In the scholarly and popular imagination, much of Catholic spirituality preceding the twentieth century is pervaded by “Catholic guilt,” where horror of infernal punishment coalesces with fear of the God who could—and would—send one there. This fear, so the narrative runs, precipitates a frantic effort to avoid such an end through scrupulous moral behavior and obsessive recourse to sacramental confession following lapses of such behavior. In fact, this fear is often associated particularly with the sacrament of confession, framed as pedagogical space for inculcating it in the imagination of the faithful. After all, to make their confessions, penitents must call to mind their sins and approach the confessor with some degree of repentance and sorrow. What better way to impress upon penitents the gravity of their sins and to induce repentance and change than meditation on hell and divine judgment? If Catholic spirituality has been characterized by guilt or fear, it seems that the practice of private sacramental confession, accompanied by intense scrutiny of one’s actions and a keen awareness of the eternal penalties awaiting the person who does not confess or confesses dishonestly, bears a lion’s share of the guilt for fostering a fear-based spirituality.
Sorting out the truth of this assertion goes beyond investigating the accuracy of a particular historical narrative. It touches on the urgent pastoral question of how Christians are to draw near to God, and of whether fear facilitates or obstructs that approach. Does fear have any salutary role to play in the Christian life, or does it fundamentally misrepresent the character of God and prove psychologically damaging to the human person trying to seek God?
In developing an answer to this question, it matters whether the spirituality of past ages has aught to teach us today, or whether it must be rejected wholesale as toxic and crippling. How have those before us sought to hold a true sense of the gravity of sin together with genuine trust in the abundant mercy and love of God? As we try to avoid both fear-ridden moral rigorism and dismissive laxity in our search for God, ought we to follow or forsake their lead?
One answer to these questions lies in one of the most widely-promulgated confessional handbooks of the late sixteenth century, the Breve Directorium of Juan de Polanco, first secretary of the Society of Jesus and a participant in the Council of Trent. The Breve Directorium provides a window into the spirituality animating early modern pastoral theology as it was manifested in the sacrament of confession. By acknowledging that fear can play a salutary role in the soul’s journey towards God, the Directorium places itself within a long-standing tradition concerning the Christian’s attitude towards fear and opposes itself to contemporaneous Jansenist theology that bound forgiveness of sins to the absence of fear. At the same time, the Directorium carefully delimits the legitimate sphere of fear, noting that fear is salutary only for certain persons at certain stages in the spiritual life. Far from being predominant in the pastoral theology of this confessional manual, fear assumes a place secondary to seeking a loving relationship with God in humility and peace.
Fear and Love: A Long-Standing Question
The Directorium is not innovative in its consideration of the relationship between fear and love in the Christian’s spiritual life, for this question has been asked in various forms since the early centuries of the Church. In fact, theological debates concerning the relationship between fear and love in the spiritual life of the Christian arose initially as a question of Scriptural exegesis. Whereas some passages of Scripture characterize the righteous person as possessing fear of the Lord, others speak of fear as something banished by a perfected, mature love of God. Making sense of this seeming conflict required a dividing of the sayings that began to distinguish between a fear that was, if not outright harmful, at least transient in the life of the Christian, and a fear that coincided with the love of God into which the Christian sought to grow. In the patristic West, Augustine developed this distinction by contrasting fear of punishment with what he terms “chaste fear,” which remains alongside love of God. For Augustine, the former kind of fear is incompatible with charity.
Although such fear may cause its possessors to avoid sin, this avoidance stems from a desire to avoid punishment. It does not spring from an orientation towards justice, eternal life, or God; naturally, then, such fear must be left behind as love of these goods grows. It is key to note that, for Augustine, even this timor poenae is not totally to be shunned; rather, it proves to be an entry point into making one’s way towards love of God. Augustine also carves out a space for another kind of fear, compatible with the love of the Lord, which he terms the timor castus. He thus establishes a framework in which fear is transformed as its possessor progresses through the spiritual life: once the timor poenae “has been removed from charity,” it is “followed by chaste fear.”
