Project Canterbury

The Faith of an English Catholic
by Darwell Stone, D.D.

London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1926.

Chapter IX. Confession

THE most marked characteristic of the Tractarians is their sense of the awful nature of sin. Their thought was coloured by the recognition of sin as a dire offence against the majesty of God, and as having deeply affected human life. The horror of it was to be estimated not only by its terrible results in human character and the fearful penalties which sinners might incur, but also and chiefly by the cost of forgiveness in the sufferings and death of our Lord. For the Christian, indeed, the redemption accomplished by Christ was brought home individually by means of Baptism; in Baptism sin was pardoned; in Baptism was newness of life. But after Baptism there might be, and as a normal experience there actually is, further sin. And the sin after Baptism has a new enormity, because it is against grace which has been received.

The consideration of sin gave the gloomy aspect which is seen in much of the earlier Tractarian teaching. The need of comfort was strongly felt. One part of the comfort was found in the Holy Eucharist. Another part was in the use of Confession.

The restoration of Confession was due to a concurrence of causes. The gravity of post-baptismal sin, the conviction that a forgiveness by sacramental means should renew the life which the sacrament of Baptism had conveyed, the traditional use of Penance in the Church, and the provision of Confession and Absolution by the English Church in the Prayer Book, all pointed in the same direction. The Tractarians themselves had recourse to Confession; and they suggested it to their disciples.

The penitential system of the early Church, at first chiefly public, afterwards chiefly private, was partly a means of outward reconciliation and partly a means for applying the meritorious passion and death of our Lord to individual souls for the forgiveness of their sins. The purpose of this authority given to the Church by our Lord, was not primarily spiritual advice or the advance in goodness of those who were remaining faithful. The authority was used, as it had been instituted, for dealing with sin. To receive counsel, and to be helped in spiritual progress, confessions were made to monks and others independently of the penitential system. During the middle ages and in the Roman Catholic Church after the sixteenth century the hearing of confessions with a view to giving Absolution and the receiving of confidences with a view to giving advice were to a large extent combined; and the sacrament of Penance came to be used not only for its original purpose as a means of receiving forgiveness for grave sin but also as a method of making advance in goodness through the confession and absolution of all kinds of faults and through the advice of a spiritual counsellor.

The successive editions of the English Prayer Book continued to make provision for Confession, and occasional instances of the use of Confession long after the sixteenth century are known. Early in the nineteenth century the probability is that it was hardly used at all, and that the references to it in the Prayer Book were, with very rare exceptions, ignored. In the Tractarian revival the primary object was, as in the ancient Church, to use a means for the forgiveness of post-baptismal sin, and a secondary object--the reception of counsel--was closely linked with it. A striking instance is afforded by the history of the first confession made by Dr. Pusey. The object with which the confession was made was to receive forgiveness, but he took with him a proposed rule of life in order that he might receive the advice of his confessor about it. And in his subsequent habitual use of Confession the two objects were still combined.

To enter an Anglo-Catholic church to-day is to observe the opportunities afforded for Confession. Notices may be seen announcing the frequent times at which priests are in church to hear confessions; there are confessional boxes or some similar arrangements for the hearing of confessions.

In some respects the Anglo-Catholic teaching about Confession is identical with that of the Tractarians. The object of Confession is that the forgiveness won by our Lord in His passion and death may be applied to the soul by the sacramental means which He appointed. Its rightful use and the fulfilment of the promise attached to it demand that the penitent has repentance and faith, and that it is his desire to fight against and overcome sin. Existing primarily for the forgiveness of grave sins, which have separated the soul from God and interrupted the due operation of the grace received in Baptism, it may be used as a means of bringing all kinds of less sins to God in penitence. Spiritual advice, though not the object of the sacrament, may well be given in connexion with it. The use of Confession at some great crisis of spiritual history may lead to the habitual use of it as an ordinary part of the devotional life.

There are incidental differences between Tractarians and Anglo-Catholics which are in circumstances only. From the necessities of the case, the earlier practice had about it much privacy or even secrecy. Confessions were heard in churches when no one was likely to be in them and sometimes with locked doors, in vestries, in private houses. All this, however necessary for the time, certainly was unhealthy. The necessities for it have now passed. Indeed the large number of confessions now heard in many churches would render the continuance of it impossible. The administration of Penance has become as open as such a regular ordinance of the Church ought to be.

