Vol. 5, Chapter XIV (Cont’d) – Penance and Indulgences


The sacrament of penance was placed in close connection with baptism by the Schoolmen, as it was later by the council of Trent, which called it a “sort of laborious baptism.” Baptism serves for the deletion of original sin; penance for the deletion of mortal sins committed after baptism. Using Tertullian’s illustration, the Schoolmen designated penance the second plank thrown out to the sinner after shipwreck as baptism is the first. In daily religious life, penance became the chief concern of the people and also the chief instrumentality of the priesthood in securing and strengthening its authority. The treatment given to it by the Schoolmen is even more elaborate than the treatment they give to the eucharist.

One feature in which this sacrament differs from the others is the amount of positive activity it requires from those who seek the grace involved in it. Contrition, confession to the priest, and the performance of good works prescribed by the priest were the conditions of receiving this grace. Everything depends upon God, and yet everything depends upon the subjection of the penitent to the priest and his act of absolution. It is in connection with this sacrament that the doctrine of the keys comes to its full rights. Here a man is absolved from sin and reunited with the Church, and reconciled to Christ through the mediation of the sacerdotal key.

Two perversions of Scripture were the largest factors in developing the theory of meritorious penance. The first was the false interpretation of Joh_20:23, “Whosoever sins ye forgive they are forgiven, and whosoever sins ye retain they are retained.” The passage was interpreted to mean that Christ conferred upon the Apostles and the Church judicial authority to forgive sins. The Protestant theory is that this authority is declarative. The second factor was the Vulgate’s translation of the New Testament for the word “repent,” poenitentiam agite, “do penance,” as if repentance were a meritorious external exercise, and not a change of disposition, which is the plain meaning of the Greek word μετανοέω, “to change your mind.”

The confusion of the New Testament idea and the Church’s doctrine is evident enough from the twofold meaning Peter the Lombard and Thomas Aquinas give to the thing called penance. Baptism, they said, is a sacrament, but penance is both a sacrament and a virtuous state of the mind. In the New Testament the latter is intended. The theologians added all the mechanism of penance.

At the close of the twelfth century a complete change was made in the doctrine of penance. The theory of the early Church, elaborated by Tertullian and other Church fathers, was that penance is efficient to remove sins committed after baptism, and that it consisted in certain penitential exercises such as prayer and alms. The first elements added by the medieval system were that confession to the priest and absolution by the priest are necessary conditions of pardon. Peter the Lombard did not make the mediation of the priest a requirement, but declared that confession to God was sufficient. In his time, he says, there was no agreement on three aspects of penance: first, whether contrition for sin was not all that was necessary for its remission; second, whether confession to the priest was essential; and third, whether confession to a layman was insufficient. The opinions handed down from the Fathers, he asserts, were diverse, if not antagonistic.

Alexander of Hales marks a new era in the history of the doctrine. He was the first of the Schoolmen to answer clearly all these questions, and to him more than to any other single theologian does the Catholic Church owe its doctrine of penance. Thomas Aquinas confirmed what Alexander taught.

In distinction from baptism, which is a regeneration, Thomas Aquinas declared penance to be a restoration to health and he and Bonaventura agreed that it is the efficacious remedy for mortal sins. Thomas traced its institution back to Christ, who left word that “penance and remission of sins should be preached from Jerusalem,” Luk_24:47. James had this institution in mind when he called upon Christians to confess their sins one to another. Penance may be repeated, for we may again and again lose our love to God.

Penance consists of four elements: contrition of heart, confession with the mouth, satisfaction by works, and the priest’s absolution. The first three are called the substance of penance and are the act of the offender. The priest’s absolution is termed the form of penance.

1. Contrition was defined as the sorrow of the soul for its sins, an aversion from them, and a determination not to commit them again. The Lombard and Gratian taught that such contrition, being rooted in love, is adequate for the divine pardon without confession to a priest or priestly absolution.

At the side of the doctrine of contrition the Schoolmen, beginning with Alexander Hales, placed the novel doctrine of attrition, which was most fully emphasized by Duns Scotus. Attrition is the negative element in contrition, a sort of half repentance, a dread of punishment, Galgenreue, “scaffold-repentance,” as the Germans call it. This state of the heart the Schoolmen found represented in the experience of the prodigal at the moment when the father went out to meet him. According to this doctrine, a man may be forgiven and saved who is actuated simply by the fear of hell and punishment and has neither faith nor filial love in his heart. All he is required to do is to diligently go through the other steps of the process of penance, and the priest’s pardon will be forthcoming.

2. Confession to the priest, the second element in penance, is defined by Thomas Aquinas as the making-known of the hidden disease of sin in the hope of getting pardon. Not even the pope has the right to grant a dispensation from it any more than he may offer salvation from original sin without baptism. It covers mortal sins. For the remission of venial sins, confession is not necessary. The Church makes daily supplication for such offences and that is sufficient. They do not separate the soul either from God or the Church. They are simply a sluggish movement of the affections toward God, not an aversion to Him. They are removed by holy water and other minor rites.

By the action of the Fourth Lateran, 1215, confession to the priest at least once a year was made a test of orthodoxy. Beginning with Alexander of Hales, the Schoolmen vindicate the positions that confession, to be efficacious, must be made to the priest, and that absolution by the priest is an essential condition of the sinner’s pardon. Bonaventura, after devoting much time to the question, “Whether it is sufficient to confess our sins to God,” answered it in the negative. At greater length than Peter the Lombard had done, he quoted the Fathers to show that there was no unanimity among them on the question. But he declared that, since the decision of the Fourth Lateran, all are to be adjudged heretics who deny that confession to the priest is essential. Before that decision, such denial was not heresy.

