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Lay confession

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This article does not deal with confession by laymen but with that made to laymen, for the purpose of obtaining the remission of sins by God. It has no practical importance, and is treated merely from an historical point of view.

It is found under two forms: first, confession without relation to the sacrament, second, confession intended to supply for the sacrament in case of necessity. In the first instance, it consists of confession of venial sins or daily faults which need not necessarily be submitted to the power of the keys; in the second, it has to do with the confession of even grievous sins which should be declared to a priest, but which are confessed to a layman because there is no priest at hand and the case is urgent. In both cases the end sought is the merit of humiliation which is inseparable from freely performed confession; but in the first no administration of the sacrament, in any degree, is sought; in the second, on the contrary, sacramental confession is made to a layman for want of a priest. Theologians and canonists in dealing with this subject usually have two historical texts a basis. The optional and meritorious confession of slight faults to any Christian is set forth in Venerable Bede's "Commentary on the Epistle of St. James": "Confess your sins one to another" (Confitemini alterutrum peccata vestra). "It should be done", says the holy doctor, "with discernment; we should confess our daily and slight faults mutually to our equals, and believe that we are saved by their daily prayer. As for more grievous leprosy (mortal sin), we should, according to the law, discover its impurity to the priest, and according to his judgement carefully purify ourselves in the manner and time he shall fix" (In Ep. Jacob, c.v; P.L., XCIII, 39). Clearly Bede did not consider such mutual avowal a sacramental confession; he had in mind the monastic confession of faults. In the eleventh century Lanfranc sets forth the same theory, but distinguishes between public sins and hidden faults; the first he reserves "to priest, by whom the Church binds and looses", and authorizes the avowal of the second to all members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and in their absence to an upright man (vir mundus), and in the absence of an upright man, to God alone ("De celanda confess.", P.L., CL. 629). So also Raoul l'Ardent, after having declared that the confession of venial sins may be made to any person, even to an inferior" (cuilibet, etiam minori), but he adds this explanation: "We make this confession, not that the layman may absolve us; but because by reason of our own humiliation and accusation of our sins and the prayer of our brethren, we may be purified of our sins: (Hom. lxiv, P.L., CLV, 1900). Confession to laymen made in this way has, therefore, no claim to a sacramental character and provokes no theological objection. The passage from Bede is frequently quoted by the Scholastics.

The other text on which is based the second form of confession to laymen, is taken from a work widely read in the Middle Ages, the "De vera et falsa poenitentia", until the sixteenth century unanimously attributed to St. Augustine and quoted as such (P.L., XL, 1122). Today it is universally regarded as apocryphal, though it would be difficult to determine its author. After saying that "he who wishes to confess his sins should seek a priest who can bind and loose", he adds these words often repeated as an axiom: "So great is the power of confession that if a priest be wanting, one may confess to his neighbour" (tanta vis est confessionis ut, si deest sacerdos, confiteatur proximo). He goes on to explain clearly the value of this confession made to a layman in case of necessity: "Although the confession be made to one who has no power to loose, nevertheless he who confesses his crime to his companion becomes worthy of pardon through his desire for a priest." Briefly, to obtain pardon, the sinner performs his duty to the best of his ability, i.e. he is contrite and confesses with the desire of addressing himself to a priest; he hopes that the mercy of God will supply what in this point is lacking. The confession is not sacramental, if we may so speak, except on the part of the penitent; a layman cannot be the minister of absolution and he is not regarded as such. Thus understood confession to laymen is imposed as obligatory later only counselled or simply permitted, by the greater number of theologians from Gratian and Peter Lombard to the sixteenth century and the Reformation. Though Gratian is not so explicit (can. 78, Dist. I, De Poenit.; can. 36, Dist. IV, De Cons.), the Master of the Sentences (IV, dist. xvii) makes a real obligation of confession to a layman in case of necessity. After having demonstrated that the avowal of sins (confessio oris) is necessary in order to obtain pardon, he declares that this avowal should be made first to God, then to a priest, and in the absence of a priest, to one's neighbour (socio). This doctrine of Peter Lombard is found, with some differences, in many of his commentators, among them, Raymond of Penafort, who authorizes this confession without making it an obligation (Summa, III, xxxiv, 84); Albertus Magnus (in Iv, dist. xvii, aa. 58, 59), who, arguing from baptism conferred by a layman in case of necessity, ascribes a certain sacramental value to absolution by a layman. St. Thomas (in IV, dist. xvii, q. 3, art. 3, sol. 2) obliges the penitent to do what he can, and sees something sacramental (quodammodo sacrametalis) in his confession; he adds, and in this many followed him, that if the penitent survives he should seek real absolution for a priest (cf. Bonav. In IV, sent., d. 17, p. 3, a. 1, q. 1, and Alex. of Hales, in IV, q. 19 m. 1, a. 1). Scotus, on the other hand (in dist. xiv, q. 4; dist. xvii, q. 1), not only does not make this confession obligatory, but discovers therein certain dangers; after him John of Freiburg, Durandus of Saint-Pourcain, and Astesanus declare this practice merely licit. Besides the practical manuals for the use of the priests may be mentioned the "Manipulus curatorum" of Guy de Montrocher (1333), the synodal statutes of William, Bishop of Cahors, about 1325, which oblige sinners to confess to a layman in case of necessity; all, however, agree in saying that there is no real absolution and that recourse should be had to a priest if possible.

