CONFESSION, AURICULAR. Confession of sin whispered, or uttered secretly, into the ear (Lat. auris) of a priest. This form of confession is also sometimes called " sacramental confession " because closely connected with the Romish "sacrament" of penance. The Lateran Council (1215) ordered every man and woman to privately confess their sins to their own priests at least once a year, and the Council of Trent (canon 6) pronounces an anathema on any one who shall deny that "sacramental confession was instituted by Divine command, or that it is necessary to salvation or . . .is foreign to the institutions and command of Christ, and is a human invention."
With regard to the question of "Divine command," we do not fear to examine Scripture. In the Old Testament, Lev. v. 5, 6 and Num. v. 6, 7 are quoted upon Rome s side. But upon comparing these together it is clear that what is spoken of is public confession to the Lord, not private confession to a priest. The Levitical laws regarding leprosy, again, are cited to as little purpose. For they have to do with a bodily not a spiritual cure, and the priest merely gave the cured leper a certificate of his cleansed condition. Once more, Romanists adduce Joshua vii. 19-21 as an example of confession to the priest. But Achan s confession was made to Joshua the civil magistrate, and was extorted from him that the justice of his punishment might be manifest to all. In the New Testament, Matt. hi. 6 and Acts xix. 18, to both of which Rome appeals, speak again of public and not private confession. Another, and indeed Rome s chief locus classicus on this point, is James v. 16: " Confess your faults one to another, and pray for one another that ye may be healed." Yet no one, probably, would have imagined a priori that this text could be supposed to inculcate confession to a priest with a view to absolution. Is it not apparent that the confession is a mutual one, as the prayer is, and that the object sought is not absolution at all but rather bodily healing? It is highly probable that St. James was alluding to a custom of the Jews of his day in regard to sickness. When this experience befell a member of a synagogue, the elders were wont to visit the sick person to remind him that sickness and death came from sin, and exhort him to confession if any sin lay on his mind, and then to pray for his recovery (cf. James v. 14, 15). The enumeration of all sins committed was never required under either the Old Testament or the New Testament, and the Jews were entirely unfamiliar with the idea of human absolution. The claim of Rome with regard to this, as based upon Matt. xvi. 18, 19 and xviii. 18, has been dealt with in another place [ABSOLUTION].
While no text of Scripture can be fairly quoted as commanding or even implying secret confession of sin to a human priest, many might be cited, both from the Old Testament and the New Testament, directing or taking for granted confession of sin to God. It is to this only that the early Church Fathers exhort. Chrysostom and Augustine, both canonised saints of Rome, may be called as witnesses. The former says: " I entreat and beseech you to confess continually to God. For I do not bring thee into the theatre of thy fellow-servants, nor do I compel thee to uncover thy sins to men." ( De Incarn. Dei Nat., Hom. v. 57, tom. i. p. 490). Augustine, in his Confessions, wrote : " To what purpose do I confess my sins to men as if they themselves could heal my distresses? to a set of men inquisitive in inquiring into the lives of others, but indolent in amending their own. And how shall they, who know nothing of my heart but by my confession, know whether I say true or not?" (Confessions, lib. x. 3, tom. i. p. 171 : Paris, 1672). In fact, in early times confession was public and voluntary. It was made compulsory for the first time in 763 (Fleury, Ecc. Hist., vol. xiii. p. 390: Oxford Library). In this matter Rome’s own champions contend against her. Bellarmine says : " The secret confession of all our sins is not only not instituted or commanded Jure Divino, by God s law, but it was not so much as received into use in the ancient Church of God " (De Perit.M, lib. iii. c. 1,) and the Jesuit Maldonatus says: " All state that confession was only introduced by ecclesiastical law " (Bishop Taylor’s Dissuasive, Part ii. p. 250).
