Confession and Absolution
Confession and Absolution.
Right Rev. Monsignor Capel, D. D.
Domestic Prelate of His Holiness, Leo XIII, happily reigning,
Member of the Congregation of the Segnatura,
Priest of the Archdiocese of Westminster.
"He hath placed in us the Ministry of Reconciliation."—2 Cor. v, 18.
Philadelphia: CUNNINGHAM & SON, 817 Arch Street.
New York: D. & J. SADLIER & CO., 31 Barclay Street.
PETER F. CUNNINGHAM & SON,
Confession and Absolution.
In the series of twenty-four conferences delivered in the Cathedral atPhiladelphia, during this Lent, was one on "God's Conditions forPardoning Sin." At the request of many, it is now published, but underthe title of "Confession and Absolution." There have been made suchmodifications and additions as are necessitated by publication, andsuch others as will cover aspects of the question treated by meelsewhere in the United States.
The extracts from the Fathers which appear in the following pages aretaken from the accurate and judicious collection known as "Faith ofCatholics," a work in three volumes, well worthy the attention andstudy of those who, not having a library of the Fathers, or notconversant with the classical languages, are nevertheless anxious toknow the evidence of the early Christian writers concerning thedoctrines and practices of the Catholic Church.
Feast of Our Lady's Sorrows, 1884.
To this Second Edition there have been added certain statements andpassages, to meet sundry questions addressed to the Author on thesubject of Confession and Absolution.
Feast of the Patronage of St. Joseph, 1884.
TEXT: "God hath reconciled us to Himself by Christ, and hathgiven to us the ministry of reconciliation. For God indeedwas in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, and He hathplaced in us the word of reconciliation; we are thereforeambassadors for Christ."—2 Cor. v, 18.
No more important question can be submitted for consideration to thosewho believe in the existence of God, in man's responsibility to hisCreator, and in divine revelation, than what are God's conditions forpardoning sin committed after baptism. For however much men may doubt,deny, or dispute about religion, they can never impugn the fact thatthey are individually sinners. "If we say we have no sin, we deceiveourselves, and the truth is not in us;" "in many things we alloffend;" even "the just man shall offend seven times."
Good sense, as well as faith, tells us that having willingly committedor consented to any thought, word, or deed prohibited by God, orhaving knowingly and wilfully omitted any duty imposed by the divinelaw, then have we revolted against our God. And should this be donewith full knowledge and deliberation in a matter deemed grave by theLawgiver, or grave in its own nature, or rendered so by circumstances,then has there been a grievous transgression of our duty to God.
The moment we so act, are we and our crime abominable in the sight ofthe All Holy. "Thou hatest all the workers of iniquity;" and to theLord "the wicked and his wickedness are hateful alike." Our sininstantly merits eternal punishment:[Pg 6] "If the just man turns himselfaway from his justice, and do iniquity according to all theabominations which the wicked man useth to work, shall he live? Allhis justices which he had done shall not be remembered." "But thefearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, andwhoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, they shallhave their portion in the pool burning with fire and brimstone, whichis the second death." Finally, by our grievous sin do we destroyhabitual or justifying grace, the supernatural life of the soul,rendering it incapable of doing aught that will have everlastingreward. "When concupiscence hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin; butsin, when it is completed, begetteth death." Well, therefore, arewe told: "Flee from sins as from the face of a serpent; for if thoucomest near them, they will take hold of thee; the teeth thereof arethe teeth of a lion, killing the souls of men."
Deadly sin accordingly puts us at enmity with God, and deprives us ofall claim on His justice. These are days when men talk much of theirown rights. Little do they think to assert and uphold the rights ofthe King of Kings, the Lord of Lords. And so it escapes them thathaving violated their obligations to their Creator, their Redeemer,their Sanctifier, by grievous sin, they have no claim for pardon onthe ground of justice; they can only appeal suppliantly to theinfinite mercy and goodness of God, that their iniquities may beblotted out, that they may be restored to the position whence theyhave fallen, and that they may regain the habitual grace necessary forkeeping the solemn obligations of baptism. This being the case, theAlmighty can and does impose His conditions for reconciling the sinnerand for restoring the prodigal child to the lost sonship. It is notfor sinful man to dictate what such terms shall[Pg 7] be. It is for anoutraged God to enact, for the transgressor to comply with thecommand.
Of these conditions, one flows from the infinite holiness of His ownnature, namely: contrition or repentance. The other, which is judicialabsolution from sin, implying previous confession of it, is imposed bythe revealed law of God, and is therefore a divine command obligingall—popes and bishops, priests and people. Let us deal with theseseparately.
 John i, 8.
 James iii, 2.
 Prov. xxiv, 16.
 Ps. v, 6.
 Wisd. xiv, 9.
 Ezech. xviii, 24.
 Rev. xxi, 8.
 James i, 15.
 Ecclus. xxi, 2.