Practice corresponds to theory; in the medieval chansons de gestes and in annals and chronicles, examples of such confessions occur (see Laurain, "De l'intervetion des laiques, des diacres, et des abbesses dans l'administration de la Pénitence", Paris, 1897). Thus, Joinville relates (Hist. De S. Louis, §70), that the army of the Christians having been put to flight by the Saracens, each one confessed to any priest he could find, and at need to his neighbour; he himself thus received the confession of Guy d'Ybelin, and gave him a kind of absolution saying: "Je vous asol de tel pooir que Diex m'a donnei" (I absolve you with such power as God may have given me). In 1524 Bayard, wounded to death, prayed before his cross-shaped sword-hilt and made his confession to his "maistre d'ostel" (Hist. De Bayard par le loyal serviteur, ch. lxiv-v). Neither theory nor practice, it will readily be seen, was erroneous from a theological pint of view. But when Luther (Prop. Damn., 13) attacked and denied the power of the priest to administer absolution, and maintained that laymen had a similar power, a reaction set in. The heresy of Luther was condemned by Leo X and the Council of Trent; this Council (sess. xiv, cap. 6, and can. 10), without directly occupying itself with confession to a layman in case of necessity, defined that only bishops and priests are the ministers of absolution. Sixteenth-century authors, while not condemning the practice, declared it dangerous, e.g. the celebrated Martin Aspilcueta (Navarrus) (Enchirid., xxi, n. 41), who with Dominicus Soto says that it had fallen into desuetude. Both theory and practice disappeared by degrees; at the end of the seventeenth century there remained scarcely a memory of them.


Morin, comment. Histor. De discipl. In administr. sacram. Poenit., VIII (Paris, 1651), c. xxiii-iv; Chardon, Histoire des Sacrements; la Penitence, sect. II, c. vii (in Migne, Pat. Lat., XX): Laurain, op. Cit.; Martene, Deantiq. Eccl. Ritibus (Rouen, 1700), I, a, 6, n. 7; and II, 37; and Vacant, Dict. De Theologie cath., I, 182; Koniger, Die Beicht nach Casarius von Heisterbach (1906). From a Protestant pint of view, to be corrected by the foregoing, Lea, Hisotry of Auricular Confession, I (Philadelphia, 1896), 218.

About this page

APA citation. Boudinhon, A. (1910). Lay confession. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Boudinhon, Auguste. "Lay confession." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. Dedicated to St. Rita of Cascia.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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