Confession must be made to the priest as Christ’s vicar. In case of necessity, no priest being available, a layman may also hear confession. By such confession the offender may be reconciled to God but not to the Church, and in order to be so reconciled and admitted to the other sacraments he must also, as opportunity offers, confess again to the priest.

Priests were forbidden to look at the face of a woman at the confessional, and severe punishments were prescribed for betraying its secrets, even to degradation from office and life-long confinement in a convent. The mendicant monks were confirmed by Clement IV. and Martin IV. in their right to shrive everywhere. A contemporary declared that the whole of the Jordan ran into their mouths.

3. Satisfaction, the third element in penance, is imposed by the priest as the minister of God and consists of prayer, pilgrimages, fastings, payments of money, and other good works. These penal acts are medicines for spiritual wounds and a compensation to God for offences against Him, as Thomas Aquinas, following Anselm, taught. The priest is the judge of what the act of satisfaction shall be. Among the more notable cases of public penance were those of Henry II. after Becket’s death, Philip I. of France, and Raymund of Toulouse.

Satisfaction differs from contrition and confession in the very important particular that one person can perform it for another. To prove this point, Thomas Aquinas used the words of the Apostle when he said, “Bear ye one another’s burdens.” Gal_6:2.

4. The fourth element in the sacrament of penance was the formal sentence of absolution pronounced by the priest. This function, which Schwane calls the main part of the sacrament of penance, or the power of the keys, potestas clavium, belongs primarily and in its fulness to the pope and then, by distribution, to bishops and priests. Its use opens and shuts the kingdom of heaven to immortal souls.


118. Penance and Indulgences

The year 1200 marks the dividing line between opinions differing most widely on the meaning of the priests absolution. Peter the Lombard represented the prevailing view of the earlier period when he pronounced the absolution, a declarative announcement. Alexander of Hales represented the later period, when he pronounced it a judicial sentence. According to Peter, God alone remits sins. It was the Lord who restored the lepers to health, not the priests to whom be sent them. They did nothing more than bear witness to the healthy condition of the lepers. The priest’s prerogative is ended when he “shows or declares those who are bound and those who are loosed.” This view of the Master of Sentences the later theology set aside.

Before the end of the thirteenth century, the petitional form of absolution was in general, though not exclusive, used and the priest made intercession for the grace of forgiveness upon the offender. After that, the positive forensic form was substituted, “I absolve thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost,” the form which Thomas Aquinas vindicated against all others. Hugo of St. Victor had advocated this form and pronounced the contrary form more laughable and frivolous than worthy of refutation. He was followed by Richard of St. Victor who emphasized the distinction between the priest’s right to remit the punishment of sin and God’s prerogative which is to forgive the guilt of sin. The priest’s absolution effects the deletion of sin. He acts towards the sinner as Christ did toward Lazarus when he said, “Loose him and let him go.”

The absolution from certain offences was reserved to the bishops, such as murder, sacrilege in the use of the eucharist or the baptismal water, perjury, poisoning, and letting children die without being baptized. Other offences came under the exclusive jurisdiction of the papal chair, such as the abuse of the person of a priest or monk, the burning of church buildings, and falsifying of papal documents.

In the article of death, the sacrament of absolution is in no case to be refused. At such times works of satisfaction cannot be required, even as they were not required of the thief on the cross.

The extent to which absolution is efficacious called forth careful discussion and statement. Does it cover guilt as well as punishment and does it extend to the punishments of purgatory? The answer to these questions also was positive and distinct from the time of Alexander of Hales. Peter the Lombard was the last of the prominent Schoolmen to declare that the priest did not give absolution for guilt. The later Schoolmen with one consent oppose him at this point and teach that the priest absolves both from the guilt and the punishments of sin in this world and in purgatory. Thomas Aquinas asserted that, “if the priest cannot remit these temporal punishments, — for the punishments of purgatory are temporal, — then he cannot remit at all and this is contrary to the words of the Gospel to Peter that whatsoever he should loose on earth should be loosed in heaven.”

The ultimate and, as it proved, a most vicious form of priestly absolution was the indulgence. An indulgence is a remission of the guilt and punishment of sin by a mitigation or complete setting aside of the works of satisfaction which would otherwise be required. A lighter penalty was substituted for a severer one. Gottlob has recently divided indulgences into three classes: (1) indulgences which are secured by going on a crusade; (2) such as are secured by the payment of money for some good church cause, and (3) such as are secured by the visiting of certain churches.

Towards the close of this period this substitution usually took the form of a money-payment. For a lump sum absolution for the worst offences might be secured. It became a tempting source of gain to churches and the Roman curia, which they were quick to take advantage of. The dogmatic justification of this method of remission found positive expression before the practice became general. Alexander of Hales here again has the distinction of being the first to give it careful definition and unequivocal emphasis. Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura, and the other Schoolmen follow him closely and add little. Thomas Aquinas declared it impious to say the Church might not dispense indulgences.

The first known case occurred about 1016 when the archbishop of Arles gave an indulgence of a year to those participating in the erection of a church building. The Crusades furnished the popes the occasion to issue indulgences on a magnificent scale. Urban II,’s indulgence, 1095, granting plenary absolution to all taking the journey to Jerusalem was the first of a long series of such papal franchises. That journey, Urban said, should be taken as a substitute for all penance. Granted at first to warriors fighting against the infidel in the Holy Land, they were extended so as to include those who fought against the Slavs, as by Eugenius III., 1147, against the Stedinger, Albigenses, and the Hussites, 1425, and against all enemies whatsoever of the papacy, such as Frederick II. and Manfred. Innocent II., in 1135, promised full remission to those who fought the battle of the papal chair against Roger of Sicily, and the anti-pope, Anacletus II. In these cases such expressions are used as “remission and indulgence of penances,” “relaxation or remission from the imposed penance,” “the relaxation of the imposed satisfaction,” and also “a lightening or remission of sins.”

