "Confession" introduced 1215...
The Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 obliges lay people to confess annually to the parish priest; this is the same Council that Innocent the 3rd used to finalize clerical celibacy. Henry C. Lea in his priceless book THE HISTORY OF SACERDOTAL CELIBACY IN THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH, 1957, highlights the paranoia concerning "sins" of sexuality. Here I see no connection to the lives of the simple people yet find strong connection to the lifestyle of the rich and the vowed monk who feared breaking from the designated pathway to heaven by engaging in pleasure. Asceticism becomes a model of wholesomeness, aka holiness. I can't stop my imagination from musing as the secular legitimately married clergy is in the process of being dismantled and that only the privileged class could hear the Lateran proclamations. There is a definite monastic audience, the source of information for the pauci electi who may be selective in what they hear. There will be an empty, confused vacuum around the mercy of Jesus for centuries. Vengeance and cruelty symbolize the Middle Ages; it is an era where the simple people are victims, innocent bystanders, unaware of the spiritual problems in the monastery and academic world.
ERA THREE: The Council of Trent lasted 35 years. Its chief accomplishment, the reform of the unmarried priestly caste, is the corner stone of the newly devised seven sacraments. The marriage Trent speaks of is centered among the rich, the royals, and property owners while 85% of women of the Middle Ages never experienced a wedding ceremony. In imitation of the monastic life heavy emphasis is on the lifestyle of the celibate priest (especially his moral purity) and the seven sacraments are totally dependant on the male ordained clergy. The priests and the sacred signs become the property of the church (the Enron Corporation of the Middle Ages) under the watchful eye of the bishop. The reform of the bishopric is another issue. Even with the concentration of power in the male ordained, Trent's reforms of the hierarchy were good but we can see today the material power of a bishop and his clan destined absentee landlord style of control over the people of God. In the age of the Industrial Revolution the institutional church will become interested in the money made by commoners.
Alphonsus Ligouri: The idea of "mortal sin" makes an entry...
A medieval pope preached that the Irish monk's approach to mercy was unacceptable and called for a return of the penitential groups that had been centuries dead. John Paul the 2nd added to the contradiction by teaching that mortal sin (a term unknown before Trent) could only be forgiven by an ordained male priest. Ordained in 1776 Alphonsus Ligouri founded the Redemptorist Order, primarily to work with the poor. To teach his seminarians to "hear confessions" he wrote lists of sins and appropriate penances — more than likely the greatest mistake ever brought upon the innocent illiterate people of the day (my great grandparents, victims of famine and being illiterate signed an X for their names on a property deed in San Francisco in 1863). I got both barrels of this spiritual shotgun in the Baltimore Catechism's approach to the Sacrament of Penance in my grade school training in 1938.
ERA FOUR: The world embraces literacy — Failure to communicate was the lot of the Council of Trent. Using a short cut we might say that Pius the Tenth, four hundred years after Trent, began the implementation of communion for the common people in 1910 with the encouragement of five-year-old children taking their first communion whereas my mother, born in 1897, made her first communion at age 15. By 1935 the custom of first confession was promoted, I being seven when I first entered the confessional box. I am amused with the realization that kids of the 1930's were test cases on how to go to confession; I suspect a set up by the nuns; it is no wonder that the system has collapsed today with such trivial foundations. I doubt if my uncle ordained in 1922 had any training in children's confessions; I surely did not, ordained from the same seminary in 1954.
After World War Two education blossomed and learning had its ramifications into religion, there being long lines outside my confession box on any given Saturday in 1956; the people had got the news and the rush was on to use this stairway to heaven and staying close to God. By 1967 I was giving out communion by myself at a 5pm Sunday mass to 500 sun-soaked people who had spent the afternoon at Santa Cruz beach. I used to tease them from the pulpit that I did not have the privilege of enjoying God at the shore of the Pacific as I had to mind the things of God for them back home in church. By 1968 the people were well on their way to understanding the 1541 ce sacraments of the Council of Trent and they were beginning to go to communion without first going to confession.
Communion was soon being taken in the hand given from the hands of a lay person, powerful psychic awareness of a union with a loving God. People became aware that the farcical sins of their youth, eating meat on Friday, disobeying mother, and saying bad words had little to do with this new God and Jesus. The bubble burst with the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, the birth control debacle and the lines outside the Saturday afternoon confessional dwindled. As priest I was on the way to losing my job as the people were growing up; people were becoming aware of creation's goodness.
ERA FIVE: The Star Wars scenario: People still have problems; we live in a world cursed by stress and human imperfection. For the troubled the insurance companies will pay for a few visits to a professional and a quick cure comes today by way of prescription pills. Let's leave the world of the genuine psychopath to the experts as they lock them away. The Catholic has outgrown the trivia of the past and the child in catechism today hears nothing about confession as his teacher does not believe in such and the priest is not trained psychologically. Is there any place in the Catholic system for the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus? I believe we can get off to a new start with the introduction of new courses on the goodness of creation and the individual person, along with the ability to forgive oneself. Old time Catholics have a tough time with "love your neighbor as YOURSELF".
We are a society of blamers who need to grow up and take responsibility onto ourselves, always with the model of Jesus the great teacher with his gentle approach to problemed people. Official religion needs to follow Jesus and cease selling negativity and bad mouthing creation. I do believe this is the call of the future, especially for women to preach without words the gentleness of Jesus to the babe at the breast and to her hunter-gathering husband who needs domestication and skills of non-violence. We live in a world of violence and genuine Star Wars scenarios; the blueprint for success was first recorded when the man named Jesus offered love and forgiveness to the woman caught in adultery — this was GOOD NEWS to the people. The story has always amused me as if one can catch a woman alone in the act of adultery. Our testosterone-filled world needs renovation.
Can Catholicism offer any value? Can Christianity show the way? The Roman Church of crusades, inquisitions, and excommunications is hopefully fast dying … can an institution begin to think like the merciful Jesus? The future is wide open for mercy and forgiveness to be disseminated among all human kind.
I close with a story/example that involves priests, bishops, all peoples who want to see modernity with an underlying of Jesus' merciful attitude…
I would imagine that more good men left the seminary during my twelve years due to one "sin" that was never addressed publicly and in ignorance of human nature was seen as offensive to Almighty God. I have in mind self-pleasure, aka masturbation. No guidance was available during seminary years of adolescence. A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and today a married psychotherapist has worked with many many priests around the issue of celibacy, sexual maturity, and abuse. Richard knows the real world in which real people live. In his book CELIBACY IN CRISIS, a Secret World Revisited, he recommends masturbation for priests as nature's release of unhealthy tension. As one who was a genuinely celibate priest for twenty years and one who underwent hellish relationships with troubled pastors I can appreciate Richard's advice which he offered genuinely to support men who strive to remain celibate. The American bishops were cold as ice in their non acceptance.
I offer this example as a modern approach to mental health with updated psychology and sound biology. Somewhere in the 3rd Century some unknown monk set the monastic world on fire with the fear of sexual sin and this biological ignorance carried on down through 1600 years. Last week on a post from the East a man reminded us of the awful mythology that masturbation could cause mold under a male's finger nails. I was told when 15 that the practice destroyed brain tissue. We got rid of the "sin" of eating meat on Friday; the beautiful world of human sexuality needs to be cleansed of ancient and medieval nonsense. How many of my male readers were poorly taught about human sexuality? I wish during my 26 years of hearing confessions I knew about the wisdom of Richard Sipe.
Tom McMahon, San Jose. 22/02/2009
NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 27
Image Credits: Clicking on the images in the body of the article will take you to the original source.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?