Auricular Confession the confession of sin into the ear of the priest, which, as part of penance, is one of the sacraments of the Romish Church.
1. Before the time of Leo the Great (fifth century) it had been the custom for the more grievous offenders to make confession of their sins publicly, in the face of the congregation, or, at least, for the ministers occasionally to proclaim before the whole assembly the nature of the confessions which they had received. This public act, called exomologesis, included not only public confession, but public mortification in sackcloth and ashes; and, as such, was entirely different from auricular confession, which was wholly unknown to the ancient Church (see the authorities in Bingham, Orig.
Eccl. bk. 18, ch. 3; Daille, De Confess. Auricular. 4, 25). As for the Eastern Church, Sozomen, in his account of the confessional, says that the public confession in the presence of all the people, which formerly obtained, having been found grievous (φορτικὸν ὡς εἰκός), a well-bred, silent, and prudent presbyter was set in charge of it; thus plainly denoting the change from public to auricular confessions. It was this penitential presbyter whose office was abolished by Nectarius in the fourth century, on account of 'a rape committed on a female penitent by the priest (Sozom. Hist. Eccl. 7, 16; Socrat. Hist Eccl. 5, 19). Pope Leo discouraged the ancient practice of public oonfession, or, rather, the publication by the priest of flagrant sins confessed, and permitted, and even enjoined with some earnestness, that confession should rather be private, and confided to the priest alone. The evil most obviously proceeding from this relaxation was the general increase, or, at least, the more indecent practice of the mortal sins, and especially (as Mosheim, Church. Hist. cent. 5, pt. 2, ch. iv, has observed) of that of incontinence; unless, indeed, we are to suppose that the original publicity of confession was abandoned from its being no longer practicable in a numerous body and a corrupt age. But another consequence which certainly flowed from this measure, and which, in the eye of an ambitious churchman, might counterbalance its demoralizing effect, was the vast addition of influence which it gave to the clergy. When he delivered over the conscience of the people into the hands of the priests, when he consigned the most secret acts and thoughts of individual imperfection to the torture of private inquisition and scrutiny, Leo the Great had indeed the glory of laying the first and corner-stone of the papal edifice-that on which it rose and rested, and without which the industry of his successors would have been vainly exerted, or (as is more probable) their boldest projects would never have been formed.
2. But Leo made no law requiring private confession before communion. That step was not taken till the fourth council of Lateran, A.D. 1215, when it was decreed that all persons should confess privately, and be absolved once a year, under pain of excommunication (can. 21; Hard. Cone. t. 7). The doctrine that penance is a sacrament seems to have been first broached by Aquinas (Summa, pt. 3, 2, 84). The Romish system of sacramental penance was completed by the Council of Trent (sess. 14, cap. 5, 6), which declared that "from the institution of the sacrament of penance already set forth, the Church has always understood that an entire confession of sins was also appointed by the Lord, and that it is of divine right necessary to all who have lapsed after baptism. Because our Lord Jesus Christ, when about to ascend from earth to heaven, left his priests, his vicars to be, as it were, the presidents and judges, to whom all mortal sins into which Christ's faithful people should fall should be brought, in order that, by the power of the keys, they might pronounce sentence of remission or retention. For it is plain that the priests cannot exercise this judgment without knowledge of the cause, nor can they observe equity in enjoining penalties if men declare their sins only generally, and not rather particularly and separately. From this it is inferred that it is right that the penitents should recount in confession all the deadly sins of which, upon examination, their conscience accuses them, even though they be most secret, and only against the last two commandments, which not unfrequently grievously wound the soul, and are more dangerous than those which are openly practiced," etc. Here an attempt is made to invest the Christian priesthood with the prerogative of the Most High, who is a searcher of the hearts and a discerner of the thoughts, in forgetfulness of the very distinction which God drew between himself and all men, "Man looketh to the outward part, the Lord trieth the heart." As Christ has invested his ministers with no power to do this of themselves, the Tridentine fathers have sought to supply what they must needs consider a grievous omission on his part by enjoining all men to unlock the secrets of their hearts at the command of their priest, and persons of all ages and sexes to submit not only to general questions as to a state of sin or repentance, but to the most minute and searching questions as to their inmost thoughts. Auricular confession is unquestionably one of the greatest corruptions of the Romish Church. It goes upon the ground that the priest has power to forgive sins; it establishes the tyrannical influence of the priesthood; it turns the penitent from God, who only can forgive sins, to man, who is himself a sinner; and it tends to corrupt both the confessors and the confessed by a foul and particular disclosure of sinful thoughts and actions of every kind without exception.
3. The confessor must be an ordained priest; and no penitent can confess to any other than his parish priest without the consent of the latter, except in articulo morris. Special confessors are provided for monks and nuns. For the place of confession, SEE CONFESSIONAL. The laws of confession may be found in the Romish directories and books of moral theology; and a glance at them is enough to satisfy any candid mind of the fearful dangers of such a system. Any one who may think it necessary to satisfy himself upon the point may consult the cases contemplated and provided for (among others) by Cardinal Cajetan in his Opuscula (Lugd. 1562), p. 114. In the Bull of Pius IV, Contra solicitantes in confessione, dated Apr. 16, 1561 (Bullarium Magn. Luxemb. 1727, 2:48), and in a similar one of Gregory XV, dated Aug. 30, 1622 (Gregory XV Constit. Romans 1622, p. 114), there is laid open another fearful scene of danger to female confitents from wicked priests. For a full account of the history of the system, its laws and its dangers, see Hopkins, History of the Confessional (N. Y. 1850, 12mo).
4. The Protestant churches reject auricular confession. The Lutheran Church, however, allows confession, only with this difference, that while!he Catholic Church requires from the penitent the avowal of his particular and single crimes, the Lutheran requires only a general acknowledgment, leaving it, however, at the option of its members to reveal their particular sins to the confessor, and to relieve the conscience by such an avowal. The Reformed churches of the Continent generally practice only general confession preparatory to the sacrament. There is a tendency, however, in the high Lutheran reaction in Germany, to return to auricular confession. The Church of England, in some cases, exhorts to confession, but she makes it no part of her discipline, nor does she (as the 'Church of Rome insists upon, or as some of her own members would fondly introduce the practice) prescribe regular, complete, periodical confession. For the doctrine of the Church of England upon the subject of confession to a pastor, see (in the Prayer-book) the former of the two exhortations in giving warning for the Communion, and the order for the Visitation of the Sick. The Church of England has recently been greatly agitated by what appears to be a concerted attempt on the part of the Romanizing part of her clergy to restore auricular confession. — Binghaml, 1. c.; Hopkins, Hist of. the Confessional; Elliott, On Romanism, 1, 312 sq.; Klee, Die Beichte, eine histor. — krit. Untersuch. (Frankf. 1 828); Kliefoth, Die Beichte und Absolution (Schwerin, 1856). SEE PENANCE; SEE CONFESSION.