Across the Confessional Divide

Today's post is by Margaret Abruzzo, Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Alabama -- and in Fall 2014, a Cushwa Fellow. She is currently researching her second book, on changing conceptions of  sin, wrongdoing, and moral responsibility in 18th and 19th century Anglo-American thought.

Margaret Abruzzo

If nobody is perfect, what does it mean to be a good person? And why do “good” people do bad things? Although these sound like timeless questions, during the 18th and 19th centuries, these questions sparked new puzzlement as older explanations for human moral failing came under attack. Previous generations had blamed sin on passions, self-interest, or innate depravity, but increasingly positive perceptions of human nature and the human capacity for goodness weakened these explanations. The growing popularity of the notion that morality brought earthly rewards—or at least made people happy—made it ever more difficult to explain why “good” people still behaved badly. Confidence in human nature did not make evil disappear; it just made it much harder to explain.

If the tide of moral optimism did not sweep away sin, it helped change how Americans—especially Protestants—understood their identity as sinners. Despite wide theological variations, most Protestant theologians still stressed that sin was a universal human condition. Yet theologies of universal sinfulness coexisted uneasily with a growing tendency to describe the moral character of sinners in dichotomous terms, to separate good people from wicked ones. In 1836, the revivalist Charles Finney gave listeners a stark choice: the world was “divided into two great political parties.” One served God; the other “preferred Satan as the ruler of the world.” Yes, both groups were sinners; but, as an English Baptist explained, when falling into sin, the “righteous” person acted out of character, “against the habitual disposition of his soul.” The boundary line between the “righteous” and the “wicked” could be crossed; conversion could transform individuals. Significantly, however, the distinction between the sins of the righteous and those of the wicked focused not on the specific sins committed, but on the dispositions and character of the sinner. Ordinary sinners made “errors” or “mistakes,” falling into temptation against their better judgment or even desires, while the wicked intentionally or maliciously chose evil.

Theologically, most evangelicals still described themselves as wretched sinners in need of God’s grace; no sinner had any right to claim to be better than any other. Yet Protestants’ ideas about sin as a moral concept often diverged from their notions of sin as a matter of theology or salvation. When talking about salvation, many Protestants sniffed at claims of moral goodness. Those who avoided overt acts of sin were guilty of hidden sins in their hearts, and they could claim no moral innocence before God. Yet caution is in order. The theological claim that everyone was a guilty sinner before God did not automatically translate into a notion that everyone was guilty of significant moral wrongdoing in human terms. While morality did not bring salvation, Protestants often still cared deeply about their status as morally good people. Even Protestants who rejected theologies of perfectionism showed a growing tendency to envision the life of a true Christian as one relatively free of serious moral transgressions. Publicly confessing one’s sinfulness—proclaiming oneself the “chief of sinners”—was a mark of piety and Christian humility; confessing concrete sins, however, often produced very different results, raising troubling questions about one’s status as a good person and true Christian. (One might remember Arthur Dimmesdale’s first confession of sinfulness in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter (1850). Dimmesdale “told his hearers that he was altogether vile, a viler companion of the vilest, the worst of sinners, an abomination, a thing of unimaginable iniquity.” But this confession was deceptive. “The minister well knew—subtle, but remorseful hypocrite that he was!—the light in which his vague confession would be viewed,” as a mark of piety and Christian humility rather than concrete guilt.)

Catholics were not immune to these changes in thinking, but during the nineteenth century, these transformations were more pronounced and more rapid within Protestantism. The central place of confession in Catholic piety made it more difficult for sin to retreat from either the public discourse of the church or individual Catholics’ self-understanding. Having to examine their consciences and confess their sins to a priest ensured that Catholics not only remembered that they shared the universal human condition of sinfulness, but also that they were guilty of specific sins. Sacramental confession forced Catholics to grapple with their misdeeds in their concrete particularity. Confession entailed naming specific sinful acts, noting any aggravating circumstances, and counting all occurrences. Contrition meant not simply regretting the misdeed and feeling sorrow; it also entailed a willingness to undo, as much as possible, the damage caused by sin, even at great personal cost. (Nineteenth century Catholics were routinely required to make reparations for their sins.) While Catholics divided sins into minor “venial” sins and “grievous” or “mortal” sins, this distinction was based primarily on the character of the act, not the actor—everyone was liable to fall into mortal sin. Priests reminded Catholics that even one unconfessed mortal sin would imperil their salvation. But just as significantly, while the language of sin pervaded nineteenth-century Catholicism, Catholics consistently rhetorically linked the problem of sin to the solution of confession. This emphasis on sins as discrete acts—rather than as dispositions of the heart—made Catholics slower to draw sharp dividing lines between the good and the wicked; today’s sinner might be tomorrow’s saint, and even saints needed confession. The confessional door broke the solidity of any wall that could be constructed between the “good” and the “wicked.”


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