What Exactly is the Forum Confessionis? Secrecy and Scandal in Church Governance

What Exactly is the Forum Confessionis? Secrecy and Scandal in Church Governance

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What Exactly is the Forum Confessionis? Secrecy and Scandal in Church Governance (12th – 14th Centuries)

By Arnaud Fossier


First of all, let us establish the difference between secrecy and privacy. In latin, secretum comes from secernere which means to isolate, to distinguish or to put some-thing aside. According to this etymology, «secret» or «secrecy» refers to institutions and governance, since the verb secernere indicates the sovereign gesture of hiding something or reserving it for a small group of individuals. Does not the piece of furniture we call a «secretaire», whose drawers contain objects and papers we do not want to be visible, remind us of the gesture of hiding or concealing? In the same way, the office of «secretary» refers to the political function that consists in working in the shadow of a public authority.

Policy secrets or confidential information are not topics we will deal with here, even though they are obviously related to the growth of the modern State in the West. Among the many forms of institutional secrecy – spying, torture, judicial instruction, denunciation – I will focus here only on one, that of confession, which is at the same time specific and paradigmatic of the way Roman Church used secrecy as a tool for the judgement and government of Christians in the Middle Ages.

When we read or hear the word «confession», I assume we immediately think about sacramental confession and about the «seal of confession» (sigillum confessionis), that is to say the secrecy of the confession of sins that the Parisian master in theology Pierre le Chantre theorizes at the end of the 12th century. A few years later (1215), annual confession to a parish priest (proprius sacerdos) becomes a legal obligation under the canon 21 of the Fourth Lateran Council, but we know private and secret confession already existed, as monastic rules of the 5th and 6th centuries and Penitential Books of the 7th and 8th centuries can attest. During the 12th century then, confession clearly achieves a sacramental value in penance theories, of which many, such as those of Pierre Lombard, stress the sacerdotal power to absolve and forgive sins. Meanwhile, confession becomes a fundamental part of civil and criminal procedures and also the core of inquisitorial procedure.

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