Jesus christ clarifies the confusion about confession
WOMAN Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…
PRIEST Yes, my child, …
WOMAN Father, it has been one month since my last confession…
PRIEST For your penance, recite forty Our Fathers and forty Hail Marys…
RACHEL Our indiscrete microphones are located today in the Church of the Redeemer, right in the heart of Jerusalem. As in previous days we are joined by Jesus Christ. Let’s talk about what’s happening right here, Jesus a confession.
JESUS Please explain to me what is happening, Rachel.
RACHEL That young woman is telling the priest all the sins she’s committed. And the priest is pardoning her sins.
JESUS I see the young woman, but where’s the priest?
RACHEL He’s hidden in that thing that looks like a wooden cage.
JESUS But tell me, Rachel, whom did she offend? The priest who’s in the cage?
RACHEL I don’t think so…
JESUS Then why is she asking him for pardon?
RACHEL Because… because that’s the way confession is.
JESUS How strange.
RACHEL Why do you say strange?
JESUS Because if she offended someone else, why is she asking the priest for pardon?
RACHEL Well, according to the catechism, this is one of the seven sacraments that you yourself instituted.
JESUS That I instituted? I think that … Listen, why don’t you consult one of those friends of yours that know so much about religious matters?
RACHEL It seems there’s some “confusion” about “confession”! Hold on, give me a minute. I can contact Rafael Martínez Arias, who belongs to the movement of Christian base communities of Madrid. Let’s see if we have any luck with my cell phone… Hello, Senor Martínez Arias? I’m call you from Jerusalem with a very particular question what is the origin of the sacrament of confession? … What’s that you say? … The Irish monks? … About 500 years after Jesus Christ?
JESUS Rachel, I’d like to hear too. Can’t you do something so that his voice can be heard more loudly?
RACHEL Yes, wait, I’ll turn up the volume.
RAFAEL This private form of asking for pardon was devised by the religious superiors of some monasteries in Ireland. That way they could know even the most intimate thoughts of each one of their monks. From Ireland the practice spread to other countries. Centuries later a Pope, Innocent III (who was not at all innocent!), imposed that style of confession as the obligatory norm for all Christians.
RACHEL Why do you speak so negatively of that Pope?
RAFAEL Because he was an arrogant guy. He was surrounded with luxury and was mixed up in a lot of dirty business.
RACHEL But why was that Pope interested in imposing confession on people?
RAFAEL Well, it was a time when there was much discontent with the church authorities, so the Pope had this idea from this time on, every Christian had to confess his or her sins to the priests. And he told the priests cross-examine those who confess in order to learn their religious and political opinions.
RACHEL And that’s the way the sacrament of confession was born?
RAFAEL Just as I’ve told you. It was that 13th-century Pope who made it obligatory. It really was a measure aimed not so much at pardoning people’s sins as at finding out what those sins actually were. The aim was to uncover heresies and identify dissidents.
JESUS Ask him if the people accepted that terrible yoke on their necks…
RACHEL Here Jesus Christ is asking if the people submitted themselves to that control imposed by Pope Innocent III.
RAFAEL No, they protested constantly. But after Innocent the Third came the Fourth, Innocent IV. With that son of [beep]… I mean, with that Pope there began the horrible tribunals of the Inquisition.
RACHEL Thank you for that information, Rafael. What do you think, Jesus, about what we just heard?
JESUS It’s a heavy yoke, it’s an unbearable burden placed upon the children of God.
RACHEL So it wasn’t you, after all, who established the sacrament of confession?
JESUS No, it wasn’t me.
RACHEL And you don’t take responsibility for the secrecy, the confessionals, the lists of sins, the penances?
JESUS I don’t know anything about all that. I spoke to people about pardon, about forgiveness, but what I said was very different.
RACHEL Tell us what you said.
JESUS I’ll tell you, but outside. I’ve never liked these temples. Come on, let’s get out into the fresh air.
RACHEL So we’re going outside, and our program will also, for a while, leave the airwaves. This is Rachel Perez, Emisoras Latinas, Jerusalem.
