St. Augustine writes: "Our merciful God wills us to confess in this world that we may not be confounded in the other."(449) And again: "Let no one say to himself, I do penance to God in private, I do it before God. Is it then in vain that Christ hath said, 'Whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven?' Is it in vain that the keys have been given to the Church? Do we make void the Gospel, void the words of Christ?"(450)
In this extract how well doth the great Doctor meet the sophistry of those who, in our times, say that it is sufficient to confess to God!
St. Chrysostom, in his thirtieth Homily, says: "Lo! we have now, at length, reached the close of Holy Lent; now especially we must press forward in the career of fasting, ... and exhibit a full and accurate confession of our sins, ... that with these good works, having come to the day of Easter, we may enjoy the bounty of the Lord.... For, as the enemy knows that having confessed our sins and shown our wounds to the physician we attain to an abundant cure, he in an especial manner opposes us."
Again he says: "Do not confess to me only of fornication, nor of those things that are manifest among all men, but bring together also thy secret calumnies and evil speakings, ... and all such things."(451)
The great Doctor plainly enjoins here a detailed and specific confession of our sins not to God, but to His minister, as the whole context evidently shows.
The same Father, in an eloquent treatise on the power of the sacred ministry, uses the following words: "To the Priests is given a power which God would not grant either to angels or archangels; inasmuch that what the Priests do below God ratifies above, and the Master confirms the sentence of His servants. For, He says, 'Whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.'
"What power, I ask, can be greater than this? The Father hath given all power to the Son; and I see all this same power delivered to them by God the Son.
"To cleanse the leprosy of the body, or rather to pronounce it cleansed, was given to the Jewish Priests alone. But to our Priests is granted the power not of declaring healed the leprosy of the body, but of absolutely cleansing the defilements of the soul."(452)
And again: "If a sinner, as becomes him; would use the aid of his conscience, and hasten to confess his crimes and disclose his ulcer to his physician, who may heal and not reproach, and receive remedies from him; if he would speak to him alone, without the knowledge of any one, and with care lay all before him, easily would he amend his failings; for the confession of sins is the absolution of crimes."(453)
St. Jerome writes: "If the serpent, the devil, secretly bite a man and thus infect him with the poison of sin, and this man shall remain silent, and do not penance, nor be willing to make known his wound to his brother and master; the master, who has a tongue that can heal, cannot easily serve him. For if the ailing man be ashamed to open his case to the physician no cure can be expected; for medicine does not cure that of which it knows nothing."(454)
Elsewhere he says: "With us the Bishop or Priest binds or looses—not them who are merely innocent or guilty—but having heard, as his duty requires, the various qualities of sin he understands who should be bound and who loosed."(455)
Could the Catholic doctrine regarding the power of the Priests and the obligation of confession be expressed in stronger language than this?
And yet these are the very Fathers who are represented to be opposed to Sacramental Confession! With a reckless disregard of the unanimous voice of antiquity our adversaries have the hardihood to assert that private or Sacramental Confession was introduced at a period subsequent to the twelfth century. They do not, however, vouchsafe to inform us by what Pope or Bishop or Father of the Church, or by what Council, or in what country, this monstrous innovation was foisted on the Christian Republic. Surely, an institution which, in their estimation, has been fraught with such dire calamity to Christendom, ought to have its origin marked with more precision. It is sometimes prudent, however, not to be too particular in fixing dates.
I shall now, I trust, show to the satisfaction of the reader: First—That Sacramental Confession was not introduced. Second—That it could not have been introduced into the Church since the days of the Apostles, and consequently that it is Apostolic in its origin.
That Confession was not invented since the days of the Apostles is manifest as soon as we attempt to fix the period of its first establishment. Let us go back, step, by step, from the nineteenth to the first century.
It had not its origin in the present century, as everybody will admit.
Nor did it arise in the sixteenth century, since the General Council of Trent, held in that age, speaks of it as an established and venerable institution and Luther says that "auricular Confession, as now in vogue, is useful, nay, necessary; nor would I," he adds, "have it abolished, since it is the remedy of afflicted consciences."(456) Even Henry VIII., before he founded a new sect, wrote a treatise in defence of the Sacraments, including Penance and Confession.
It was not introduced in the thirteenth century, for the Fourth Council of Lateran passed a decree in 1215 obliging the faithful to confess their sins at least once a year. This decree, of course, supposes Confession to be already an established fact.
Some Protestant writers fall into a common error in interpreting the decree of the Lateran Council by saying "Sacramental Confession was never required in the Church of Rome until the thirteenth century." The Council simply prescribed a limit beyond which the faithful should not defer their confession.
These writers seem incapable of distinguishing between a law obliging us to a certain duty and a statute fixing the time for fulfilling it. They might as well suppose that the revenue officer creates the law regarding the payment of taxes when he issues a notice requiring the revenue to be paid within a given time.
Going back to the ninth century we find that Confession could not have had its rise then. It was at that period that the Greek schism took its rise, under the leadership of Photius. The Greek schismatic church has remained since then a communion separate from the Catholic Church, having no spiritual relations with us. Now, the Greek church is as tenaciously attached to private Confession as we are.
For the same reasons Confession could not date its origin from the fifth or fourth century. The Arians revolted from the Church in the fourth century, and the Nestorians and Eutychians in the fifth. The two last-named sects still exist in large numbers in Persia, Abyssinia and along the coast of Malabar, and retain Confession as one of their most sacred and cherished practices.
In fine, no human agency could succeed in instituting Confession between the first and fourth century, for the teachings of our Divine Redeemer and of His disciples had made too vivid an impression on the Christian community to be easily effaced; and the worst enemies of the Church admit that no spot or wrinkle had yet deformed her fair visage in this, the golden age of her existence.
These remarks suffice to convince us that Sacramental Confession was not instituted since the time of the Apostles. I shall now endeavor to prove to your satisfaction that its introduction into the Church, since the Apostolic age, was absolutely impossible.
There are two ways in which we may suppose that error might insinuate itself into the Church, viz.: suddenly, or by slow process. Now, the introduction of Confession in either of those ways was simply impossible.
First, nothing can be more absurd than to suppose that Confession was immediately forced upon the Christian world. For experience demonstrates with what slowness and difficulty men are divested of their religious impressions, whether true or false. If such is the case with individuals, how ridiculous would it seem for whole nations to adopt in a single day some article of belief which they had never admitted before. Hence, we cannot imagine, without doing violence to our good sense, that all the good people of Christendom went to rest one night ignorant of the Sacrament of Penance, and rose next morning firm believers in the Catholic doctrine of auricular Confession. As well might we suppose that the citizens of the United States would retire to rest believing they were living under a Republic, and awake impressed with the conviction that they were under the rule of Queen Victoria.
Nor is it less absurd to suppose that the practice of Confession was introduced by degrees. How can we imagine that the Fathers of the Church—the Clements, the Leos, the Gregories, the Chrysostoms, the Jeromes, the Basils and Augustines, those intrepid High Priests of the Lord, who, in every age, at the risk of persecution, exile and death have stood like faithful sentinels on the watch-towers of Israel, defending with sleepless eyes the outskirts of the city of God from the slightest attack—how can we imagine, I say, that they would suffer the enemy of truth to invade the very sanctuary of God's temple? If they were so vigilant in cutting off the least withered branch of error, how would they tamely submit to see so monstrous an exotic engrafted on the fruitful tree of the Church?
What gives additional weight to these remarks is the reflection that Confession is not a speculative doctrine, but a doctrine of the most practical kind, influencing our daily actions, words and thoughts—a Sacrament to which thousands of Christians have constant recourse in every part of the world. It is a doctrine, moreover, hard to flesh and blood, and which no human power, even if it had the will, could impose on the human race. It is only a God that, in such a case, could exact the homage of our assent.
In whatever light, therefore, we view the present question—whether we consider the circumstances of time, place, manner of its introduction—the same inevitable conclusion stares us in the face: that Sacramental confession is not the invention of man, but the institution of Jesus Christ.
But the doctrine of priestly absolution and the private confession of sins is not confined to the Roman Catholic and Oriental schismatic churches. The same doctrine is also taught by a large and influential portion of the Protestant Episcopal Church of England.
The Rev. C. S. Grueber, a clergyman of the Church of England, has recently published a catechism in which the absolving power of the minister of God, and the necessity and advantage of confession, are plainly set forth. I will quote from the Rev. gentleman's book his identical words:
Question. What do you mean by absolution?
Answer. The pardon or forgiveness of sin.
