Confession of Sins

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CONFESSION OF SINS . The word confession has a twofold meaning that can be partially explained by etymology. The Latin confiteor, from which confession derives, means specifically "to confess a sin or fault," but also, in a more general sense, "to acknowledge or avow." Thus one may speak both of the sinner who confesses his sins and of the martyr who confesses his faith. Since the confession or witness of a martyr normally took place before a tribunal, it did in fact bear a formal resemblance to the confession of sins. The resemblance should prevent us from separating the two basic meanings of the word confession too sharply. Nevertheless, this entry will be concerned solely with an examination of the confession of sins in the strict sense, in other words as utterances concerning sins or offenses that are made in order to escape from these sins and their consequences. Confession in this strict sense normally occurs in a ritualized context that transcends the individuality of the sinner or offender. It must be done before a "recipient" who hears the confession. In many cases, it is performed in the interest not only of the one confessing but also of the community (familial, social, ecclesiastical) to which both the confessing person and the recipient belong.

Two principal approaches to the study of confession can be distinguished. On the one hand, one may view the confession of sins as one of many elements, such as prayer, sacrifice, the priesthood, and so forth, in the phenomenology of religion. These common elements can be recognized within various religions throughout the ages in different cultural areas, though they may have been motivated and shaped quite differently. On the other hand, one may view the partial phenomenological similarities of the different rituals that are conventionally labeled confessions of sins as the products of historical convergences.

In the first approach, the comparative-historical study of confession may transcend the purely phenomenological classification of the different forms and functional interpretations of confession to suggest hypotheses concerning the process of its formation. It may study the relative antiquity of the various subtypes of confession and the particular cultural-historical contexts in which confession originates as a more or less structured institution. This was the approach of Raffaele Pettazzoni (18831959), who developed the theory that the confession of sins originated from forms of magic, specifically from the magic of the spoken word. Confession, in this theory, was originally a ritual intended to expel or eliminate a sin by means of its verbal expression. The sin itself could be unconscious and involuntary; it was conceived of as a kind of substance that was charged with destructive or obstructive power. Pettazzoni believed that such rites were well adapted to cultural contexts such as those found in agricultural, matriarchal societies. This theory elicited scholarly objections, particularly from scholars belonging to the Viennese cultural-historical school. They pointed out that Pettazzoni's unilinear reconstruction of the history of confessionleading from the magical to the theistic and assigning an ethical character only to the latter, with its stress on the voluntary character of sin and the value of contritioncould in fact mean a return to a farfetched evolutionism.

Moreover, if one explains the similarities observed among the different forms of confession as being the result not of a unilinear evolution but rather of occasional convergences in the history of religions, as in the second approach, one can avoid appealing to such a general theory. In fact, magical and theistic forms of confession, far from being products of a single unilinear evolution, are sometimes found together within a single cultural-historical milieu. Their relative antiquity cannot be determined merely by citing the frequency with which they are mentioned in extant religious documents. To be sure, it is necessary to distinguish between a sin conceived as the infringement of a moral code, emanating from (or at least guaranteed by) a deity, and a sin resulting from the neglect of a taboo, a law not necessarily motivated by the will of a suprahuman, personal agency. A distinction must also be made between voluntary and involuntary transgression, both of moral codes and of mere taboos. But the coexistence of these alternatives in some religions does not necessarily imply that one is chronologically later than the other. Furthermore, the motivation for apparently identical eliminatory or deprecatory ritual gestures may differ according to the context: magical techniques can be used to reinforce theistic motivations, while theistic beliefs sometimes motivate magical practices.

Confession of Sins in Nonliterate Cultures

An interpretation of the confession of sins among nonliterate peoples must consider that there is indeed a tension between theistic conceptions of confession, where the goal is divine forgiveness, and nontheistic conceptions, where the efficacy of confession is intrinsic to the act itself. The Sanpoli and Nespelen (Salish Indians), whom Wilhelm Schmidt (18681954) ranked among the Urvölker, in other words among the people of the greatest possible antiquity, practice a theistic form of confession, accompanied by prayer to the supreme being. The purpose of the confession is the sinner's attainment of heaven and presupposes the positive disposition of the person confessing. By contrast, among the Kikuyu, an agricultural people of East Africa, one finds a nontheistic form of confession. Here the transgression of a taboo or other ceremonial regulation can be eliminated by "vomiting" it, that is, confessing it to the sorcerer.