ANNOUNCER Another God is Possible. Exclusive interviews with Jesus Christ in his second coming to Earth. A production of María and José Ignacio López Vigil, with the support of the Syd Forum and Christian Aid.
*More information about this polemical topic…*
A little history
Rafael Martinez is a Catholic who stopped going to confession a long time ago. He takes part in our program providing historical data that help us understand how this “sacrament” of penance was “born”, since it does not have its origin in the liberating message of Jesus and has today become an obsolete practice for many Catholics around the world.
The first generations of Christians understood that the waters of baptism inaugurated a new life in the faithful and that the rite of baptism was sufficient to cleanse them from sin. This “cleansing” was understood in the first communities as a “conversion”, a “change of life”. It was not until the third century that the “sacrament of penance” – for sins committed after baptism – began to be practiced with regularity. For centuries the practice of penance was public, and the only ones who pardoned sins were the bishops. The “confession” was made to the bishop himself, as the first step of the rite, and the “penance” imposed usually consisted of the sinner’s being excluded from eucharistic celebrations for a longer or shorter time, according to the gravity of the sin. Penance was done only for the most serious sins. The “penitents” had to wear distinctive clothing so that everyone would know that they recognized their sinfulness.
“Private” penance – the rite that we are familiar with today and generally call “confession” – began in the sixth century, under the influence of Irish monks, as is explained in our program by Rafael Martínez, the Spanish layman who no longer goes to confession. Starting in the ninth century the liturgical books included instructions for the practice of private confession. Thus, what in the early centuries was a process that lasted days, weeks or months was reduced to only a short talk between the penitent and the confessor, who no longer had to be a bishop but could be any priest. After that the rite was extended to all Christian churches. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) established the obligation for the faithful of confessing their sins to a priest at least once every year.
In the 16th century the Protestant Reformation rejected the practice of confession, claiming that no intermediary between God and human beings was needed.
The “crime of solicitation”
In the course of history, confession has led to murky practices which reveal how foreign to the gospel message this rite is. In 1713 the Inquisition tribunals issued an edict for Spain, Central America and the Philippines, in which they sought to forbid the “crime of solicitation”, an offense that had already been censured in the bull of Pope Gregory XV, “Universi Dominici Gregis” (1641).
This crime consisted in the confessor’s “soliciting” the penitent to grant him sexual favors in exchange for receiving absolution of her or his sins. According to Jorge René González Marmolejo, researcher for the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico and author of the book Sex and Confession (INAH-Plaza and Janés, 2002), some 500 documents from the Mexican national archives and the Mexican Inquisition prove that the practice of “solicitation” was quite common, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries. The documents cite the testimonies of 348 women who incriminated themselves before the Inquisition because they felt culpable for having acceded to a “solicitation”. In the 18th century it was one of the three offenses most persecuted by the Inquisition, along with forbidden literature and bigamy.
In the archival documents the crime of solicitation is described thus: the priest would ask his spiritual daughter or son during confession to perform “lewd and vulgar acts with him or with third persons”; such acts might include salacious words, sexual touching, or even intercourse. Sometimes the “solicitation” was related to a clandestine love between the confessor and the penitent. The edict of 1713 prohibited that the penitent kneel before the priest when confessing, because her/his head would be at a “compromised” height and “beneath the cassock many things could be done and concealed”. The edict decreed that if the priest had to travel to the house of a sick woman, he should do so in the company of another cleric or religious and should hear her confession with the doors open. The confessor and the penitent were also prohibited from conversing before or after the confession.
Those wooden “cages” called confessionals, which are still visible and in use in many places, especially in older churches, appeared for the first time during the Council of Trent (1542-1562). By that time the practice of “solicitation” had reached such an extreme that some priests were hearing confessions with the penitents sitting on their knees! It was felt that without a strict physical separation between confessor and penitent sexual harassment and sexual acts could not be stopped. The 1713 edict of the Inquisition dictated precise norms for how to build the confessionals, which had already been in use for more than a century. The instructions stated that the confessionals were to be installed in well-lighted, plainly visible places and that between the confessor and the penitent there should be, not doors or curtains, but dividers or screens with openings so small that fingers would be unable to pass through them and realize “erotic caresses”.