Undeterred, the Irish monks maintained their alternative practice and disseminated it in their missions abroad. Until the twelfth century, both the traditional rite of public penance and the Irish practice of private confession co-existed uneasily. Over time, however, fewer Christians sought the older form of penance, precisely because it was public, long, and severe. Where the older form was still favored, the faithful often treated penance exactly as previous generations had treated baptism: excommunicated members of the community chose to wait until they were on their deathbeds to be reconciled to the Church because the dying sinner could receive the sacrament without performing grueling public penances.
Although the Irish monks practiced frequent confession of their “faults”—and recommended that fellow Catholics do the same—they also continued for some time to impose severe penances on those who committed serious sins. As Hugh Connolly notes in The Irish Penitentials, the monk-missionaries brought handbooks known as “penitentials” with them on their travels. The handbooks suggested a suitable “tariff” or penance to “pay” according to the rank of the sinner, the rank of the person offended against, and the objective seriousness of the sin. Abuses were not unknown: wealthy penitents were sometimes able to negotiate a reduction in the tariff—or hire a substitute or “assistant” to carry out part or all of a severe penance. But over time the penitentials fostered consensus about the comparative seriousness of various sins and thus made assessments of the appropriate penance more uniform and less arbitrary.
Let’s consider some tariffs from a typical ninth-century penitential. For the sin of theft, a layman was to perform one year of penance; a cleric, two; a subdeacon, three; a deacon, four; a priest, five; a bishop, six. For murder or perjury, the penance lasted three, five, six, seven, ten or twelve years, escalating according to rank. Heresy required a penance of twelve years. Perjury warranted a penance of between seven and eleven years if committed in violation of an oath to God. Usury brought three years; infanticide, fifteen; idolatry or demon-worship, ten. Violations of the sixth commandment were punished with particular severity, with penances ranging from three to fifteen years. The most extreme penalty was reserved for incest, for which the penance might last for as long as twenty-five years.
Whatever their duration, the penances included fasting on bread and water, either for the whole period or for specified parts of it. Those who could not fast were instead required to recite a certain number of psalms per day, to give alms, to “take the discipline” (scourging), or to perform some other penitential exercise as determined by the confessor. However, once reconciled, the penitent was restored to equal status with other members of the Church. The serious sins requiring a lengthy process of public reconciliation were gradually narrowed down to three—murder, apostasy, and adultery.
As the Irish monks made converts and founded new communities on the continent, they promoted a conception of penance aimed at restoring the sinner to a full relationship with God rather than at reconciliation with the community. They also shifted the focus from performing penances to making sincere and sorrowful confessions. In this new conception, the anamchara became a soul “doctor,” empowered by God to help rescue the sinner from grave sickness of the soul, with confession serving as a kind of spiritual emetic. As one penitential handbook put it: “As the wounds of the body are shown to a physician, so too the sores of the soul must be exposed. As he who takes poison is saved by a vomit, so, too, the soul is healed by confession and declaration of his sins with sorrow.”
As P. Biller and A. J. Minnis explain in Handling Sin: Confession in the Middle Ages, it was this milder form of penance promoted by the Irish missionaries that had gained wide acceptance throughout the Christian world by the early Middle Ages. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council established that penance would involve private confession and that all Christians in the Latin Church would be obligated to confess their sins at least once a year. It was also at this time that penance officially became a sacrament. (The “dark box”—the confessional booth located in the rear of most churches—wasn’t invented until the sixteenth century, during the Counter-Reformation.)
Those who associate Irish Catholicism with fire and brimstone may be surprised to learn that it was Irish monks who made penance more private and less exacting. In fact, as Lawrence Mick stresses in Understanding the Sacraments: Penance, it was the bishops and clergy on the continent who regarded the penitential practices of the Irish as a dangerous departure from tradition that would make reconciliation too easy. After centuries of debate, however, Rome finally sided with the Irish. Reconciliation, the Church decided, was not to be a one-time offer. A sacrament that claimed to offer God’s mercy should not also try to ration it.