This distinction between theistic and nontheistic forms of confession should not be overemphasized, however, important though it is in the history of religions. As already noted, fundamentally identical gestures and expressions may be found in both forms, but they receive particular meaning only from the context of their use.

The study of the content of confession is no less important than the study of its general forms. One of the most typical, perhaps the most typical subject of confession, is a woman's confession of adultery, particularly when the confession is occasioned by the act of childbirth. The recipient of the confession may be a priest, a sorcerer, the husband, or perhaps another woman. The woman making the confession must either enumerate her partners or identify them by name. This requirement may be intended to allow the offending partner to redress his wrong by offering a sacrifice or paying a fine (as among the Luo of Dyur and the Nuer of East Sudan respectively). This requirement reflects the belief that the concrete effects of a wrong action can be eliminated only through an equally concrete confession of each act. Unconfessed adultery possesses an inherently obstructive power that must be removed by means of ritual confession. The Luo, the Nuer, and also the Atcholi of Uganda believe that the destructive power of unconfessed adultery may become manifest through the death of the delivered child. These regulations and beliefs presuppose the ethical value of marriage, a standard that influences the understanding of confession. To explain the negative effects of adultery in the case of the child's death as due to sickness deriving from the material effects of libertinage would be clearly reductive. In New Caledonia, young male initiands are questioned by elders concerning any previous sexual behavior. They must confess cases of illicit sexual relations with women; not doing so would cause danger to the society as a whole.

Another typical occasion for making a confession in nonliterate societies is the activity of hunting or fishing. The magical practices associated with these activities are well known. For example, women must observe particular taboos while their husbands are away hunting in order not to compromise the success of the expedition. The husbands themselves, during the days preceding departure, must abstain from various activities, in particular from cohabitation with their wives. Confession is another preparatory practice. Individual members of the hunting or fishing party must confess their sins prior to departure, since the unacknowledged breaking of a taboo or a persistent condition of impurity and culpability would endanger the success of the entire expedition. One who resisted making the required confession would be excluded from participating.

Another peculiarity of confession of sins in nonliterate societies is the fact that the transgression to be confessed need not be voluntary or conscious, particularly a transgression of taboos or of ritual regulations. The same is true of other purificatory rituals. As shall be discussed below in greater detail, the need for confession of sin to be circumstantial and at the same time thorough (i.e., not achieved through generic formulations) led to the construction of long lists of possible sins or offenses. Such lists were to be recited by the one confessing in order to avoid the omission of any committed sin. This clear example of the elaboration of sacral techniques demonstrates how the original need for confession may be eventually overshadowed by the need for completeness. Yet this need to be complete does not essentially contradict the nature of confession, whether theistic or magical. Confession is characterized not by generic utterances of culpability but by the necessity to be concrete and specific, to evoke and destroy the very existence and malignant efficacy of a particular sin.

Characteristic of confession among preliterate peoples is also that it may be associated with the rhythms of the astronomical year as well as with the production cycle. Among the Lotuko of East Sudan, there is a public confession by warriors at the beginning of the great hunting season. Their confessions are made individually with lowered voice and then repeated by the priest serving the rain god. The reason for this procedure cannot be to avoid exposing the warriors to shame; more probably, the custom is meant symbolically to preserve, to the extent that it is possible, the originally individual character of confession. Other instances of confession on the occasion of annual ceremonies of renewal are found among the Bechuana, the Algonquin, and the Ojibwa.

New Year rituals of confession are clearly eliminatory. Faults and their evil efficacy must not be allowed to extend beyond the close of the expiring year; they must be abolished. Other eliminatory rituals or customs may take place on such occasions, such as throwing away or destroying old and damaged implements. In confession, however, elimination concerns things not exterior to humans but interior to them. This remains true whether the interiority of sin is conceived of magically (as a substance, fluid, or influx) or theistically, as a condition of being and a reality reflected in the conscience of the person confessing. Such annual confessions, though remaining fundamentally an act of the individual, also have collective, even cosmic, implications. These are all the more evident when a confession is made by the king as an authorized representative of the collectivity, bound to it by the bonds of "sympathy." This common idea is found in other well-known rites where the very person and life of the king are involved in rituals ensuring the perpetuity of the world and the smooth transition from one season to the next. The king as an individual sinner, as the proper subject of confession, paradoxically becomes the representative of the multitude and acts in the people's interest. Thus, even here, the individual nature of the act of confession is preserved.

