Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Repentance for one’s faults is the only thing that can repair the loss of innocence; and to appear to repent of them, we must begin by acknowledging them. Confession, therefore, is almost as ancient as civil society. Confession was practised in all the mysteries of Egypt, Greece, and Samothrace. We are told, in the life of Marcus Aurelius, that when he deigned to participate in the Eleusinian mysteries, he confessed himself to the hierophant, though no man had less need of confession than himself.

This might be a very salutary ceremony; it might also become very detrimental; for such is the case with all human institutions. We know the answer of the Spartan whom a hierophant would have persuaded to confess himself: “To whom should I acknowledge my faults? to God, or to thee?” “To God,” said the priest. “Retire, then, O man.”

It is hard to determine at what time this practice was established among the Jews, who borrowed a great many of their rites from their neighbors. The Mishna, which is the collection of the Jewish laws, says that often, in confessing, they placed their hand upon a calf belonging to the priest; and this was called “the confession of calves.”

It is said, in the same Mishna, that every culprit under sentence of death, went and confessed himself before witnesses, in some retired spot, a short time before his execution. If he felt himself guilty he said, “May my death atone for all my sins!” If innocent, he said, “May my death atone for all my sins, excepting that of which I am now accused.”

On the day of the feast which was called by the Jews the solemn atonement, the devout among them confessed to one another, specifying their sins. The confessor repeated three times thirteen words of the seventy-seventh Psalm, at the same time giving the confessed thirty-nine stripes, which the latter returned, and they went away quits. It is said that this ceremony is still in use.

St. John’s reputation for sanctity brought crowds to confess to him, as they came to be baptized by him with the baptism of justice; but we are not informed that St. John gave his penitents thirty-nine stripes. Confession was not then a sacrament; for this there are several reasons. The first is, that the word “sacrament” was at that time unknown, which reason is of itself sufficient. The Christians took their confession from the Jewish rites, and not from the mysteries of Isis and Ceres. The Jews confessed to their associates, and the Christians did also. It afterwards appeared more convenient that this should be the privilege of the priests. No rite, no ceremony, can be established but in process of time. It was hardly possible that some trace should not remain of the ancient usage of the laity of confessing to one another.

In Constantine’s reign, it was at first the practice publicly to confess public offences. In the fifth century, after the schism of Novatus and Novatian, penitentiaries were instituted for the absolution of such as had fallen into idolatry. This confession to penitentiary priests was abolished under the Emperor Theodosius. A woman having accused herself aloud, to the penitentiary of Constantinople, of lying with the deacon, caused so much scandal and disturbance throughout the city that Nectarius permitted all the faithful to approach the holy table without confession, and to communicate in obedience to their consciences alone. Hence these words of St. John Chrysostom, who succeeded Nectarius: “Confess yourselves continually to God; I do not bring you forward on a stage to discover your faults to your fellow-servants; show your wounds to God, and ask of Him their cure; acknowledge your sins to Him who will not reproach you before men; it were vain to strive to hide them from Him who knows all things,” etc.

It is said that the practice of auricular confession did not begin in the west until about the seventh century, when it was instituted by the abbots, who required their monks to come and acknowledge their offences to them twice a year. These abbots it was who invented the formula: “I absolve thee to the utmost of my power and thy need.” It would surely have been more respectful towards the Supreme Being, as well as more just, to say: “May He forgive both thy faults and mine!”

The good which confession has done is that it has sometimes procured restitution from petty thieves. The ill is, that, in the internal troubles of states, it has sometimes forced the penitents to be conscientiously rebellious and blood-thirsty. The Guelph priests refused absolution to the Ghibellines, and the Ghibellines to the Guelphs.

The counsellor of state, Lénet, relates, in his “Memoirs,” that all he could do in Burgundy to make the people rise in favor of the Prince Condé, detained at Vincennes by Cardinal Mazarin, was “to let loose the priests in the confessionals”— speaking of them as bloodhounds, who were to fan the flame of civil war in the privacy of the confessional.