The free-handed liberality with which these franchises were dispensed by bishops became so much of a scandal that the Lateran council of 1215 issued a sharp decree to check it. More than half a century before, in 1140, Abaelard had condemned the abuse of this prerogative by bishops and priests who were governed in its lavish exercise by motives of sordid cupidity.

The construction of bridges over rivers, the building of churches, and the visiting of shrines were favorite and meritorious grounds for the gifts of indulgence. Innocent III., 1209, granted full remission for the building of a bridge over the Rhone; Innocent IV. for rebuilding the cathedrals of Cologne, 1248, and Upsala, 1250, which had suffered from fire. According to Matthew Paris, Gregory IX., in 1241, granted an indulgence of forty days to all worshipping the crown of thorns and the cross in the chapel at Paris and, in 1247, the bishop of Norwich, speaking for the English prelates, announced a remission of all penances for six years and one hundred and forty days to those who would worship the Holy Blood at Westminster. Indulgences for building bridges and roads were common in England.

To the next period belongs the first cases of indulgence granted in connection with the Jubilee Year by Boniface VIII., 1300. Among the more famous indulgences granted to private parties and localities was the Portiuncula indulgence giving remission to all visiting the famous Franciscan shrine at Assisi on a certain day of the year, and the Sabbatina, granting to all entering the Carmelite order or wearing the scapulary deliverance from purgatory the Saturday after their death.

The practice of dispensing indulgences grew enormously. Innocent III. dispensed five during his pontificate. Less than one hundred years later, Nicolas IV., in his reign of two years, 1288-1290, dispensed no less than four hundred. By that time they had become a regular item of the papal exchequer.

On what grounds did the Church claim the right to remit the works of penance due for sins or, as Alexander of Hales put it, grant abatement of the punishment due sin?The statement was this: Christ’s passion is of infinite merit. Mary and the saints also by their works of patience laid up merit beyond what was required from them for heaven. These supererogatory works or merits of the saints and of Christ are so abundant that they would more than suffice to pay off the debts of all the living. Together they constitute the thesaurus meritorum, or fund of merits; and this is at the disposal of the Church by virtue of her nuptial union with Christ, Col_1:24. This fund is a sort of bank account, upon which the Church may draw at pleasure. Christ relaxed the punishment due the woman taken in adultery, not requiring her to do the works of satisfaction which her offences would, under ordinary circumstances, have called for. So, likewise, may the pope, who is Christ’s vicegerent, release from sin by drawing upon the fund of merit. Thus the indulgence takes the place of the third element of penance, works of satisfaction.

These statements of the Schoolmen received explicit papal confirmation at the hands of Clement VI. in 1343. This pontiff not only declared that this “heap of treasure,” — cumulus thesauri, — consisting of the merits of “the blessed mother of God and the saints,” is at the disposal of the successors of Peter, but he made, if possible, the more astounding assertion that the more this storehouse is drawn upon, the more it grows. Like the wood of the true cross, it has the power of infinite self-expansion. It is, however, fair to say that the papal briefs granting this saving grace almost invariably gave it on condition of contrition and confession of the recipient.

Down to the latter part of the thirteenth century, the theory prevailed that an indulgence dispensed with the usual works of penance by substituting some other act. Before the fourteenth century, another step was taken, and the indulgence was regarded as directly absolving from the guilt and punishment of sins, culpa et poena peccatorum. It was no longer a mitigation or abatement of imposed penance. It immediately set aside or remitted that which acts of penance had been designed to remove; namely, guilt and penalty. It is sufficient for the Church to pronounce offences remitted. Wyclif made a bold attack against the indulgence “from guilt and punishment,” a culpa et poena, in his Cruciata. Now that it is no longer possible to maintain the spuriousness of such papal indulgences, some Roman Catholic writers construe the offensive phrase to mean “from the penalty of guilt,” a poena culpae.

Such was the general indulgence given by pope Coelestin V., 1294, to all who should on a certain day of the year enter the church of St. Mary de Collemayo in which he had been consecrated. This view had been stated almost thirty years before by Thomas of Chantimpré. And, about 1280, Peter of Olivi declared the indulgence granted to the Portiuncula church to be an “indulgence for all sins and from all guilt and penalty.” It is evident from these documents that, at the close of the thirteenth century, the formula a culpa et poena, “from guilt and punishment,” was quite familiar.

Boniface VIII. probably included the guilt of sin when he announced “full pardon for all sins,” and succeeding popes used the form constantly. John XXIII., at the beginning of the fifteenth century, was especially prodigal in the distribution of this kind of indulgence and in vain did the council of Constance attempt to put some check upon the practice. Tetzel was following the custom of two centuries when he offered “remission and indulgence of guilt and penalty.”