The objections to Auricular Confession are not few, and are of an extremely grave character. Indeed to Englishmen, and to Protestants generally, they appear insuperable and impossible of exaggeration. They may be grouped for convenience under four heads: (1) The claim of the priest infringes the sole right of Almighty God. To Him alone it appertains to forgive sins, and the Jews of our Saviour’s day were right when they exclaimed, "Who can forgive sins but God only." But the priests sit in the Confessional as "judges" in "the tribunal of penance" and possess (they say) power from Christ to grant or with hold absolution at their discretion. In the Catechism of the Council of Trent (Part ii. quest. 7 ch. ii.) it is asserted that "they are deservedly called not only angels but even Gods, because they hold amongst us the energy and divinity (vim et numen) of the immortal God." Hence (2) the power of the priesthood is enormously, unwholesomely, and unnaturally increased. The priest becomes acquainted with all the secrets of a family, and although what he hears in the Confessional is received under the seal of silence and he is supposed to know less than what he does know, instances have not been wanting where the information thus supplied has been used for purposes of betrayal. At any rate the whole household is at his mercy; and it cannot be fitting or right for a husband and father to know that thoughts which his wife could not reveal to himself or his daughter disclose to her mother, are confided to "the priest." On the other hand should the priest become acquainted through the Confessional with contemplated murder or other crime he is forbidden to divulge his knowledge. Thus we reach (3) the third objection, viz., that the confessional is immoral. Priests and penitents must there converse on subjects most immodest. Here, then, is afforded a fertile source of extreme danger to both penitent and priest. No shame is allowed to stand in the way of a full confession, for it is a mortal sin for any one, even a female, to conceal any thing in the Confessional from shame. Corrupt and corrupting questions are often asked, details must be inquired into, especially as to the mental pleasure experienced in the contemplation of sins, defiling thoughts, and the like. The Roman Catholic Treatises on the nature of sin by Liguori, Dens, and others, for guidance in the Confessional, are recognised as unfit for publication. The "Examination of Conscience " as prescribed in The Garden of the Soul, a well-known Romish Prayer Book, is full of obscene suggestions. Even children have been thus initiated into the knowledge of sins whose very names are unknown to children in Protestant schools. The priest himself must store his own mind with all that is filthy and contaminating. It is not, therefore, surprising, that many priests have, through the Confessional, fallen into sin, and many penitents have been thrust by those who should have rescued them, deeper into those waters from which they were trying to emerge. These awful dangers are admitted by Liguori and others. Thus Liguori exclaims, " Oh, how many priests who before were innocent have lost both God and their soul ! " (Mor. Theol., vol. ix. p. 97). Two Popes issued Bulls against the abuses of the Confessional. (4) The last objection is that Auricular Confession is opposed to the doctrines and intentions of the Church of England. The practice of secret confession was revived in the Established Church by Dr. Pusey in 1838. It is still maintained by the Ritualists equally with the Church of Rome though not so systematically. They teach that the priest "acts in God s stead," that "he is like a judge pronouncing judgment"; that "he acts in the person of Christ " (Gresley’s Ordinance of Confession, p. 96). They say, "the man who confesses to God may be forgiven ; he who confesses to a priest must be forgiven " (Six Plain Sermons, by Richard Wilkins, Priest, pp. 28, 29. London: E. Longhurst), while perfect identity with Rome at this point is thus confessed in The Ministry of Consolation (p. 34): "The mode of making and receiving a confession is substantially identical. The same questions are asked .... it appears to us somewhat dishonest to pretend that it is otherwise." Rome on her side acknowledges that the Ritualists are doing her work. The notorious book, The Priest in Absolution, issued under the directions of the Ritualistic secret Society of the Holy Cross, 1866-1872, to be used as a vade mecum by Ritualistic clergy acting as confessors, was exposed by Lord Redesdale in the House of Lords, and severely censured by the then Archbishop of Canterbury and all the Bishops present in the Convocation of Canterbury in 1877.
Dr. Pusey confessed to the existence of the same dangers to Ritualistic clergymen of the Church of England as assail the celibate priests of Rome. "You may," he says to the former, "pervert this sacrament into a subtle means of feeding evil passion and sin in your own mind " (Manual, p. 102). The Ritualists have not scrupled to appeal to the Warning before Communion in the Prayer Book in support of the doctrine of systematic Auricular Confession. But if that passage be fairly examined it will be apparent that the circumstances contemplated are quite exceptional; that the benefit sought is, in part at least, "ghostly counsel and advice"; that the minister need not be a priest at all, but may be a deacon or even a godly layman (see Homily of Repentance); that the presence of a third party is not prohibited; and that the benefit of absolution, so far as it is sought and conferred, is "by the ministry of God s holy word," not by the word of a human priest. That here "is intended by the Church of England no licence for Auricular Confession is evident from the fact that in the Second Prayer Book of Edward VI. the word " secretly " which was before attached to the above Warning was expunged, together with every allusion to such kind of confession, and has never been replaced, while the form of absolution, now confined to the Visitation of the Sick, was also removed. The rubric in the Visitation of the Sick concerning the moving of the sick person to a special confession of his sins has also in view peculiar circumstances, showing clearly that no regular, systematic, private confession is in tended, and the absolution is to be pronounced only "if he humbly and heartily desires it." The intention of the Church of England on the matter is shown by the Homily on Repentance which declares explicitly against the practice in question in the words, "It is most evident and plain that this Auricular Confession had not his warrant of God’s word," and in these, "it is against the true Christian liberty that any man should be bound to the numbering of his sins, as it hath been used heretofore in the time of blindness and ignorance " (Part ii.). Finally, as with individuals so with regard to the nations which individuals compose, religious doctrines and practices must be testified by their effects. " By their fruits ye shall know them." It is the Roman Catholic Continent which is the home of superstition, irreligion, infidelity, and immorality. See case of Poole v. Bishop of London in Brodrick and Fremantle s Eccl. Cases. [M. E. W. J.]