Chapter V. Of Repentance, Preparatory to the Blessed Sacrament. Section V. What Significations of Repentance are to be accepted by the Church in Admission of Penitents to the Communion.
This inquiry will quickly be answered, when we consider, that the end, why the church enjoins public or private amends respectively to any convict or confessed criminal, she only does it as a mother and physician to souls, and a minister of the divine pardon, and the conductress of penitential processes: she does it, that the man may be recovered from the snare of the enemy, that she may destroy the work of the devil, that the sinner may become a good Christian. And, therefore, the church, when she conducts any man's repentance, is bound to enjoin so many external ministries, that, if they be really joined with the internal contrition and reformation, will do the work of reconcilement in the court of heaven. The church can exact none, but what she can see, or, some way, take external notice of; but, by these externals, intends to minister to the internal repentance; which when it is sufficiently signified by any ways that she may prudently rely upon, as testimonies and ministries of a sufficient internal contrition and real amends, she can require no more, and she ought not to be content with less.
It is, therefore, infinitely unsafe and imprudent to receive the confessions of criminals, and, after the injunction of certain cursory penances, to admit them to the blessed sacrament, without any further emendation, without any trial of the sincerity of their conversion, before it is probable that God hath pardoned them, before their affections to sin are dead, before the spirit of mortification is entered, before any vice is exterminated, or any virtue acquired. Such a looseness of discipline is but the image of repentance (whether we look upon it as it is described in Scripture, or as it was practised by the primitive church); which at least is a whole change of life, a conversion of the whole man to God. And it is as bad, when a notorious criminal is put to shame one day, for such a sin which could not have obtained the peace of the church, under the severity and strictness of fifteen years, amongst the holy primitives. Such public ecclesiastical penances may suffice to remove the scandal from the church, when the church will be content upon so easy terms; for she only can tell what will please herself. But then such discipline must not be esteemed a sufficient ministry of repentance, nor a just disposition to pardon. For the church ought not to give pardon, or to promise the peace of God upon easier terms than God himself requires: and, therefore, when repentance comes to be conducted by her, she must require so much as will extinguish the sin, and reform the man, and make him and represent him good.
All the liberty that the church hath in this, is what is given her by the latitude of the judgment of charity; and yet oftentimes a too easy judgment is the greatest uncharitableness in the world, and makes men confident, and careless, and deceived. And, therefore, although gentle sentences are useful, when there is danger of despair or contumacy, yet that is rather a palliation of a disease than a cure; and, therefore, the method must be changed as soon as it can, and the severe and true sermons of the Gospel must be either proclaimed aloud, or insinuated prudently and secretly, and men be taught to rely upon them and their consequents, and upon nothing else; for they will not deceive us. But the corrupt manners of men, and the corrupt doctrines of some schools, have made it almost impossible to govern souls as they need to be governed.
The church may indeed choose, whether she will impose on criminals any exterior significations of repentance, but accept them to the communion upon their own accounts of a sincere conversion and inward contrition; but then she ought to do this upon such accounts, as are indeed real and sufficient, and effective and allowed; that is, when she can understand that such an emendation is made, and the man is really reformed, she can pronounce him pardoned; or, which is all one, she may communicate him. And further yet, she can, by sermons, declare all the necessary parts of repentance, and the conditions of pardon, and can pronounce limited and hypothetical or conditional pardons; concerning which, the penitent must take care that they do belong to him. But if she does undertake to conduct any repentances exteriously, it is to very little purpose to any way, that is riot commensurate to that true internal repentance, which is effective of pardon. Indeed every single act of penance does something towards it; but why something should be enjoined that is not sufficient, and that falls infinitely short of the end of its designation,--though the church may use her liberty, yet it is not easy to understand the reason. But I leave this to the consideration of those, who are concerned in governments public, or in the private conduct of souls, to whom I earnestly and humbly recommend it: and I add this only, that when the ancient churches did absolve and communicate dying penitents, though but newly returned from sin, they did it 'de bene esse,' or with a hope it might do some good, and because they thought it a case of necessity, and because there was no time left to do better: but when they did as well as they could, they could not tell what God would do; and though the church did well, it may be, it was very ill with the souls departed. But because that is left to God, it is certain some things were done, upon pious confidence and venture, for which there was no promise in the Gospel.
That which the church is to take care of, is, that all her children be sufficiently taught, what are the just measures of preparation and worthy disposition to these divine mysteries; and that she admits none, of whom she can tell that they are not worthy; such as are notorious adulterers, homicides, incestuous, perjurers, habitually peevish to evil effects, and permanently angry (for this I find reckoned amongst the primitive catalogues of persons to be excluded from the communion), rapines, theft, sacrilege, false witness, pride, covetousness, and envy. It would be hard to reduce this rule to practice in all these instances, unless it be by consent and voluntary submission of penitent persons. But that which I remark, is this; that proud persons and the covetous, the envious and the angry, were esteemed fit to be excommunicate; that is, infinitely unfit to be admitted to the blessed sacrament; and that, by the rules of their discipline, they were to do many actions of public and severe penance and mortifications, before they would admit them.
Now, then, the case is this: they did esteem more things to be required to the integrity of repentance, and God not to be so soon reconciled, and the devil not so soon dispossessed, and men's resolutions not so fit to be trusted, and more to be required to pardon than confession, and the pronouncing absolution; all this otherwise, than we do; and, therefore, so long as they did conduct repentances, they required it as it should be; being sure that no repentance, that was joined with hope and charity, could be too much, but it might quickly be too little; and, therefore, although the church may take as little as she please for a testimonial of repentance, and suppose the rest is right, though it be not signified,--yet when she, either in public or in private, is to manage repentances, she must use no measure but that which will procure pardon, and extinguish both the guilt and dominion of sin. The first may be of some use in government, but of little avail to souls, and to their eternal interest: therefore, in the first, she may use her liberty, and give herself measures; in the latter, she hath no other but what are given her by the nature of repentance, and its efficacy and order to pardon, and the designs of God, for the reformation of our souls, and the extermination of sin.