Q. By what special ordinance of Christ are sins committed after Baptism to be pardoned?
A. By the sacrament of absolution.
Q. Who is the minister of absolution?
A. A Priest.
Q. Do you mean that a Priest can really absolve?
Q. In what place of the Holy Scripture is it recorded that Christ gave this power to the priesthood?
A. In John xx. 23; see also Matt. xviii. 18.
Q. What does the prayer-book (or Book of Common Prayer) say?
A. In the office for the ordaining of Priests the Bishop is directed to say, "Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven." In the office for the visitation of the sick it is said, "Our Lord Jesus Christ hath left in His Church power to absolve all sinners that truly repent and believe in Him." In the order for morning and evening prayer we say again, "Almighty God hath given power and commandment to his ministers to declare and pronounce to His people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins."
Q. For what purpose hath Christ given this power to Priests to pronounce absolution in His name?
A. For the consolation of the penitent; the quieting of his conscience.
Q. What must precede the absolution of the penitent?
A. Confession.... Before absolution privately given, confession must be made to a Priest privately.
Q. In what case does the Church of England order her ministers to move people to private, or, as it is called, to auricular confession?
A. When they feel their conscience troubled with any weighty matter.
Q. What is weighty matter?
A. Mortal sin certainly is weighty; sins of omission or commission of any kind that press upon the mind are so, too. Anything may be weighty that causes scruple or doubtfulness.
Q. At what times in particular does the Church so order?
A. In the time of sickness, and before coming to the Holy Communion.
Q. Is there any other class of persons to whom confession is profitable?
A. Yes; to those who desire to lead a saintly life. These, indeed, are the persons who most frequently resort to it.
Q. Is there any other object in confession, besides the seeking absolution for past sin and the quieting of the penitent's conscience?
A. Yes; the practice of confessing each single sin is a great check upon the commission of sin and a preservative of purity of life.(457)
Here we have the Divine institution of priestly absolution and the necessity and advantage of Sacramental confession plainly taught, not in a speculative treatise, but in a practical catechism, by a distinguished minister of the Church of England; taught by a minister who draws his salary from the funds of the Protestant Episcopal church; who preaches and administers in a church edifice recognized as a Protestant Episcopal church, and who is in strict communion with a Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church of England.
And these doctrines are upheld, not by one eminent Divine only, but by hundreds of clergymen, as well as by thousands of the Protestant Episcopalians of England.
What a strange spectacle to behold the same church teaching diametrically opposite doctrines! What is orthodox in the diocese of Bath and Wells is decidedly heterodox in the diocese of North Carolina. An ordinance which Rev. Mr. Grueber proclaims to be of Divine faith is characterized by Rt. Rev. Bishop Atkinson(458) as the invention of men. What Dr. Grueber inculcates as a most salutary practice Dr. Atkinson anathematizes as pernicious to religion. Confession, which, in the judgment of the former, is a great "check upon the commission of sin," is stigmatized by the latter as an incentive to sin. "Behold how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity."(459)
Suppose that the venerable Protestant Episcopal Bishop of North Carolina, in passing through England, were invited by the Rev. Mr. Grueber to preach in his church in the morning, and that the Rt. Rev. Prelate chose for his subject a sermon on confession; and suppose that the Rev. Mr. Grueber selected in the evening, as the subject of his discourse, the doctrine advanced by him in his catechism.
Let us imagine some benighted dissenter attending Mr. Grueber's church at the morning and evening service, with the view to being enlightened in the teachings of the Protestant church. Would not our dissenter be sorely perplexed, on returning home at night, as to what the Protestant Episcopal church really did teach?
Some Episcopalians are pleased to admit that confession may be resorted to with spiritual profit in certain abnormal cases—for instance, in time of sickness. So that, in their judgment, a religious observance which is salutary to a sick man is pernicious to him in good health. For the life of me, I cannot see how the circumstances of bodily health can affect the moral character of a religious act.
That a minister of the Baptist or the Methodist church should deny the power of priestly absolution I readily understand, since these churches disclaim, in their confessions of faith, any such prerogative for their clergy. But I cannot well conceive why a Protestant Episcopalian should repudiate the pardoning power, which is plainly asserted in his standard prayer-book.
Whenever an Episcopalian Bishop imposes hands on candidates for the ministry he employs the following words, which are found in the Book of Common Prayer: "Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained."(460) If these words do not mean that the minister receives by the imposition of the Bishop's hands the power of forgiving sin, they mean nothing at all. When the Bishop pronounces this sentence, either he intends to convey this power of absolution, or he does not. If he intended to confer this power, he could not employ more clear and precise language to express his idea; if he did not intend to confer this power, then his language is calculated to mislead.
Just imagine that prelate addressing a candidate for Holy Orders, in the morning, with the words: "Whose sins thou dost forgive they are forgiven;" and after Divine service saying to the young minister: "Remember, sir, you have no power to forgive sins. The words of ordination are a mere figure of speech."
When a Catholic Bishop ordains Priests he uses the precise words which I have quoted, because the Book of Common Prayer borrows them from our Pontifical. But he means exactly what he says, viz: That the Priest receives through the ministration of the Bishop the power of forgiving sins.
To sum up: We have seen that the Sacrament of Penance and absolution by the Priest is taught in Scripture, proclaimed by the Fathers, upheld not only by Roman Catholics throughout the world, but also by all the schismatic Christians of the East. It is inculcated in those old and genuine editions of the Book of Common Prayer, which have not been enervated by being subjected to the pruning-knife in this country, and the same practice is encouraged by an influential portion of the Protestant Episcopal church in England, and I will add, also, in the United States.
Again, some object to priestly absolution on the assumption that the exercise of such a function would be a usurpation of an incommunicable prerogative of God, who alone can forgive sins. This was precisely the language addressed by the Scribes to our Savior. They exclaimed: "He blasphemeth! who can forgive sins but God only?"(461) My answer, therefore, will be equally applicable to old and modern objectors. It is not blasphemy for a Priest to claim the power of forgiving sins, since he acts as the delegate of the Most High. It would, indeed, be blasphemous if a Priest pretended to absolve in his own name and by virtue of his own authority. But when the Priest absolves the penitent sinner he acts in the name, and by the express authority, of Jesus Christ; for he says: "I absolve thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." Let it be understood once for all that the Priest arrogates to himself no Divine powers. He is but a feeble voice. It is the Holy Spirit that operates sanctity in the soul of the penitent.
Not a few Protestant Episcopalians, I believe, still admit that original sin is washed away in the Sacrament of Baptism. If the minister is not guilty of blasphemy in being the instrument of God's mercy, in forgiving sins by Baptism, how can a Priest blaspheme in being the instrument of Divine mercy, in absolving sinners in the Sacrament of Penance? The same Lord who instituted Baptism for the remission of original sin established Penance for the forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism. Did not the Apostles exercise Divine power in raising dead bodies to life, and in raising souls that were dead to the life of grace? And yet no one but Scribes and Pharisees accused them of usurping God's powers. Cannot the Almighty, without derogating from His own glory, give to men in the nineteenth century privileges which He accorded to them in the first age of the Church?
Far, then, from dishonoring, we honor God by having recourse to the earthly physician whom He has appointed for us, and, like the multitude in the Gospel, we "glorify God, who hath given such power to men."(462)
Others object thus: Why confess to a Priest, when you may confess to God in secret. I will retort by asking, why do you build fine temples when you can worship God in the great temple of nature? Why pray in church when you can pray in your chamber? Why listen to a minister expounding the Word of God when you can read the Gospel at your leisure at home. You answer that the Lord authorizes these things. So does He authorize priestly absolution. This objection is not new. It is very old.
St. Augustine, who lived fourteen hundred years ago, will answer the objection for me: "Let no one," remarks this illustrious Doctor, "say to himself, I do penance to God in private; I do it before God. Is it, then, in vain that Christ has said: 'Whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven'? Is it in vain that the keys have been given to the Church?" The question for us is not what God is able to do, but what He has willed to do. God might have adopted other means for the justification of the sinner, as He might have created a world different from the present one. But it is our business to take our Father at His word, and to have recourse with gratitude to the system He has actually established for our justification. Now, we are assured by His infallible word that it is by having recourse to His consecrated ministers that our sins will be forgiven us.(463)
It is related in the Book of Kings that Naaman, the Syrian, was afflicted with a grievous leprosy, which baffled the skill of the physicians of his country. He had in his household a Jewish maid-servant. She spoke to her master of the great prophet Eliseus, who lived in her native country, to whom the Lord had given the power of performing miracles. She besought her master to consult the prophet. Naaman, accordingly, set out for the country of Israel and begged Eliseus to heal him. The prophet told him to go and wash seven times in the Jordan; but Naaman, instead of doing as he was directed, became very angry, and said: "I thought he would have come out to me, ... and touched with his hand the place of the leprosy, and healed me. Are not the Abana and the Pharfar rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel, that I may wash in them, and be made clean?"(464) But the servants of Naaman remonstrated with him, and besought him to comply with the prophet's injunction, telling him that the conditions were easy and the Jordan was at hand. Naaman went and washed and was cleansed. Our opponents, like Naaman, cry out: "Why should you go to a Priest, a sinner like yourself, when secretly, in your own room, you can approach God, the pure fountain of grace, to be washed from your sins?" I answer, because Jesus Christ, a prophet, and more than a prophet, has commanded you to do so.
