THE CONFESSIONAL AND INDULGENCES
IF there is one part of the Catholic system which more than any other has attracted the attention of non-Catholics, it is what the Church calls "the sacrament of penance," and others call the practice of confession. No part of a church is observed by the visitor with such keen interest as "the box," as the priest familiarly calls the little chamber in which he hears confessions. No other Catholic practice has drawn from rabid opponents so much scorn and obloquy as this; yet no practice has seemed more defensible to those sympathetic outsiders who admire Catholicism at a distance.
In the scheme of sacraments penance comes second. The Catholic seems to take an unflattering view of the Almighty when he lays it down that a child of seven may commit so deadly a sin that he will burn for ever, but this is the principle for determining the age at which confession begins. There is no obligation at any time to confess light (or "venial") sins. It is those (the "mortal" sins) which, in the Church’s scheme, are punishable with eternal fire that must be confessed. Such are practically all sexual offences (in word, thought, or deed), and a long category of transgressions down to "missing mass on Sunday morning." The Catholic prayer-book contains a full list of these expensive acts of revolt, and the penitent runs his eye over the list and prepares his account before he enters "the box."
To the child of seven, and to decent children of much later years, this list is a vague, thrilling, awe-inspiring list of the things he (or she) may do when he grows up. His curiosity is stimulated. I have, in hearing the confessions of children, more than once heard them say: "Please, father, I have committed adultery." They were probably attempting to learn the meaning of that mysterious sin. The whole performance is useless and stupid in the case of children. It merely "breaks them in." From that moment they must at least once a year, under pain of eternal damnation, kneel at the feet of a priest and confess their sins.
It is quite obvious that, like the sacrament of marriage, this also was, in the main, instituted in order to bring the laity under more perfect control. The practice of public confession in the early Church soon proved too great an obstacle to conversions in the Roman world. Indeed, the heavier sins of the flesh were in those days deemed quite unpardonable, and this inhuman belief could not survive. The reader may remember a Pope Callistus, of the third century, who incurred the terrible scorn of Tertullian. His fault was not so much the assumption of the title of "Bishop of Bishops," though Tertullian repeats this with ringing irony, as his claim that he could absolve even from adultery and fornication. Tertullian calmly relegated such folk to hell for the first offence. But Callistus had to deal with Romans, and he softened the discipline, and the modification was generally adopted.
There was, however, for ages, no obligation to confess, just as there was no obligation to marry in church. It was not until the Lateran Council of the year 1216 that Catholics were compelled to seek absolution from a priest once a year. It will be recollected that that was the period of the greatest extension of priestly and Papal power over the people – the period from Hildebrand to Innocent Ill. To attribute this to priestcraft alone would be an historical error. These men were very sincerely concerned for the morals of Europe. Even they, however, were equally concerned to extend the power of the clergy, and for each such prelate of entirely unworldly views there were fifty who looked primarily to the increase of their prestige and wealth.
We remember the state of the clergy at that time and for centuries afterwards They were quite generally ignorant, drunken, and immoral Bishops whose books have reached us censure their priests repeatedly for frequenting taverns-which were commonly loose houses in those days-and brothels, and for scandals with their people and servants; and probably the bulk of bishops were too free in their own lives to care about their clergy. The result was that the confessional became very largely a new occasion of licence. I am, however, not concerned with the history of these things. In Mr. H. C. Lea’s History of Auricular Confession and Indulgences, the reader will find much interesting information. I am concerned with Catholicism to-day.
I remember still the awe and peculiar nervous , tension of beginning, about forty years ago, that wonderful experience. It was somewhere in prosy Tottenham, I believe. The "confessional," it may be wise to explain, is divided into two compartments. Priest and penitent cannot touch each other But into the wooden partition a metal gauze, about two feet square, is inserted; and through this the penitent whispers into the ear of the "confessor" I sat in silence for a time, and my heart thumped when the door at last opened and I heard the light swish of skirts against the woodwork. You give your blessing, you ask how long since the last confession, and then you listen to the catalogue. … It was in this case mercifully light, and, after a few words of exhortation, I made the magic sign of the cross in the air, and repeated the solemn formula of absolution: not "God absolves thee," but "I absolve thee from thy sins." It was Tottenham, a suburb of London, a London maid of twenty-four or so – I never saw her face – and a small-minded, raw youth of twenty-four usurping the function of God and forgiving sin! In Tottenham, a suburb of London, in the last decade of the nineteenth century!
