Vol. 4, Chapter VIII. Church Discipline

Comp. vol. II. § 57, and vol. III. § 68.

85. The Penitential Books

I. The Acts of Councils, the Capitularies of Charlemagne and his successors, and the Penitential Books, especially that of Theodore of Canterbury, and that of Rome. See Migne’s Patrol. Tom. 99, fol. 901-983.

II. Friedr. Kunstmann (R.C.): Die latein. Poenitentialbuecher der Angelsachsen. Mainz 1844. F. W. H. Wasserschleben: Bussordnungen der abendlaend. Kirche. Halle 1851. Steitz: Das röm. Buss-Sacrament. Frankf. 1854. Frank (R.C.): Die Bussdisciplin der Kirche. Mainz 1867. Probst (R.C.): Sacramente und Sacramentalien. Tübingen 1872. Haddan and Stubbs: Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents relating to Great Britain and Ireland, vol. III. Oxf. 1871. H. Jos. Schmitz (R.C.): Die Bussbücher und die Bussdisciplin der Kirche. Nach handschriftl. Quellen. Mainz 1883 (XVI. and 864 p.). Comp. the review of this book by Wasserschleben in the “Theol. Literaturzeitung,” 1883, fol. 614 sqq.

Bingham, Bk XIV. Smith and Cheetham, II. 608 sqq. (Penitential Books). Herzog,2 III. 20 sqq. (Bussbücher). Wetzer and Welte2 II. 209-222 (Beichtbücher); II. 1561-1590 (Bussdisciplin).

Comp. Lit. in § 87.

The discipline of the Catholic church is based on the power of the keys intrusted to the apostles and their successors, and includes the excommunication and restoration of delinquent members. It was originally a purely spiritual jurisdiction, but after the establishment of Christianity as the national religion, it began to affect also the civil and temporal condition of the subjects of punishment. It obtained a powerful hold upon the public mind from the universal belief of the middle ages that the visible church, centering in the Roman papacy, was by divine appointment the dispenser of eternal salvation, and that expulsion from her communion, unless followed by repentance and restoration, meant eternal damnation. No heresy or sect ever claimed this power.

Discipline was very obnoxious to the wild and independent spirit of the barbaric races. It was exercised by the bishop through synodical courts, which were held annually in the dominions of Charlemagne for the promotion of good morals. Charlemagne ordered the bishops to visit their parishes once a year, and to inquire into cases of incest, patricide, fratricide, adultery, and other vices contrary to the laws of God. Similar directions were given by Synods in Spain and England. The more extensive dioceses were divided into several archdeaconries. The archdeacons represented the bishops, and, owing to this close connection, they possessed a power and jurisdiction superior to that of the priests. Seven members of the congregation were entrusted with a supervision, and had to report to the inquisitorial court on the state of religion and morals. Offences both ecclesiastical and civil were punished at once with fines, fasting, pilgrimages, scourging, imprisonment. The civil authorities aided the bishops in the exercise of discipline. Public offences were visited with public penance; private offences were confessed to the priest, who immediately granted absolution on certain conditions.

The discipline of the Latin church in the middle ages is laid down in the so-called “Penitential Books.” They regulate the order of penitence, and prescribe specific punishments for certain sins, as drunkenness, fornication, avarice, perjury, homicide, heresy, idolatry. The material is mostly derived from the writings of the fathers, and from the synodical canons of Ancyra (314), Neocaesarea (314), Nicaea (325), Gangra (362), and of the North African, Frankish, and Spanish councils down to the seventh century. The common object of these Penitentials is to enforce practical duties and to extirpate the ferocious and licentious passions of heathenism. They present a very dark picture of the sins of the flesh. They kept alive the sense of a moral government of God, who punishes every violation of his law, but they lowered the sense of guilt by fostering the pernicious notion that sin may be expiated by mechanical exercises and by the payment of a sum of money.