Finally, we must note the connection of confession of sins with the ordeal that may be used to test the sincerity of the confessing person. Here two different ritual procedures are intermingled. Evil is not the consequence of a sin that goes unconfessed; it is rather the consequence of a confession that was not sincere. The ethical side of confession becomes paramount; a reference to the elimination of occult sin would be out of place here. This instance makes clear the inadequacy of reducing confession strictly to a material utterance having magic, autonomous effects.

Confession is also found in association with other rituals. Among the Nandi, a solemn form of confession is associated with circumcision. Among the Sulka (New Britain) and the Maya (Yucatan), confession is associated with initiation, and in Chiapas (Mexico) with marriage. In other words, confession may be an element in rites of passage, both individual and seasonal.

Confession is sometimes associated with such ritual and ascetic procedures as fasting, abstinence, and chastity, evidently because of their importance in achieving ritual or ethical purity. Confession has also been associated with the scapegoat ritual, but it is preferable, in this instance, to speak not of confession but of the magical or juridical transfer of sin onto an animal destined to be eliminated from the community. Confession as an explicit acknowledgment of sin is quite different; moreover, it requires a recipient, a more or less qualified "hearer" or counterpart. In confession among primal cultures, there is an efficacy not only in the word that is spoken, but also in the word that is heard. The dialogical context is thus crucial. Both speaker and hearer embody a circle that functions, whether theistically, magically, or both, to consume the sin confessed.

Confession of Sins in Traditional High Cultures and World Religions

We pass now to the significance of confession of sins in traditional high cultures (both past and present), which are mostly polytheistic, and to the world religions. It is worth recalling that the term confession is here used not as a univocal, but as an analogical term in accordance with classical logic. This means that the term confession overshadows sets of concepts and realities having in common some typical characteristics or aspects, not always the same, sets separated by differences that reach to the same depth as the similarities. Thus there is a kind of "family resemblance" that is different from a strictly definable "universal."

Mexico and Peru

Confession was practiced in old Mexico in connection with Tlacolteótl, the goddess of impurities. She symbolized the sexual offenses (particularly adultery) that were the main object of confession. The priests of the goddess acted as the recipients of confession, and the confession itself was understood as taking place before the great, omniscient god Tezcatlipoca. The confession was secret and was followed by the imposition of a complicated penance, to be performed on the festival day of the goddess. The penance involved drawing blood from the tongue or ear, and it was accompanied by symbolic eliminatory acts, such as casting away wooden sticks that had been in contact with the wound. Extraction of blood was frequent in the religious life of the Mexicans, having an eliminatory and perhaps sacrificial meaning. Another object of confession was intoxication on the sacred drink, pulque.

In modern Mexico, confession is practiced by the Huichol at the time of the annual expedition to collect the hikuli, a sacred plant. This expedition requires a condition of purity in the participants, which is achieved through confession of sexual offenses. For mnemonic purposes, knots corresponding to sins are tied in a rope that is then burned at the end, a typical symbolic form of elimination.

Confession was also practiced in Peru, where it was associated with the bath (upacuna ) and with other eliminatory or symbolic acts, such as blowing away powders. The recipient of confession was the ichuri, who was not a priest but belonged, rather, to a low class of diviners. The typical occasion for confession was sickness, whether of oneself or one's relatives, and the integrity of the confession could be tested by ordeal. Other occasions included bad weather and times of preparation for festivals. The emperor (the inca ) and the high priest ordinarily confessed their sins directly to the sun and to the great god Viracocha, respectively. This fact reduces the value of these examples for the study of the typology of confession, since confession normally has a human recipient. Nevertheless, if this irregularity is attributed to the special status of the emperor, the confession of the inca may continue to be looked upon as genuine.

The sickness of the inca was an occasion for his subjects to practice confession, not only in homage to the emperor's dignity, but to show the sympathetic connection between the emperor and his people. In China the reverse happened. There, the emperor confessed to the people.

The site of confession in Peru was the peninsula that provided access to the shrine of the sun, located on a sacred island in Lake Titicaca. A long and detailed list of sins was employed, and some had to be confessed before the high priest. Generally speaking, the practice of confession in Peru did not involve secrecy.

