Lapsi in the more extended meaning of the word, "the fallen," especially those who were excluded from communion with the Church on account of having committed one of the peccata mortalia. In a more restricted sense, it was used to denote such as had "fallen away," i.e., committed the peccatum mortale of denying their faith. It was natural that these should be first designated by the expression of "lapsi," as heretics were very numerous in the early ages of the Church, and the question of their reintegration into the Church was one of considerable importance. As, after the close of the persecutions, there were no longer any "lapsi" in that sense of the word, it came to be applied as synonymous with paenitentes or haeretici, though only occasionally. Compare Henschel, Glossarium, s.v.
The "lapsi" were especially numerous when persecution assumed the regular and systematic form it obtained in Roman law under Nerva and Trajan. Persistence in the profession of Christianity was alone considered a crime against the state. Yet Trajan granted full forgiveness to the Christians who consented to offer up incense before his statues and those of the gods. During the Decian persecution the form of abjuration became even more simple. Those who shrank from offering up sacrifices were supposed to have done so by the authorities. Indeed, in many instances certificates were given by magistrates that the law had actually been complied with. Such mild measures made it easy for many to recant. Cyprian informs us that large numbers eagerly recanted in Carthage even before the persecution broke out; and Tertullian (De fuga in persec. 100:13) relates with righteous indignation that whole congregations, with the clergy at their head, would at times resort to dishonorable bribes in order to avert persecution. But, after the end of the persecution, many tried to unite again with the Church. The question now arose whether the Church could again receive them as members, and on what conditions; and also, who had the power to decide that question? In the first ages such penitents were, upon their confessions, readmitted by imposition of hands. Confessors had the privilege of issuing letters of peace (libelli pacis) to the lapsed, which facilitated their early reception to communion. But such penitents were ineligible for holy orders, and, if already ordained, they were deposed, not being allowed to resume their clerical functions, but suffered only to remain in lay communion. By degrees these admissions were made still easier, and therefore became a matter of serious consideration by the Council of Ancyra (q.v.), and resulted in the revival of the old Montanist controversy as to the purity and holiness of the Church, besides provoking another as to the extent of episcopal powers. On the controversies and schisms which were thus provoked in the African Church, see the articles SEE CYPRIAN; SEE DECIUS; SEE FELICISSIMUS; SEE MARTYRS AND CONFESSORS; SEE NOVATIAN; SEE NOVATUS. (Compare also Schaff, Ch. Hist. volume 1, § 114 and 115.) Epiphanius asserts that Meletius revived the struggle against the laxity of Church discipline; yet this assertion is not fully substantiated; the question of authority was already the foremost in these discussions. SEE MELETIUS. This was still more the case in the controversy with the Donatists (q.v.).
The only other points to be noticed are some decisions of the councils which gradually elaborated each of the principles finally established. Thus seven canones (1-8) of the Synod of Ancyra determine the penance to be performed by the lapsi. It distinguished between those who cheerfully partook of the repast which followed the sacrifices offered to idols, those who partook of it reluctantly and with tears, and those who ate none of it.
These latter were punished with two years of penance, the others more severely. Priests who had sacrificed to idols lost their ecclesiastical character. The Synod of Nicaea was still more lenient. Those against whom it was most severe were persons who had recanted without being threatened in their lives or fortunes; yet even those, while declared to be "unworthy of the pity of the Church," were also readmitted. Naturally, as persecution decreased, the Church became less stringent, as it had no longer to fear desertions. Even before that the practice of the Eastern Church had become very lenient. See Tertullian, De pudicitia; De puenitentia; Cyprian, De lapsis; epistolae; epp. canonicae Dionysii Alexandrini, c. 262; Mansi, Acta Concil. (Ancyr. 1-8; Nicaen. 10-13; II Carthag. 3; III Carthag. 27; Agath. 15); Jacobi Sirmondi Historia paenitentiae publ. (1650); Joh. Morini Comm. histor. de disciplina in administratione sacr. poenit. 13 primis saeculis (1651); Klee, Die Beichte, eine hist. krit. Untersuchung (1828); Krause, Diss. de lapsis primae ecclesiae; Riddle, Christian Antiq. page 624 sq.; Siegel, Christlich- Kirchliche Alterthumer, 1:290 sq.; Schrockh, Kirchengesch. 4:215, 282 sq.; 5:59, 313, 382; Herzog, Real-Encyklop. 8:200; Blunt, Dict. Hist. and Doct. Theology, page 395. SEE APOSTASY. (J.H.W.)