Like its Greek and Latin equivalent, exomologesis, confession has a variety of meanings, but ordinarily it signifies an avowal of sin, made either to God or to man. Etymologically exomologesis denotes open declaration and implies public confession. In the primitive Church it was employed for confession of offenses and for the sacramental procedure involving austere discipline. From the 8th century onward the term confession designated a disclosure of sins to the priest, but more especially the entire Sacrament of Penance. Confession is a manifestation of personal sins to the Church in the person of a duly authorized priest for the purpose of obtaining sacramental absolution by virtue of the power of the keys. There are two types: public, made before an assembly; and private or secret confession, made to the priest alone and called auricular since it is spoken.
Great difficulty is caused by varying terminology and practice during the lengthy time expanse under consideration. The word "penance" was used to designate both the entire sacramental procedure and the satisfaction
performed by the penitent. Three steps in sacramental penance have to be kept clearly distinct: confession, satisfaction, and reconciliation. Though confession was a necessary presupposition to reception of the Church's sacramental Penance, it is not always certain what sort of confession was required. At one time and place it could have been that acknowledgement by a person of his sin expressed by the mere fact that he took his place among the ranks of public penitents; it might also have been a verbal but generic admission of sinfulness similar to our Confiteor (a possible interpretation of the Didache 14.1;J. Quasten, ed., Monumenta eucharista et liturgica vetusissima, 13). Some documents suppose or clearly call for a detailed confession of grievous sins. But to repeat, documents of the patristic period are difficult to interpret on this score, and unanimous agreement has not been reached among scholars.
Public Confession. The view that the administration of sacramental Penance in the first six centuries was normally public in the West enjoys wide acceptance. Some kind of confession is today almost unanimously admitted to have been coextensive with and part of this discipline. Whether confession was secret or public still divides historians. Some hold that up to the end of the 4th century public confession of even secret sins was generally required, and in evidence thereof they cite the Didascalia, the Apostolic Constitutions, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, Ambrose, and others. But this testimony is inconclusive, since it can be interpreted as imposing public satisfaction or as merely counseling public confession. Perhaps Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 1.6.3; Patrologia Graeca, ed. J. P. Migne, 7:507) and Origen (In ps. 37 homil. 2.6; Patrologia Graeca 12:1386) envisioned an obligatory public confession.
Secret Confession. That secret confession was the more general practice in the early Church is the more common view of scholars. B. Poschmann regards favorably E. Vacandard's opinion that the only publicity required quired was in the acts of satisfaction, not in the confession. In this connection two episodes are relevant. According to the historian Sozomen (Hist. Eccl. 7.16; Patrologia Graeca 67:1459) the office of priest-penitentiary was instituted in the East to restrict public confession of sins, since it was burdensome to announce one's sins "as in a theatre with the congregation of the Church as witness." The duration of the practice of public confession is uncertain because of the wide difference of opinion as to the time when the priest-penitentiary was introduced. O. Watkins is convinced that this does not tell in favor of public confession, since Sozomen cited Chrysostom's words and confused the meaning of exomologesis. In a letter written in 459 to some Italian bishops, Leo the Great, while sternly condemning the abuse of compelling penitents to read publicly a detailed catalogue of personal sins, admits that a voluntary public confession might be laudable in some cases, but that it must not be demanded, since secret confession to priests alone is sufficient (Epist. 168.2; Patrologia Latina ed. J. P. Migne, 54:1210). This decree, although variously interpreted, is evidence of public confession practiced in some churches.
In the new mode of penance introduced in the 6th century by the Celtic monks, the characteristic elements are private: a secret confession to the priest, the acceptance of satisfaction, and reconciliation without defamatory or juridical consequences. In contrast to the ancient system, the Celtic mode gave greater prominence to confession which, owing to the influence of Alcuin and his successors, eventually became its most significant feature.
Bibliography: b. poschmann, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick, tr. and rev. f. courtney (New York 1964). o. d. watkins, A History of Penance, 2 v. (New York 1920). e. f. latko, "Trent and Auricular Confession," Franciscan Studies (St. Bonaventur[a-z], [a-z].Y. 1940–) 14 (1954) 3–33. p. f. palmer, Sacraments of Healing and of Vocation (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1963); ed., Sacraments and Forgiveness, v.2 of Sources of Christian Theology, 2 v. (Westminster, Md. 1955–60). j. t. mcneill and h. m. gamer, trs., Medieval Handbooks of Penance (New York 1938). e. vacandard, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50) 3.1:838–894. p. galtier, Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi catholique, ed. a. palÈs 4 v. (Paris 1911–22) 3:1784–1865; Aux origines du sacrement de pénitence (Rome 1951). k. rahner, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 2:805–815. j. a. jungmann, ibid. 2:823–826.
[e. f. latko/eds.]