Japan and China

The biannual Shintō ceremony of Oho-harahi resembles a rite of confession, but it is only a recitation of a complete list of possible sins or impurities by the nakatomi, a high dignitary, or by other priests. The ceremony is accompanied by such symbolic eliminatory acts as throwing impure objects into running water. Cases of individual confession are attested.

In China, eliminatory rituals were related to the grand conception of the Dao, the universal, heavenly order. A disturbance of this order, whether caused by the emperor or by his people, had serious consequences. It was the emperor's duty to redress the wrong, often through the vicarious performance of penance and a written confession of sins. Individual confession was also practiced in China, particularly in the context of the Daoist tradition, especially in the case of sickness. Sins were written down, perhaps in imitation of the emperor's confession or as a means of reinforcing their expression, and were then thrown into water.


In contrast to the political character it acquires in the Inca, Japanese, and Chinese empires, the confession of sins or dismeritorious deeds in India belongs to the mainstream of religious speculation and practice. In the Vedas there is an insistence on the purifying properties of fire and water together with faith in Varua, a heavenly and omniscient god. Varua punishes sinners by entangling and binding them in his net. He can also liberate the sinner from these bonds. He is connected with ethical laws, especially with the eternal order of ta, yet his modus operandi is clearly magical, and his jurisdiction extends to involuntary offenses. Nevertheless, the Vedas know nothing of confession proper; they know only of generic declarations of fault. It is in the Brāhmaas, which exalt the magical omnipotence of sacrifice, that confession is found, with particular reference to adultery; here confession is accompanied by eliminatory rituals. Brahmanic confession occurs at the summer feast of Varuapraghāsa; the name of the god may indicate a partial continuity with the ethical sphere of the Vedic Varua. Starting this ceremony without having first confessed adultery is believed to create an insupportable burden for one's conscience, even in the context of an objective or material conception of sin. The confession of adultery must be complete, including the names or the number of lovers, since otherwise it could cause evil to the confessing woman's relatives. Confession is followed by an eliminatory sacrifice. An important feature of this ritual is its mythic motivation: it was created by the god Prajāpati. Similar motivation exists in the case of the Shintō ritual described above, which is connected with the figure of Susano-o.

In the sūtra literature, as in classical antiquity, what is alleged to be a confession of sins is actually an individual's public proclamation that he is a sinner, a proclamation that does not involve a specific recipient. It is more a notification, as Pettazzoni rightly noted when he criticized the theory of Franz Boas (18581942) that such a procedure constituted the most ancient form of confession.


Confession in Jainism (alocana and, more generally, pratikramana ) is mainly a monastic institution, performed twice daily. The laity make confession before their respective gurūs. Jainism combines the elimination of impurities (sin) with the doctrine of the annihilation of karma, conceived of as something substantial. Confession before death is considered important, and an insincere confession can perpetuate the cycle of rebirths.


The prātimoka is a gradated list of possible transgressions (sins) of the monastic rules governing the life of individual Buddhist monks or nuns; it is recited bimonthly at night services called uposatha. The participant monks must be in a state of purity; transgressions must be confessed in an individual and reciprocal form. Similar occasion for confession was the pavāraa ("invitation"), which occurred during the rainy season, when the monks led a sedentary life. Monks would invite their fellows to make statements concerning their (i.e., the inviter's) individual conduct. Both celebrations were originally public confessions, made in response to the reading of the list of transgressions at the prātimoka and to the threefold interrogation by the presiding monk. In the classical form of the ritual, however, it was presupposed that the monks had achieved the required state of purity through confession prior to the prātimoka recitation, so that no one was expected actually to accuse himself of transgression during the ritual. The purpose of repeated interrogation was to confirm this state of purity formally. These formal, silent answers, based as they were on previous confessions, were also a kind of negative confession designed to reveal sincerity of conscience: a proclamation of purity.

With Buddhism, the objective conception of transgressions and purification, found in both Jain and Brahmanic conceptions of karma, was abolished. Karma was now understood to be produced through the subjective element of volition, and there was a corresponding modification of the meaning of confession. With time, howeverit would seemmonastic casuistry tended to lower this new moral emphasis in the Buddhist conception of confession.