As for the application of the sacrament of penance to souls in purgatory, Alexander of Hales argued that, if the sacrament did not avail for them, then the Church prays in vain for the dead. Such souls are still under the cognizance of the Church, that is, subject to its tribunal, — de foro ecclesiae. Altars and chapels, called in England chantries, were built and endowed by persons for the maintenance of a priest, in whole or in part, to pray and offer up masses for their souls after their departure from this life. The further treatment of the subject belongs properly to the period just preceding the Reformation. It is sufficient to say here, that Sixtus IV., in 1476, definitely connected the payment of money with indulgences, and legislated that, by fixed sums paid to the papal collectors, persons on earth may redeem their kindred in purgatory. Thus for gold and silver the most inveterate criminal might secure the deliverance of a father or mother from purgatorial pain, and neither contrition nor confession were required in the transaction. Such was the ultimate conclusion of the sacramental doctrine of penance, the sacrament to whose treatment the Schoolmen devoted most time and labor. The council of Trent reasserted the Church’s right to grant indulgences. But what could seem to be more agreeable to the plain statements of Scripture than that men have the right of immediate access to Christ, who said, “Him that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out,” and what more repugnant to its plain teachings than to make confession to a priest and the priest’s absolution conditions of receiving pardon!

The superstitious, practical extravagances, which grew out of this most unbiblical penitential theory of the Middle Ages, are reported in the pages of the popular writers of the age, such as Caesar of Heisterbach and De Voragine, who express no dissent as they relate the morbid tales. Here are two of them as told by De Voragine which are to be taken as samples of a large body of similar literature. A bishop, by celebrating thirty masses, helped out of purgatory a poor soul who was frozen in a block of ice. In the second case, a woman who had neglected, before dying, to make a confession to the priest, was raised from her bier by the prayer of St. Francis d’Assisi. She went and confessed to the priest and then had the satisfaction of lying down in peace and dying over again.


119. Extreme Unction, Ordination, and Marriage

Extreme Unction, — unctio infirmorum, — the fifth in the list of the sacraments, is administered to those who are in peril of death, and is supposed to be referred to by Jam_5:14. “Is any among you sick? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” The earlier view, represented by Hugo of St. Victor, Peter the Lombard, and also by Bonaventura, was that the sacrament is of Apostolic institution. Thomas Aquinas traced it directly to Christ. Many things, he said, were spoken by Christ to the Apostles which are not contained in the Gospels. Thomas was followed by Duns Scotus and the council of Trent. The effect of the sacrament is to remit venial sins and the remainders of sin left after penance, and to heal the body. It may be repeated. Extreme unction as well as the eucharist is to be denied to children on the ground that their bodily diseases are not caused by sin. Some Councils restricted it to those over fourteen. The element used is oil, consecrated by the bishop, and it is to be touched to the eyes, ears, nostrils, lips, hands, feet, and loins.

Ordination conveys sacramental grace to seven orders of the ministry: presbyters, deacons, subdeacons, acolytes, exorcists, lectors, and ostiarii or door-keepers. These seven correspond to the seven graces of the Spirit mentioned in 1Co_12:1-31. The first three orders were instituted by Christ; the last four by the Church. The bishops do not constitute a distinct order, but are of the order of the priesthood. The episcopate is an office, a function; and as Peter Lombardus and Thomas Aquinas say again and again, it is not an order. Consecration to it has no sacramental character. The Schoolmen do not fail to insist upon the superior dignity of the bishop, but sacramental grace is exhibited in its highest form in empowering the priest to celebrate the mass. For the sake of “fulness” there are placed above the priesthood, the episcopate, patriarchate, and papacy.

The tonsure, a requirement for admittance to orders, is a sign of rule and perfection, for it is made in a circle. It also indicates that the mind is withdrawn from temporal things and fixed upon the contemplation of divine things.

According to Thomas Aquinas, there is more reason for regarding ordination a sacrament than for ascribing a sacramental character to the other six sacred ordinances, for ordination confers the power of administering the others. Its efficacious potency resides chiefly with the person dispensing the sacrament. From him grace is transmitted. The form or the symbols, used in the ceremony, are of subordinate or little importance. In fact, the symbols are scarcely referred to by Councils or Schoolmen in this period.

Ordination confers an indelible character upon those admitted to any of the orders. Its virtue is not affected by the character of the person ordained.

As for the validity of the sacramental acts of heretic and schismatic clergymen, great difference of opinion existed. The problem was so difficult as to appear to Gratian and Peter the Lombard insoluble or almost so. The difficulty was increased by the acts of Councils, condemning as invalid the ordinations of anti-popes and the ordinations performed by bishops whom anti-popes had appointed. The statements of Thomas Aquinas are difficult to understand. He made a distinction between the power — potestas — of ordination and the jurisdiction to perform the sacrament. Schismatic or heretic bishops retain the power; otherwise when such a bishop is reconciled to the Church, he would be ordained over again, which is not the case. But they have not the jurisdiction. As the bishop by his promotion to the episcopate receives no sacramental grace, so, as bishop, he possesses no indelible character. He is ordained not directly for God but for the mystical body of Christ. And those whom a schismatic bishop ordains do not in reality receive ordination, for they are ordained in the face of the prohibition of the Church.

As far as we can understand the Angelic doctor’s position it is: the Church may withdraw from a bishop his right to confer orders while at the same time he retains the episcopal power to confer them. He insisted most strenuously on the permanence of the “bishop’s power” received at consecration. The solution of the problem is of far-reaching importance, for it has a bearing on the sacramental efficacy of the acts of many priests who have been cut off from the Latin Church and the ecclesiastical titles of schismatic bodies, such as the Old-Catholics and the Jansenist Church of Holland.

Marriage has the last place among the sacraments because it has the least of spirituality connected with it. At first, the bed was undefiled, conception was without passion, and parturition without pain. Since the fall, marriage has become a remedy against lust and a medicine for unholy desire. At first it signified the union of the soul with God. Since it became a sacrament, it signifies, in addition, the union of Christ and the Church and the union of two natures in one person. The Vulgate’s false translation of Eph_5:31, “this is a great sacrament,” confirmed the Schoolmen in placing matrimony among the sacraments. That which constitutes the sacramental element is the verbal consent of the parties, and also, as Thomas Aquinas thought, the priest’s Benediction.

