Theory and practice of the confessional by Caspar Erich Schieler, Richard Frederick Clarke
An English translation of Dr. Schieler's exhaustive work on "The Sacrament of Penance," for the use of theological students and missionary priests, had been advised by some of our bishops and professors of theology. It was felt that, under present conditions, a work in the vernacular on a subject which involved to a very large extent the practical direction of souls was an actual necessity for many to whom the Latin texts dealing with the important questions of the Confessional were for one reason or another insufficient.
There was one serious objection to the publication of a work in English, which, since it deals with most delicate subjects, might for this reason cause an unqualified or prejudiced reader to misunderstand or pervert its statements, so as to effect the very opposite of what is intended by the Church in her teaching of Moral and Pastoral Theology. Between the two dangers of a lack of sufficiently practical means to inform and direct the confessor and pastoral guide of souls in so difficult and broad a field as is presented by the missions in English-speaking countries, and the fear that a manual from which the priest derives his helpful material of direction may fall into the hand of the ill-advised, for whom it was not intended, the latter seems the lesser evil, albeit it may leave its deeper impression upon certain minds that see no difficulty in using the sources of information in which the Latin libraries abound.
One proof of both the necessity and the superior advantage of having a vernacular expression of this branch of theological literature, for the use of students and priests in non-Latin countries, is readily found in the fact that authorized scholarship and pastoral industry in Germany have long ago seen fit to supply this need for students in its theological faculties, and for priests on the mission, and that the benefit of such a course has shown itself far to overlap the accidental danger of an unprofessional use of the source of Moral Theology in the hands of a lay-reader, or one hostile to the Catholic Church who might pervert its doctrine and arouse the zeal of the prudish.
The work was, therefore, not undertaken without serious weighing of the reasons for and against its expediency from the prudential as well as moral point of view. As a competent translator of it, the name of the Rev. Richard F. Clarke, S.J., of the English Province, whose editions of Spirago's catechetical volumes had given him the advantage of special experience in kindred work, suggested itself to the publishers. Father Clarke actually undertook the translation, and had fairly completed it when death overtook him. The manuscript was placed in my hands with a request to prepare it for publication. After much delay, due to a multiplicity of other professional duties, I found it possible, with the cooperation of the Rev. Dr. Charles Bruehl, who kindly consented to undertake the principal work of revision, to complete the volume which is now placed at the disposal of our clergy. There is probably room for some criticism in parts wherein I have undertaken to alter the expressions of the author and of the original translator, with a view of accommodating the matter to the temperament of the English reader. In this I may have sinned at times both by excess and by deficiency; but these blemishes can, I trust, be eliminated in future editions of a work which, for the rest, contains so much of instructive material as to prove itself permanently useful to the theologian and pastor.
In some cases I would not wish to be understood as sharing the author's views, nor should I have deemed an insistence upon the often-cited opinions of casuists quite so essential in a work of this kind as it seemed to the learned author. But in this I did not feel authorized to depart from his text, even if I had not fully appreciated the advantage of his ample references and quotations in matters of detail. Whatever we think of the author's personal views, his citations of the masters in the science of morals give to his book certain advantages entitled to recognition.
With these restrictions borne in mind, it would be difficult to exaggerate the usefulness of a work such as this, which directs the priest in the sacramental ministry of Penance as indicated by the laws and practice of the Church.
The aim of every pastor must in the first place be to rouse the consciences of the individual members of his flock to motives of pure and right living. The Gospel of Christ furnishes the model of such living, and the Church is the practical operator under whose direction and authority the principles of the Gospel are actively carried into society, from the lowest to the highest strata. The sacramental discipline of the Confessional is the directest and most powerful instrument by which the maxims and precepts of the Gospel are made operative and fruitful in the individual conscience. A prominent non-Catholic writer of our day has characterized the Catholic Church as the Empire of the Confessional. So she is, and her empire is the strongest, the most penetrating, permanent, and effective rule for the good conduct of the individual and the peace and prosperity of the community that can be conceived.
On the proper operation, therefore, of the Sacrament of Penance depends in the first place all that we can look for of satisfaction and peace upon earth. But the administration of the Sacrament of Penance is solely in the hands of the priest or confessor. If he knows what to do, if he is wisely diligent in doing what the discipline of the Confessional instructs him to do, he will rule his people with order and ease, he will gain their gratitude and their love, he will reap all the fruits of a happy ministry, and his name will be in benediction among men of good will within and without the fold.
The Confessional is a tribunal. It demands a certain knowledge of the law, exercise of discretion and prudence in the application of the law, and the wisdom of kindly counsel to greater perfection. As the lawyer, the judge, the physician, learn their rules of diagnosis and prescription in the first instance from books and then from practice, so the future confessor, for three or four years a student of theology, deems it his first and most important duty to study Moral Theology, and this with the single and almost exclusive purpose of making use of it in the Confessional. Moral Theology gives him the principles of law and right, the rules to apply them to concrete cases, and certain precedents by way of illustration, in order to render him familiar with actual and practical conditions. But the young priest learns much more during the first few months and years of his actual ministry by sitting in the Confessional and dealing with the consciences of those who individually seek his direction.
