St. Francis de Sales, the Bishop of Geneva, was responsible for the conversion of Lady Stafford, a Protestant noble woman, who had formerly been intransigent in her opposition to the Catholic Faith. After going to one of his Masses, she was moved to consider the Faith in more friendly terms, but she still harbored great feelings of hostility, especially regarding the doctrine of Purgatory.
The Saint made the following proposition to her, to convince her of the Catholic doctrine: “Madame, you are acquainted with the Protestant Bishop of London. You have evidently great confidence in him. Go, then, and lay before him what I now tell you: The Bishop of Geneva declares that he will become a Protestant, if you can disprove the fact that St. Augustine, whom you regard as one of the greatest lights of the Church, offered up the holy Mass, and offered it up for the dead, viz., for his own deceased mother.”
Going to London and proposing the challenge to the Protestant Bishop, Lady Stafford was surprised to hear that the cleric she so admired not only had no answer to de Sales’ problem, but suggested that she had “fallen into bad hands” and he could say nothing to “hinder the evil” without giving “rise to misunderstandings.” St. Francis’ method worked. Lady Stafford became a fervent Catholic.
We will employ the same method here to prove the Catholic doctrine regarding the sacrament of Penance, or “Confession” as it is usually called.
This doctrine is often a target of anti-Catholic attacks. The more provincial among the enemies of the Church have invented the most ridiculous myths about the supposed horrors of the confessional, some of them tracing its history back to ancient Babylonian paganism. All silliness aside, however, there may be some non-Catholics of good will, who, like Lady Stafford, will wish to know the truth about this sacrament. For them we present a very small sketch of what the early Church taught in this matter.
In the second and third centuries, two distinct heretical sects were born in Asia Minor and Rome respectively. The first was the Montanist and the second the Novatian. Tertullian, who is considered a Father of the Church, is the most famous of the Montanists. While these sects were distinct, they had one common doctrine: They rejected the authority of the Church, and hence of priests, to forgive sins. They also had one common enemy, the Catholic Church.
In refutation of them, several saints wrote in defense of the Apostolic teaching regarding the “forgiveness of sins” spoken of in the Creed. It took a while for these heresies to die out, so Catholic writers were still addressing them for a couple of centuries after they were founded. A small list of these writers would include, St. Jerome, St. Epiphanius, St. Cyprian of Carthage, St. Cornelius (the Pope), St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine.
Writing around 398 AD, St. Jerome tells us, “We read in Leviticus about lepers, where they are ordered to show themselves to the priests, and if they have leprosy, then they are to be declared unclean by the priest. …Just as in the Old Testament the priest makes the leper clean or unclean, so in the New Testament the bishop or presbyter [another word for priest] binds or looses not those who are innocent or guilty, but by reason of their office, when they have heard various kinds of sins, they know who is to be bound and who is to be loosed.” (Commentary on Matthew 3:16:19)
St. Cyprian of Carthage, who was perhaps the greatest enemy of the Novatians, says, “The Apostle likewise bears witness and says: ‘Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord’ [1 Cor. 11:27]. But [the impenitent] spurn and despise all these warnings; before their sins are expiated, before they have made a confession of their crime, before their conscience has been purged in the ceremony and at the hand of the priest . . . they do violence to his body and blood, and with their hands and mouth they sin against the Lord more than when they denied him.” (The Lapsed 15:1) And further: “Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. … I beseech you, brethren, let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession is still admissible, while the satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing before the Lord” (The Lapsed, 28).
St. Ambrose, who wrote against the Novatians in the fourth century tells us that, “The Church holds fast its obedience on either side, by both retaining and remitting sin; heresy is on the one side cruel, and on the other disobedient; wishes to bind what it will not loosen, and will not loosen what it has bound, whereby it condemns itself by its own sentence. … Each [binding and loosing] is allowed to the Church, neither [is allowed] to heresy, for this power has been entrusted to priests alone. Rightly, therefore, does the Church claim it, which has true priests; heresy, which has not the priests of God, cannot claim it. And by not claiming this power heresy pronounces its own sentence, that not possessing priests it cannot claim priestly power.” (On Penance, book 1, 7) He also says, “The office of the priest is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and His right it is specially to forgive and to retain sins.” (On Penance, book 1,8)
Writing around the year 387, St. John Chrysostom describes the power of the priesthood to forgive sins: “Priests have received a power which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels. It was said to them: ‘Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose, shall be loosed.’ Temporal rulers have indeed the power of binding; but they can only bind the body. Priests, in contrast, can bind with a bond which pertains to the soul itself and transcends the very heavens. Did [God] not give them all the powers of heaven? ‘Whose sins you shall forgive,’ he says, ‘they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.’ What greater power is there than this? The Father has given all judgment to the Son. And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men.” (The Priesthood 3:5).
We call to the attention of our readers that St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, and St. John Chrysostom cite in their support Matthew 18:18 and John 20:23 the same way Catholics do today when we defend the sacrament of Penance. Note their use of the words “binding and loosing” and “forgive and retain” as they are found in those Scripture verses.
So, to the Lady Staffords who may be reading this, we issue a challenge similar to that of St. Francis de Sales: Disprove that these early Christians believed in the power of a priest to forgive sins. If you cannot, ask your ministers to disprove it. And if they say, “We don’t believe the doctrines of men about these things, but Scripture,” then ask them where the true Christians were when all those Catholic saints were quoting the Gospels in support of Roman doctrines. Certainly the true Christians — and they had to exist because of Christ’s promise to be with his Church always — were not illiterate. They could certainly pick up the pen and write against confession to priests.
And if, perchance, your minister says that the Montanists and Novatians were these true Christians, since they denied the Roman doctrine, gently remind him that these heretics believed, along with their heresies, in the Mass, the Eucharist, Monasticism, devotion to the saints, and, in the case of the Novatians, the papacy. (Novatian himself was an anti-pope who claimed the chair of Peter in Rome).
If your minister succeeds and disproves that these early Christians believed in the Roman Catholic doctrine of Penance, this writer will take off his religious habit and become a Protestant. Otherwise, you, Lady Stafford, can see the truth of the Catholic doctrine, become a Catholic, confess your sins, persevere in grace, and go to Heaven!