But there was little harm, some may comment. It happens that there was little harm to me, for I was at the time, by some freak of constitution, and for two years afterwards, still sexually immature. But listen to the next experience.
A few days later my name was duly posted over a "box" in my own church. People were notified that the quiet youth they saw at times at the altar – I was never a parish priest, and I mingled little with the people – had attained the august power. I was summoned, I sat in my box, and there was again a swish of skirts against the woodwork. The story she had to tell was to me a nightmare which haunted me for months. She had had for years a liaison with one of my fellow priests I afterwards knew both of them: she a girl hardly out of her teens – he had seduced her at sixteen – and he a middle-aged fleshy friar, who sat at table daily with me! She had, she said, never dared to confide it to any before, and for an hour I had to listen to every sordid detail of the long liaison. She spiritually gloated over the telling, repeated and elaborated, and would be quite sure that I understood and absolved everything. And when I reeled at the close, sick, into the monastery, a colleague met me at the door, looked stolidly into my eyes, and asked bluntly: "Well, how did you like Maud  and her story?"
I had at once stumbled upon one of the morbid victims of the sacramental system! The girl’s story was true, but, in her itching for legitimate sexual talk, she had told it in the same way to "every priest in London," one of my older colleagues said. After a time she became, without her name being mentioned in the public discussions, a theme of conversation; and when the priest I had in my mind as her lover died, and it was openly said that Miss – – was in hysterics, the story was rounded.
In four years’ experience of the ghastly ordeal this first impression was amply confirmed. Catholics are no worse, and no better, than others. In the small middle-class suburb where I heard confessions the majority of my penitents were decent folk, decently discharging the unpleasant obligation laid upon them by the Church. I had many friends among them; though from the day that honesty compelled me to leave their Church not one ever offered a syllable of sympathy in my heavy struggles, and they have listened with composure to the scandalous lies their priests whispered about me. That is the distorting effect of the system. But I would place it frankly on record that they were a fine and kindly folk, and that the habit of confessing neither bettered nor degraded them as a body.
The majority of Catholic young women are neither better nor worse than their age and sex. They dislike the confessional, and restrict themselves to what they must say. But a large number of them, even of fairly good character, are seduced – slightly at first – by the consecrated pruriency of the business. They would shrink from telling their intimate feelings and occasional mild lapses from the strict canons of virtue even to a father or brother. It would be "immodest." But, instead of being immodest, it is highly proper to talk about such things, as fully as they like, to a priest, however young. The nuns and lady-teachers who prepare them, when they are young, for the confessional, impress upon them that they must speak in detail. A priest would sin himself – I fear I have a grave account under this head – if he let them off with a general statement that they had been "rude" or "immodest." He must ask questions. Was it solitary misconduct? If so, to what extent did it go? If otherwise, to what extent did it go, and was the partner in vice a relative, a priest, a married man?
I remember many types: from a youngster of fifteen, of strict family, who admitted that she and her like sometimes conspired to ask me such questions as the propriety of interrupting the night-prayers to answer a call of nature, to a fleshy young woman of quite uncontrolled life who brought a weekly budget of all conceivable phases of sexual misconduct, and would expound them to me with casuistic thoroughness. Of course, she was always "sorry," or I could not have absolved her; but the extensive and lurid catalogue was the same next week. Such people do not as a rule confess except once a year, when there is a grave obligation. This enterprising young lady confessed that she had casually discovered the "comfort" of confessing to me, and seemed disposed to do it almost daily. Others obviously experienced the same spiritual comfort. It was probably such things that prematurely awoke my own sex-life at the age of twenty-six (Catholic legend makes me a thoroughpaced scoundrel long before that), or I might have been a Hildebrand. Scarcely a year afterwards I ceased to hear the confessions of women. Though I was not yet a convinced sceptic, I loathed the confessional, and had to be driven to it; and I presently got the rectorship of a college in the country where there were no Catholic women.