The last charge that I will notice is the most serious and the most offensive. We are told that private confession is lawless; that the conscience soon becomes "enfeebled and chained and starved" by it, and, worse and worse, that sins are more readily committed, if followed by an absolution conveying pardon—in other words, that the more attached Catholics are to the practice of their holy religion the more depraved and corrupt they become. Or, if they remain faithful to God, this is not by reason of, but in spite of, their religious exercises.
Surely, this was not the sentiment of the late Dr. Ives, once Protestant Bishop of North Carolina, and of many other illustrious converts, who, from the day of their conversion to the hour of their death never failed to receive consolation and strength from the sacred tribunal.
Nor is it the sentiment of Rev. Father Lyman, a Catholic Priest, of Baltimore, and brother of the assistant Protestant Bishop of North Carolina, nor of the present Archbishops of Baltimore and Philadelphia, of the Bishops of Wilmington, Cleveland, Columbus and Ogdensburg, and a host of others, both of the Protestant clergy and laity, who within the last fifty years have entered the Catholic Church.
If we compare the Protestant and Catholic systems for the forgiveness of sins, the Catholic system will not suffer by the comparison. According to the Protestant system, repentance is necessary and sufficient for justification. The Catholic system also requires repentance on the part of the sinner as an indispensable prerequisite for the forgiveness of sin. But it requires much more than this. Before the penitent receives absolution he must carefully examine his conscience and confess his sins, according to their number and kind. He is obliged to have a firm purpose of amendment, to promise restitution, if he has defrauded his neighbor, to repair any injury done his neighbor's character, to be reconciled with his enemies and to avoid the occasions of sin. Do not these obligations afford a better safeguard against a relapse into sin than a simple internal act of contrition?
Many most eminent Protestant, and even infidel writers, who were conversant with the practical workings of the confessional in the countries in which they lived, bear testimony to the moral reformation produced by it. The famous German philosopher, Leibnitz, admits that it is a great benefit conferred on men by God that He left in His Church the power of forgiving sins.(465)
Voltaire, certainly no friend of Christianity, avows "that there is not perhaps a more useful institution than confession."(466)
Rousseau, not less hostile to the Church, exclaims: "How many restitutions and reparations does not confession cause among Catholics!"(467)
The Protestant authorities of Nuremberg, in Germany, shortly after the establishment of the reformed doctrines in that city, were so much alarmed at the laxity of morals which succeeded after the abolition of confession that they petitioned their Emperor, Charles V., to have it restored.
It is a favorite custom for the adversaries of the Catholic Church to refer to the alleged loose morals prevailing in France and in other Catholic countries as a proof of the inferior standard of Catholic morality. This is a safe, and at the same time not the most honorable, mode of attack, as the people of those nations are too far off to defend themselves. For my part, I have spent a considerable time in various portions of France, and more edifying Christians I have never witnessed than those I met in that country. For six years I had for my professors French Priests, whose exemplary lives were a daily sermon to all around them.
I submit that the cosmopolitan city of Paris (waiving, for the present, the enormities of which it is accused), is not to be adduced as a fair criterion of French morality. Let us stay at home and judge of Catholic morals by the examples furnished under our eyes.
The influence of the confessional has been fairly tested in this country since the foundation of our Republic. Are practical Catholics enfeebled in conscience? Is their conscience chained and starved? Has the absolution they received whetted their appetites for more sin? Are they monsters of immorality? I think that an enlightened Protestant public will pronounce a contrary verdict.
I feel that I can say, with truth, that Catholics who frequent the confessional are generally virtuous in their private lives, just and honorable in their dealings with others, and that they cultivate charity and good-will toward their fellow-citizens.
It will not do to reply that it is the system, not the individual, that is attacked. How can we judge of a system unless by its practical working in the individual? "By their fruits ye shall know them," says our Redeemer.
Vices, indeed, we have to deplore among certain classes of our people, which are often superinduced by their migratory habits and irregular mode of life. But they are commonly sins of frailty, and these are not the persons that are accustomed to approach the confessional. If they did their lives would be very different from what they are.
The best of us, alas! are not what we ought to be, considering the graces we receive. But if you seek for canting hypocrites, or colossal defaulters, or perpetrators of well-laid schemes of forgery, or of systematic licentiousness, or of premeditated violence, you will seek for such in vain among those who frequent the confessional.
There is another objection which it is difficult to kill. It dies hard and, like Banquo's ghost, it will not down. If you drive it from the city, it will fly to the town. If you expel it from the town, it will take refuge in the village. If you eject it from the village, it will hide itself like some noxious animal, in some desert place until it makes its rounds again.
I allude to the charge that a price has to be paid for remitting sins. "You have only (say these slanderers) to pay a certain toll at the confessional gate, and you can pass the biggest load of sin."
It is hard to treat these objections seriously. I have been hearing confessions for fifty years, and of all who have come to me, not one has had the sense of duty to offer me any compensation for absolving them, and this is true of every Priest with whom I have been acquainted. The truth is, the Priest who would solicit a fee for absolution knows that he would be guilty of simony, and would be liable to suspension.
But we are told that confession is an intolerable yoke, that it makes its votaries the slaves of the Priests.
Before answering this objection, let me call your attention to the inconsistency of our adversaries, who blow hot and cold in the same breath. They denounce confession as being too hard a remedy for sin and condemn it, at the same time, as being a smooth road to heaven. In one sentence they style it a bed of roses; in the next a bed of thorns.
In a preceding objection it was charged that the votaries of confession had no moral constraint at all. Now it is said that their conscience is bound in chains of slavery. Surely, confession cannot be hard and easy at the same time.
I have already refuted, I trust, the former charge. I shall now answer the second. I am not aware in what sense our people are less independent than those of any other class of the community. The only restraint, as far as I know, imposed on Catholics by their Priests is the yoke of the Gospel, and to this restraint no Christian ought to object. In my estimation, no body of Christians enjoys more Apostolic freedom than those of the Catholic communion, because they are guided in their conduct, not by the ever-changing ipse dixit of any minister, but by the unchangeable teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ.
But if to love their Priest, to reverence his sacred character, to obey his voice as the voice of God; if to be willing to make any sacrifice for their spiritual father; if, I say, you call this slavery, then our Catholic people are slaves, indeed, and, what is more, they are content with their chains.
Even our Manuals of Devotion have not escaped the lash of wanton criticism. They have excited the pious horror of some modern Pharisees because they contain a table of sins for the use of those preparing for confession. The same flower that furnishes honey to the bee supplies poison to the wasp; and, in like manner, the same book that gives only the honey of consolation to the devout reader has nothing but moral poison for those that search its pages for nothing else.
How can anyone object to the table of sins in our prayer-books and consistently advocate the circulation of the Bible, which contains incomparably plainer and more palpable allusions to gross crimes than are found in our books of devotion? Let us not forget the adage, "Honi soit qui mal y pense."
I may be permitted, in concluding this subject, to add the testimony of my own experience on the beneficent influence of the confessional; for, like my brethren in the ministry, I am, in the language of Dryden,
"One bred apart from worldly noise, To study souls, their cures, and their diseases."
Since the time of my ordination up to the present hour I have been accustomed to hear confessions almost every day. I have, therefore, had a fair opportunity of ascertaining the value of the "system." The impressions forced upon my mind, far from being peculiar to myself, are shared by every Catholic Priest throughout the world charged with the care of souls. The testimony of ten experienced confessors ought, in my estimation, to have more weight in enabling men to judge of the moral tendencies of the confessional than the gratuitous assertions of a thousand individuals who have no personal experience of it, but who draw on their heated imaginations or on the pages of sensational novels for the statements they offer.
My experience is that the confessional is the most powerful lever ever erected by a merciful God for raising men from the mire of sin. It has more weight in withdrawing people from vice than even the pulpit. In public sermons we scatter the seed of the Word of God; in the confessional we reap the harvest. In sermons, to use a military phrase, the fire is at random, but in confession it is a dead shot. The words of the Priest go home to the heart of the penitent. In a public discourse the Priest addresses all in general, and his words of admonition may be applicable to very few of his hearers. But his words spoken in the confessional are directed exclusively to the penitent, whose heart is open to receive the Word of God. The confessor exhorts the penitent according to his spiritual wants. He cautions him against the frequentation of dangerous company and other occasions of sin, or he recommends special practices of piety suited to the penitent's wants.
