Histoire De la Penitence Des Origines a Nos Jours

By Tentler, Thomas | The Catholic Historical Review, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Histoire De la Penitence Des Origines a Nos Jours


Tentler, Thomas, The Catholic Historical Review


Histoire de la penitence des origines a nos jours. By Philippe Rouillard. [Petits Cerf-Histoire.] (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf. 1996. Pp. 210. 140 FE)

This concise survey of penance from the New Testament to the present is at once a history of the subject and a historical document. It is history written from the perspective of the present, by a not-disinterested reformer. The author is a Benedictine monk who teaches sacramental theology at St. Anselm's in Rome, and thus knows his subject. Aside from certain emphases one might quarrel with, the only error I found was the identification of De vera et falsa penitentia as a letter of the late tenth century (p. 159). He obviously sympathizes with some of the reforms and reformers he describes, but he can also betray his disapproval (e.g., of the Roman Catechism's gloss on ego te absolvo," p. 172). In his conclusion he invokes the pluralism of this long history to estabfish the fact and legitimacy of institutional change and to suggest ways to remedy the current decline in confession. That situation is dramatically conveyed by a supporting document that records "une chute spectaculaire" of confession among French Catholics.

One suspects that the decline among French Catholics complying with the minimal obligation-from 51% in 1952 to 14% in 1983-has probably not been arrested in the subsequent thirteen years. At the same time, as Professor Rouillard notes, Catholic church-goers do not need statistics to tell them that the decrease in confession has coincided with a rise in the number of communicants among those who attend Mass.

The historical survey is a lucid simplification of the standard narrative, familiar to readers of Bernhard Poschmann, Cyrille Vogel, or the article "Penitence" in the Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique. The periodization itself reveals this historical orthodoxy: New Testament origins; excommunication and reconciliation from the second to the sixth centuries; tariffed penance, sixth to the twelfth century; confession and penance from Lateran Council IV to Trent; the Council of Trent to the eighteenth century; the French Revolution to Vatican Council II; and developments after Vatican Council II. …

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