Doors to the Sacred: Part IV—Penance and Reconciliation by John Alonzo Dick

This is the fourth in a multipart series on the sacraments by John Alonzo Dick, professor emeritus of historical theology at the Catholic University of Leuven. We conceive of this series as a kind of seminar or “retreat in writing” that aims to give an historical, pastoral, and theological overview of the sacraments and how our understanding of them continues to evolve. A general introduction to the series is available here. Part I, on baptism and confirmation, is available here; part II, on the Eucharist, is available here; and part III, on marriage, is available here—Ed.

The earliest Christian penitential practices did not differ greatly from their Jewish predecessors. Around 57 CE Paul wrote that he was shocked that the community in Corinth had not expelled one of its members for marrying his stepmother, a practice that was expressly forbidden by the Torah. The Christian community was to be a holy community, free of wickedness, and Paul counseled them to cast out from their midst those who worshiped idols, who got drunk, and who fell into other immoral practices (1 Cor 5:1–13).

This practice of restricting someone from normal involvement with the community and later lifting the restriction was known in rabbinical writings as “binding and loosing.” The rabbis did it on the authority of Jewish law, but the early Christians saw themselves doing it on the authority of Christ.

Neither the gospels nor other New Testament writings indicate any specific ritual connected with this discipline. The only ritual of forgiveness known to the earliest Christian community was baptism, and today biblical scholars view almost all the texts that speak of a call to repentance as a call to baptism and moral rectitude after baptism. Penance was seen as part of baptism. There was no separate sacrament as we have it today.

Clearly the early Christians understood that Jesus began his ministry with a call to repentance (Mark 1:15), and to those who showed sorrow for their sinfulness he announced that they were forgiven by the power of God (Luke 5:18–26; 7:36–50). When asked how many times one person should forgive another, Jesus said, in effect, “every time.”

Second Century

By the second century Ignatius of Antioch (d. ca. 110) and other second-century bishops continued to speak of personal correction and praying for others as a means of combating sin. Polycarp of Smyrna (69–155) wrote that pastors should be compassionate and merciful to the sheep in Christ’s flock who went astray.

By the middle of the second century, however, there was a new development. There could only be one penance after baptism for the serious sins of apostasy, murder, and adultery. The public sinner would have to confess sins to the bishop. During liturgies, they had to sit behind the community and wear penitential clothing. They were not allowed to stay for Eucharist and had to leave after the gospel.

Depending on the sin, some sinners had to pray and fast until their death. Church regulations were so strict that many people waited until they were dying for the opportunity to be forgiven. Others put off being baptized until they were close to death.

In some places this practice lasted into the fourth century. We know that Constantine the Great (ca. 272–337) legalized Christianity in 312 CE, but he was not baptized until shortly before his death in 337. Constantine put off baptism for as long as he did so that he could be absolved from as much of his sin as possible.

Third Century

By the third century a general pattern for the public reconciliation of known sinners began to appear in many churches. Those who wanted to rejoin the community went to the bishop and confessed their error, but before they could be readmitted to the ranks of the faithful they had to reform their lives: they had to perform works of repentance, fasting and praying, and giving alms to the poor to show that their repentance was sincere. The period of their penitence could be a few weeks or a few years depending on the penitential customs of their community. In effect, serious sinners were thrown out of the community, totally excommunicated. When their time of penance was over, the bishop imposed his hands on their heads as he had done after their baptism.

There were extremes in interpretation. Rigorists claimed that excommunication for sins like apostasy and adultery should be permanent. At the other extreme were bishops who generously readmitted people who seemed to be sorry for what they had done.

Local bishops were relatively independent and could set their own policies. In some places penitents were required to stay away from public amusements. In others they could be forbidden to hold public office, barred from the clergy, or forced to abstain from marital intercourse during the whole penitential period. Occasionally, for heinous offenses like bestiality, penances of 20 or 30 years were imposed. In reality, however, rules were strict, and post-baptismal penance could only be done once in a lifetime.

It is particularly noteworthy that most bishops did not see their forgiveness as “causing” divine forgiveness: it was the other way around. Divine forgiveness always came to those who turned from sin and mended their ways, and the church simply declared that they were forgiven by God when it was sure that they had truly reformed their lives. Reconciliation with the church, then, was a sign that reconciliation with God had already taken place.

Fourth Century

Starting in the fourth century, with the Roman Empire becoming Christian, bishops became civil judges and sin was seen as breaking the law rather than fracturing one’s relationship with God. Bishops were given the right to act as judges in civil suits and their decisions had legal force. Their decisions in matters of church discipline were increasingly regarded as spiritual laws. Clearly a more legalistic understanding of penance emerged. It was understood as a kind of payment to satisfy the demands of divine justice. Bishops were acting as God’s representatives.

This change was greatly facilitated by a narrow interpretation of passages like Matthew 18:18 by Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and Pope Leo the Great (ca. 400–461). They ignored earlier verses indicating a process for Christians to follow when dealing with a believer who refused to repent of sinful behavior. That process ends, as a last resort, with the person being removed from the community.

Most importantly, Augustine and Leo understood that it was the “disciple” and not God who did the forgiving, though only after true repentance. As a result, sin—which had earlier been thought of as a break in the relationship of love and trust between members of the community, and as a violation of the covenant relationship between the community and God—was increasingly conceived of in legal terms, as a breaking of a divine law or the violation of an ecclesiastical law.