There is some danger that the practical aspect, with all the distracting circumstances of sin's work in the soul, may in time obscure the clear view of principles and make the confessor what the criminal judge is apt to become during long years of incumbency, over severe or overindulgent, as his temper dictates. He may thus lose that fine sense of discrimination, that balanced use of fatherly indulgence and needful correction, which the position of the representative of eternal justice and mercy demands.
To obviate this result, which renders the Confessional a mere work of routine and absolution, instead of being, as it should be, a means of correction and reform, the priest, like the judge, needs to read his books of law and to refurbish his knowledge of theory and practice and his sense of discernment. But the theological texts with which he was familiar under the Seminary discipline, where nothing distracted him from the attentive use of them, are not now so readily at hand. Their Latin forms are a speech which, if not more strange and difficult than during his Seminary course, seems more distant and uninviting. The priest, even the young priest, would rather review his Moral Theology in the familiar language in which he is now to express his judgments to his penitents.
This fact alone suggests the pertinent use of the book before us. There the confessor, the director of the conscience, finds all that he was taught in his Moral Theology. He finds much more; for the author has made the subject a specialty of treatment which leads him to light up every phase of the confessor's task. He has himself studied all the great masters in the direction of sonls from the Fathers of the Church down to the Scholastics of the thirteenth century; and more especially those that follow, who have entered into the theory and art of psychical anatomy — Guilelmus Paris, Cardinal Segusio, St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, Gerson, St. Charles Borromeo, Toletus, De Ponte, St. Francis of Sales, Lugo, Lacroix, Concina, Cajetan, and Bergamo, St. Alphonsus, Reuter, and finally those many doctors of the last century who have written upon the duties of the confessor in the light of modern necessities and special canon law.
It is hardly necessary to explain to the priest who has passed over the ground of the sacramental discipline as found in his theological text-books, how the subject is here presented in the detail of analysis and application to concrete conditions. Penance is a Virtue and it is a Sacrament. To understand the full value of the latter we must examine its constituent elements, the matter, form, conditions, the dispositions and acts of the penitent, sorrow for sin, purpose of amendment, actual accusation of faults in the tribunal — requisites which are dealt with by Professor Schieler in the traditional manner, but with clearness and attention to detail.
Of special importance are the suggestions in the third chapter, touching the integrity of the Confession: the number, circumstances certain and doubtful, of the sins, and the reasons which excuse the penitent from making a complete confession; likewise the treatment of invalid confessions, of general confessions, their purpose, necessity, or danger as the case may be; satisfaction, its acceptance or commutation.
His main object of the treatise lies, however, as might be supposed, in the exposition of the confessor's powers and jurisdiction, and of the reservation and abuse of faculties. These matters are in the first place discussed from the theoretical standpoint. Then follows the application, which takes up the second principal part of the work. Here we have the confessor in the act of administering the Sacrament. He is told how he is to diagnose the sinner's condition by the proposal of questions and by ascertaining his motives — how far and to what end this probing is lawful and wise. Next the qualities of the confessor, his duties and responsibilities, are set forth in so far as they must lead him to benefit his penitent both in and out of the tribunal of penance. The obligation of absolute secrecy or the sigillum is the subject of an extended chapter.
From the general viewpoint which the confessor must take of his penitent's condition and the safeguards by which he is to protect the penitent both as accused and accuser, our author leads us into the various aspects of the judge's duties toward penitents in particular conditions. Thus the sinner who is in the constant occasion of relapse into his former sin, the sinner who finds himself too weak to resist temptation, the penitent who aims at extraordinary sanctity, the scrupulous, the convert, form separate topics of detailed discussion. The last part of the volume deals with the subjects of confessions of children, of young men and young women, of those who are engaged to be married, of persons living in mixed marriage, of men, religious women, of priests, and of the sick and dying.
Some of our readers may recall that we have protested against too implicit a reliance on an artificial code of weights and measures in the matter of sin; and to them it may seem that in seconding the translation of such a work as this we go contrary to the principles advocated, because our author presents the same application of canon law and judicial decision which has been sanctioned by the great moralists and canonists of the schools. But let the reader remember that in the text-books of the Seminary, we have as a rule the principles and precepts presented in their skeleton form so as to leave the impression of fixed maxims, which cannot be altered, although they are in many cases only the coined convictions of individual authors, to whose authority the student is taught to swear allegiance. In the present volume principles and precepts are so discussed that they admit of an all-sided view, and as a result do not hinder that freedom of judgment which is so essential a requisite in a good judge and, therefore, in a confessor. For the rest we felt it, of course, to be our duty toward the author to preserve his train of thought and reasoning, and if anything is needed to make his exposition especially applicable to our missionary conditions of time and place, it will be easily supplied by any one who shall have read and studied the present work.
H. J. Heuser.