Developments in Church discipline

The Carolingian age saw not only intellectual activity but also important developments in the means which the Church employed to further Christian living. It will be remembered that the rule for forgiveness of post-baptismal sins had been public confession, exclusion from the communion, and, after the ecclesiastical authorities were satisfied with the penitent's sincerity as shown by the performance of prescribed acts, public and formal restoration. This custom had been maintained in the West after it had been given up in the East.

In the disorders attendant upon the breakup of the Roman Empire and the invasions, this form of discipline had been weakened or allowed to lapse. In place of it there had come, as we have suggested, largely from Ireland and the Irish peregrini, the practice of private confession to a priest. The latter prescribed to the sinner the works of penance which must be performed before restoration to communion. The Irish penitentials, with their instructions to those hearing confessions, probably did much to regulate morals in a stormy age.

However, early in the ninth century the reformers in the Frankish realms began to condemn these penitentials as too much dependent upon the whims of the priest and as being unregulated by ecclesiastical authority. They sought, therefore, to renew public confession and restoration, and councils, bishops, and theologians pronounced in favour of them. Since great difficulty was encountered in persuading the guilty to undergo this pro longed and humiliating ordeal, efforts were made to improve the procedure of private confession. Private confession and penance were continued, but with more careful episcopal supervision. Books of directions for priests hearing confessions were prepared by bishops or under episcopal supervision which sought to embody as much as possible of the earlier standards and practices of the Church.

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