Some readers will ask what truth there is in the stories of priests abusing the confessional. There is much truth. The priest need not, and does not always, hear confessions in the official place, where abuse is impossible. People ring a bell at a door near the sanctuary-end of the church to ask fot the priest, when they would confess, and they may (rarely) be invited inside. A confession is valid anywhere. The liaison to which I referred was chiefly carried on in this way. Another priestly Don Juan, who told me his adventures, used to get young women to feign illness, and take to their beds and send for him. But as a rule the immoral priest, and he is numerous, does not need to resort to these melodramatic arrangements. His afternoon visits to houses open a field which a Sybarite might envy.
I am, therefore, not stressing the immorality of the confessional. It no doubt helps some people; it rather debases others; it is just a painful necessity, doing neither good nor harm, to the great majority. Its essential evil is Its almost incredible stupidity. Its central idea – the forgiveness of sin by a youth whose hands have been oiled – is grotesque. It is not even, as sentimental people outside the Church sometimes imagine, a good human device for promoting morality. Catholics do not rush to it to have "the burden of sin" lifted from their depressed hearts. They dislike it. The young flippantly call it "scraping the kettle." Very few would do it if it were not for the obligation.
It may be asked why most Catholics confess at least once a month if they dislike it, yet are bound to confess only once a year. This is achieved by a modern extension of the priest’s power. We shall see later that there are "societies" or "confraternities" for each category of a priest’s parishioners. The young women, for instance, are banded together as "Children of Mary." The boys, the youths, etc., have similar "confraternities." Membership is voluntary, but a youth or maid might as well leave the Church outright as refuse to join. It would not pay socially. And it is the invariable rule of these societies that the members must confess once a month. Thus a "voluntary" monthly confession is easily secured.
As to the related subject of "indulgences," the Catholic may here have a ground for complaint of misrepresentation; though I will show presently that his own priests misrepresent the facts to him. The doctrine is peculiar. The Church of the early Middle Ages made hell so very hot and long that human nature rebelled. So a middle state, a temporary hell, was invented, and called Purgatory. People who had sinned were not quite fit for heaven, even if their sins had been "absolved." They must be "purged" of the last trace of stain in "the fires of Purgatory." Catholics, of course, with their immense capacity of belief, still cling literally to the "flames" and other horrors of hell and purgatory. They sing still in every church in the world:
Pray for the holy souls that burn
This hour amidst the cleansing flames.
But purgatory also seemed rather horrible when the mind of Europe became a little refined. Dante, in his Purgatory, throws Catholic theology to the winds, and boldly conceives it, not as a place of torture, but as a place where souls voluntarily purify themselves. The theologians found this too rationalistic, too human; and they modified the dogma in their own way. They said that the Church could make out a sort of draft on the" merits of Christ," and shorten or cancel the suffering in purgatory. This is the meaning of an "indulgence." It is not a licence to commit sin-though such things have been known-but "a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin [in purgatory] after the guilt has been forgiven." My penitents, for instance, knew that after I had waved my magic hand over them they need not, if they were sorry for their misdeeds, fear hell. But they still had purgatory to fear, and to escape this they needed "indulgences." They might get a "plenary" indulgence (wiping out the whole debt) or a partial indulgence expressed in a popular measure of fifty or a hundred days, and so on.
It would take a volume to tell all the weird developments of this doctrine. The Catholic enters a church and dips his fingers in the stoup of "holy water": fifty days off his sentence, besides the efficacy of the water in keeping devils away. He kneels before some altar, and says a certain prayer or pays for a two-penny candle: a hundred or two hundred days off. He wears under his shirt a blessed medal or some similar charm or charms: another hundred days off, besides a problematic protection against drowning, etc. It goes on all his life.
Periodically he gets a "plenary" indulgence. On one day in the year (called "Portiuncula") a man gets a "plenary" indulgence every time he enters a church attached to a Franciscan friary and says a short prayer. I lived near one such (at Manchester) in my boyhood, and we worked heroically all day. Men, women, and children, we bobbed in and out of that church all day long. We pitted our records against each other. Crowds came from all parts of Manchester for the glorious free privilege. You could hardly cross the threshold for legs, as one naturally remained near the door so as to get in and out so many times in the hour. Outside there were booths selling beads, scapulars, medals, and other indulgence-laden curiosities. The incredulous reader may witness this for himself at any Franciscan chapel on the first of August; in London, Manchester, or New York, in the twentieth century!
