I. The English Reformation
Presenter: Craig Satterlee
English reformers attacked abuses of the Roman confessional, but recognized its value when freed from such abuses. According to Thomas Becon, confession is to be valued for the following reasons: 1) it lends us a certain humility; 2) it leads us to shame for sin and love for virtue; 3) it brings us to a knowledge of ourselves and what it means to be Christian; 4) it teaches us abhorrence of sin and ways to avoid it; 5) it is a means of Christian assurance; and 6) it brings the ignorant to knowledge, the blind to sight, the desperate to salvation, etc. The abuses which the reformers protested were the strict questioning of penitents, breaches of confidentiality and compulsion (e.g., the necessity of confession at least once a year decreed by the Lateran Council of 1215). That Christ invested the Church with spiritual power and authority for the cure of souls in leading to repentance was not doubted, however, the sacramental nature of private confession was a point of contention, because absolution was at times left out of the definition, or on the other hand (e.g., Council of Trent) absolution was made the very form by which the whole force and operation of the sacrament was ascribed.
The 19th century Tractarians sought to renew a truly inward religion combined with discipline and order which they saw had become neglected in the Church of England. They saw the grace of penitence and sorrow for sin as an important part of the transfiguration into the likeness of Christ. This led to a revival in the practice of sacramental confession. In response to suspicions that the practice might be "un-English" or "popish", the Tractarians replied that the ministers of the Church were instruments of Christ as well as that authority to absolve was given in the ordination of a priest according to John 20.
II. Trent's Theology of Justification and Sanctification
Presenter: Richard Bautch, S.J.
At the time of the Council of Trent the sacrament of penance was not being received frequently with the exception of monasteries and religious communities, and there were a number of abuses connected to the ministry of confession at the pastoral level. The first time that the Council of Trent discussed the sacrament of penance was within the discussion on justification.
Chapters six and seven of Trent's decree on justification achieved a moderate doctrinal differentiation between justification and sanctification which parallel the Reform tradition represented by Calvin and Wesley. In Chapter 6, justification begins in a process of discrete acts of faith which are not sequential or even circular, but "seasonal". In other words, the penitent may have to revisit one or more "steps" in the process and further, this process is not a once in a lifetime event but happens throughout one's lifetime. This process is one of preparation, and the steps or acts of faith involved create a disposition within the penitent which includes character, holiness and self-reliance. Chapter 7, involving the definition of justification of the sinner and its causes, enjoins faith and justification, but perhaps not with the certainty of Luther's claim. Rather, Trent's decree on justification emphasized habitual grace. This "habit" of grace involves the freedom of the penitent, especially in his/her cooperation with grace. This preparatory process provides a framework for sanctification. Thus, in line with Wesley, the idea of sanctification is one of a process of new birth which brings the believer into contact with habitual grace, freedom and law, drawing the believer nearer to God.
However, there was not simply one theology of justification which emerged out of the decree on justification. Further, the decree had several limitations in its presentation. As far as the sacrament of penance was concerned, the meaning of faith, which was central to Luther, was not even addressed. And while the decree maintained the absolute gratuity of God's grace in the process of reconciliation, the question of the full efficacy of Jesus' salvific work was not discussed. Finally, the issue of whether priestly absolution is in itself a judicial act was never clarified, a question which remains unresolved to this day between Catholic scholars.