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§ 87. Penance and Indulgence.

Nath. Marshall (Canon of Windsor and translator of Cyprian, d. 1729): The Penitential Discipline of the Primitive Church for the first 400 years after Christ, together with its declension from the fifth century downward to its present state. London 1714. A new ed. in the “Lib. of Anglo-Cath. Theol.” Oxford 1844.

Eus. Amort: De Origine, Progressu, Valore ac Fructu Indulgentiarum. Aug. Vindel. 1735 fol.

Muratori: De Redemtione Peccatorum et de Indulgentiarum Origine, in Tom. V. of his Antiquitates Italicae Medii Aevi. Mediol. 1741.

Joh. B. Hirscher (R.C.): Die Lehre vom Ablass. Tübingen, 5th ed. 1844.

G. E. Steitz: Das römische Buss-Sacrament, nach seinem bibl. Grunde und seiner gesch. Entwicklung. Frankf a. M. 1854 (210 pages).

Val. Gröne (R.C.): Der Ablass, seine Geschichte und Bedeutung in der Heilsökonomie. Regensb. 1863.

Domin. Palmieri (R.C.): Tractat. de Poenit. Romae 1879.

George Mead: Art. Penitence, in Smith and Cheetham II. 1586–1608. Wildt, (R.C.): Ablass, in Wetzer and Welte2 I. 94–111; Beichte and Beichtsiegel, II. 221–261. Mejer in Herzog2 I. 90–92. For extracts from sources comp. Gieseler II. 105 sqq.; 193 sqq.; 515 sqq. (Am. ed.)

For the authoritative teaching of the Roman church on the Sacramentum Poenitentiae see Conc. Trident. Sess. XIV. held 1551.

The word repentance or penitence is an insufficient rendering for the corresponding Greek metanoia, which means a radical change of mind or conversion from a sinful to a godly life, and includes, negatively, a turning away from sin in godly sorrow (repentance in the narrower sense) and, positively, a turning to Christ by faith with a determination to follow him.403403    Penitence is from the Latin poenitentia, and this is derived from poena, ποίνη(compensation, satisfaction, punishment). Jerome introduced the word, or rather retained it, in the Latin Bible, for μετάνοια, and poenitentiam agere for μετανοεῖνHence the Douay version: to do penance. Augustin, Isidor, Rabanus Maurus, Peter Lombard, and the R. Catholic theologians connect the term with the penal idea (poena, punitio) and make it cover the whole penitential discipline. The English repentance, to repent, and the German Busse, Bussethun follow the Vulgate, but have changed the meaning in evangelical theology in conformity to the Greek μετάνοια. The call to repent in this sense was the beginning of the preaching both of John the Baptist, and of Jesus Christ.404404    Matt. 3:2; 4:17; Mark 1:15. Luther renewed the call in his 95 Theses which begin with the same idea, in opposition to the traffic in indulgences.

In the Latin church the idea of repentance was externalized and identified with certain outward acts of self-abasement or self-punishment for the expiation of sin. The public penance before the church went out of use during the seventh or eighth century, except for very gross offences, and was replaced by private penance and confession.405405    Pope Leo the Great (440-461) was the first prelate in the West who sanctioned the substitution of the system of secret humiliation by auricular confession for the public exomologesis. Ep. 136. Opera I. 355. The Lateran Council of 1215 under Pope Innocent III. made it obligatory upon every Catholic Christian to confess to his parish priest at least once a year.406406    Can. 21: ”Omnis utriusque sexus fidelis, postquam ad annos discretionis pervenerit, omnia sua solus peccata confiteatur fideliter, saltem semel in anno, proprio sacerdoti.“Violation of this law of auricular confession was threatened with excommunication and refusal of Christian burial. See Hefele V. 793.

Penance, including auricular confession and priestly absolution, was raised to the dignity of a sacrament for sins committed after baptism. The theory on which it rests was prepared by the fathers (Tertullian and Cyprian), completed by the schoolmen, and sanctioned by the Roman church. It is supposed that baptism secures perfect remission of past sins, but not of subsequent sins, and frees from eternal damnation, but not from temporal punishment, which culminates in death or in purgatory. Penance is described as a “laborious kind of baptism,” and is declared by the Council of Trent to be necessary to salvation for those who have fallen after baptism, as baptism is necessary for those who have not yet been regenerated.407407    Conc. Trid. Sess. XIV. cap.2 (Schaff’s Creeds I. 143). The Council went so far in Canon VI. (II. 165) as to anathematize any one “who denies that sacramental confession was instituted or is necessary to salvation, of divine right; or who says that the manner of confessing secretly to a priest alone, which the church has ever observed from the beginning (?), and doth observe, is alien from the institution and command of Christ, and is a human invention.”