But, you may ask, why so many plenary indulgences? If one clears the account against you, why get several? Why bother about a paltry "fifty days"? For two reasons. First, because the indulgence is a quite genuine offer if your "disposition" is perfect; but the priest will tell you that it never is. So you must keep on trying your luck. You may hit the psychological conditions some time, especially with the easier indulgences. The language of the theologian is, of course, more stately and reverent than this, but it comes to the same thing. And the second reason opens out a still wider field. You can apply your "indulgence" to some dead person who is already in the "cleansing flames." When you have exhausted your Catholic relatives and friends – non-Catholic relatives and friends are probably past help – there is the whole army of millions of burning souls. The field for charity is illimitable. It is hardly less vast than the field for credulity.
Are the indulgences "sold"? That they have been literally sold we saw in the case of John XXIII. The condemnation of the Pope, however, reminds us that this is not in accordance with Catholic doctrine. Indulgences must not be sold. But, as my professor of theology used genially to observe, the theologian never made a law that he could not defeat. The methods are various. Little wax figures of lambs – Agnus Dei’s, the Catholic calls them – are blessed by the Pope, enclosed in a sort of sling to be worn round the neck, and sold. You pay, of course, only for the material, transport, etc.; but not at cost price. Medals and other pious objects are similarly enriched with indulgences and sold. You can go into a "Catholic repository" (you hurt their feelings if you call it a shop, though it looks very much like one) and buy two pounds’ worth of these articles; and the total indulgences you can get from them will run to the life of Methusaleh. You can kiss a holy relic; and there is almost always a collecting-plate beside it.
This is Catholicism modernized – "Americanized," an Italian would say – or made clean and reasonable. For the genuine article, which (Catholics assure you) you cannot get in heretical countries, you must go to backward parts of South America. Only a few years ago you need not have gone farther than Spain, but the materialistic spirit of our age is destroying these fine old Catholic practices. Enter a Catholic "repository," or even plain bookshop, and ask for a bula. "Yes, senor," says the shopman, "which bula – de difuntos, de composición, de carnes, or the other?" He means: Do you want a bula conferring a plenary indulgence upon yourself, or a bula conferring a plenary indulgence on a dead friend, or a bula releasing you from the fasts of the church, or a bula permitting you to keep with a safe conscience any ill-gotten property you may have? You want an indulgence-bula, you pay 75 centesimos (sixpence), and you get your change.
I have before me copies of each of these four bulas They were bought for me in Madrid by an American citizen. I had, though a trained and travelled theologian, absolutely refused to believe him when he first told me of them. When I in turn published the facts, English and American Catholics indignantly denied them. One London Catholic offered to leave the Church if the facts could be established; but he changed his mind when he saw the bulas, and said that he would inform Rome and get the scandal stopped. After sending several unanswered letters to the Vatican he at length got a curt note to the effect that "any priest would explain to him that the indulgences were not sold." The man concluded that it was the people who were "sold," and, I believe, left the Church. A well-known American ecclesiastic wrote in an American journal that I was "a liar"; since, being a trained theologian and knowing the facts, I must have deliberately told an untruth.
There is no doubt that these facts are not confided to the Catholics of America, England, and Germany, when they are assured that indulgences are not, and never were, sold. The "explanation" of them is too risky. One priest ventured to say that the price paid was for the paper and printing. They are small squares of the cheapest paper in existence, and would cost a few pence a hundred. They are sold at from five-pence to a shilling each. Another suggested that it was a local abuse, curiously overlooked by the zealous Papacy. The sale is, on the contrary, as the bulas tell, authorized afresh each year by the Vatican. A herald announced in Madrid each year the arrival of the Papal authorization; the hulas, signed by the Archbishop of Seville, were dated each year, and served for only that year; and it is known that until a recent date at least the Vatican took a proportion of the vast receipts, and probably still did until they were abolished.