Thomas was inclined to permit marriage for boys after the age of fourteen and girls after the age of twelve. According to the same authority, children are to follow the social condition of the mother. The impediments to marriage were carefully catalogued and discussed. Their number was put at twelve, such as kinship, mistake, vows, and misrepresentation, and couched in the lines which Bonaventura and Thomas Aquinas quote: — 

error, conditio, votum, cognatio crimen,

cultus disparitas, vis, ordo, ligamen, honestas,

si sis affinis, si forte coire nequibis

haec socianda vetant connubia, facta retractant.

The Fourth Lateran modified some of the more severe restrictions of marriage within the limits of consanguinity, but declared children illegitimate whose parents were within the forbidden limits, even though the ceremony were performed in the church. The Councils of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries give frequent rules for marriage. They were to be performed before the Church and only after public announcement. The children of parties marrying unbelievers and the offspring of clandestine marriages were made illegitimate.

Death dissolves marriage and the surviving party has the right to marry again to the fourth time or even more often. Otherwise the marriage bond is perpetual — vinculum matrimonii est perpetuum. This follows from two considerations: marriage involves the training of the children and is a symbol of the union between Christ and the Church. Matrimony becomes absolutely binding only upon copulation. Before that has taken place, one party or the other may go into an order and in this case the other party has the right to marry again.

Divorce was allowed for one cause only, fornication. The Schoolmen supported this position from the words of Christ. Divorce, however, is a separation, not a release with license to marry again. Marriage can never be annulled by the act of man. What God hath joined together, no man can put asunder. Only after the death of the offending party may the innocent party enter again into a marriage contract. The second and subsequent marriages are a sacrament as the first marriage is.


120. Sin and Grace

Sin. — The Schoolmen are unanimous in affirming that the infection of original sin has passed down upon all Adam’s descendants and involved them all in guilt and eternal death. Following Augustine, Anselm called the race a sinning mass — peccatrix massa. By the Fall, man’s body, or flesh, was made, like the beast, subject to carnal appetites and the mind, in turn, became infected with these appetites. If man had not sinned, his nature would have been propagated as it was originally created by God. In condemning Abaelard, the synod of Sens, 1141, condemned the heresy that Adam’s guilt does not pass down to his posterity.

Man does not secure his sinful nature by imitation of Adam, but by inheritance through generation from Adam. The flesh is tainted, being conceived in concupiscence, and concupiscence is both a taint and guilt. Nay, it is original sin, as the Lombard says. Before the first sin, the man and the woman came together without the passion of concupiscence and the bed was undefiled; but, after the Fall, they could not join in marital intercourse without libidinous lust. These are the views of all the Schoolmen, yet they agree in rejecting the doctrine of traducianism. The flesh only is carried down from parent to child, not the spirit.

Original sin is defined by Alexander of Hales and by Thomas Aquinas as the want or the “deficiency of original righteousness.” It involves the loss of superadded grace and a wounding of the natural powers. This wound, or original sin, is a lasting quality or condition of depravity — a habitus corruptionis or vitium — like a bodily disease. It is not merely a defect. It is a depraved tendency — inordinata dispositio. In another place, Thomas defines original sin to be in substance concupiscence or lust and in form a defect of original righteousness. God cannot be the author of sin because sin is an offence against order.

Thomas taught that the taint of original sin is inherited not from the mother but from the father who is the active agent in generation. If Eve only had sinned and not Adam, the children would not have inherited the taint. On the other hand, if Adam had sinned and Eve remained innocent, their descendants would have inherited original sin. According to Peter the Lombard, Albertus Magnus, and others, pride was the original root of sin.

At much length, the Schoolmen elaborate upon the sin against the Holy Ghost and the seven “capital or principal” offences, the number of which they base on Pro_6:16, “These six things doth the Lord hate, yea, seven are an abomination unto Him.” The question as to whether there would have been any admixture of the sexes if Adam had not sinned was answered in the affirmative, in view of the command to be fruitful and to replenish the earth. Bonaventura also elaborately discussed the question whether the number of male and female descendants would have been equal had man not sinned. This he also answered in the affirmative, partly on the ground that no woman would have been without a husband and no husband without a wife, for in paradise there would be neither polygamy or polyandry. He also based his conclusion upon Aristotle’s reason for the unequal conception of male and female children which is now due to some weakness or other peculiarity on the part of one of the parents. The ultimate purpose in the birth of children, had our first parents remained innocent, was that they might fill up the number of the elect angels.

Another question which was discussed with much warmth was which of the two sinned the more grievously, Adam or Eve, a question Hugo of St. Victor, Peter the Lombard, Albertus Magnus, Bonaventura, and other great Schoolmen united in attempting to solve — a question which arose quite naturally from Paul’s statement, 1Ti_2:14, that the woman was beguiled and not the man. The conclusion reached was that the preponderance of guilt was with Eve. The Lombard is inclined to be lenient with Adam and makes out that when he yielded to the persuasions of his wife, he was actuated by sympathy and was unwilling to give her pain by refusing her request. He was inexperienced in the divine severity and his sin was a venial, not a mortal fault. In fact this theologian distinctly gives it as his belief that Adam would not have given way to the temptation of the devil. Eve sinned by pride, desiring to be equal with God. Adam was not seduced by the devil at all and had in mind the mercy of God and intended later to make confession of his sin, and secure absolution. Eve’s sin was the more grievous for she sinned against herself, against God, and against her neighbor. Adam sinned against himself and God, but not against his neighbor. Hugo of St. Victor said that the woman believed that God was moved by envy in forbidding them to eat the fruit of the tree. Adam knew this to be false. His sin was in consenting to his wife and not correcting her. Albertus Magnus seems inclined to draw a more even balance. In that which pertained to the essence of sin, he said, Eve was the greater offender, but if we look at Adam’s endowment and at other circumstances, Adam was the greater offender. Bonaventura laid down the proposition that the gravity of sin depends upon three things: ingratitude, lust, and the corruption which follows the sinful act. Applying these rules to the Fall, he declared that, so far as ingratitude goes, Adam’s sin was the greater and, so far as lust goes, the woman’s sin was the greater. As for the evil consequences flowing from the sin, Adam sinned the more grievously as the cause of damnation to his posterity and Eve the more grievously as the occasion of such damnation. But as Eve was also the occasion of Adam’s sinning, her sin and guilt must be pronounced the greater.