Penance became a very public matter. But it was still normally received only once in a lifetime. The majority of Christians, however, felt no need for public penitence. They were not great saints, but they were not great sinners either.

Late Fourth and Early Fifth Century

During this time we witness a new development, especially in Ireland. The Celtic practice of penance became the seeking of private spiritual advice.

Ecclesiastical canonical penance had little or no effect on the lives of ordinary Christians. Devout Christians, in some places already by the beginning of the fourth century, were encouraged to personally confess their shortcomings with a spiritual “guide” or “physician” who would give them direction in works of prayer and repentance. They did this to lead more holy lives. It is important to note that the person to whom they went was not necessarily a priest. Confession could be made to a layperson, usually a monk or a nun.

Sixth-Century Penitential Books

Penitential books containing church rules concerning penance were first developed by Celtic monks in Ireland in the sixth century. They gave lists of sins and the appropriate penances prescribed for them. They became a type of manual for confessors.

The number of penitential books and their importance is often cited as evidence of the particular strictness of Celtic spirituality in the seventh century. As priests heard confessions, they began to compile handbooks that dealt with the most commonly confessed sins, and they wrote down set penances for those sins. The penitential book composed around 650 by an Irish monk named Cummean became an important handbook for confessors. For stealing, Cummean prescribed that a layman should do one year of penance; a priest, five; and a bishop, six.

Twelfth to Sixteenth Century

In the twelfth century, the rules changed. Only priests could listen to the confession of sins. The formula that the priest used after hearing a person’s confession changed as well. What had been “May God have mercy on you and forgive you your sins” was changed to “I absolve you from your sins.” Thomas Aquinas, with his limited knowledge of the early centuries of church life, mistakenly asserted that the changed formula was in fact an ancient formula.

It was also in the twelfth century that the understanding of purgatory developed. Medieval theologians said that sins were forgiven but that, after death, sinners’ souls still needed to be cleansed before they could enter heaven. Purgatory was suggested and presumed to be a place of a cleansing or purgatorial fire, outside the gates of heaven, to enable the deceased to achieve the holiness necessary for them to enter the joy of heaven.

Indulgences were later introduced as a way to reduce the “days” of purgatorial punishment one had to undergo before entering heaven. One could receive an indulgence for saying special prayers, visiting holy shrines, performing good deeds, and later by contributing money to the church.

The main funding for the early stages of building St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, for example, came from the sale of indulgences. The German Dominican friar Johan Tetzel (ca. 1465–1519) gathered indulgence money for the project. Although it is now disputed, the old legend was that Tetzel had quipped, “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

In the twelfth century the decision was made that a person could receive the sacrament of penance many times during their life. In 1215 CE, the Fourth Lateran Council, meeting at the Lateran Palace in Rome, initiated additional changes. “Penance” became known as “confession,” and the council commanded that every Christian who had reached the age of reason had to confess all of their sins at least once a year to a priest. (The Lateran Council also ordered that Jews were not to hold public office and mandated a special dress code to distinguish them from Christians. And so, we might ask, what about penance and reconciliation for these grossly antisemitic bishops?)

When Pope Leo X (1475–1521) excommunicated Martin Luther (1483–1546) from the Catholic Church in 1520, the bill of excommunication also condemned 41 of his ideas, including 6 on indulgences and 12 on penance. Luther himself was somewhat ambivalent about the sacramentality of confession. If it was a sacrament at all, it was only a sacrament in the broadest sense, instituted by the church, through which Christians could experience the forgiveness of God.

In the mid-sixteenth century, bishops at the Council of Trent (1545–1563) stressed the private-confession approach to the sacrament of penance. In fact, Trent’s bishops were mistaken in assuming that private confession dated back to the days of the apostles, and they understood that the historic Jesus had created the sacrament of penance. The Council of Trent’s medieval conception of sin and its remission through the confession of guilt and the performance of penitential works lasted into modern times because the Catholic Church retained its medieval cultural form while the world around it changed.

Second Vatican Council to the Present

The Roman Catholic approach to penance did not begin to change until after the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), when the name of the sacrament was changed from penance to to reconciliation, and when the rite allowed for a meeting of priest and penitent that was more like counseling than confession.

How should Christian communities practice reconciliation today? People do need to acknowledge their sinful behavior and seek forgiveness. But forgiveness also requires reconciliation. I suggest that at the local parish level, Christian communities should devote resources and personnel to focus on conversion and reconciliation about racism, misogyny, and homophobic discrimination. They should also focus on reconciliation within families: between husbands and wives, between parents and teenagers, between brothers and sisters who are angry with each other, and perhaps even between extended family members.

Such a ministry of reconciliation would also require specially trained men and women as ministers of reconciliation. Then, indeed, the local Christian community would truly become a sacrament of reconciliation. ♦

John Alonzo Dick is a retired professor of historical theology at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven). He holds licentiates in historical theology from the University of Nijmegen and KU Leuven, and doctorates in religious studies and historical theology from KU Leuven. For 30 years he taught courses about religion and values in American society at KU Leuven and the University of Ghent. He is the author of The Malines Conversations Revisited (1989), From Malines to ARCIC (1997) with A. Denaux, and Aggiornamento?: Catholicism from Gregory XVI to Benedict XVI (2013) with J. Mettepenningen and K. Schelkens. This year he published Jean Jadot: Paul’s Man in Washington. He maintains a weekly blog at

Image: Detail from The Confession, Giuseppe Molteni, 1838. Fondazione Cariplo / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
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