The sacrament of penance and priestly, absolution includes three elements: contrition of the heart, confession by the mouth, satisfaction by good works.408408    Contritio cordis, confessio oris, satisfactio operis. See Conc. Trid. Sess. XIV. cap. 3-6 (Creeds, II. 143-153). The usual Roman Catholic definition of this sacrament is: “Sacramentum poenitentiae est sacramentum a Christo institutum, quo homini contrito, confesso et satisfacturo (satisfacere volenti) per juridicam sacerdotis absolutionem peccata post baptismum commissa remittuntur.” Oswald, Die dogmat. Lehre von den heil. Sacramenten der katholischen Kirche,II. 17 (3rd ed. Münster 1870). On these conditions the priest grants absolution, not simply by a declaratory but by a judicial act. The good works required are especially fasting and almsgiving. Pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome, Tours, Compostella, and other sacred places were likewise favorite satisfactions. Peter Damiani recommended voluntary self-flagellation as a means to propitiate God. These pious exercises covered in the popular mind the whole idea of penance. Piety was measured by the quantity of good works rather than by quality of character.

Another mediaeval institution must here be mentioned which is closely connected with penance. The church in the West, in her zeal to prevent violence and bloodshed, rightly favored the custom of the barbarians to substitute pecuniary compensation for punishment of an offence, but wrongly applied this custom to the sphere of religion. Thus money, might be substituted for fasting and other satisfactions, and was clothed with an atoning efficacy. This custom seems to have proceeded from the church of England, and soon spread over the continent.409409    Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury is the reputed author of this commutation of penance for a money-payment. See his Penitential I. 3 and 4, and the seventh penitential canon ascribed to him, in Haddan and Stubbs III. 179, 180, 211. ”Si quis“says Theodore, ”pro ultione propinqui hominem occiderit, peniteat sicut homicida, VII. vel X. annos. Si tamen reddere vult propinquis petuniam aestimationis, levior erit penitentia, id est, dimidio spatii.“The Synod of Clove-ho (probably Abingdon), held under his successor, Cuthbert, for the reformation of abuses, in September 747, decreed in the 26th canon that alms were no longer to be given for diminishing or commuting the fastings and other works of satisfaction. See Haddan and Stubbs, III. 371 sq. It degenerated into a regular traffic, and became a rich source for the increase of ecclesiastical and monastic property.

Here is the origin of the indulgences so called, that is the remission of venial sins by the payment of money and on condition of contrition and prayer. The practice was justified by the scholastic theory that the works of supererogation of the saints constitute a treasury of extra-merit and extra-reward which is under the control of the pope. Hence indulgence assumed the special meaning of papal dispensation or remission of sin from the treasury of the overflowing merits of saints, and this power was extended even to the benefit of the dead in purgatory.410410    This theory was fully developed by Thomas Aquinas and other schoolmen (see Gieseler II. 521 sq.), and sanctioned by the Council of Trent in the 25th Session, held Dec. 4, 1563 (Creeds II. 205 sq.), although the Council forbids “all evil gains” and other abuses which have caused “the honorable name of indulgences to be blasphemed by heretics.” The popes still exercise from time to time the right of granting plenary indulgences, though with greater caution than their mediaeval predecessors.

Indulgences may be granted by bishops and archbishops in their dioceses, and by the pope to all Catholics. The former dealt with it in retail, the latter in wholesale. The first instances of papal indulgence occur in the ninth century under Paschalis I. and John VIII. who granted it to those who had fallen in war for the defence of the church. Gregory VI. in 1046 promised it to all who sent contributions for the repair of the churches in Rome. Urban II., at the council of Clermont (1095), offered to the crusaders “by the authority of the princes of the Apostles, Peter and Paul,” plenary indulgence as a reward for a journey to the Holy Land. The same offer was repeated in every crusade against the Mohammedans and heretics. The popes found it a convenient means for promoting their power and filling their treasury. Thus the granting of indulgences became a periodical institution. Its abuses culminated in the profane and shameful traffic of Tetzel under Leo X. for the benefit of St. Peter’s church, but were overruled in the Providence of God for the Reformation and a return to the biblical idea of repentance.


The charge is frequently made against the papal court in the middle ages that it had a regulated scale of prices for indulgences, and this is based on the Tax Tables of the Roman Chancery published from time to time. Roman Catholic writers (as Lingard, Wiseman) say that the taxes are merely fees for the expedition of business and the payment of officials, but cannot deny the shameful avarice of some popes. The subject is fully discussed by Dr. T. L. Green (R.C.), Indulgences, Sacramental Absolutions, and the Tax-Tables of the Roman Chancery and Penitentiary, considered, in reply to the Charge of Venality, London (Longmans) 1872, and, on the Protestant side, by Dr. Richard Gibbings (Prof. of Ch. Hist. in the University of Dublin), The Taxes of the Apostolic Penitentiary; or, the Prices of Sins in the Church of Rome, Dublin 1872. Gibbings reprints the Taxae Sacrae Poenitentiariae Romanae from the Roman ed. of 1510 and the Parisian ed. of 1520, which cover 21 pages in Latin, but the greater part of the book (164 pages) is an historical introduction and polemical discussion.

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