Grace. — In the doctrine of grace, the medieval theology used the terminology of Augustine but makes the impression of departing from him in the direction of semi-Pelagianism. The treatment which Thomas Aquinas gave to two elements he found in the African father, namely, freewill which man preserves after the Fall, and the doctrine of merit, has the appearance of a de-Augustinianizing tendency. In reality Thomas taught that all that is good in man is from God and he can have no merit before God except by the prearrangement of a divine decree. In no other sense is an act of righteousness — that is, the doing of what we owe — to be called a meritorious act. Without the grace of the Holy Spirit it is not possible to merit eternal life. Man is not even able to make the preparation necessary to receive the light of grace. Prevenient grace is essential to beget in him the disposition to holiness, — interior voluntas. The number of the elect is fixed even to the persons of the saved, and persevering grace is given to those who remain steadfast to the end. Man cannot even know the truth without help from above.

Thomas distinguished two kinds of merit or meritorious works: the merit which comes by the proper use of our natural gifts, — meritum de congruo, — and the merit which comes from the proper use of the gifts of grace, — meritum de condigno. In his original state, man was enabled by the superadded gift of grace to love God above all things. In the fallen state, grace is required to restore this ability, and no works of this second sort can be done without the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Such statements as these could be multiplied almost indefinitely. There is, however, notwithstanding these clear statements, a tone in Thomas’ treatment which makes the impression that he modified strict Augustinianism and made a place for the real merit of works, and in this the Catholic Church follows him.

As for the satisfaction of Christ, Thomas Aquinas followed Anselm in holding that Christ’s death was not a price paid to the devil. He did not lay down a very exact definition of the mode in which the atonement was made efficacious; but he laid stress upon the merit which Christ won by the assent of his own will to the will of God. He does not speak of the propitiation of Christ in the way Abaelard and Peter the Lombard did as an exercise of love drawing man to God. The love and obedience of Christ are efficient, through the sufferings he endured on the cross, in reconciling man to God and redeeming man from the power of the devil.

Thomas very clearly states the consequences of Christ’s atonement. The first is that thereby man comes to know how great the love of God is, and is provoked to love God in return. By the cross Christ set an example of humility, righteousness, and other virtues. He also taught men the necessity of keeping free from sin, overcoming the devil, and conquering death by dying to sin and the world. God might have pardoned man without the satisfaction of the cross, for all things are possible with Him. This was in opposition to Anselm’s position that God could have redeemed man in no other way than by the cross.

Bonaventura went further in opposition to Anselm and distinctly asserted that God could have liberated and saved the race otherwise than He did. He might have saved it by the way of pity — per viam misericordiae — in distinction from the way of justice. And in choosing this way he would have done no injury to the claims of justice. His chapter on this subject he closes with the words, “It would be dangerous for me to put a limit on God’s power to redeem, for He is able to do above what we are able to think.”

No distinction was made by the medieval theologians between the doctrine of justification and the doctrine of sanctification, such as is made by Protestant theologians. Justification was treated as a part of the process of making the sinner righteous, and not as a judicial sentence by which he was declared to be righteous. Sanctification was so thoroughly involved in the sacramental system that we must look for its treatment in the chapters on the seven sacraments, the instrumentalities of sanctification; or under the head of the Christian virtues, faith, hope, and love, as in Bonaventura’s treatment. Thomas Aquinas discusses it under the head of the atonement and in special chapters entitled “the division of grace,” by which he means the distinction between prevenient, or preparatory, and cooperant grace, — gratia gratis data, or the grace which is given freely, and the gratis gratum faciens, or the grace which makes righteous.

Justification, says Thomas, is an infusion of grace. Four things are required for the justification of the sinner: the infusion of grace, the movement of the freewill to God in faith, the act of the freewill against sin, and the remission of sins. As a person, turning his back upon one place and receding from it, reaches another place, so in justification the will made free at once hates sin and turns itself to God.

Setting aside the distinction between justification and sanctification, there seems to be complete religious accord between Thomas Aquinas, the prince of the Schoolmen, and our Protestant view of redeeming grace as being from beginning to end the gracious act of God in view of the death of Christ. His theory of the sacraments, it is true, seems to modify this position. But this is an appearance rather than a reality. For the sacraments have their efficacious virtue by reason of God’s prior and gracious enactment attaching efficacy to them.

Faith. — In its definition of faith, the medieval theology came far short of the definition given by the Reformers. The Schoolmen begin their discussion with the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews Heb_11:1, that faith is the substance of things hoped for, and define faith as the grace by which things which are not seen are believed. And they scarcely get beyond this definition. Although several of Paul’s statements in the Epistle to the Romans are quoted by Thomas Aquinas, neither he nor the other Schoolmen rise to the idea that it is upon the basis of faith that a man is justified. Faith is a virtue, not a justifying principle, and is treated at the side of hope and love. These are called the “theological virtues” because they relate immediately to God and are founded ultimately upon the testimony of His Word alone. Christian faith works by love and is not a grace unless it be conjoined with love. The devils have intellectual faith without love, for they believe and tremble.