There were many such books, British, Irish, Frankish, Spanish, and Roman. The best known are the Anglo-Saxon penitentials of the seventh and eighth centuries, especially that of Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury (669-690). He was a Greek by birth, of Tarsus in Cilicia, and reduced the disciplinary rules of the East and West to a system. He was not the direct author of the book which bears his name, but it was drawn up under his direction, published during his life-time and by his authority, and contains his decisions in answer to various questions of a priest named Eoda and other persons on the subject of penance and the whole range of ecclesiastical discipline. The genuine text has recently been brought to light from early MSS. by the combined labors of German and English scholarship. The introduction and the book itself are written in barbarous Latin. Traces of the Greek training of Theodore may be seen in the references to St. Basil and to Greek practices. Next to Theodore’s collection there are Penitentials under the name of the venerable Bede (d. 735), and of Egbert, archbishop of York (d. 767).

The earliest Frankish penitential is the work of Columban, the Irish missionary (d. 615). He was a severe monastic disciplinarian and gave prominence to corporal punishment among the penalties for offences. The Cummean Penitential (Poenit. Cummeani) is of Scotch-Irish origin, and variously assigned to Columba of Iona (about 597), to Cumin, one of his disciples, or to Cummean, who died in Columban’s monastery at Bobbio (after 711). Haltigar, bishop of Cambray, in the ninth century (about 829) published a “Roman Penitential,” professedly derived from Roman archives, but in great part from Columban, and Frankish sources. An earlier work which bears the name “Poenitentiale Romanum,” from the first part of the eighth century, has a more general character, but its precise origin is uncertain. The term “Roman” was used to designate the quality of a class of Penitentials which enjoyed a more than local authority. Rabanus Maurus (d. 855) prepared a “Liber Poenitentitae” at the request of the archbishop Otgar of Mayence (841). Almost every diocese had its own book of the kind, but the spirit and the material were substantially the same.



As specimens of these Penitential Books, we give the first two chapters from the first book of the Poenitentiale Theodori (Archbishop of Canterbury), as printed in Haddan and Stubbs, Councils and Eccles. Doc. relating to Great Britain and Ireland, vol. IIIrd. p. 177 sqq. We insert a few better readings from other MSS. used by Wasserschleben.

I. De Crapula et Ebrietate.

1. Si quis Episco pus aut aliquis ordinatus in consuetudine vitium habuerit ebrietatis, aut desinat aut deponatur.

2. Si monachus pro ebrietate vomitum facit, XXX. dies peniteat.

3. Si presbiter aut diaconus pro ebrietate, XL. dies peniteat.

4. Si vero pro infirmitate aut quia longo tempore se abstinuerit, et in consuetudine non erit ei multum bibere vel manducare, aut pro gaudio in Natale Domini aut in Pascha aut pro alicujus Sanctorum commemoratione faciebat, et tunc plus non accipit quam decretum est a senioribus, nihil nocet. Si Episcopus juberit, non nocet illi, nisi ipse similiterfaciat.

5. Si laicus fidelis pro ebrietate vomitum facit, XV. dies peniteat.

6. Qui vero inebriatur contra Domini interdictum, si votum sanctitatis habuerit VII. dies in pane et aqua, lxx. sine pinguedine peniteat; laici sine cervisa [cervisia].

7. Qui per nequitiam inebriat alium, XL. dies peniteat.

8. Qui pro satietate vomitum facit, III. diebus [dies] peniteat.

9. Si cum sacrificio communionis, VII. dies peniteat; si infirmitatis causa, sine culpa.

II. De Fornicatione.

1. Si quis fornicaverit cum virgine, I. anno peniteat. Si cum marita, IIII. annos, II. integros, II alios in XL. mis. III. bus., et III dies in ebdomada peniteat.