When my original article had caused serious trouble among English Catholics, who were astounded, the Jesuit Father S. Smith wrote a little work, Are Indulgences Sold in Spain? It admits the facts, but denies the propriety of calling the transaction "a sale." Your money is an "alms"; the indulgence is "a gift." (As I have said, it looks very much like getting a drink in America when you could not "buy" one.) It is a transparent subterfuge. The plain truth is that the Church, which reformed itself by its own internal spirituality in the sixteenth century, continued to do behind the shelter of the Pyrenees and in Spanish America what it dare no longer do under the eyes of Protestants.
Two of the bulas I mentioned will puzzle the reader, and I may briefly repeat the explanation I have given elsewhere. The bula de carnes, which costs five-pence, permits the lucky Spaniard to eat meat on all the fast-days of the Church except a few of the greater fast-days. He thinks he owes this privilege to the superiority of his piety to that of the American or English Catholic.
The fourth bula, popularly known as "the thieves’ bula," is delicious. It costs a shilling. The archbishop, on it, solemnly assures the purchaser that if he has any stolen’ property, and does not at the time know the name and address of the owner (and burglars and pickpockets do not. register these things), the bula clears his distressed conscience and makes it his! But if the property exceeds twelve shillings in value, he must take out new bulas, one for each twelve shillings. If, in fine, the property is worth more than twenty-five pounds, he must go to a priest and "make a composition"; in other words, give a tithe to the Church! This is the "social" efficacy, the "spiritual" atmosphere, of "genuine" Catholicism. Ask your Catholic neighbour how he likes it.
I have said that an indulgence is not a licence to commit sin. But in practice it comes remarkably near to such a licence. It is said by travellers in Spain that, when you expostulate with a naughty Spaniard, he often retorts: "Tengo la bula para todos" ("I have a bula to cover everything"). He does not mean that he has bought permission to sin. But he does mean that he has bought deliverance from the consequences, which is much the same thing to him. He has but to confess his sins, and the bula does the rest. "How to be happy though sinful" would be a good title for a handbook by the Spanish Church. And the Spanish Church is the Church of the Middle Ages, living still.
Purgatory is the most lucrative doctrine ever revealed to the Church. From the days when Boniface VIII, murderer and adulterer and sceptic, piously permitted English and German Catholics to get the same indulgences as the Romans, if they paid into his treasury the price of a journey to Rome, it has yielded incalculable millions. In the saying of "masses" alone it still brings the Catholic Church of America – I mean the United States, not Mexico or Chile – a sum of one or two millions sterling a year. It yields the Catholic Church in England about a quarter of a million a year. Let me conclude by showing how this is done.
The mass is, technically, a "sacrifice," and the Catholic may have this sacrifice offered for his particular benefit-for his "intention," to use the proper phrase-just as the Jew could once have a sheep or a goat sacrificed for him. The "intention" may be recovery from illness, a hope of better profits from business, or anything. It is generally to get an "indulgence" for a dead relative. And, of course, it costs money. The Church fixes a minimum tariff. In Latin countries, where orders abound and the scale of living is low, the minimum is a lira or peseta – say eight or ten pence. The rich are compelled by public opinion, gently stimulated by the clergy, to give more. In England the minimum is half-a-crown; in America a dollar; and in both lands to give the bare minimum is a confession of poverty. From several years’ experience in England I should say the average is about four shillings a mass; and as there are 3,865 priests saying mass daily, that yields about £250,000 a year. In the States the annual yield must be about a million or two sterling. And as England and America grow more and more pious, and orders are more numerous and of a higher tariff, the superfluous orders are sent to Mexico or Italy or Spain, and worked off at nine-pence each; and the English or American priest pockets the difference. This is not forbidden.
Far be it from me to suggest that this has anything to do with the stupendous zeal of the clergy and the Vatican for the "conversion" of England and America! I do but tell facts, as respectfully as my itching pen will. These are facts. This is the "priceless treasure" of the Catholic faith. This is the Church outside which there is no salvation. This is the state of things that the "supernatural gift" helped the Papacy to establish, and was so concentrated in keeping "pure and undefiled" that it could not attend to the morals of pontiffs.
 I alter the real name. It must not be thought that I am improperly breaking confidence in such reminiscences. It is agreed that priests may repeat matter of confession when there is no danger of identification. This case we often discussed.