Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVI.: OF RELIGIOUS CONFESSION. - An Essay on Crimes and Punishments
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CHAPTER XVI.: OF RELIGIOUS CONFESSION. - Cesare Bonesana di Beccaria, An Essay on Crimes and Punishments 
An Essay on Crimes and Punishments. By the Marquis Beccaria of Milan. With a Commentary by M. de Voltaire. A New Edition Corrected. (Albany: W.C. Little & Co., 1872).
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OF RELIGIOUS CONFESSION.
Jaurigny and Balthazar Gerard, who assassinated William I. Prince of Orange; Clement the Dominican, Chatel, Ravaillac, and all the other parricides of those times, went to confession before they committed their crimes. Fanaticism, in that deplorable age, was carried to such excess, that confession was an additional engagement to the perpetration of villainy; an engagement deemed sacred, because confession is a sacrament.
Strada himself says, that Jaurigny non ante facinus aggredi sustinuit quam expiatam necis animam apud Dominicanum sacerdotem cælesti pane firmaverit.
It appears in the interrogatory of Ravaillac that coming from the Feuillants, and going towards the Jesuits college, he addressed himself to the Jesuit d’Aubigny; that after talking to him of several apparitions which he had seen, he shewed him a knife, on the blade of which was engraved a heart and a cross; and that he said, this heart signifies, that the heart of the king should be induced to make war against the Huguenots. If this d’Aubigny had informed the king of these words, and described the man, the best of kings might possibly have escaped assassination.
On the 20th of August, 1610, three months after the death of Henry IV. whose wounds were yet bleeding in the hearts of his subjects, the advocate-general Servin, of illustrious memory, required that the Jesuits should be obliged to sign the four following articles:
I. That the Council is superior to the Pope.
II. That the Pope cannot deprive the king of any of his rights by excommunication.
III. That the ecclesiastics are, like other people, entirely subject to the king.
IV. That a priest who, by confession, is apprized of a conspiracy against the king or the state, should reveal it to the magistrates.
On the 22d, the parliament published an arret, forbidding the Jesuits to instruct youth, until they had signed those four articles. But the court of Rome was at that time so powerful, and that of France so weak, that the arret was disregarded.
It is worth notice, that this court of Rome, which would not suffer confession to be revealed when the life of a sovereign was concerned, obliged the confessors to inform the Inquisition in case any female should accuse another priest of having seduced or attempted to seduce her. Paul IV. Pius IV. Clement VIII. and Gregory XV. ordered this revelation. It was a dangerous snare both for the confessor and the penitent. It was converting a sacrament into a register of accusations and sacrilege; for by the ancient canons, and particularly by the Lateran council, under Innocent III. every confessor who reveals confession, of whatsoever nature it may be, shall be interdicted and imprisoned for life.
Thus we see four different Popes, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ordering the revelation of a sin of impurity, and forbidding it in cases of parricide. A woman confesses, or supposes in her confession to a Carmelite, that a Cordelier attempted to seduce her; the Carmelite must impeach the Cordelier. A fanatical assassin, believing that he shall serve God by killing his prince, consults his confessor on this case of conscience; the confessor is guilty of sacrilege if he save the life of his sovereign.
This horrible absurdity is one of the unhappy consequences of the continual opposition, which hath subsisted for so many ages, between the ecclesiastical and civil law. Mankind have in a thousand instances been suspended between the crimes of sacrilege and high-treason, and the distinctions of right and wrong have been buried in a chaos, from which they are not yet emerged.
Confession of sins hath been authorised in all times and in all nations. The ancients accused themselves in the mysteries of Orpheus, of Isis, of Ceres, of Samothrace. The Jews confessed their sins on the day of solemn expiation, and still continue the same practice. Each penitent chuses his confessor, who becomes his penitent in turn, and each receives from his companion thirty-nine lashes whilst he is repeating, three times, the formule of confession, which consists only in thirteen words, and which consequently must be general.
None of these confessions were particular, and consequently could never serve for a pretence to those secret consultations, under the shadow of which fanatical penitents think to sin with impunity; a pernicious practice, by which a salutary institution is corrupted. Confession, which was intended as a curb to iniquity, hath frequently, in times of confusion and seduction, become an incentive to wickedness. Probably it was for this reason, that so many Christian states have abolished a holy institution, which appeared to be as dangerous as useful.