The 'Summae Confessorum' on the Integrity of Confession as Prolegomena for Luther and Trent

By McDonnell, Kilian | Theological Studies, September 1993 | Go to article overview

The 'Summae Confessorum' on the Integrity of Confession as Prolegomena for Luther and Trent


McDonnell, Kilian, Theological Studies


WITH THE EXCEPTION of satisfaction, no Reformation issue concerning the sacrament of penance was so hotly debated as integrity of confession, the requirement that one must make a complete confession. In part, the heated discussion was related to the role integrity played in Catholic penitential life. Speaking of the Catholic practice just prior to the Reformation, T. N. Tentler contends that "to exaggerate the importance of completeness seems hardly possible."(1)

The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) gives the classical formulation: the faithful "must confess all their sins ... to their own priest at least once a year."(2) The Protestant historian of penance, H. C. Lea, calls this "the most important legislative act in the history of the Church,"(3) partly because a legislated confession is not free. The Council of Florence (1438-45) modified the Lateran decree; integrity is defined as "all the sins one remembers."(4)

Luther objects that even this is an impossible task, like "counting the sands," endlessly numbering and weighing sins, detailing their circumstances, thus leading to torments of conscience, ending in despair.(5) Though Luther himself retains the catalogue of sins as an aid to the examination of conscience,(6) as does Melanchthon,(7) both cite Psalm 19:13: "Who knows how often one sins?"(8) No command exists for such an exhaustive examination. Nor does a command exist that penitents must confess secret sins.(9)

Without ambiguity the Augsburg Confession says "an enumeration of all sins is not necessary";(10) the reason is "that consciences not be burdened."(11) However much and often auricular confession is recommended in the Lutheran confessional writings, such advice is accompanied with cautions: "Although we approve of confession and maintain that some examination is useful .... Still it must be controlled, lest consciences be ensnared."(12) In fact, the confessional writings state these reservations more forcefully and more frequently than the positive recommendations of confession, the practice of which Luther and Melanchthon held in very high esteem.(13) The confession of the circumstances which change the species of mortal sins, Luther contends, is not necessary.(14) Luther calls the Catholic practice (including integrity) "a torture of hell," and three times Calvin calls it "butchery" or methods of the "slaughter house."(15) Even if one disagrees with Fourth Lateran, what merits this passionate language? Is this in any way related to Luther's throwing on a bonfire a copy of Angelus de Clavisio (or Chivasso) (1411-95), Summa de casibus conscientiae (called the Angelica) and several collections of canon law, together with the papal bull Exsurge Domine, on December 10, 1520? Why all the passion?

To understand the passionate rejection of the integrity of confession, I will briefly situate the summae confessorum in the tradition of the general patristic penitential practice and the Irish and Frankish penitentials to demonstrate the rigorist tradition which the summae confessorum mediated to the Reformation. Then I will look at the evidence on integrity in the summae confessorum as a way of understanding both Luther's reaction and Trent's legislation.

Trent responded to Luther in particular and the reformers in general by issuing decrees on a wide spectrum of disputed areas regarding the sacrament of penance: the existence of the sacrament,(16) contrition, confession, and satisfaction as the three acts of penance,(17) the necessity of the sacrament for salvation and the necessity of a priest minister,(18) integrity,(19) the judicial character of priestly power,(20) resevation of sins,(21) and further clarifications on satisfaction.(22) To give focus, only integrity, and in a minor way the judicial nature of absolution, are studied here. Though satisfaction is a considerable obstacle for Luther, it is mentioned only in passing in this article because, for Luther, the major issue in integrity is not satisfaction but tyranny.

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