Hence missionaries are accustomed to estimate the fruit of a mission more by the number of penitents who have approached the sacred tribunal than by the number of persons who have listened to their sermons.
Of all the labors that our sacred ministry imposes on us, there is none more arduous or more irksome than that of hearing confessions. If I may make a revelation of my own life, I deferred receiving Holy Orders for two years, from a sense of the dread responsibility connected with the confessional. It is no trifling task to sit for six or eight consecutive hours on a hot summer day, listening to stories of sin and sorrow and misery. It is only the consciousness of the immense good he is doing that sustains the confessor in the sacred tribunal. He is one "who can have compassion on the ignorant and erring, because he himself is also encompassed with infirmity."(468)
I have seen the man whose conscience was weighed down by the accumulated sins of twenty winters. Upon his face were branded guilt and shame, remorse and confusion. There he stood by the confessional, with downcast countenance, ashamed, like the Publican, to look up to heaven. He glided into the little mercy-seat. No human ear will ever learn what there transpired. The revelations of the confessional are a sealed book.
But during the brief time spent in the confessional a resurrection occurred more miraculous than the raising of Lazarus from the tomb—it was the resurrection from the grave of sin of a soul that had long lain worm-eaten. During those precious moments a ray from heaven dispelled the darkness and gloom from that self-accuser's mind. The genial warmth of the Holy Spirit melted his frozen heart, and the purifying influence of the same Spirit that came on the Apostles, "like a mighty wind from heaven," scattered the poisonous atmosphere in which he lived and filled his soul with Divine grace. When he came out there was quickness in his step, joy on his countenance, a new light in his eye. Had you asked him why, he would have answered: "Because I was lost, and am found. Having been dead, I am come to life again."(469)
II. On The Relative Morality Of Catholic And Protestant Countries.
It has been gravely asserted that the confession of sin and the doctrine of absolution tend to the spread of crime and immorality. Statistics are produced to show that murder and illegitimate births are largely in excess in countries under Catholic influence, and that this prevalence of wickedness is the result of confession and easy absolution.
If our system of absolving those only who both repent and confess leads to laxity of morals, how much more must the Protestant system, which omits that which is most humiliating and admits the sinner to reconciliation on condition of mere interior dispositions? As all our catechisms teach, and as every Catholic knows, there is no pardon of sin without sorrow of heart and purpose of amendment. It is a great mistake to suppose that the most ignorant Catholic believes he can procure the pardon of his sins by simply confessing them without being truly sorry for them. The estimate which so many Protestants set on the virtue of even the lower classes of Roman Catholics is clearly enough evinced in the preference which they constantly manifest in their employment of Catholics—practical Catholics—Catholics who go to confession. I maintain, therefore, that confession, far from being an incentive to sin, as our adversaries have the hardihood to affirm, is a most powerful check on the depravity of men and a most effectual preventive of their criminal excesses.
But is it true that crimes, especially murder and illegitimacy, are more prevalent in Catholic than in Protestant countries? I utterly deny the assertion, and also appeal to statistics in support of the denial. Whence do our opponents derive their information? Forsooth, from Rev. M. Hobart Seymour's "Nights Among Romanists" and similar absolutely unreliable compilations, the false statements of which have been again and again refuted.
Rev. Mr. Seymour gives the following list of the number of murders in England, France and Ireland:
Ireland: 19 homicides to the million of inhabitants France: 31 England: 4
The reader of the above might well draw back in astonishment and exclaim, "Truly moral atmosphere of England!" But how do these statements compare with the official records which I submit to the unprejudiced reader? Recent returns from the "Hand-Book" for France, and "Thom's Official Directory for England and Ireland, 1869," are as follows:
Convictions (and Executions. sentences to death). 1864.—France 9 5 1867.—England and 27 10 Wales Ireland 3 0
These figures, which are from authenticated sources, do not bear out our accusers in their assertion that murders are more prevalent in Catholic than in Protestant countries. The statistics of this crime are limited, or they are not in very general circulation. But we have more extensive information in reference to the other great crime which, it is charged, prevails to a much more alarming extent in countries under Catholic influence, viz., illegitimacy. Here again we shall meet statistics with counter-statistics to refute unjust declarations. We do not wish to be understood as advocating the immaculateness of Catholic communities. We frankly admit and heartily deplore the disorders which Catholics commit, but we deny that they are worse than their Protestant neighbors; and still more emphatically do we deny that the Church is responsible for their disorders.
The Journal of the Statistical Society of London, of the years 1860, '62, '65, '67, gives the number of illegitimate births in England and Wales as 6-1/2 in every hundred, whilst in the Catholic kingdom of Sardinia the number is slightly over two in the hundred, and in Ireland three in every hundred. If the test of illegitimacy is a correct index of the morality of a country, how refreshing to pass from Protestant England across to Catholic Ireland or to the Continent and visit Sardinia! The moral atmosphere of these countries, compared with England, must be as a healthful breeze to a pestilential marsh.
That we may see at a glance the real condition of European countries in reference to this species of crime, I will here insert as correct a table as can be made from the latest reports. (Vid. Catholic World, Vol. XI., p. 112.)
Percentage Of Illegitimacy In Protestant And Catholic Countries Of Europe.
Protestant. Per cent. Holland 4.0 Switzerland 5.5 Prussia (Protestant) 10.0 England and Wales 6.5 Sweden and Norway 9.6 Scotland 10.1 Denmark 11.0 German States 14.8 Wurtemburg 16.4
Catholic. Italy 5.1 Spain 5.5 France 7.2 Prussia (Catholic) 6.5 Belgium 7.2 Austria 11.1 Ireland 3.0
We have divided Prussia into Protestant and Catholic because statistics are kept according to the religious creed of the people; and we discover that, whilst among the Catholic portion of the empire there is but a percentage of six and a half of illegitimate births, among the Protestants it runs up to ten per cent. And the same remark is applicable to Ireland.
The Scotman, whose statements are based on the report of the British Registrar-General, publishes the following statistics:
"The proportion of illegitimate births to the total number of births is in Ireland 3.8 per cent.; in England the proportion is 6.4; in Scotland 9.9; in other words, England is nearly twice, and Scotland nearly thrice worse, than Ireland. Something worse has to be added, from which no consolation can be derived. The proportion of illegitimacy is very unequally distributed over Ireland, and the inequality rather humbling to us as Protestants, and still more as Presbyterians and Scotchmen. Taking Ireland according to the registration divisions, the proportion of illegitimate births varies from 6.2 to 1.3. The division showing this lowest figure is the western, being substantially the Province of Connaught, where about nineteen-twentieths of the population are Celtic and Roman Catholic. The division showing the highest proportion of illegitimacy is the north-eastern, which comprises, or almost consists of, the Province of Ulster, where the population is almost equally divided between Protestants and Roman Catholics, and where the great majority of Protestants are of Scotch blood and of the Presbyterian church. The sum of the whole matter is, that semi-Presbyterian and semi-Scotch Ulster is fully three times more immoral than wholly Popish and wholly Irish Connaught—which corresponds with wonderful accuracy to the more general fact that Scotland, as a whole, is three times more immoral than Ireland as a whole."
It is worthy, too, of notice, that in the tabular statement above presented the percentage of illegitimacy in Holland and Switzerland, where there are large Catholic minorities, is lower than in any other Protestant country.
We have at hand evidences, furnished by Protestant writers, of the hideous immoralities of certain European nations that are more thoroughly Protestantized than England itself. Thus, Mr. Laing writes: "Of the 2,714 children born in Stockholm, 1,577 were legitimate, 1,137 illegitimate; making only a balance of 440 chaste mothers out of 2,714; and the proportion of illegitimate to legitimate children not as one to two and three-tenths, but as one to one and a half."—A Tour in Sweden in 1838.
But we are not disposed to parade these monstrous vices, no matter by whom committed. We allude to them with feelings of shame, not of pleasure; and give them a passing notice merely in self-defence against the gratuitous assertions of our adversaries. We certainly do not wish to excuse or palliate the evil deeds of Catholics, who, with all the blessed aids which their religion affords, ought to be much better than they are. Yet we will add, quoting the words of the Catholic World: "If we are not very much better than our neighbors, we are not any worse; and are not to be hounded down with the cry of vice and immorality by a set of Pharisees who are constantly lauding their own superiority and thanking God they are so much better than we poor Catholics."
There are few tenets of the Catholic Church so little understood, or so grossly misrepresented by her adversaries, as her doctrine regarding Indulgences.