2. Qui sepe cum masculo aut cum pecude fornicat, X. annos ut peniteret judicavit.

3. Rem aliud. Qui cum pecoribus coierit, XV. annos peniteat.

4. Qui coierit cum masculo post XX. annum, XV. annos peniteat.

5. Si masculus cum masculo fornicaverit, X. annos peniteat.

6. Sodomitae VII. annos peniteat [peniteant]; molles [et mollis] sicut adultera.

7. Item hoc; virile scelus semel faciens IIII annos peniteat; si in consuetudine fuerit, ut Basilius dicit, XV. Si sine, sustinens unum annum ut mulier. Si puer sit, primo II. bus annis; si iterat IIII.

8. Si in femoribus, annum I. vel. III. XL. mas.

9. Si se ipsum coinguinat, XL. dies [peniteat.]

10. Qui concupiscit fornicari [fornicare] sed non potest, XL. dies vel XX. peniteat. Si frequentaverit, si puer sit, XX. dies, vel vapuletur.

11. Pueri qui fornicantur inter se ipsos judicavit ut vapulentur.

12. Mulier cum muliere fornicando [si … fornicaverit], III. annos peniteat.

13. Si sola cum se ipsa coitum habet, sic peniteat.

14. Una penitentia est viduae et puellae. Majorem meruit quae virum habet, si fornicaverit.

15. Qui semen in os miserit, VII annos peniteat: hoc pessimum malum. Alias ab eo judicatum est ut ambo usque in finem vitae peniteant; vel XXII. annos, vel ut superius VII.

16. Si cum matre quis fornicaverit, XV. annos peniteat, et nunquam, mutat [mutet] nisi Dominicis diebus: et hoc tam profanum incertum [incestum] ab eo similiter alio modo dicitur ut cum peregrinatione perenni VII. annos peniteat.

17. Qui cum sorore fornicatur, XV. annos peniteat, eo modo quo superius de matre dicitur, sed et istud XV. alias in canone confirmavit; unde non absorde XV. anni ad matrem transeunt qui scribuntur.

18. Qui sepe fornicaverit, primus canon judicavit X. annos penitere; secundus canon VII.; sed pro infirmitate hominis, per consilium dixerunt III. annos penitere.

19. Si frater cum fratre naturali fornicaverit per commixtionem carnis, XV. annos ab omni carne abstineat.

20. Si mater cum filio suo parvulo fornicationem imitatur, III. annos se abstineat a carne, et diem unum jejunet in ebdomada, id est, usque ad vesperum.

21. Qui inludetur fornicaria cogitatione, peniteat usque dum cogitatio superetur.

22. Qui diligit feminam mente, veniam petat ab eo [a Deo] id est, de amore et amicitia si dixerit si non est susceptus ab ea, VII. dies peniteat.”

The remaining chapters of the first book treat De Avaritia Furtiva; De Occisione Hominum [De Homicidio]; De his qui per Heresim decipiuntur; De Perjurio; De multis et diversis Malis; De diverso Lapso servorum Dei; De his qui degraduntur vel ordinari non possunt; De Baptizatis his, qualiter peniteant; De his qui damnant Dominicam et indicta jejunia ecclesiae Dei; De communione Eucharistiae, vel Sacrificio; De Reconciliatione; De Penitentia Nubentium specialiter; De Cultura Idolorum. The last chapter shows how many heathen superstitions prevailed in connection with gross immorality, which the church endeavored to counteract by a mechanical legalism. The second book treats De Ecclesiae Ministerio; De tribus gratlibus; De Ordinatione; De Baptismo et Confirmatione; De Missa Defunctorum, etc.


86. Ecclesiastical Punishments. Excommunication, Anathema, Interdict

Friedrich Kober (R.C.): Der Kirchenbann nach den Grundsätzen des canonischen Rechts dargestellt. Tübingen 1857 (560 pages). By the same author: Die Suspension der Kirchendiener. Tüb. 1862.

Henry C. Lea: Excommunication, in his Studies in Church History (Philadelphia 1869), p. 223-475.

The severest penalties of the church were excommunication, anathema, and interdict. They were fearful weapons in the hands of the hierarchy during the middle ages, when the church was believed to control salvation, and when the civil power enforced her decrees by the strong arm of the law. The punishment ceases with repentance, which is followed by absolution. The sentence of absolution must proceed from the bishop who pronounced the sentence of excommunication; but in articulo mortis every priest can absolve on condition of obedience in case of recovery.