At the siege of Barcelona, the monks refused absolution to all who remained faithful to Philip V. In the last revolution of Genoa, it was intimated to all consciences that there was no salvation for whosoever should not take up arms against the Austrians. This salutary remedy has, in every age, been converted into a poison. Whether a Sforza, a Medici, a Prince of Orange, or a King of France was to be assassinated, the parricide always prepared himself by the sacrament of confession. Louis XI., and the Marchioness de Brinvilliers always confessed as soon as they had committed any great crime; and they confessed often, as gluttons take medicines to increase their appetite.

The Disclosure of Confessions.

Jaurigini and Balthazar Gérard, the assassins of William I., Prince of Orange, the dominican Jacques Clément, Jean Châtel, the Feuillant Ravaillac, and all the other parricides of that day, confessed themselves before committing their crimes. Fanaticism, in those deplorable ages, had arrived at such a pitch that confession was but an additional pledge for the consummation of villainy. It became sacred for this reason — that confession is a sacrament.

Strada himself says: “Jaurigni non ante facinus aggredi sustinuit, quam expiatam noxis animam apud Dominicanum sacerdotem cælesti pane firmaverit.” “Jaurigini did not venture upon this act until he had purged his soul by confession at the feet of a Dominican, and fortified it by the celestial bread.”

We find, in the interrogatory of Ravaillac, that the wretched man, quitting the Feuillans, and wishing to be received among the Jesuits, applied to the Jesuit d’Aubigny and, after speaking of several apparitions that he had seen, showed him a knife, on the blade of which was engraved a heart and a cross, and said, “This heart indicates that the king’s heart must be brought to make war on the Huguenots.”

Perhaps, if this d’Aubigny had been zealous and prudent enough to have informed the king of these words, and given him a faithful picture of the man who had uttered them, the best of kings would not have been assassinated.

On August 20, 1610, three months after the death of Henry IV., whose wounds yet bleed in the heart of every Frenchman, the Advocate-General Sirvin, still of illustrious memory, required that the Jesuits should be made to sign the four following rules:

1. That the council is above the pope. 2. That the pope cannot deprive the king of any of his rights by excommunication. 3. That ecclesiastics, like other persons, are entirely subject to the king. 4. That a priest who is made acquainted, by confession, with a conspiracy against the king and the state, must disclose it to the magistrates.

On the 22nd, the parliament passed a decree, by which it forbade the Jesuits to instruct youth before they had signed these four articles; but the court of Rome was then so powerful, and that of France so feeble, that this decree was of no effect. A fact worthy of attention is, that this same court of Rome, which did not choose that confession should be disclosed when the lives of sovereigns were endangered, obliged its confessors to denounce to the inquisitors those whom their female penitents accused in confession of having seduced and abused them. Paul IV., Pius IV., Clement VIII., and Gregory XV., ordered these disclosures to be made.

This was a very embarrassing snare for confessors and female penitents; it was making the sacrament a register of informations, and even of sacrileges. For, by the ancient canons, and especially by the Lateran Council under Innocent III., every priest that disclosed a confession, of whatever nature, was to be interdicted and condemned to perpetual imprisonment.

But this is not the worst; here are four popes, of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ordering the disclosure of a sin of impurity, but not permitting that of a parricide. A woman, in the sacrament, declares, or pretends, before a carmelite, that a cordelier has seduced her; and the carmelite must denounce the cordelier. A fanatical assassin, thinking that he serves God by killing his prince, comes and consults a confessor on this case of conscience; and the confessor commits a sacrilege if he saves his sovereign’s life.

This absurd and horrible contradiction is one unfortunate consequence of the constant opposition existing for so many centuries between the civil and ecclesiastical laws. The citizen finds himself, on fifty occasions, placed without alternative between sacrilege and high treason; the rules of good and evil being not yet drawn from beneath the chaos under which they have so long been buried. The Jesuit Coton’s reply to Henry IV. will endure longer than his order. Would you reveal the confession of a man who had resolved to assassinate me?” “No; but I would throw myself between him and you.”