Western Asia and Greece

It is difficult to assimilate the practices described in some of the epigraphic and literary texts of the religions of antiquity to the category of confession of sins. These texts mention the mere acknowledgment and subsequent public declaration of a sin or other offense by an individual. It is scarcely possible to speak of the confession of sins when the regent of Byblos writes to Amenophis IV that he has confessed his fault to the gods, or when the Hittite king Mursilis confesses a sin before the god of heaven. The same applies to the repeated confessional utterances (homologein, exomologeisthai ) of the "superstitious man" described by Plutarch, a man continually and scrupulously resorting to purificatory rituals in the sanctuary. Similarly, the Galli of the Magna Mater, when participating in the procession of the goddess, enthusiastically and repeatedly declared the particular misdeeds of their past life, as well as describing the punishment (usually some form of sickness) that the god had inflicted upon them. This repeated evocation of past faults is the exact opposite of a ritual of confession, which is meant to eliminate the dangerous presence of sin once and for all. Nor can the term confession be applied to certain texts of Roman poets concerning personal experiences in the context of the cult of Egyptian deities or describing the vicissitudes of mythic or legendary characters: Ovid, Metamorphoses 11.129143 (esp. v. 134, "peccasse fatentem," [confessed his fault] referring to the sinful King Midas) and Fasti 4.305327 (esp. v. 321, "si tu damnas, meruisse fatebor," [if you do condemn me, I will confess my guilt] referring to the falsely accused Roman matron Claudia Quinta, who introduced the sacred stone of the Magna Mater to Rome in 204 bce).

None of these records mentions the recipient of an oral confession, a necessary element of any penitential structure or institution. The texts present no more than a free initiative by the concerned sinner. The same is true of writings related to the confession of sins in Greek and Roman Orphism. Vergil (Aeneid 6.566569) speaks of a "confession" in the otherworld, imposed by the judge of souls, Rhadamanthys, on those who persisted in enjoying their bad deeds until the end of their lives without having been purified. This does not necessarily imply an allusion to the neglected confession of sins during life. The same situation is found in Dante's Commedia (Inferno 5.710), where the souls come before Minos, the judge of the dead in the netherworld, and "confess," that is, declare their sins in order to be sent to the appropriate eternal penance. The same holds for Thespesius's episode in Plutarch, where the homologein ("acknowledgment of sinfulness") of a sinner in the netherworld is mentioned: a man who had always refused to reveal his sin on earth is condemned to confess it continuously.

The sole testimony of a confession of sins in Greece seems to consist of two anecdotes concerning the mysteries of Samothrace, which are told about two Spartan admirals, Antalkidas and Lysandros, who were requested by the priest in charge of the ritual of initiation (or perhaps purification) to mention the worst deed they committed in their lives. Possibly the so-called confession inscriptions of Phrygia (also of Lydia and Knidos) are evidence of a genuine confession of sins. Here persons of lower estate confess their transgression of some ritual regulation or their violation of some sacral person or property and dedicate a confessional inscription at the sanctuary as a record of the misdeed. According to Pettazzoni, these inscriptions testify to a particular connection of the Anatolian form of confession with the local great goddess. In another instance, an inscription recording a perjury is placed in the Anatolian sanctuary of Zeus Asbamaios. But these inscriptions are, in fact, testimonies to a popular pattern of behavior rather than to a ritual structure. All in all, it is with good reason that Pettazzoni criticized the belief of Richard Reitzenstein (18611931) that confession of sins was a phenomenon diffused throughout the Greek world.

Southern Arabia, Babylon, and Egypt

Some confessional inscriptions have been discovered in southern Arabia, although their chronology is uncertain. They seem similar to the confessional inscriptions of Phrygia, but with a peculiar emphasis on sexual sins.

Babylonian religion recognized several theistic and magical means for eliminating ethical and ritual offenses. For instance, lists of sins were written on tablets and were then destroyed. Nevertheless, a ritual of confession properly so called is far from clearly attested. The same holds for the Babylonian penitential psalms, despite their ritual background. Herodotus attributed to the people of Babylon the custom of placing the sick in the public square so that they might confess their sins publicly; this is nearer to the repetitious declarations of the enthusiastic Galli, mentioned above, than to ritually structured confession. Among other things, there is here no appointed recipient of confession.

More akin to present typology is the negative confession of the king at the beginning of the New Year festival in Babylon, the Akitu festival. True, a negative confession in which the king declares his innocence of a series of offenses against the city and the people is in a sense the opposite of a confession of sins. Yet both establish an immediate connection between the evocation of sin and the annihilation of it and its consequences. The most famous example of a negative confession is found in the Egyptian Book of Going Forth by Day (no. 125) where two complete lists of possible sins are used for the examination and weighing of the soul in the afterlife. This kind of totalitarian confession encompasses all kinds of possible sin, whether conscious or unconscious, in order to omit none of them. Although this is not confession in the strict sense, it nevertheless achieves its purpose.

