An avowal of sins, made to a layman (one in no sense in Orders), in order to obtain forgiveness. As a practice, it existed in certain areas and at certain times in the Church. Doctrinally, however, no authoritative teacher has ever held that the layman has the power to absolve sacramentally. Yet the practice showed high esteem for the value of confession in the process of repentance, that was still developing in those times. As a religious fact, lay confession pertains historically to three different periods, and to both the Greek and Latin Churches, although in different fashions.
1st to 4th Centuries. Not only deacons, but Christians without hierarchical rank sometimes acted as confessors. The laymen belonged to a class called "saints" (les spirituels ); it was a kind of charismatic order, enjoying special graces and gifts, including the power to hear confessions, even to absolve (among many witnesses are Tertullian-Montanist, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen). This class, functioning alongside the hierarchy, was involved in an abusive practice, that may have developed out of a faulty interpretation of Jn 20.22–23. It at least paralleled a practice in some of the monasteries of the time, where the "saints" filled the role of confessor. However, during this period, for grave sins, the penitent was obliged to submit to the bishop in public penance.
4th to 13th Centuries. The proximate origin of lay confession in this period was twofold: originally, it was an extension of the monastic practice of confession, prescribed by both SS. Basil and Columbanus; later, it accompanied the doctrinal development of Penance: the obligation of confession gradually increased, as the burden of external penances gradually diminished.
The Greek Church. The bishop, always the principal director of souls, the confessor par excellence, delegated ordained priests to assist in the work. Oriental Christians added the requirement of clairvoyance and holiness to constitute a true director of souls. Confessors without priestly Orders began when the monks extended their work as spiritual fathers and confessors beyond the cloister. Probably earlier, but surely in the eighth and nineth centuries, the monks moved out among the people. Impressed by the monks' distinctive garb, celibacy (which the secular clergy had refused at Nicaea), and asceticism, the people turned to the monks enthusiastically for direction, confession, and even remission. The monks were judged the "saints" par excellence, and soon they completely replaced the secular clergy in the ministry of Penance. This abuse was complained of by Emperor Baudouin (13th century) and opposed doctrinally by Balsamon, but the monk confessors without Orders multiplied from the tenth to the 12th centuries at Alexandria, Constantinople, and Antioch.
The Latin Church. Here the practice dates from the 11th century. Previously, mortal sins were confessed to bishops and priests only. Although they always remained the only official ministers of the Sacrament, confession to laymen, in cases of necessity, was in general usage by the 13th century. Prime sanction came from Liber de vera et falsa poenitentia 10.25: "So great is the power of confession, that if no priest is available, confess to your neighbor" (Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne [Paris 1878–90] 40:1122). With the prestige of Augustine's name, the opinion won acceptance. Where previously the penitent was permitted (Lanfranc) to confess lesser sins (St. Bede, Raoul Ardent) to laymen, now he was said to be obliged to confess both lesser and grave sins (Lom-bard, Alain de Lille, St. Thomas in early writings) to a layman; St. Bonaventure held such a confession to be permitted, but not obligatory.
To this period belong several abuses that grew out of the practice. For example, Innocent III, in an apostolic letter, condemned and ordered the extirpation of the practice of certain Cistercian abbesses who preached publicly and heard the confessions of their subjects.
13th Century and After. Theologians asked, What is the value of a confession to a layman? Is it a Sacrament? All schools agreed that it was not formally sacramental, because it was made to one who could not absolve. With this reservation, it may be stated that the Augustinian school inclined to a sort of sacramental value; for St. Thomas it was sacramental in some way, but not completely; and for the Franciscans, not sacramental at all. Scotus, teaching that priestly absolution is the essence of Penance, questioned whether lay confession was even licit.
Its Disappearance. Lay confession disappeared because of three factors: (1) the nature of the Sacrament was better grasped and made explicit; (2) heretical teachers attempted to use the practice as an argument to claim the power of remission for all men (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [Freiburg 1963]1260); and (3) the official action of the Church at the Fourth Lateran Council made annual confession to one's own priest a matter of precept (Enchiridion symbolorum, 810). The final blow came from the definition of the Council of Trent: there can be no sacramental character to any confession made to a layman (Enchiridion symbolorum, 1684, 1710). By the middle of the 16th century, the practice had already disappeared in Spain, although it continued to be mentioned in other places (England, for example).
See Also: penance, sacrament of; confessor.
Bibliography: p. galtier, De paenitentia (new ed. Rome 1956). 186, 533. e. vacandard, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. (Paris 1903—50) 3.1:838–894. p. bernard, ibid., 894–926. a. teetaert, La Confession aux laïques dans l'Église latine depuis le VIII e jusqu’au XIV e siècle (Paris 1926).
[j. a. spitzig]