Rules laid down by councils or bishops concerning the penances to be done for various sins. These canons, collected, adapted to later practice, and completed by suitable directions formed the nucleus of the Penitential Books (see MORAL THEOLOGY; PENANCE). They all belong to the ancient penitential discipline and have now only an historic interest; if the writers of the classical period continue to cite them, it is only as examples, and to excite sinners to repentance by reminding them of earlier severity. In a certain sense they still survive, for the granting of indulgences is still based on the periods of penance, years, day, and quarantines. The penitential canons may be divided into three classes corresponding to the penitential discipline of the East, of Rome, or of the Anglo-Saxon Churches.
(1) Penitential canons of the East
In the East, the prominent feature of penance was not the practice of mortification and pious works, though this was supposed; the penance imposed on sinners was a longer or shorter period of exclusion from communion and the Mass, to which they were gradually admitted to the different penitential "stations" or classes, three in number; for the "weepers" ( proschlaiontes , flentes ), mentioned occasionally, were not yet admitted to penance; they were great sinners who had to await their admission outside of the church. Once admitted, the penitents became "hearers" ( achrooeenoi , audientes ), and assisted at the Divine service until after the lessons and the homily ; then, the "prostrated" ( hypopiptontes , prostrati ), because the bishop before excluding them, prayed over them while imposing his hands on them as they lay prostrate; finally the systantes , consistentes , who assisted at the whole service, but did not receive communion. The penanced ended with the rest of the faithful. These different periods amounted in all to three, five, ten, twelve, or fifteen years, according to the gravity of the sins. This discipline, which was rapidly mitigated, ceased to be observed by the close of the fourth century. The relative penitential canons are contained in the canonical letter of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (about 263; P. G., X, 1019), the Councils of Ancyra (314), Neocæsarea (314-20), Nicaea (325), and the three canonical letters of St. Basil to Amphilochus (Ep. 188, 199, 217 in P. G., XXXII, 663, 719, 794). They passed into the Greek Collections and the Penitential Books. Those laid down by the councils passed to the West in different translations, but were misunderstood or not enforced.
(2) Penitential canons of Rome
The Roman penitential discipline did not recognize the various "stations", or classes; with this exception it was like the disciple of the East. The penitential exercises were not settled in detail and the punishment properly so called consisted in exclusion from communion for a longer or shorter period. But the practice of admitting to penance only once, which kept the penitents in a fixed order, was maintained longer. The most ancient Western canons relate to the admission or exclusion from public penance; for instance, the decision of Callixtus ( Tertullian, "De pudic.", i) to admit adulterers, that of St. Cyril and the Council of Carthage in 251 (Ep. 56) to admit the lapsi or apostates, although the Council of Elvira (about 300, Can. 1, 6, 8, etc.) still refused to admit very great sinners. Other canons of this council ordained penances of several years' duration. After Elvira and Arles (314) the penitential canons were rather infrequent. They are more numerous in the councils and decretals of the popes after the close of the fourth century-- Siricius, Innocent, and later St. Leo. They reduce the duration of the penance very much, and are more merciful towards the lapsi or apostates. These texts, with the translations of the Eastern councils, passed into the Western canonical collections.
(3) Penitential canons of the Anglo-Saxon and Irish Churches
On the other hand, what is more striking in the penitential canons of Anglo-Saxon and Irish origin, is the particular fixation of the penitential acts imposed on the sinner to insure reparation, and their duration in days, quarantines ( carina ), and years; these consiste in more or less rigorous fasts, prostrations, deprivation of things otherwise allowable; also alms, prayers, pilgrimages, etc. These canons, unknown to us in their original sources, are contained in the numerous so-called Penitential Books ( Libri Poenitentiales ) or collections made in, and in vogue from the seventh century. These canons and the penitential discipline they represent are introduced to the Continent by Anglo-Saxon missionaries, and were at first received unfavourably (Council of Chalons, 814; Paris, 829); finally, however, they were adopted and gradually mitigated. (See CANONS, COLLECTION OF ANCIENT.)
More Catholic Encyclopedia
Browse Encyclopedia by Alphabet
The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.
Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.
No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.
Browse the Catholic Encyclopedia by Topic
Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912
Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online