Israelite religion and Judaism

The Old Testament texts, including the penitential psalms, are sometimes mistakenly conceived of as evidence of an institutionalized ritual of the confession of sins within the vast array of purification rituals. This also applies to the so-called collective confessions, in which the general wording "we have sinned" (corresponding to the "I have sinned" of the former texts) does not properly fit into our typology. As far as the scapegoat ritual is concerned, it has already been remarked that this is not a proper form of confession, but rather the religiously valorized transfer of sin for the purpose of expelling it. Although the procedure has an oral, declaratory element, it cannot be assigned to the typology of confession.

Israelite religion and Judaism consider sin to be a secondary issue. It is linked to the monotheistic belief in one God and the mythical fall of the first man, Adam, which is described concretely and is pictorially devoid of any theological or theoretical speculation. The most commonly used root for sin-related words in the Old Testament is a, meaning to miss the mark, to fall short of the goal, especially in maintaining unity between persons. Sin, then, is something very ordinary that is committed in everyday life. The relation to God is envisaged as analogical to relations between humans. Consequently, sin is a personal failing in one's relation to God and his commandments.

Sin, depicted as an inherited consequence of the fall in Judaism (Gn. 3), refers (1) to the conduct of being disobedient to God and his commandments, (2) to the turning away from the right path and right way of life, and (3) to failing to fulfill the purpose that God intended when he created the world. In rabbinical literature it refers both to disobedience in the sense of "not doing" what one is supposed to do and to transgression or the "actual doing" of what is forbidden. Sin is conceived of as an attitude of defiance or hatred of, even revolt against, God.

Sin leaves its mark not only on the sinner, but also on nature itself, and on all humankind universally. The sinner encounters a sense of guilt. The deluge, the plagues of Egypt, and the curses on unfaithful Israel are conceived of as marks on nature. As a result of the fall, all human beings were considered sinners. This universality of sin was the cause of the flood and of the inclination in the hearts of men and women towards evil from their youth. The prophets see the whole nation of Israel as sinful. The psalmists and sages also proclaim this universality: "But all are unfaithful, altogether corrupt; no one does good, no, not even one" (Ps. 14.3).

Judaic law determines the notion of sin. Every transgression of the law is a rebellion against the will of God and is therefore a sin. A distinction is made between sinning defiantly and sinning through ignorance. There is also a tendency to put the burden of guilt on both the individual and the community. As sin is regarded as having the world in its grip, observing the law is considered to be the only way to overcome the inclination to sin. The consequence of sin is punishment, which may manifest itself as sickness, death, and eternal damnation. But repentence and the return to God is possible at any stage in life, thanks to God's mercy.


The mission of the Old Testament prophets was to awaken in the people a sense of sinfulness and a recognition of their personal and collective guilt. Sin, then, was regarded as a deliberate violation of the will of God attributed to human pride, self-centeredness, and disobedience. The New Testament discusses confession in many places, but there is no mention of its having to be specific or detailed, or that it has to be made to a priest. The activity of John the Baptist, who baptized ordinary people and also prepared Jesus for his public ministry by baptizing him, is often referred to as the origin of confession in Christianity: at that time baptism was accompanied by a public confession (Mt. 3:6).

Generally sin is portrayed in the context of forgiveness, as in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk. 15:1132), where sin is manifested in the son's leaving his father to enjoy a debauched lifestyle. The forgiveness that the father shows at his son's return is seen as analogical to the heavenly Father's forgiveness. The son's sin was an offence not only against his father, but also against heaven. The miserable servitude the son suffered was the natural consequence of his sin. However, by returning he passed from death to life.

In its first centuries of existence, the Christian church practiced a canonical penance for sins considered mortal or capital. The penitential act started with the sinner entering the order of penitents through a confession rendered before the bishop, or at least with the acceptance of the assigned penance. With the gradual introduction of the private form of confession, from the seventh century onward, a new form of the celebration of reconciliation came into practice. The private form of confession necessarily emphasized the "accusation" made by the penitent.