One of the reasons of the popular misapprehension of an Indulgence may be ascribed to the change which the meaning of that term has gradually undergone. The word Indulgence originally signified favor, remission or forgiveness. Now, it is commonly used in the sense of unlawful gratification, and of free scope to the passions. Hence, when some ignorant or prejudiced persons hear of the Church granting an Indulgence the idea of license to sin is at once presented to their minds.
An Indulgence is simply a remission in whole or in part, through the superabundant merits of Jesus Christ and His saints, of the temporal punishment due to God on account of sin after the guilt and eternal punishment have been remitted.
It should be borne in mind that, even after our guilt is removed, there often remains some temporal punishment to be undergone, either in this life or the next, as an expiation to Divine sanctity and justice. The Holy Scripture furnishes us with many examples of this truth. Mary, the sister of Moses, was pardoned the sin which she had committed by murmuring against her brother. Nevertheless, God inflicted on her the penalty of leprosy and of seven days' separation from the people.(470)
Nathan, the prophet, announced to David that his crimes were forgiven, but that he should suffer many chastisements from the hand of God.(471)
That our Lord has given to the Church the power of granting Indulgences is clearly deduced from the Sacred Text. To the Prince of the Apostles He said: "Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven."(472) And to all the Apostles assembled together He made the same solemn declaration.(473) By these words our Savior empowered His Church to deliver her children (if properly disposed) from every obstacle that might retard them from the Kingdom of Heaven. Now there are two impediments that withhold a man from the heavenly kingdom—sin and the temporal punishment incurred by it. And the Church having power to remit the greater obstacle, which is sin, has power also to remove the smaller obstacle, which is the temporal punishment due on account of it.
The prerogative of granting Indulgence has been exercised by the teachers of the Church from the beginning of her existence.
St. Paul exercised it in behalf of the incestuous Corinthian whom he had condemned to a severe penance proportioned to his guilt, "that his spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord."(474) And having learned afterwards of the Corinthian's fervent contrition the Apostle absolves him from the penance which he had imposed: "To him, that is such a one, this rebuke is sufficient, which is given by many. So that contrariwise you should rather pardon and comfort him, lest, perhaps, such a one be swallowed up with over-much sorrow.... And to whom you have pardoned anything, I also. For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned anything, for your sakes I have done it in the person of Christ."(475)
Here we have all the elements that constitute an Indulgence. First—A penance, or temporal punishment proportioned to the gravity of the offence, is imposed on the transgressor. Second—The penitent is truly contrite for his crime. Third—This determines the Apostle to remit the penalty. Fourth—The Apostle considers the relaxation of the penance ratified by Jesus Christ, in whose name it is imparted.
We find the Bishops of the Church, after the Apostle, wielding this same power. No one disputes the right, which they claimed from the very first ages, of inflicting canonical penances on grievous criminals, who were subjected to long fasts, severe abstinences and other mortifications for a period extending from a few days to five or ten years and even to a lifetime, according to the gravity of the offence. These penalties were, in several instances, mitigated or cancelled by the Church, according to her discretion; for a society that can inflict a punishment can also remit it. Our Lord gave His Church power not only to bind, but also to loose. This discretionary prerogative was often exercised by the Church at the intercession of those who were condemned to martyrdom, when the penitents themselves gave strong marks of fervent sorrow, as we learn from the writings of Tertullian and Cyprian.
The General Council of Nice and other Synods authorize Bishops to mitigate, or even to remit altogether, public penances, whenever, in their judgment, the penitent manifested special marks of repentance. Now, in relaxing the canonical penances, or in substituting for them a milder satisfaction, the Bishops granted what we call an Indulgence. This sentence of remission on the part of the Bishops was valid not only in the sight of the Church, but also in the sight of God. Although the Church imposes canonical penances no longer, God has never ceased to inflict temporal punishment for sin. Hence Indulgences continue to be necessary now, if not as substitute for canonical penances, at least as a mild and merciful payment of the temporal debt due to God.
An Indulgence is called plenary or partial, according as it remits the whole or a part of the temporal punishment due to sin. An Indulgence, for instance, of forty days remits, before God, so much of the temporal punishment as would have been expiated in the primitive Church by a canonical penance of forty days.
Although the very name of Indulgence is now so repugnant to our dissenting brethren, there was a time when the Protestant Church professed to grant them. In the canons of the Church of England reference is made to Indulgences, and to the disposition to be made of the money paid for them.(476)
From what I have said you may judge for yourself what to think of those who say that an Indulgence is the remission of past sins, or a license to commit sin granted by the Pope as a spiritual compensation to the faithful for pecuniary offerings made him. I need not inform you that an Indulgence is neither the one nor the other. It is not a remission of sin, since no one can gain an Indulgence until he is already free from sin. It is still less a license to commit sin; for every Catholic child knows that neither Priest nor Bishop nor Pope nor even God Himself—with all reverence be it said—can give license to commit the smallest fault.
But are not Indulgences at variance with the spirit of the Gospel, since they appear to be a mild and feeble substitute for alms-giving, fasts, abstinences and other penitential austerities, which Jesus Christ inculcated and practised, and which the primitive Church enforced?
The Church, as every one must know who is acquainted with her history, never exempts her children from the obligation of doing works of penance.
No one can deny that the practices of mortification are more frequent among Catholics than among Protestants. Where will you find the evangelical duty of fasting enforced, if not from the Catholic pulpit? It is well known that, among the members of the Catholic Church, those who avail themselves of the boon of Indulgences are usually her most practical, edifying and fervent children. Their spiritual growth far from being retarded, is quickened by the aid of Indulgences, which are usually accompanied by acts of contrition, devotion, self-denial and the reception of the Sacraments.
But, do what we will, we cannot please our opponents. If we fast and give alms; if we crucify our flesh, and make pilgrimages and perform other works of penance, we are accused of clinging to the rags of dead works, instead of "holding on to Jesus" by faith. If, on the other hand, we enrich our souls with the treasures of Indulgences we are charged with relying on the vicarious merits of others and of lightening too much the salutary burden of the cross. But how can Protestants consistently find fault with the Church for mitigating the austerities of penance, since their own fundamental principle rests on faith alone without good works?
But have not Indulgences been the occasion of many abuses at various times, particularly in the sixteenth century?
I will not deny that Indulgences have been abused; but are not the most sacred things liable to be perverted? This is a proper place to refer briefly to the Bull of Pope Leo X. proclaiming the Indulgence which afforded Luther a pretext for his apostasy. Leo determined to bring to completion the magnificent Church of St. Peter, commenced by his predecessor, Julius II. With that view he issued a Bull promulgating an Indulgence to such as would contribute some voluntary offering toward the erection of the grand cathedral. Those, however, who contributed nothing shared equally in the treasury of the Church, provided they complied with the essential conditions for gaining the Indulgence. The only indispensable conditions enjoined by the Papal Bull were sincere repentance and confession of sins. D'Aubigne admits this truth, though in a faltering manner, when he observes that "in the Pope's Bull something was said of the repentance of the heart and the confession of the lips."(477) The applicants for the Indulgence knew well that, no matter how munificent were their offerings, these would avail them nothing without true contrition of heart.
No traffic or sale of Indulgences was, consequently, authorized or countenanced by the Head of the Church, since the contributions were understood to be voluntary. In order to check any sordid love of gain in those charged with preaching the Indulgence, "the hand that delivered the Indulgence," as D'Aubigne testifies, "could not receive the money: that was forbidden under the severest penalties."(478)
Wherein, then, was the conduct of the Pope reprehensible? Certainly not in soliciting the donations of the faithful for the purpose of erecting a temple of worship, a temple which today stands unrivalled in majesty and beauty!
"But thou of temples old, or altars new, Standest alone, with nothing like to thee; Worthiest of God, the holy and the true, Since Sion's desolation, when that He Forsook His former city, what could be Of earthly structures, in His honor piled, Of a sublimer aspect? Majesty, Power, Glory, Strength, and Beauty, all are aisled In this eternal ark of worship undefiled."(479)
If Moses was justified in appealing to the Hebrew people, in the Old Law, for offerings to adorn the tabernacle, why should not the Pope be equally justified in appealing for similar offerings to the Christian people, among whom he exercises supreme authority, as Moses did among the Israelites?
