Again, I’m following up with selections from Paul Johnson’s “History of Christianity”.
Part 1: Augustine as Conduit to the Inquisition
Part 2: How Confession became a Divinely Instituted Sacrament
It is fascinating how this all leads to the development of the Inquisition. More from Johnson:
Innocent III’s insistence on confession to a priest, in private, undoubtedly sprang from his resolve to fight deviation and heresy by all means available. It enabled the Church to be far more flexible in its tactics, and to adapt them to particular problems, places and men. And, whereas public confession was a form of rude democracy, the carefully selected confessor underpinned the hierarchy of society. Confessing a king, a duke or an archbishop [that is, hearing their confession] was a highly skilled clerical trade, as many manuals survive to testify – they give us, among other things, revealing insights into medieval political theory. The development of the “private confessor” was yet one more indication that, in the eyes of the Church, Christians were not necessarily equal even in spiritual matters.
The principle tended to be extended to penance also; or, more particularly, to methods of performing it. The Christian promise of salvation, so hugely attractive to the Mediterranean world and, later, to the northern barbarians, was balanced by a horrifying theory for the alternative for sinners. The existence of Hell, as some of the early Fathers had argued, helped to justify Heaven; at any rate, it seemed to unsophisticated minds to make salvation seem more credible. There was never absolute agreement about how many would be saved. Origen had thought it possible all might, in the end, be redeemed; but this opinion was condemned by a sixth-century council and the tendency in the Dark Ages was to reduce the possibilities sharply. By the thirteenth century, official opinion had stabilized: “few”, thought Aquinas, would be saved, and “very many” damned; most later medieval preachers put the saved as one in 1,000 or even one in 10,000. Hence, with the development of Hell-theory the paucity of the saved, the difficulty of obtaining full remission for sin naturally increased. Dark Age penances were almost incredibly arduous. Like secular crimes, they were based on the principle of compensation – not to the victim, however, but to God. And how could an outraged God be compensated in full?
I’ll pause here simply to ask, why didn’t “The Church” know this?
The only way to do it was to inflate the idea of self-denial. Thus most early penances centred on endless periods of fasting. Wulfstan of York refers to one man who was sentenced to fast, barefoot, on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, for the rest of his life, to wear only a woolen garment, and to have only three haircuts a year. Fasting was often accompanied by compulsory pilgrimages, or visits to large numbers of shrines. Thus parricide – quite a common crime in the Dark Ages – was punished by exile: the penitent, bound in chains, had to go on pilgrimage until the chains were so worn that they fell off.
There were many practical problems connected with penance. Custom varied enormously. Written penitentiaries disagreed wildly, and rival experts heaped abuse on each other. Peter Damian was particularly violent in his criticism of confessors who took sodomy lightly; he thought the eighth century penitentiary of Archbishop Egbert of York, standard in England, composed of “theatrical ravings”, “the incantations of the devil”, and “a monster created by a man, with the head of a horse and hooves of a goat”. Then, too, many penances were almost impossible to perform. The more sincere the repentance, the more seriously the penitent would take the task imposed on him; often a man might spend the rest of his life in terror at failure. And what if he died before the penance was over? The Church only slowly adopted the theory of purgatory to meet this difficulty.
The harsh, even cruel, Dark Age practice of inordinate penance not only gave credibility to the idea of salvation; in a way, it gave credibility to the whole of Christian society. The brutal scourging of a naked king or archbishop was exciting evidence of spiritual equality before God, and man. But once the clerical experts found mechanical means to erode the full penitential rigours, a yawning hole began to appear in the fabric of Christian conviction. Such means were all too easily discovered: the real evil of canon law was that it was constantly chipped away – rather like modern tax-lawyers – at the egalitarian provisions in Christianity. It rebuilt hierarchies and pyramids on democratic spiritual foundations, and introduced the cash nexus into the supposed world to come. The canon lawyer was always engaged in a struggle with Death the Leveller, and always beat him – at least to the satisfaction of the papal curia.
It is in the seventh century that we first hear of men undertaking to perform the penances of others, in return for payment. This was forbidden; indeed, at first the Church opposed any form of commutation. The first loop-hole allowed was vicarious penance without pay. A man might perform another’s penance from motives of love (or fear; or hope of future favour). Thus we find an early case where a powerful man got through a seven-year fasting penance in three days with the help of 840 followers. And once vicarial penance in any form was admitted, it proved impossible to keep money out of it.
Paul Johnson, History of Christianity, © 1976 Athenium, pgs. 230-232.