Faith manifests itself in three ways, in believing God, in trusting God, and believing in God. To believe God is to believe that He is. To trust God is to accept what He says as true. These two kinds of faith the devils have. To believe in God is to love God in believing, to go to Him believing, to be devoted to Him in believing, and to be incorporated with His members. This knowledge of faith is more certain than other knowledge because it is based upon God’s Word and is enlightened by the light which proceeds from the Word.

The Schoolmen insist that without faith it is impossible to please God, and preachers, like Honorius of Autun, declared that as a fish cannot live without water, so no one can be saved without faith. And yet Thomas Aquinas scarcely gets beyond the definition that faith is an assent of the intellect, assensus intellectus. However, love and faith, he says, are so closely conjoined that love may be called a form of faith, a mode of its expression, and without love faith is dead. A sufficient faith in Christ demands four things, said the Lombard: assent to his nativity, his death, his resurrection, and his coming again for judgment. Thomas requires an explicit acceptance of the doctrine of the Trinity even by the Old Testament saints, for the Trinity was revealed in the beginning when God said, “Let us make man in our own image.” There can be no belief in the incarnation without belief in the Trinity. Faith ceases when the mind disbelieves a single article of the faith. He who disbelieves a single one of the articles of the Apostles’ Creed has no faith at all. After quoting Rom_4:5, this great theologian stops with saying, that, in justification, an act of faith is required to the extent that a man believe that God is the justifier of men through the atonement of Christ.

The Schoolmen did not understand Paul. The Reformers were obliged to re-proclaim the doctrine of justifying faith as taught in the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians. On the other hand, it is the merit of the Schoolmen that they emphasize the principle, that true faith worketh by love and that all other faith is vain, inanis. The failure of Protestant theologians always to set this forth distinctly has exposed the Protestant doctrine to the charge that faith is sufficient, even if it be unaccompanied by good works, or works of love towards God and man. The fault of the Schoolmen lay chiefly in their unscriptural and dangerous theory of sacramental grace which led to the substitution of a series of outward exercises, recommended by the priest, for simple trust in Christ’s free grace.


121. The Future State

The unseen world of spirits was divided by the medieval theology into five distinct regions or abodes, — receptacula animarum, — as Thomas Aquinas calls them — heaven, hell, purgatory, the limbus patrum, or the temporary abode of the Old Testament saints, and the limbus infantum, or the abode of children who die without being baptized.

Hell, the place of punishment or eternal dolors, is the lake of sulphur and fire in which lost men and demons suffer eternal torment. It is a region of jet darkness, a deep prison as compared with heaven, into which the demons are thrust down. The longings and passions of those confined there go on continually burning and are never satisfied. Its fires burn but do not consume. No other heat can compare with its heat. The Schoolmen are agreed that the passages of Scripture, bearing on the fire of hell, are not figurative. The fire is material fire which afflicts both the spirits and bodies of the lost. The degree of torture is according to the desert.

The limbus patrum corresponds to Abraham’s bosom in the parable of Dives and Lazarus, the place where the worthies of the Old Testament dwelt till Christ descended into hades and released them. Before that time they enjoyed exemption from pain. Since then they have enjoyed heavenly bliss. Circumcision released them from original sin. Hell and this locality are probably in the same region or, at any rate, contiguous. The view, that the patriarchs remained in hades till Christ’s death, goes back to Hermas and Clement of Alexandria.

The limbus puerorum or infantum is the abode of children dying in infancy without having been baptized. They are there for original sin which only baptism can wash away. According to Thomas Aquinas, this region is probably a little lower than the limbus patrum. These children are free from pain, but are like the lost in being deprived of the vision of God and physical light. Theirs is the punishment of eternal death, — supplicium mortis aeternae, — but their damnation is the lightest of all — omnium levissima. They have no hope of beatitude. God, in His justice, provides that they never make any advance nor go back, that they neither have joy nor grief. They remain forever unchanged. Such is the hopeless doom to which the great Dominican and the great Franciscan theologians of the Middle Ages consigned all children dying unbaptized. Strange that the Schoolmen, in the interest of a more merciful doctrine, did not use Christ’s blessed words, “Suffer the little children to come unto me for of such is the kingdom of God.” But they did not. The doctrine of original sin and the doctrine of the necessity of water baptism for salvation were carried to their extreme logical conclusions without regard for the superabounding grace of God. So also Augustine had taught and so most of the Reformers taught at a later time.

Christ’s descent into hades was carefully discussed by the Schoolmen. It occurred as soon as his soul was separated from the body at his death. He was in the infernal regions during the three days of his burial, but did not assume their pains. The reason for this visit was twofold, says Bonaventura, — to release the Old Testament saints and to confound the adversaries of the Gospel, the demons. Thomas Aquinas tried to show that, when Job said, Job_17:16, “my hope shall go down to the bars of Sheol,” or into the “deepest hell,” as the Vulgate puts it, he meant that he went no farther than the limbus patrum and not to the abode of the lost. Christ descended into hades, according to Thomas, for a threefold purpose, to deliver us from the necessity of going there ourselves; to release the Hebrew saints by breaking the bars of hell — vectes inferni, — that is, by “spoiling principalities and powers,” Col_2:15; and third, to make show of his divinity — manifestatio divinitatis — to the demons by preaching, 1Pe_3:19, and by enlightening those dark spaces with his presence, as it is said, Psa_24:7, “Lift up your doors, O ye princes, and the king of glory shall come in.” Here again the Vulgate is responsible for a mistake, the word “gates” being translated “princes.” Christ’s descent into hades did not help the unbaptized children. After this life it is too late to acquire grace.