Nor did the Pope exceed his legitimate powers in promising to the pious donors spiritual favors in exchange for their donations. For if our sins can be redeemed by alms to the poor,(480) as the Scripture tells us, why not as well by offerings in the cause of religion? When Protestant ministers appeal to their congregations in behalf of themselves and their children, or in support of a church, they do not fail to hold out to their hearers spiritual blessings in reward for their gifts. It is not long since a Methodist parson of New York addressed these sacred words to Cornelius Vanderbilt, the millionaire, who had endowed a Methodist college: "Cornelius, thy prayer is heard, and thy alms are had in remembrance in the sight of God."(481) The minister is more indulgent than even the Pope, to whom were given the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; for the minister declares Cornelius absolved without the preliminary of confession or contrition, while even, according to D'Aubigne, the inflexible Pope insisted on the necessity of "repentance of the heart and confession of the lips" before the donor's offering could avail him to salvation.
John Tetzel, a Dominican monk, who had been appointed the chief preacher to announce the Indulgence in Germany, was accused by Luther of exceeding his powers by making them subservient to his own private ends. Tetzel's conduct was disavowed and condemned by the representative of the Holy See. The Council of Trent, held some time after, took effectual measures to put a stop to all irregularities regarding Indulgences and issued the following decree: "Wishing to correct and amend the abuses which have crept into them, and on occasion of which this signal name of Indulgences is blasphemed by heretics, the Holy Synod enjoins in general, by the present decree, that all wicked traffic for obtaining them, which has been the fruitful source of many abuses among the Christian people, should be wholly abolished."(482)
Extreme Unction is a Sacrament in which the sick, by the anointing with holy oil and the prayers of the Priests, receive spiritual succor and even corporal strength when such is conducive to their salvation. This unction is called Extreme, because it is usually the last of the holy unctions administered by the Church.
The Apostle St. James clearly refers to this Sacrament and points out its efficacy in the following words: "Is any man sick among you; let him bring in the Priests of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith shall save the sick man; and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him."(483)
Several of the ancient Fathers allude to this Sacrament. Origen (third century) writes: "There is also a remission of sins through penitence, when the sinner ... is not ashamed to declare his sin to the Priest of the Lord, and to seek a remedy ... wherein that also is fulfilled which the Apostle James saith: 'But if any be sick among you, let him call in the Priests of the Church, and let them impose hands on him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.' "(484)
St. Chrysostom (fourth century) says: "Not only when they (the Priests) regenerate us, but they have also power to forgive sins committed afterward; for he says: 'Is any man sick among you; let him call in the Priests of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.' "(485)
Pope Innocent I. (fifth century), in a letter to a Bishop named Decentius, after quoting the words of St. James, proceeds: "These words, there is no doubt, ought to be understood of the faithful who are sick, who can be anointed with the holy oil, which, having been prepared by a Bishop, may be used, not only for Priests, but for all Christians."(486)
The Sacramentary, or ancient Roman Ritual, revised by Pope St. Gregory in the sixth century, prescribes the blessing of oil by the Bishop, and the prayers to be recited in the anointing of the sick.
The venerable Bede of England, who lived in the eighth century, referring to the words of St. James, writes: "The custom of the Church requires that the sick be anointed by the Priests with consecrated oil and be sanctified by the prayer which accompanies it."(487)
The Greek Church, which separated from the Roman Catholic Church in the ninth century, says in its profession of faith: "The seventh Sacrament is Extreme Unction, prescribed by Christ; for, after He had begun to send His disciples two and two (Mark vi. 7-13), they anointed and healed many, which unction the Church has since maintained by pious usage, as we learn from the Epistle of St. James: 'Is any man sick among you,' etc. The fruits proper to this Sacrament, as St. James declares, are the remission of sins, health of soul, strength—in fine, of body. But though it does not always produce this last result, it always, at least, restores the soul to a better state by the forgiveness of sins." This is precisely the Catholic teaching on this subject. All the other Oriental churches, some of which separated from Rome in the fifth century, likewise enumerate Extreme Unction among their Sacraments.
Such identity of doctrine proclaimed during so many ages by churches so wide apart can have no other than an Apostolic origin.
The eminent Protestant Leibnitz makes this candid admission: "There is no room for much discussion regarding the unction of the sick. It is supported by the words of Scripture, the interpretation of the Church, in which pious and Catholic men safely confide. Nor do I see what any one can find reprehensible in that practice which the Church accepts."(488)
Protestants, though professing to be guided by the Holy Scripture, entirely disregard the admonition of St. James. Luther acted with more consistency. Finding that the injunction of the Apostle was too plain to be explained away by subtlety of words, he boldly rejected the entire Epistle, which he contemptuously styled "a letter of straw."(489)
It is sad to think that our separated brethren discard this consoling instrument of grace, though pressed upon them by an Apostle of Jesus Christ; for, surely, a spiritual medicine which diminishes the terrors of death, comforts the dying Christian, fortifies the soul in its final struggle, and purifies it for its passage from time to eternity, should be gratefully and eagerly made use of, especially when prescribed by an inspired Physician.
The Apostles were clothed with the powers of Jesus Christ. The Priest, as the successor of the Apostles, is clothed with their power. This fact reveals to us the eminent dignity of the priestly character.
The exalted dignity of the Priest is derived not from the personal merits for which he may be conspicuous, but from the sublime functions which he is charged to perform. To the carnal eye the Priest looks like other men, but to the eye of faith he is exalted above the angels, because he exercises powers not given even to angels.
The Priest is the ambassador of God, appointed to vindicate His honor and to proclaim His glory. "We are ambassadors for Christ," says the Apostle; "God, as it were, exhorting by us."(490) If it is esteemed a great privilege for a citizen of the United States to represent our country in any of the courts of Europe, how much greater is the prerogative to represent the court of heaven among the nations of the earth! "As the Father hath sent Me," says our Lord to His Apostles, "I also send you."(491) "Going, therefore, teach ye all nations, ... teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you. And, behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world."(492) The jurisdiction of earthly representatives is limited, but the authority of the ministers of God extends over the whole earth. "Go ye into the whole world and preach the Gospel," says Christ, "to every creature."(493)
Not only does Jesus empower His ministers to preach in His name, but he commands their hearers to listen and obey. "Whosoever will not receive you, nor hear your words, going forth from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet. Amen, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment than for that city."(494) "He that heareth you heareth Me; and he that despiseth you despiseth Me; and he that despiseth Me despiseth Him that sent Me."(495)
God requires not only that His Gospel should be heard with reverence, but that the persons of His Apostles should be honored. As no greater insult can be offered to a nation than to insult its representative at a foreign court, so no greater injury can be offered to our Lord than to do violence to His representatives, the Priests of His Church. "Touch not My anointed, and do no evil to My prophets."(496) God avenged the crime of two and forty boys who mocked the prophet Eliseus by sending wild beasts to tear them in pieces. The frightful death of Maria Monk, the caluminator of consecrated Priests and Virgins, who ended her life a drunken maniac on Blackwell's Island, proves that our religious institutions are not to be mocked with impunity.
When an ambassador is accredited from this country to a foreign court, he is honored with the confidence of the President, from whom he receives private instructions. So does Jesus honor His ambassadors with His friendship and communicate to them the secrets of heaven: "I will not now call you servants; for, the servant knoweth not what his Lord doeth. But I have called you friends, because all things whatsoever I have heard of My Father I have made known to you."(497)
What a privilege to be the herald of God's law to the nations of the earth! "How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings and that preacheth peace: of him that showeth forth good, that preacheth salvation, that saith to Sion: Thy God shall reign."(498) How cherished a favor to be the bearer of the olive branch of peace to a world deluged by sin; to be appointed by Heaven to proclaim a Gospel which brings glory to God, and peace to men; that Gospel which strengthens the weak, converts the sinner, reconciles enemies, consoles the afflicted heart and holds out to all the hope of eternal salvation!
I have often reflected on a remark made to me by Senator Bayard of Delaware: "You of the clergy," he said, "have a great advantage as public speakers over us political men. You enjoy the confidence of your hearers. You can speak as long as you please, you can admonish and rebuke as much as you please, without any fear of contradiction; while we are constantly liable to interruption."
O! what a tremendous power is wielded by the Catholic preacher! Hundreds of souls are hanging on his words; hundreds are sustained by him in spiritual life, and leave the Church depending on him whether they go forth fortified with the Bread of life, or famished and disappointed. I can say of every Priest what Simeon said of our Lord, "This man is set for the fall and the resurrection of many in Israel."
Not only are Priests the ambassadors of God, but they are also the dispensers of His graces and the almoners of His mercy. "Let a man so regard us," says the Apostle, "as ministers of Christ and dispensers of the mysteries of God."(499)
How can he be called a dispenser of God's mysteries whose labors are confined to preaching? But he is truly a dispenser of Divine mysteries who distributes to the faithful the Sacraments, the mysterious symbols and efficient causes of grace.
