More Paul Johnson today. I’m headed into the Inquisition from Augustine, but as I look through Johnson to pick up a place to make the connection, I’m coming across all sorts of, uh, interesting facts. I’ve been looking at forgeries about Peter in the early church, and this one ties in nicely – forgeries about Peter lead to overblown theories about “the Power of the Keys” which “develop” directly into the sacrament of Penance (Confession), which is then used in a cynical way to control “the masses” – through a misuse of this mutant “sacrament”; the use of indulgences then first fueled the crusades, which, in time, were then co-opted to fight (and in Augustinian style, destroy) heresy. This proved too vulgar for the “conscience” of the Church, and these practices were later channeled into the Inquisition.
I’ve broken up long paragraphs and added some bolding to facilitate reading, but from here on, (except for my comments in [square brackets]), you’re reading Johnson:
Above all, however, what the peasant wanted from the Church was some hope of salvation. This was the overwhelming reason why Christianity replaced paganism: it had a very clear-cut theory of what happened after death, and of how eternal happiness could be gained. The appeal was to all classes: it was the one thing which enabled the Church to hold society together.
Yet this aspect of Christianity, too, was subtly changed over the centuries, and balanced in favour of the possessing classes: indeed, it became the central feature of mechanical religion. As we have seen, baptism was originally regarded as the prelude to an imminent parousia. Only gradually, as the parousia receded, did the Church have to grapple with the problem of sin after baptism, and the second (or third and subsequent) repentance.
Moreover, it is fair to say that the problem was never satisfactorily resolved. It was agreed that a post-baptismal sin had to be confessed in some form. Ambrose thought it might be done publicly, to a priest, or privately to oneself. If confession took place to a priest, he would try to intercede with God; but the confessors [priests to whom confessions might be said] (here Ambrose quoted Origen) had no power to do anything except pray and advise. The Church’s actual formularies were framed only for public confession, and penance. But an exception was introduced in the case of adulteresses, who might risk their lives if they confessed publicly; and these exceptions, or concessions, multiplied.
In 459, Leo 1 forbade reading confessions in public; he said it sufficed to confess to God, and then to a priest or bishop, who would pray for the sinner. By the time of Gregory the Great it was accepted that confession was necessary for the forgiveness of sin, and that it was in sacerdotal hands; but it was apparently accompanied by a public ceremony. Auricular confession, in its mature form, was probably a byproduct of the conversion of the Germanic tribes; it was established much more slowly in southern Europe.
Of course most people preferred it to public humiliation; the chief brake on its expansion was the shortage of priests. The Council of Chalons, 813, laid down that confessions in private to God or to a priest were equally effective; and delayed, or death-bed confessions were popular – as [deathbed] baptism had once been. Auricular confession as a standard, and as a sacrament, developed pari passu with papal and clericalist theory in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, and it was clearly connected with them. The first formulation of the sacramental basis was by the Paris schoolmen, especially by Peter Lombard, who relied on a forged Augustinian tract (Augustine did not in fact deal with the problem). Pseudo-Isidorian forgeries played a major role in the evolution of the related “Power of the Keys” theory. The salient forgery was in the Capitularies of Benedict the Levite, a supposed document of Clement 1, reciting his ordination as Bishop of Rome, in which Peter formally transmitted to him the power of the keys; Peter was made to say that bishops were the keys of the Church since they have the power to open and close the gates of Heaven.
Hence, in the twelfth century, confession to a priest in private was the only form still used in the West, except in certain monasteries where the earlier tradition of public confession lingered on for a time. The Council of Paris, 1198, published the first synodical code of instructions for confessors; and at the Lateran Council in 1216 Innocent III made auricular confession compulsory for all adult Christians. There remained an unresolved argument through the Middle Ages whether confession was a human or divine institution; then, in the sixteenth century, the denial of the Reformers that it was a sacrament at all hardened opinion among the papalists, and the council of Trent declared it divine.
Paul Johnson, History of Christianity, © 1976 Athenium, pgs. 229-230.