Purgatory is a sort of reformatory school for baptized Catholics who are not good enough at death to go directly to heaven. They are there in that intermediate region for actual transgressions, whose guilt the sacrament of penance and extreme unction had not fully removed. The existence of purgatory is based mainly upon 2 Macc. 12:40 and the universal teaching of the Church. Its inhabitants belong to the communion of saints and are within the reach of human intercession. Masses for the dead are instituted to meet their case. For infants in the limbus puerorum, such intercessory works are of no avail. But one who has been baptized in infancy or manhood, no matter how flagitious or criminal his career may have been, for him there is hope, nay there is certainty, that in time he will pass out of purgatory into the company of the blessed.

Heaven includes three kinds of rewards, said Bonaventura: the substantial reward or the vision of God; the consubstantial or the glorification of the body to which belong the qualities of transpicuity, lightness, agility, and impassibility which are granted in the degree we exercise love here on earth; and the accidental reward or the ornament of the aureole given for preaching and leading others to salvation, for virginal purity and martyrdom.

The bliss of heaven, said Thomas Aquinas, consists in the immediate vision of God. It is a state from which there will be no lapse. The beatified know what is occurring on earth, hear the prayers that ascend to them, and by their merits intercede for their brethren here. St. Bernard, in his homilies on the Canticles, and Anselm give us lofty descriptions of the blessedness of the heavenly estate. And the satisfaction and glory of the soul in heaven has never been quite so well portrayed as in the poem of Bernard of Cluny: — 

O sweet and blessed country, the home of God’s elect,

O sweet and blessed country, that eager hearts expect;

Jesus in mercy bring us to that sweet land of rest,

To be with God the Father and Spirit ever blest.

It remained for Dante to give to the chilling scholastic doctrines of purgatory and the lower regions a terrible reality in poetical form and imagery and also to describe the beatific vision of paradise.


The remarkable vision which a certain Englishman, Turchill, had of the future world, as related at length by Roger of Wendover and others, reveals the crass popular ideas of the future state. St. Julian appeared to this honest laborer, and took him off to “the middle of the world,” where they entered a church which, as Turchill was told, received the souls of all those who had recently died. Mary, through her intercession, had brought it about that all souls born again should, as soon as they left the body, be taken to this church and so be freed from the attacks of demons. Near one of the church walls was the entrance to hell through which came a most foul stench. Stretching from another wall was the great lake of purgatorial fire in which souls were immersed, some to their knees, some to their necks. And above the lake was a bridge, paved with thorns and stakes, over which all had to pass before they could arrive at the mount of joy. Those who were not assisted by special masses walked over the bridge very slowly and with excruciating pain. On the mount was a great and most wonderful church which seemed to be large enough to contain all the inhabitants of the world. St. Nicolas, St. James, and other saints had charge of the church of Mary and the purgatorial lake and bridge. Turchill also saw St. Peter in the church of Mary and before him the souls were brought to receive sentence. The devil and his angels were there to hurry off to the infernal regions those whose evil deeds tipped the balances. Turchill was also taken by a certain St. Domninus to behold the sports the devils indulge in. Coming to the infernal realm, they found iron seats, heated to a white heat and with nails driven in them, on which an innumerable multitude was sitting. Devils were sitting around against the walls poking fun at the unfortunate beings for the evils they had been guilty of in this life. Men of different occupations and criminal practices, the soldier, tradesman, priest, the adulterer, thief, and usurer, were then brought forth and made to enact over again their wicked deeds, after which their flesh was fiercely torn by the demons and burnt, but again restored. Such are the popular pictures which form the vestibule of Dante’s Inferno.

Of all the gruesome religious tales of the Middle Ages, the tales representing the devil as torturing the naked soul were among the most gruesome. The common belief was that the soul, an entity with form as the Schoolmen defined it, is at death separated from the body. Caesar of Heisterbach tells of an abbot of Morimond with whose soul the demons played ball, rolling it from hill to hill, across the valley between, until God allowed the soul to enter the body again. This was before the abbot became a monk.

Another of these stories, told by Caesar of Heisterbach, concerned a student to whom the devil gave a stone. As long as the student held it in his hand, he had supernatural knowledge. When he died, his body was taken to the church, and while his fellow-students stood around it singing, the devil carried his soul to hell. There the demons played ball with it. Their sharp claws stuck deep into it and gave it unspeakable pain. But, at the intercession of the saints, the Lord rescued the soul and reunited it with the body and the young man suddenly arose from his bier. In telling his experience he related that his soul had been like a round piece of glass through which he could see on every side. Fortunately, the fellow was scared badly enough to go to a convent and do sound penance. Bernard of Thiron bore witness that he saw the devils carry an unfaithful monk’s soul out of the window.

The severity of the purgatorial pains is vouched for in this story by Thomas of Chantimpré, for which he quotes Albertus Magnus. A good man, after suffering from a severe sickness for a year, had this alternative offered him by an angel: to go to purgatory and suffer for three days or endure for a year longer his sickness and then go directly to glory. He chose the first. So his soul took its departure, but the purgatorial agony of a day seemed like the pains of ages and the sufferer was glad to have the opportunity of returning to his body, which was still unburied, and endure his sickness for another year.

Such stories are numerous and reveal the coarse theology which was current in convent and among the people.