As St. John Chrysostom observes, it was not to angels or archangels, but to the Priests of the New Law that Christ said: "Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven." To them alone He gave the power to forgive sins, saying: "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven." To them alone He gave the power of consecrating His Body and Blood and dispensing the same to the faithful. He has empowered the Priests of the New Law to impart the grace of regeneration in Baptism. He has assigned to them the solemn duty of preparing the dying Christian for his final journey to eternity: "Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil, in the name of the Lord."(500)
As far as heaven is above earth, as eternity is above time, and the soul is above the body, so far are the prerogatives vested in God's ministers higher than those of any earthly potentate. An earthly prince can cast into prison or release therefrom. But his power is over the body. He cannot penetrate into the sanctuary of the soul; whereas the minister of God can release the soul from the prison of sin, and restore it to the liberty of a child of God.
To sum up in a few brief sentences the titles of a Catholic Priest:
He is a king, reigning not over unwilling subjects, but over the hearts and affections of his people.
His spiritual children pay him not only the tribute of their money, but also the tribute of their love which royalty can neither purchase nor exact.
He is a shepherd, because he leads his flock into the delicious pastures of the Sacraments and shelters them from the wolves that lie in wait for their souls.
He is a father, because he breaks the bread of life to his spiritual children, whom he has begotten in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.(501)
He is a judge, whose office it is to pass sentence of pardon on self-accusing criminals.
He is a physician, because he heals their souls from the loathsome distempers of sin.
St. John, in his Apocalypse, represents the Church under the figure of a city. "I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven, from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband."(502) Our Savior is the Architect and Founder of this celestial city. The Apostles are its foundation. The faithful are the living stones of the edifice. The anointed ministers of the Lord are the workmen chosen to adjust and polish these stones, that they may reflect the beauty and glory of the sun of justice that perpetually illumines this city. The Priests are engaged in adorning the interior of the heavenly Jerusalem by enriching, with virtue, the precious souls entrusted to their charge. "God gave some, indeed, Apostles, and some Prophets, and others Evangelists, and others Pastors and Doctors, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ,"(503) which is His Church. What an honor is this to the Priest of the New Law! Surely God "hath not done alike to every nation, and His judgments He hath not made manifest to them."(504)
With how much more force may we apply to the successors of the Apostles the words which God spoke to the Priests of the Old Law: "Hear, ye sons of Levi. Is it a small thing unto you, that the God of Israel hath separated you from all the people and joined you to Himself, that ye should serve Him in the service of the tabernacle, and should stand before the congregation of the people and minister unto Him?"
Our Savior affectionately puts this question three times to Peter: "Simon, lovest thou Me?" And three times Peter answers Him, "Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee." What proof of love, then, does Jesus exact of Peter? Does He say: If thou lovest Me, chastise thy body by fasting and stripes, prophesy, work miracles, lay down thy life for Me? No, but "feed My lambs," "feed My sheep." This was to be the closest bond of Peter's devotion to his Master, and of the Master's affection for His disciple.
And our Lord declares that the reward of His disciples would be commensurate with the dignity of their ministry: "Behold," says Peter, "we have left all things and have followed Thee. What, therefore, shall we have? And Jesus said to them, Amen, I say to you that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration, when the Son of man shall sit on the seat of His majesty, you shall also sit on twelve seats, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." And immediately after He adds that the worthy successors of the Apostles shall share in their felicity: "And every one that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for my name's sake shall receive a hundredfold and shall possess life everlasting."(505)
I know that there are many in our days who deny that Priests possess any spiritual power—as if God could not communicate such power to men. I understand why atheists and rationalists, who reject all revelation, should deny all supernatural authority to the ministers of God. But that professing Christians who accept the testimony of Scripture should share in this unbelief passes my comprehension.
Has not the Almighty, in numberless instances recorded in Holy Writ, made man the instrument of His power? Did not Moses convert the rivers of Egypt into blood? Did he not cause water to issue from the barren rock? Did not the prophets predict future events? Did not the sun stand still in the heavens at the command of Josue? Did not Eliseus, the prophet, raise the dead to life? Why do we believe all these prodigies? Because the Scriptures record them. Does not the same Word of God declare that the Apostles received power to confer the Holy Ghost by the imposition of hands, to forgive sins, to consecrate the Body and Blood of Christ, etc. Is not the New Testament as worthy of belief as the Old? Has not Jesus Christ solemnly promised to be always with the ministers of His Church, "even to the consummation of the world," strengthening them to repeat those miracles of mercy that were wrought by His first disciples? Can the God of truth be unfaithful to His promises? Is He not as strong and merciful now as He was in days of the Prophets and Apostles, and are not we as much in need of the Holy Ghost as the primitive Christians were? If God could make feeble men the ministers of His mercy then, why not now?
But should a Priest consider himself greater than other men because he exercises such authority? Far from it. He ought to humble himself beneath others when he reflects to what weak hands God assigns power so tremendous. He should remember what our Savior said to the seventy-two disciples, who, returning with joy from their first mission, cried out to Him: "Lord, even the devils are subject to us in Thy name." But Jesus checked their vain-glory, saying: "I saw Satan like lightning fall from heaven. Behold, I have given you power ... but rejoice not in this, that spirits are subject to you; but rejoice in this, that your names are written in heaven."(506) The Priest does not forget that "the most severe judgment shall be for them that bear rule,"(507) and that "judgment should begin at the house of God."(508) The words of the Apostle are present to his mind: "What hast thou that thou hast not received? And if thou hast received, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?"(509) As well might the vessel that is filled with precious liquor boast of being superior to the vessel that is filled with water. The Priest knows full well that the powers he has received from God are given to him not to feed his own vanity, but to enrich the hearts of the faithful; and that, though instrumental in pointing out to others the way to heaven, he himself, unless adorned with personal virtues, will become a reprobate, like those unhappy Priests of Jerusalem who directed the Magi to Jesus in Bethlehem, but did not go thither themselves.
"I have planted," says the Apostle, "Apollo watered, but God gave the increase. Therefore, neither he that planteth is anything, nor he that watereth, but God that giveth the increase."(510) We perform the outward ceremony; God alone supplies the grace.
The obligations of the minister of God are, therefore commensurate with his exalted dignity.
The Priest is required to be a man of profound learning and of solid piety. "The lips of the Priest shall keep knowledge, and they (the people) shall seek the law at his mouth."(511) The Lord denounces the Priests of the Old Law because they neglected to study the Sacred Sciences: "Because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will reject thee, that thou shalt not do the office of priesthood for Me, and thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children."(512)
"To you," says our Lord to His Apostles, "it is given to know the mystery of the Kingdom of God, to the rest, in parables." The Priests of the New Law, like the Apostles, are the custodians of the mysteries of religion.
Now we know that the knowledge of God's Kingdom is not imparted to us by inspiration or revelation. Christ does not personally teach us as He taught His Apostles. It is by hard study that the knowledge of His law is acquired by us. He does not lift us up on Angels' wings to the spiritual Parnassus. It is only by the royal road of earnest labor that we can attain those heights which will enable us to contemplate the Kingdom of heaven and describe it to others.
As physician of the soul, he must be conversant with its various distempers and must know what remedy is to be applied in each particular case. If society justly holds the unskilful physician responsible for the fatal consequences of his malpractice, surely God will call to a strict account the spiritual physician who, through criminal ignorance, prescribes injudicious remedies to the souls of the patients committed to his charge.
As judge of souls, he must know when to bind and when to loose, when to defer and when to pronounce sentence of absolution. If nothing is so disastrous to the Republic as an incompetent judge, whose decisions, though involving life and death, are rendered at hap-hazard and not in accordance with the merits of the case, so nothing is more detrimental to the Christian commonwealth than an ignorant priesthood, whose decisions injuriously affect the salvation of souls.
The advocate in our courts of justice feels bound in conscience and in honor to study the case of his client with the utmost diligence, and to defend him before the jury with all the eloquence he can master. And yet the suit may not involve more than a brief imprisonment or even a limited fine.
But the Priest, like Moses, stands before God to intercede for His people, and before the people to advocate the cause of God. He not only ascends daily the altar to plead for the people and to cry out with the prophet, "Spare, O Lord, spare Thy people, and give not Thy inheritance to reproach;" but every Sunday he mounts the pulpit to vindicate the claims which God has on His subjects. Certainly, if an attorney is bound to study his client's cause before he defends it, no matter how trifling the issue, how much more imperative is the obligation of the Priest to study well his case, when he reflects that an immortal soul is on trial, and before men who are often the worst enemies of their own soul. He has to convince the people that the narrow road, which their inclinations abhor, is to be followed; and that the broad road, which their self-love and their passions tend to pursue, is to be abandoned. Conviction in this case requires rare tact as well as eloquence and learning.