Later on, theologians distinguished between actual and original sin. Actual refers to sin in the ordinary sense of the word. It is a category covering evil acts, whether of thought, word, or deed. The somewhat misleading expression original sin refers to the morally vitiated condition in which humans find themselves at birth as an inherited consequence of the first human sin.

Actual sin is subdivided into mortal and venial sin, the gravity of the sin being used as a criterion. A mortal sin, then, is a deliberate turning away from God, an act committed in full knowledge and with full consent of the sinner's will. Until the turning away is repented it cuts the sinner off from God's grace. In contrast, a venial sin is often committed with less awareness of wrongdoing. Although it weakens the sinner's union with God, it is not a deliberate turning away and therefore does not entirely block the inflow of God's grace. Originally anyone who had been baptized was expected to refrain from committing serious sins, but if they did so, expulsion from the Christian community was irrevocable. The practice of readmitting sinners to the community after penance was instituted during the third century ce despite strong protest from the Novatians and others. The excommunicated were received on Maundy Thursday by the bishop after having done penance during Lent.

A new form of penance, which became part of the ascetic life, was adopted in Irish monasteries: monks regularly confessed to a priest and received absolution, and penance appropriate to the sin was prescribed. This monastic practice spread to the continent of Europe in the seventh century and also became popular among the laity. The origin of the practice of the confession of sins that still prevails in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches lies in this monastic habit. Penance was made one of the seven sacraments in the fourth Lateran Council of 1215.

The Roman Catholic Church initially considered penance obligatory only for mortal or capital sins, that is, sins committed in full awareness of their being violations of the will of God. It was enough to repent of venial sins and to adopt a penitent attitude. However, over time the church began to encourage the confession of minor sins at least once a year as part of Christian spiritual life.

In principle, valid confession requires complete repentance (contritio ) out of love of God, although incomplete repentance (attritio ) may become complete through the sacrament of confession. Before absolution is given, the confessor is ordered to do penance, which was originally quite severe. The practice of easing penance through indulgence arose during the Middle Ages.

The practice of repentance is connected to the sacrament of confession, which has many names: the confession of sins, the remission of sins, and penance. Repentance aptly describes the content and character of the sacrament. It is founded on Christ's promise to his apostles: "If you forgive anyone's sins, they are forgiven." (Jn. 20:22); "If your brother does wrong, reprove him; and if he repents, forgive him" (Lk. 17:34).

The process of repentance is illustratively described in the parable of the prodigal son: his leaving and turning away from his father and his subsequent return to his father's house, the goal of which was to find God and his kingdom. The sacrament of confession does not imply forgiveness of sins that allows the sinner to go on as before. In true repentance there is an aspiration for a lasting resolve: "Now that you are well, give up your sinful ways, or something worse may happen to you" (Jn. 5:14). The sacrament may be regarded as the "medical examination of the soul": it concerns our relation to God, to our neighbors, and to our union with God.

Confession is virtually nonexistent in the Protestant tradition, although there has been a slight revival of the habit in recent years in connection with spiritual retreats and pilgrimages. Nowadays, penance is a Roman Catholic sacrament that is considered to be instituted by Christ. The confession of all serious sins committed after baptism is imperative. In the tradition of Eastern Christianity, private confession is usually made regularly to a personal spiritual father, who thus is able to follow and guide the individual's spiritual struggle and development.

Zoroastrianism, Mandaean religion, and Manichaeism

From Sassanid times on, Zoroastrianism recognizes a form of the confession of sins, the patet ("expiation"), made before a priest or, in his absence, before the sun, the moon, and the divine fire. An annual confession is encouraged in the month of Mihr (after Mihr, the god Mithra). According to Pettazzoni, Zoroastrian confession was actually derived from Christian confession, but alternative explanations are possible. It resembles the form of confession found in the Manichaean Xastvanift, a book preserved in the Uighur language of Central Asia. The meaning of confession in Manichaeism depended upon the Manichaean concept of sin, which was based on belief in a radical dualism of soul and body. The soul was believed not to be responsible for the actions of the body. Salvation was accordingly attained by means of the soul's complete separation from the body, a separation effected through a knowledge, or gnosis, of the soul's heavenly origin and a series of radical abstentions from bodily activities.