1. Excommunication was the exclusion from the sacraments, especially the communion. In the dominions of Charlemagne it was accompanied with civil disabilities, as exclusion from secular tribunals, and even with imprisonment and seizure of property. A bishop could excommunicate any one who refused canonical obedience. But a bishop could only be excommunicated by the pope, and the pope by no power on earth. The sentence was often accompanied with awful curses upon the bodies and souls of the offender. The popes, as they towered above ordinary bishops, surpassed them also in the art of cursing, and exercised it with shocking profanity. Thus Benedict VIII., who crowned Emperor Henry II. (a.d. 1014), excommunicated some reckless vassals of William II., Count of Provence, who sought to lay unhallowed hands upon the property of the monastery of St. Giles, and consigned them to Satan with terrible imprecations, although he probably thought he was only following St. Peter’s example in condemning Ananias and Sapphira, and Simon Magus.

“Hardened sinners” (says Lea) “might despise such imprecations, but their effect on believers was necessarily unutterable, when, amid the gorgeous and impressive ceremonial of worship, the bishop, surrounded by twelve priests bearing flaming candles, solemnly recited the awful words which consigned the evil-doer and all his generation to eternal torment with such fearful amplitude and reduplication of malediction, and as the sentence of perdition came to its climax, the attending priests simultaneously cast their candles to the ground and trod them out, as a symbol of the quenching of a human soul in the eternal night of hell. To this was added the expectation, amounting almost to a certainty, that Heaven would not wait for the natural course of events to confirm the judgment thus pronounced, but that the maledictions would be as effective in this world as in the next. Those whom spiritual terrors could not subdue thus were daunted by the fearful stories of the judgment overtaking the hardened sinner who dared to despise the dread anathema.”

2. The Anathema is generally used in the same sense as excommunication or separation from church communion and church privileges. But in a narrower sense, it means the “greater” excommunication, which excludes from all Christian intercourse and makes the offender an outlaw; while the “minor” excommunication excludes only from the sacrament. Such a distinction was made by Gratian and Innocent III. The anathema was pronounced with more solemn ceremonies. The Council of Nicaea, 335, anathematized the Arians, and the Council of Trent, 1563, closed with three anathemas on all heretics.

3. The Interdict extended over a whole town or diocese or district or country, and involved the innocent with the guilty. It was a suspension of religion in public exercise, including even the rites of marriage and burial; only baptism and extreme unction could be performed, and they only with closed doors. It cast the gloom of a funeral over a country, and made people tremble in expectation of the last judgment. This exceptional punishment began in a small way in the fifth century. St. Augustin justly reproved Auxilius, a brother bishop, who abused his power by excommunicating a whole family for the offence of the head, and Pope Leo the Great forbade to enforce the penalty on any who was not a partner in the crime. But the bishops and popes of the middle ages, from the eleventh to the thirteenth century, thought otherwise, and resorted repeatedly to this extreme remedy of enforcing obedience. They had some basis for it in the custom of the barbarians to hold the family or tribe responsible for crimes committed by individual members.

The first conspicuous examples of inflicting the Interdict occurred in France. Bishop Leudovald of Bayeux, after consulting with his brother bishops, closed in 586 all the churches of Rouen and deprived the people of the consolations of religion until the murderer of Pretextatus, Bishop of Rouen, who was slain at the altar by a hireling of the savage queen Fredegunda, should be discovered. Hincmar of Laon inflicted the interdict on his diocese (869), but Hincmar of Rheims disapproved of it and removed it. The synod of Limoges (Limoisin), in 1031, enforced the Peace of God by the interdict in these words which were read in the church: “We excommunicate all those noblemen (milites) in the bishopric of Limoges who disobey the exhortations of their bishop to hold the Peace. Let them and their helpers be accursed, and let their weapons and horses be accursed! Let their lot be with Cain, Dathan, and Abiram! And as now the lights are extinguished, so their joy in the presence of angels shall be destroyed, unless they repent and make satisfaction before dying.” The Synod ordered that public worship be closed, the altars laid bare, crosses and ornaments removed, marriages forbidden; only clergymen, beggars, strangers and children under two years could be buried, and only the dying receive the communion; no clergyman or layman should be shaved till the nobles submit. A signal in the church on the third hour of the day should call all to fall on their knees to pray. All should be dressed in mourning. The whole period of the interdict should be observed as a continued fast and humiliation.