But the minister of religion has to defend the soul not only against the corruptions of the heart, but also against those doctrinal errors that are daily springing up in every direction, and which are plausibly preached by false teachers, who bring to their support the most specious arguments, couched in the most attractive language. To refute these errors often requires the most consummate skill and a profound knowledge of history and the Holy Scripture.
It is no wonder, then, that the Church insists that her clergy be educated men. Hence our ecclesiastical students are usually obliged to devote from ten to fourteen years to the diligent study of the modern and ancient languages, of history and philosophy, of the great science of theology and Holy Scripture, before they are elevated to the sacred ministry.
It is true, indeed, that, owing to the rapidly-increasing demand for clergy in the United States, our Bishops have hitherto been sometimes compelled to abridge the course of studies of the candidates for the ministry; but now that the Church is more thoroughly organized, and that seminaries are multiplied among us, they are happily enabled to extend to their young levites the advantages of a full term of literary and theological training.
If the Priest should be eminent for his learning, he should be still more conspicuous for his virtues, for he is expected to preach more by example than by precept. If in the Old Law God charged His Priests with the admonition: "Be sanctified, ye that carry the vessels of the Lord,"(513) how much more strictly is holiness of life enjoined on the Priests of the New Dispensation, who not only touch the sacred vessels, but drink from them the Precious Blood of the Lord?
"Purer," says St. Chrysostom, "than any solar ray should that hand be which divides that flesh, that mouth which is filled with spiritual fire, that tongue which is purpled with that most awful blood."
In order to foster in us the spirit of personal piety, we are constantly admonished by the Church to be men of prayer. The Priest should be like those angels whom Jacob saw in a vision, ascending to heaven and descending therefrom on the mystical ladder. He is expected to ascend by prayer and to descend by preaching. He ascends to heaven to receive light from God; he descends to communicate that light to his hearers. He ascends to draw at the Fountain of Divine grace, he descends to diffuse those living waters among the faithful, that their hearts may be refreshed. He ascends to light his torch at the ever-burning furnace of Divine love; he descends to communicate the flame to the souls of his people.
The Church, indeed, considers prayer so indispensable to her clergy that, besides the voluntary exercises of piety which their private devotion may suggest, she requires them to devote at least an hour each day to the recitation of the Divine Office, which chiefly consists of the Psalms and other portions of Holy Scripture, the Homilies of the early Fathers and prayers of marvelous force and unction.
CELIBACY OF THE CLERGY.
The Church requires her Priests to be pure in body as well as in soul, and to "present their bodies a living victim, holy, well-pleasing unto God."(514)
Our Savior and His Apostles, though recognizing matrimony as a holy state, have proclaimed the superior merits of voluntary continency, particularly for those who consecrate their lives to the sacred ministry. "There are eunuchs who have made themselves such for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake. He who can take it, let him take it."(515) Our Lord evidently recommends here the state of celibacy to such as feel themselves called to embrace it, in order to attain greater perfection.
St. Paul gives the reason why our Savior declares continency to be a more suitable state for His ministers than that of matrimony: "He who is unmarried careth for the things of the Lord—how he may please God. But he who is married is solicitous about the things of the world—how he may please his wife—and he is divided."(516)
Jesus Christ manifestly showed His predilection for virginity, not only by always remaining a virgin, but by selecting a Virgin-Mother and a virgin-precursor in the person of St. John the Baptist, and by exhibiting a special effection for John the Evangelist, because, as St. Augustine testifies, that Apostle was chosen a virgin and such he always remained.
Not only did our Lord thus manifest while on earth a marked predilection for virgins, but He exhibits the same preference for them in heaven; for the hundred and forty-four thousand who are chosen to sing the New Canticle and who follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth are all virgins, as St. John testifies. (Apoc. xiv.)
The Apostle of the Gentiles assures us that he led a single life, and he commends that state to others: "I say to the unmarried, and to the widows it is good for them if they so continue, even as I."(517)
There is no evidence from Scripture that any of the Apostles were married except St. Peter. St. Jerome says that if any were married they certainly separated from their wives after they were called to the Apostolate. Even St. Peter, after his vocation, did not continue with his wife, as may be inferred from his own words: "Behold, we have left all things, and followed Thee."(518) Among "all things" must be reckoned the fellowship of his wife, for he could hardly say with truth that he had left all things if he had not left his wife. Our Savior immediately after enumerates the wife among those cherished objects, the renunciation of which, for His sake, will have its reward.(519)
St. Paul declares that "a Bishop must be sober, just, holy, continent."(520) And writing to Timothy, whom he had consecrated Bishop, he says: "Be thou an example to the faithful ... in charity, in faith, in chastity."(521) In another place, he enumerates chastity among the virtues that should adorn the Christian minister: "In all things let us exhibit ourselves as the ministers of God in much patience, ... in chastity."(522)
Although celibacy is not expressly enforced by our Savior, it is, however, commended so strongly by Himself and His Apostles, both by word and example, that the Church felt it her duty to lay it down as a law.
The discipline of the Church has been exerted from the beginning in prohibiting Priests to marry after their ordination. St. Jerome observes that "Bishops, Priests and Deacons are chosen from virgins or widowers, or, at least, they remain perpetually chaste after being elevated to the priesthood."(523) To Jovinian he writes: "You certainly admit that he cannot remain a Bishop who begets children in the episcopacy; for, if convicted, he will not be esteemed as a husband, but condemned as an adulterer."(524) Again he says: "What will the churches of the East, of Egypt and of the Apostolic See do, which adopt their clergy from among virgins, or if they have wives, they cease to live as married men."(525)
St. Epiphanius declares that "he who leads a married life is not admitted by the Church to the order of Deacon, Priest, Bishop or sub-Deacon."(526)
In the primitive days of the Church, owing to the scarcity of vocations among the unmarried, married men were admitted to sacred orders, but they were enjoined, as we learn from various canons, to live separated from their wives after their ordination.
This discipline, it is true, was relaxed to some extent in favor of a portion of the clergy of the Oriental Church, who were permitted to live with their wives if they happened to espouse them before ordination; but, like the Priests of the Western Church, the Eastern clergy were forbidden to contract marriage after their ordination. It is important also to observe that the unmarried clergy of the East are held in much higher esteem by the people than the married Priests.
It cannot, indeed, be denied that at certain epochs of the Church's history, especially in periods of disordered society, there were too many instances of the violation of clerical celibacy. But the repeated violations of a law are no evidence of its non-existence. Whenever the voice of the Church could be heard it always spoke in vindication of the law of priestly chastity.
Let me now call your attention to the propriety and advantages of clerical celibacy.
First—The Priest is the representative of Jesus Christ. He continues the work begun by his Divine Master. It is his duty to preach the word, to administer the Sacraments, and, above all, to consecrate the Body and Blood of Christ and to distribute the same to the faithful. Is it not becoming that a chaste Lord should be served by chaste ministers?
If the Jewish Priests, while engaged in their turn in offering the sacrifice of animals in the Temple, were obliged to keep apart from their wives, should not the Priests of the New Law, who offer daily the sacrifice of the Immaculate Lamb, practise continual chastity?
If David and his friends were not permitted to eat the bread of Proposition till he had avowed that for the three preceding days they had refrained from women,(527) how pure in body and soul should be the Priest who daily partakes of that living Bread of which the bread of Proposition was but the type; and if the people at Mount Sinai were forbidden to come near their wives for three days before receiving the Law,(528) should not they whose office it is to preach the Law at all times abstain altogether?
Thorndyke, an eminent Protestant Divine, in his work entitled, Just Weights and Measures, makes the following observation: "The reason for single life for the clergy is firmly grounded, by the Fathers and canons of the Church, upon the precept of St. Paul, forbidding man and wife to depart unless for a time, to attend unto prayer (I. Cor. vii. 5). For, Priests and Deacons being continually to attend upon occasions of celebrating the Eucharist, which ought continually to be frequented; if others be to abstain from the use of marriage for a time, then they always."(529)
Second—Writers frequently discuss the secret cause of the marvelous success which marks the growth of the Catholic Church everywhere in spite of the most formidable opposition. Some ascribe this progress to her thorough organization; others to the far-seeing wisdom of her chief pastors. Without undervaluing these and other auxiliaries, I incline to the belief that, under God, the Church has no tower of strength more potent than the celibacy of her clergy. The unmarried Priest, as St. Paul observes (1 Cor. vii.), is free to give his whole time undivided to the Lord, and can devote his attention not to one or two children, but to the entire flock whom he has begotten in Christ Jesus, through the Gospel; while the married minister is divided between the cares of his family and his duties to the congregation. "A single life," says Bacon, "doth well with churchmen; for, charity will hardly water the ground where it must first fill a pool."(530)