The necessity of repentance as the essential condition for the sinnerobtaining God's forgiveness is plainly taught both in the Jewish andChristian dispensations.
Prophets and penitents throughout the Old Testament bear evidence tothis truth. The words of the Psalms of David, the exhortations ofJeremias and Isaias to the people of God to be converted, have becomehousehold words in our books of piety, exciting the soul in sin toarise and go to the God of mercy.
The New Dispensation was ushered in by the Forerunner of Christpreaching the Gospel of Repentance: "Do penance, for the kingdom ofGod is at hand." Our Lord announces His own mission to be to callsinners to repentance: "Unless you all do penance, you shall alllikewise perish." He sent His Apostles that "penance and remission ofsin should be preached in His name among all nations." And, while onearth, Jesus sent them, two and two, to preach that "men should dopenance."
And, after the ascension of the "Saviour whom God hath exalted withHis right hand to give penitence to Israel, and remission ofsins," the Apostles proclaimed the same truth. Peter's very firstsermon is: "Do penance and be baptized, every one of you." He, onthe occasion of the cure of the lame man,[Pg 8] preaches: "Be penitent andbe converted, that your sins may be blotted out." The same Apostlewrites: "The Lord beareth patiently for your sake, not willing thatany should perish, but that all should return to penance." St.Paul, in like manner. "God commandeth all men, everywhere, to dopenance." And again: "The benignity of God leadeth thee topenance."
This contrition or repentance does not mean a mere cessation fromwrong doing, and starting anew in the way of goodness, drowning in thepast the evil done. On the contrary, as by sin we turned our backs onGod to go into a far-off country, to spend there our substance, so bycontrition must we turn main, retrace our steps, and journey to thatFather and home whence we departed. Hence is the process namedconversion to God, just as sin is defined to be an aversion from God.Moses, expressing this thought, says: "When thou shalt be touched withthe repentance of thy heart, and return to Him, the Lord thy God willhave mercy on thee." And still more explicitly does the prophetJoel declare: "Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting, andin weeping, and in mourning; and rend your hearts, and not yourgarments, and turn to the Lord your God: for He is gracious andmerciful, patient and rich in mercy." Again, the inspired Wordsays: "Cast away from you all your transgressions, by which you havetransgressed, and make to yourselves a new heart and a new spirit; andwhy will you die, O house of Israel?"
The Lord God, whom we have outraged by sin, knows no past. "I am whoam," is His name. In His holy sight, we who have sinned, and ourtransgressions, are ever abominable, unless we make to ourselves a newheart and a new spirit. "Be converted to Me, and I will be convertedto thee," are the words of Him who exercises on us His great mercy.[Pg 9]
Holy Church, in her General Council assembled at Trent, defined thiscontrition or repentance to be "a sorrow of mind, and a detestation ofsin committed, together with a determination of not sinning for thefuture"—"animi dolor, ac detestatio de peccato commisso, cumproposito non peccandi de catero." Or, as the same Council says:"Penitence was indeed at all times necessary for all men who haddefiled themselves with any mortal sin, in order to the obtaininggrace and justice, * * * that so, their perverseness being laid asideand amended, they might, with hatred of sin and a pious grief of mind,detest so great an offence of God." And, as the Roman Catechismexplains, this means no mere feeling, but a genuine act of the will. Amother may show more sensible signs of grief at the loss of her onlychild than when sorrowing for sin, yet this is not in the leastinconsistent with the most perfect contrition or repentance.
There are times when the intense sorrow for sin arouses the wholebeing of man: exciting not only the higher, but also the lower andsensitive part of his nature. St. Mary Magdalen, David, and many othergreat penitents, wept bitter tears of sorrow for their past wrongs.This, though a heavenly favor, is no necessary part of repentance.Indeed, it is possible to weep and to have sensible sorrow withouthaving a contrite heart. The three essential elements in contritionare: hatred of past sin, grief at having sinned, and a determinedpurpose at all costs to avoid, in the future, sin and the occasions ofsin. These emanate from the will of man, not from the feelings; theymust be strong or intense enough to make the sinner prefer to endureany evil, or sacrifice any good, rather than again offend God, soinfinitely good in Himself, and so infinitely good to man.
Unhappily, it is within our power to hate, to grieve, and[Pg 10] to purposeamendment very sincerely, and yet not have that sorrow which fulfillsGod's condition for the pardon of sin. Some human motive—such as lossof health or wealth, injury to reputation and influence, the ignominyand servitude of wrong-doing—may lead a man to detestation of thepast and to a firm resolve to avoid wrong in the future. Excellent asmay be such a change of mind, yet it is not sufficient to obtainforgiveness from on high. It is based entirely on the injury and lossaccruing to self. God is excluded from the whole idea; and yet it isagainst Him, and against Him alone, that we have sinned.
The only sorrow acceptable to God is that which springs from asupernatural motive, the soul excited thereto by divine grace. In thisis our utter helplessness shown; for while it is within our own powerto do wrong, we cannot return to