The popes employed this fearful weapon against disobedient kings, and sacrificed the spiritual comforts of whole nations to their hierarchical ambition. Gregory VII. laid the province of Gnesen under the interdict, because King Bolislaw II. had murdered bishop Stanislaus of Cracow with his own hand. Alexander II. applied it to Scotland (1180), because the king refused a papal bishop and expelled him from the country. Innocent III. suspended it over France (1200), because king Philip Augustus had cast off his lawful wife and lived with a concubine. The same pope inflicted this punishment upon England (March 23, 1208), hoping to bring King John (Lackland) to terms. The English interdict lasted over six years during which all religious rites were forbidden except baptism, confession, and the viaticum.

Interdicts were only possible in the middle ages when the church had unlimited power. Their frequency and the impossibility of full execution diminished their power until they fell into contempt and were swept out of existence as the nations of Europe outgrew the discipline of priestcraft and awoke to a sense of manhood.


87. Penance and Indulgence

Nath. Marshall (Canon of Windsor and translator of Cyprian, d. 1729): The Penitential Discipline of the Primitive Church for the first 400 years after Christ, together with its declension from the fifth century downward to its present state. London 1714. A new ed. in the “Lib. of Anglo-Cath. Theol.” Oxford 1844.

Eus. Amort: De Origine, Progressu, Valore ac Fructu Indulgentiarum. Aug. Vindel. 1735 fol.

Muratori: De Redemtione Peccatorum et de Indulgentiarum Origine, in Tom. V. of his Antiquitates Italicae Medii Aevi. Mediol. 1741.

Joh. B. Hirscher (R.C.): Die Lehre vom Ablass. Tübingen, 5th ed. 1844.

G. E. Steitz: Das römische Buss-Sacrament, nach seinem bibl. Grunde und seiner gesch. Entwicklung. Frankf a. M. 1854 (210 pages).

Val. Gröne (R.C.): Der Ablass, seine Geschichte und Bedeutung in der Heilsökonomie. Regensb. 1863.

Domin. Palmieri (R.C.): Tractat. de Poenit. Romae 1879.

George Mead: Art. Penitence, in Smith and Cheetham II. 1586-1608. Wildt, (R.C.): Ablass, in Wetzer and Welte2 I. 94-111; Beichte and Beichtsiegel, II. 221-261. Mejer in Herzog2 I. 90-92. For extracts from sources comp. Gieseler II. 105 sqq.; 193 sqq.; 515 sqq. (Am. ed.)

For the authoritative teaching of the Roman church on the Sacramentum Poenitentiae see Conc. Trident. Sess. XIV. held 1551.

The word repentance or penitence is an insufficient rendering for the corresponding Greek metanoia, which means a radical change of mind or conversion from a sinful to a godly life, and includes, negatively, a turning away from sin in godly sorrow (repentance in the narrower sense) and, positively, a turning to Christ by faith with a determination to follow him. The call to repent in this sense was the beginning of the preaching both of John the Baptist, and of Jesus Christ.

In the Latin church the idea of repentance was externalized and identified with certain outward acts of self-abasement or self-punishment for the expiation of sin. The public penance before the church went out of use during the seventh or eighth century, except for very gross offences, and was replaced by private penance and confession. The Lateran Council of 1215 under Pope Innocent III. made it obligatory upon every Catholic Christian to confess to his parish priest at least once a year.