Father Coton’s maxim has not always been followed. In some countries there are state mysteries unknown to the public, of which revealed confessions form no inconsiderable part. By means of suborned confessors the secrets of prisoners are learned. Some confessors, to reconcile their conscience with their interest, make use of a singular artifice. They give an account, not precisely of what the prisoner has told them, but of what he has not told them. If, for example, they are employed to find out whether an accused person has for his accomplice a Frenchman or an Italian, they say to the man who employs them, “the prisoner has sworn to me that no Italian was informed of his designs;” whence it is concluded that the suspected Frenchman is guilty.

Bodin thus expresses himself, in his book, “De la République”: “Nor must it be concealed, if the culprit is discovered to have conspired against the life of the sovereign, or even to have willed it only; as in the case of a gentleman of Normandy, who confessed to a monk that he had a mind to kill Francis I. The monk apprised the king, who sent the gentleman to the court of parliament, where he was condemned to death, as I learned from M. Canage, an advocate in parliament.”

The writer of this article was himself almost witness to a disclosure still more important and singular. It is known how the Jesuit Daubenton betrayed Philip V., king of Spain, to whom he was confessor. He thought, from a very mistaken policy, that he should report the secrets of his penitent to the duke of Orleans, regent of the kingdom, and had the imprudence to write to him what he should not, even verbally, communicate to any one. The duke of Orleans sent his letter to the king of Spain. The Jesuit was discarded, and died a short time after. This is an authenticated fact.

It is still a grave and perplexing question, in what cases confessions should be disclosed. For, if we decide that it should be in cases of human high treason, this treason may be made to include any direct offence against majesty, even the smuggling of salt or muslins. Much more should high treasons against the Divine Majesty be disclosed; and these may be extended to the smallest faults, as having missed evening service.

It would, then, be very important to come to a perfect understanding about what confessions should be disclosed, and what should be kept secret. Yet would such a decision be very dangerous; for how many things are there which must not be investigated!

Pontas, who, in three folio volumes, decides on all the possible cases of conscience in France, and is unknown to the rest of the world, says that on no occasion should confession be disclosed. The parliaments have decided the contrary. Which are we to believe? Pontas, or the guardians of the laws of the realm, who watch over the lives of princes and the safety of the state?

Whether Laymen and Women Have Been Confessors?

As, in the old law, the laity confessed to one another; so, in the new law, they long had the same privilege by custom. In proof of this, let it suffice to cite the celebrated Joinville, who expressly says that “the constable of Cyprus confessed himself to him, and he gave him absolution, according to the right which he had so to do.” St. Thomas, in his dream, expresses himself thus: “Confessio ex defectu sacerdotis laico facta, sacramentalis est quodam modo.” “Confession made to a layman, in default of a priest, is in some sort sacramental.”

We find in the life of St. Burgundosarius, and in the rule of an unknown saint, that the nuns confessed their very grossest sins to their abbess. The rule of St. Donatus ordains that the nuns shall discover their faults to their superior three times a day. The capitulars of our kings say that abbesses must be forbidden the exercise of the right which they have arrogated against the custom of the holy church, of giving benediction and imposing hands, which seems to signify the pronouncing of absolution, and supposes the confession of sins. Marcus, patriarch of Alexandria, asks Balzamon, a celebrated canonist of his time, whether permission should be granted to abbesses to hear confessions, to which Balzamon answers in the negative. We have, in the canon law, a decree of Pope Innocent III., enjoining the bishops of Valencia and Burgos, in Spain, to prevent certain abbesses from blessing their nuns, from confessing, and from public preaching: “Although,” says he, “the blessed Virgin Mary was superior to all the apostles in dignity and in merit, yet it is not to her, but to the apostles, that the Lord has confided the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

So ancient was this right, that we find it established in the rules of St. Basil. He permits abbesses to confess their nuns, conjointly with a priest. Father Martène, in his “Rights of the Church,” says that, for a long time, abbesses confessed their nuns; but, adds he, they were so curious, that it was found necessary to deprive them of this privilege.

