Penitential Controversy

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The problem regarding the practice of sacramental penance in the early Church. No unequivocal evidence exists for the formal method whereby sins were submitted to the priest and absolution given to the penitent during the first four centuries, although the practice of Penance and the forgiveness of sins is an essential fact of Christian belief from the beginning of the Church. During the second and third centuries, controversy broke out in various local churches as to whether formal absolution for sins committed after Baptism could be obtained more than once, and likewise regarding the possibility of the Church's granting pardon for certain grave sinsadultery, homicide, and idolatrycommitted after Baptism. Finally, the readmittance to Communion in the Church of those who had committed acts of apostasy during persecution, particularly the lapsi, or fallen, and the libellatici, or those who obtained certificates without sacrificing, was disputed. This difficulty also involved the intercessionary powers of the martyrs and confessors of the faith.

Postapostolic Documents. Although the didache and the so-called Second Epistle of clement i indicate that penance for the forgiveness of sins was a common Christian belief, neither of these documents specifies the technical machinery of effecting pardon other than through reconciliation with the leaders of the Church. In the Shepherd of hermas, there is evidence of a dispute regarding the number of times pardon can be extended to postbaptismal sinners, and the writer indicates the possibility of a time of pardon that has been variously interpreted by modern authors to mean a period of jubilee, although this season is identified with the building of a tower that represents the Church under an eschatological or chiliastic perspective. Hence the time of pardon could be coextensive with the perdurance of the Church. Hermas also spoke of one penance, μετάνοια μία (Mand.4.1.8, 3.6); but this could mean one type rather than the usual significance of a single opportunity.

Tertullian and Cyprian. It is with tertullian (d. after 220) that the polemic concerning the possibility of only one absolution for postbaptismal sins comes clearly into focus (De pudicitia ). He spoke of duabus plancis in the sense of Baptism and one other chance for safety given to those who relapsed into grave sins after the total forgiveness in Baptism (De paenit. 12.9). In his Montanist period (after 196), he likewise challenged a bishop, whom he ironically termed the supreme pontiff, for having declared that the irremissible sins of adultery, murder, and idolatry (De pud. 9.20; 21.14; 19.25; Adv. Marc. 4.9) can be forgiven by the Church. He termed these sins exitiosa and said their forgiveness is reserved to God (De pud. 19.6). The supreme pontiff to whom Tertullian referred was probably Agrippinus, Bishop of Carthage (21822), and not the bishop of Rome. St. Cyprian of Carthage, half a century later, commented on Tertullian's opinion regarding unforgivable sins and said it did not represent the true teaching of the Church (Epistle 55); and Augustine in the 5th century also made reference to it as an error (De libro Act. Apost.; Patrologia Latina, ed. J.P. Migne, 217 v., indexes 4 v. (Paris 187890) 34:994).

Hippolytus and Novatian. Contemporary with Tertullian, however, a dispute had broken out in the Roman Church between Pope callistus (21722) and the antipope, later reconciled martyr, hippolytus. The latter in his Philosophumena (9.2) accused the Pope of laxity in his dealing leniently with Christians who had been guilty of grave sins. It is not certain whether there was an immediate connection between the Roman and Carthaginian disputes. However, both at Carthage and at Rome, during the Decian persecution (24951), Pope cornelius (25153) and Cyprian were faced with the difficulty of dealing with the lapsi. Cyprian tried to curb the presumption of certain confessors who had suffered for the faith and were granting bills of pardon to the fallen without due penance and at the same time he had to assert the priestly power of forgiving sins even for apostates (De lapsis 16; Epist. 61.3). In Rome Novatian had dealt with the problem during the vacancy of the apostolic see before the election of Cornelius. In two letters to Cyprian (Epist. 30, 36), Novatian described the Roman doctrine of the possibility of forgiving sins of apostasy during persecution; but he cautioned that for the time being, this should be done only in case of imminent death. After the election of Cornelius (March 251), however, Novatian reversed his stand and claimed that apostates should be excommunicated forever. He went into schism (see novatian and novatianism) when his position was rejected. He was condemned by a Roman synod of 60 bishops (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.43.2).

Origen and Clement. In the Oriental Church, Origen (De orat. ) and Clement of Alexandria (Quis dives; Stromata 2.12.55; 7.16.102) testify to the Church's teaching that postbaptismal sins of all gravity are forgiven in the Church through the use of God's power, but insist upon the necessity of long and vigorous penance. The third-century document called the Didascalia Apostolorum condemns those who deny that God grants pardon for sins through reconciliation by the Church's bishops and priests.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, when this matter was disputed at length, it was generally agreed that there are three kinds of penance: solemn, public, and private. The first, for those guilty of capital sins that hurt the Church, required a special ceremony of absolution and could be given only once since it meant retirement from worldly affairs including cohabitation in marriage (Peter Lombard, Sent. 4.14.3); the second was the penance performed publicly by ecclesiastical acts of prayer, fasting, almsgiving; the third was that made cotidie coram sacer-dote daily before the priest (Alain de Lille, Lib. poenit.; Patrologia Latina 210:297).

See Also: penance, sacrament of.

Bibliography: a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 12.1:7491127. a. d'alÈs, L'Édit de Calliste (Paris 1914). b. poschmann, Paenitentia secunda: Die kirchliche Busse in ältesten Christentum bis Cyprian und Origenes (Bonn 1940). h. koch, Cyprianische Untersuchungen (Bonn 1926). p. batiffol, Études d'histoire et de théologie positive: Première série. (7th ed. Paris 1926). p. galtier, L'Élise et la rémission des péchés (Paris 1932); Aux origines du sacrement de pénitence (Rome 1951). e. f. latko, Origen's Concept of Penance (Quebec 1949). k. rahner, Recherches de science religieuse 37 (1950) 4797; 25286, 42256. Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie 72 (1950) 25781. j. t. macneill, The Celtic Penitentials and Their Influence (Paris 1923). r. c. mortimer, The Origins of Private Penance in the Western Church (Oxford 1939).

[f. x. murphy/eds]