Penance, including auricular confession and priestly absolution, was raised to the dignity of a sacrament for sins committed after baptism. The theory on which it rests was prepared by the fathers (Tertullian and Cyprian), completed by the schoolmen, and sanctioned by the Roman church. It is supposed that baptism secures perfect remission of past sins, but not of subsequent sins, and frees from eternal damnation, but not from temporal punishment, which culminates in death or in purgatory. Penance is described as a “laborious kind of baptism,” and is declared by the Council of Trent to be necessary to salvation for those who have fallen after baptism, as baptism is necessary for those who have not yet been regenerated.

The sacrament of penance and priestly, absolution includes three elements: contrition of the heart, confession by the mouth, satisfaction by good works. On these conditions the priest grants absolution, not simply by a declaratory but by a judicial act. The good works required are especially fasting and almsgiving. Pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome, Tours, Compostella, and other sacred places were likewise favorite satisfactions. Peter Damiani recommended voluntary self-flagellation as a means to propitiate God. These pious exercises covered in the popular mind the whole idea of penance. Piety was measured by the quantity of good works rather than by quality of character.

Another medieval institution must here be mentioned which is closely connected with penance. The church in the West, in her zeal to prevent violence and bloodshed, rightly favored the custom of the barbarians to substitute pecuniary compensation for punishment of an offence, but wrongly applied this custom to the sphere of religion. Thus money, might be substituted for fasting and other satisfactions, and was clothed with an atoning efficacy. This custom seems to have proceeded from the church of England, and soon spread over the continent. It degenerated into a regular traffic, and became a rich source for the increase of ecclesiastical and monastic property.

Here is the origin of the indulgences so called, that is the remission of venial sins by the payment of money and on condition of contrition and prayer. The practice was justified by the scholastic theory that the works of supererogation of the saints constitute a treasury of extra-merit and extra-reward which is under the control of the pope. Hence indulgence assumed the special meaning of papal dispensation or remission of sin from the treasury of the overflowing merits of saints, and this power was extended even to the benefit of the dead in purgatory.

Indulgences may be granted by bishops and archbishops in their dioceses, and by the pope to all Catholics. The former dealt with it in retail, the latter in wholesale. The first instances of papal indulgence occur in the ninth century under Paschalis I. and John VIII. who granted it to those who had fallen in war for the defence of the church. Gregory VI. in 1046 promised it to all who sent contributions for the repair of the churches in Rome. Urban II., at the council of Clermont (1095), offered to the crusaders “by the authority of the princes of the Apostles, Peter and Paul,” plenary indulgence as a reward for a journey to the Holy Land. The same offer was repeated in every crusade against the Mohammedans and heretics. The popes found it a convenient means for promoting their power and filling their treasury. Thus the granting of indulgences became a periodical institution. Its abuses culminated in the profane and shameful traffic of Tetzel under Leo X. for the benefit of St. Peter’s church, but were overruled in the Providence of God for the Reformation and a return to the biblical idea of repentance.



The charge is frequently made against the papal court in the middle ages that it had a regulated scale of prices for indulgences, and this is based on the Tax Tables of the Roman Chancery published from time to time. Roman Catholic writers (as Lingard, Wiseman) say that the taxes are merely fees for the expedition of business and the payment of officials, but cannot deny the shameful avarice of some popes. The subject is fully discussed by Dr. T. L. Green (R.C.), Indulgences, Sacramental Absolutions, and the Tax-Tables of the Roman Chancery and Penitentiary, considered, in reply to the Charge of Venality, London (Longmans) 1872, and, on the Protestant side, by Dr. Richard Gibbings (Prof. of Ch. Hist. in the University of Dublin), The Taxes of the Apostolic Penitentiary; or, the Prices of Sins in the Church of Rome, Dublin 1872. Gibbings reprints the Taxae Sacrae Poenitentiariae Romanae from the Roman ed. of 1510 and the Parisian ed. of 1520, which cover 21 pages in Latin, but the greater part of the book (164 pages) is an historical introduction and polemical discussion.