There are three main Manichaean texts used in confession. (1) The Xastvanift, mentioned above, consists of a list of sins and is intended for the laity (the "hearers"); it contains the recurrent formula "Man astar hirza " ("Forgive my fault"), which was used in the liturgy, read aloud, perhaps, by the priest to the faithful. Also employed were (2) a prayer composed in Chinese and used for communal confession, and (3) a form of confession composed in Sogdian and intended for the elite, bearing the title Manichaean Book of Prayer and Confession. Possibly this latter text was read during Bema, the annual festival of the Manichaeans.

The Mandaeans, adherents of a gnostic, ethnic religion that survives still in Iraq, recognize a confession for sins that can be repeated no more than two times before the sinner is excommunicated. The Mandaean confession covers both conscious and unconscious faults. It is similar to the Parsi and Manichaean forms of confession.

See Also

Purification; Repentance.


For a discussion of the topic by one of its major interpreters, see Raffaele Pettazzoni's La confessione dei peccati, 3 vols. (Bologna, Italy, 19291936; reprint, 1968). Pettazzoni's La confession des péchés, 2 vols. (Paris, 19311932), is the enlarged translation by René Monnot of volume 1 of the work mentioned above. For the Viennese school's criticism, see Leopold Walk's "Pettazzoni, Raffaele's 'La Confessione dei peccati,'" Anthropos 31 (1936): 969972, and a series of articles by Michele Schulien listed in Etnologia religiosa (Turin, Italy, 1958), p. 286, note 7, by Renato Boccassino. Further studies by Pettazzoni on the theme are found in his Essays on the History of Religions (Leiden, 1954): "Confession of Sins and the Classics," pp. 5567, and "Confession of Sins: An Attempted General Interpretation," pp. 4354, with a further bibliography found on page 54, note 12. P. Wilhelm Schmidt's Der Ursprung der Gottesidee, vols. 5, 7, and 8 (Münster, Germany, 1934, 1940, 1949), discusses the concept among most primitive, as well as pastoral, cultures (consult the indexes). See Franz Steinleitner's Die Beicht im Zusammenhange mit der sakralen Rechtspflege in der Antike (Leipzig, Germany, 1913) for the Anatolian confessional inscriptions and related topics.

On the confession of sins in other traditions and cultures, see Arthur Darby Nock's Essays on Religion and the Ancient World, 2 vols., edited by Zeph Stewart (Cambridge, Mass., 1972; reprint, Oxford, 1986), pp. 66 and 427, note 77; Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin's La religion de l'Iran ancien (Paris, 1962), pp. 113ff.; and Kurt Rudolph's Die Mandäer, vol. 2: Der Kult (Göttingen, Germany, 1961), pp. 247254. The last work cited includes an extensive bibliography concerning confession in Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Mandaeism. On doctrine and practice in contemporary Catholicism, see John J. O'Brien's The Remission of Venial Sin (Washington, D.C., 1959); Charles J. Keating's The Effects of Original Sin in the Scholastic Tradition from St. Thomas Aquinas to William Ockham (Washington, D.C., 1959); G. Vandervelde's Original Sin: Two Major Trends in Contemporary Roman Catholic Reinterpretation (Amsterdam, 1975); and Pope John Paul II's Reconciliatio et Paenitentia: Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation of John Paul II to the Bishops, Clergy, and Faithful on Reconciliation and Penance in the Religion of the Church Today (London, 1984). For the discussion of sin by the spiritual masters of the Orthodox Christian tradition, see The Philokalia, 4 vols. (London, 19791995). On the discussions of sin from a modern perspective, see Richard J. Bautch's Developments in Genre Between Post-Exilic Penitential Prayers and the Psalms of Communal Lament (Atlanta, Ga., 2003); Kay Carmichael's Sin and Forgiveness: New Responses in a Changing World (Aldershot, U.K., 2003); Anselm Schubert's Das Ende der Sünde: Anthropologie und Erbsünde zwischen Reformation und Aufklärung (Göttingen, Germany, 2002); and Patricia A. Williams's Doing without Adam and Eve: Sociobiology and Original Sin (Minneapolis, 2001). For a historical outline, see "Confession des péchés" in Dictionnaire de théologie catholique (Paris, 19231950), and "Beichte" in Theologische Realenzyklopädie (Berlin and New York, 1980). See also Roberto Rusconi, L'ordine dei peccati: La confessione tra Medioevo ed età moderna (Bologna, Italy, 2002), which includes a useful bibliography from the perspective of ecclesiastical history.

Ugo Bianchi (1987)

RenÉ GothÓni (2005)