The ex-Jesuit Nonnotte should confess himself and do penance; not for having been one of the most ignorant of daubers on paper, for that is no crime; not for having given the name of errors to truths which he did not understand; but for having, with the most insolent stupidity, calumniated the author of this article, and called his brother raca (a fool), while he denied these facts and many others, about which he knew not one word. He has put himself in danger of hell fire; let us hope that he will ask pardon of God for his enormous folly. We desire not the death of a sinner, but that he turn from his wickedness and live.

It has long been debated why men, very famous in this part of the world where confession is in use, have died without this sacrament. Such are Leo X., Pélisson, and Cardinal Dubois. The cardinal had his perineum opened by La Peyronie’s bistoury; but he might have confessed and communicated before the operation. Pélisson, who was a Protestant until he was forty years old, became a convert that he might be made master of requests and have benefices. As for Pope Leo X., when surprised by death, he was so much occupied with temporal concerns, that he had no time to think of spiritual ones.

Confession Tickets.

In Protestant countries confession is made to God; in Catholic ones, to man. The Protestants say you can hide nothing from God, whereas man knows only what you choose to tell him. As we shall never meddle with controversy, we shall not enter here into this old dispute. Our literary society is composed of Catholics and Protestants, united by the love of letters; we must not suffer ecclesiastical quarrels to sow dissension among us. We will content ourselves with once more repeating the fine answer of the Greek already mentioned, to the priest who would have had him confess in the mysteries of Ceres: “Is it to God, or to thee, that I am to address myself?” “To God.” “Depart then, O man.”

In Italy, and in all the countries of obedience, every one, without distinction, must confess and communicate. If you have a stock of enormous sins on hand, you have also grand penitentiaries to absolve you. If your confession is worth nothing, so much the worse for you. At a very reasonable rate, you get a printed receipt, which admits you to communion; and all the receipts are thrown into a pix; such is the rule.

These bearers’ tickets were unknown at Paris until about the year 1750, when an archbishop of Paris bethought himself of introducing a sort of spiritual bank, to extirpate Jansenism and insure the triumph of the bull Unigenitus. It was his pleasure that extreme unction and the viaticum should be refused to every sick person who did not produce a ticket of confession, signed by a constitutionary priest.

This was refusing the sacrament to nine-tenths of Paris. In vain was he told: “Think what you are doing; either these sacraments are necessary, to escape damnation, or salvation may be obtained without them by faith, hope, charity, good works, and the merits of our Saviour. If salvation be attainable without this viaticum, your tickets are useless; if the sacraments be absolutely necessary, you damn all whom you deprive of them; you consign to eternal fire seven hundred thousand souls, supposing you live long enough to bury them; this is violent; calm yourself, and let each one die as well as he can.”

In this dilemma he gave no answer, but persisted. It is horrible to convert religion, which should be man’s consolation, into his torment. The parliament, in whose hands is the high police, finding that society was disturbed, opposed — according to custom — decrees to mandaments. But ecclesiastical discipline would not yield to legal authority. The magistracy was under the necessity of using force, and to send archers to obtain for the Parisians confession, communion, and interment.

By this excess of absurdity, men’s minds were soured and cabals were formed at court, as if there had been a farmer-general to be appointed, or a minister to be disgraced. In the discussion of a question there are always incidents mixed up that have no radical connection with it; and in this case so much so, that all the members of the parliament were exiled, as was also the archbishop in his turn.

These confession tickets would, in the times preceding, have caused a civil war, but happily, in our days, they produced only civil cavils. The spirit of philosophy, which is no other than reason, has become, with all honest men, the only antidote against these epidemic disorders.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01