A more serious difference may be in the opinions held as to the obligation of sacramental confession. This obligation was regarded by the Tractarians as chiefly moral. As the real meaning and horror of sin were realized, and in particular as there was fuller understanding of it as an offence against the love of God, the soul that was truly penitent would desire to use all possible ways of humiliation, all possible means of deepening sorrow, every possible method of bringing the acknowledgment of sin to the cross of Christ. It was desirable that Church teaching should include full instruction on the subject; the parish priest must tell his candidates for Confirmation and others of the provision which the Church had made; it was simple honesty that he should speak to his people during their life time of the ordinance about which he was commanded by the Prayer Book to tell them when seriously ill; it was but reverence for Almighty God that there should be in life what was to be done before death. But the using of Confession was regarded as permissive rather than as obligatory, as the act to which the soul was driven by the depth and sincerity of its penitence rather than as a compliance with any regulation of the Church. No thoughtful Anglo-Catholic would wish to lessen the moral aspect of Confession. But a question arises that is theological and historical. If the initial forgiveness of the Chris-) tian soul is bestowed by God in the sacrament of Baptism, and if mortal sin--that is, grave sin committed with knowledge and deliberation by an act of the will--separates from God and stops the beneficial influence of the baptismal grace, may it not be that a sacramental restoration of the state which was sacramentally conferred may be needed? And historically, is it not the case that for the gravest offences the Penance of the ancient Church--of which the sacrament of Penance is the descendant--was required? And, if so, may there not be an obligation binding instructed Catholics | to seek sacramental Absolution by means of Confession when a mortal sin has been committed? And, if sacramental confession of all mortal sins be needed, and if it is often difficult for a sensitive soul to be sure whether a sin has been mortal or not, will not a practice of habitual Confession from early years be wise? This theological and historical consideration, more felt to-day than it was by the earlier Tractarians, probably leads many Anglo-Catholics to view the obligation of Confession in a somewhat different light, and to believe that this different light is required by the very principles which the Tractarians revived. And, so far as this is the case, they may teach about Confession with an added emphasis on the need of it.

Many Confessions made to-day are those of steady faithful souls who are going quietly on in paths of holiness, some of whom, perhaps, have not committed a mortal sin in the whole course of their lives. The extent of this practice is far greater now than in the time of the Tractarians. But the difference is one of extent only. The Tractarians allowed and encouraged the making of such Confessions. There is no doubt that such a use of sacramental confession is an expansion of the original Penance of the Church. It is one of the effects of the union in the Church of the confession made for the purpose of receiving reconciliation after grave sin, and the seeking of spiritual counsel and help in another way. But that is not an objection to it. An expansion of the original use of the sacraments is one of the ways in which the authority of the Church is operative. The fact that in the earliest days all who were present at any celebration of the Eucharist, apart from some special reason, received the Communion at that time is not a reason against the lawfulness of attendance at Mass without Communion. The fact that the purpose of reserving the consecrated sacrament in the first instance was, and still is, that it may be received in Communion does not make services of Adoration unlawful. Similarly, the fact that the sacrament of Penance was instituted for the forgiveness of grave sin does not require that this wider use should be forbidden.

The practice of Confession has been misunderstood and attacked probably more than any other part of the Catholic system. Whether administered in the Church of Rome or in the Church of England, it is still regarded with deep distrust by very many English people. No one need deny that there have been abuses connected with it. Some may have used it formally or mechanically or without serious purpose of amendment. Some may have allowed it to be a sop to conscience or a comfort which their spiritual state did not really warrant. But those who know most about it concur in saying that by means of it there have been conquests of sin which might otherwise have been impossible, a degree of progress in holiness which else could hardly have been, and that even those who have profited least by it would have done less well without it. There are many priests with a large experience in hearing Confessions who can echo the words which Dr. Pusey wrote seventy-five years ago: "If there is one part of our ministry which God has blessed; if there be one part of our office, as to the fruits of which we look with hopefulness and joy to the day of judgement, it is to the visible cleansing of souls, the deepened penitence, 'the repentance unto salvation not to be repented of,' the hope in Christ, the freshness of grace, the joy of forgiven souls, the evident growth in holiness, the angel-joy 'over each sinner that repenteth' which this ministry has disclosed to us." [E. B. Pusey, The Church of England leaves her children free to whom to open their griefs (1850), p. 3.] The present writer well remembers discussing the subject of Confession with an experienced priest some forty years ago, and the priest saying: "I cannot think of anyone who would not be better for it." Such estimates on the part of those who have knowledge afford the evidential justification of the system of Penance established in the Church.

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