Medieval thought took up these distinctions, further clarifying the nature and object of the timor castus. Thomas Aquinas’s schema, for instance, renames Augustine’s timor poenae and timor castus as timor servilis and timor filialis respectively. He thus draws out more explicitly the relational dimension of each: God is, in some way, the end of both, insofar as the object towards which the fear turns its possessor is the same. Even in the case of the timor servilis, “a person, through the evil which she fears, is turned to God and clings to God.” Framing God as the common end allows Aquinas to claim, along with Augustine, that even the timor servilis occupies a legitimate place within the spiritual life. Despite the relational nature of both, however, Aquinas notes that the relationships in question differ sharply. Timor servilis, servile fear, obtains in a relationship where the main dynamic is one of authority or power and an inequality that is pre-established rather than freely chosen: “the disposition of the servant towards his lord is such that, because of the lord’s power, the servant is subjected to him.” In contrast, timor filialis, filial fear, is charged with resonances of affection, freedom, charity and even the kind of unity that obtains between spouses. Aquinas acknowledges, too, that the Christian’s journey from servitude to freedom occurs gradually rather than all at once, and that there may exist an admixture of the two fears as the soul is purified.
Around the same time that the disciplinary reforms of the Fourth Lateran Council prescribed that all members of the Catholic Church should receive private, sacramental confession at least once a year, these scholastic considerations of fear and the spiritual life were transferred into a specifically sacramental register, as theologians began to consider the proper disposition one must have to receive sacramental absolution.
These debates centered around the relative values of contrition, consisting of sorrow for one’s sins arising from love of God and repulsion at the idea of damaging one’s relationship with God, and attrition or imperfect contrition, which included at least some fear for oneself without reference to love of or desire for relationship with God. Clearly, such attrition, even if accompanied by love, is likely to be an operative motivation for avoiding sin in most people. Thus, it was a pressing pastoral concern to determine whether penitents who approach their confessor with the fires of hell more present to their imaginations than the bliss of heaven could still receive forgiveness through sacramental absolution.
Although there arose widespread conjecture on the subject, the Council of Trent would pronounce definitively on the question in its canons on the sacrament of penance, recognizing attrition—motivated by a consideration of the ugliness of sin or through “fear of hell and punishment”—as a sufficient condition for the reception of sacramental absolution (§1678). Trent is, in part, responding to the claims of Protestant, particularly Lutheran, thinkers who saw the kind of timor servilis present in attrition as fundamentally opposed to the trusting faith in God’s promise that brought salvation. As did Augustine and Aquinas, Trent holds that even “the fear of hell and of punishment” plays at least a preparatory role in the Christian’s life of grace.
Rather than being totally opposed to justifying faith, the timor servilis of attrition can be the first of many steps towards a life of love and union with God. Speculation on this question, however, did not terminate with Trent, nor was dissent from the Tridentine position confined to those espousing a Lutheran soteriology. Seventeenth-century disciples of Cornelius Jansen disavowed the possibility of salutary fear as a response to sin, teaching that forgiveness of sins was only possible if an individual renounced sin through love of God rather than through fear of punishment that could only be rooted in self-love.
For members of the newly-constituted Jesuit order, zealously opposing spirituality that smacked of Jansenism while promoting Trent’s injunctions to frequent more regularly the sacrament of confession, such pastoral questions were particularly pressing. The records of the first secretary of the Jesuits, Juan de Polanco, are replete with references to the persistent Jesuit focus on promoting frequent, widespread sacramental confession as one of the “usual ministries proper to our Institute.”
In 1541, for instance, a full decade before the promulgation of Trent’s canons on confession, a Jesuit priest in Italy was encouraging the “salutary practice of receiving the sacraments of confession and Communion weekly.” In Lisbon the following year, Polanco reports that “the majority of the nobility often came to the church . . . for confession and Communion, so that they might receive every eighth day or, what was less common, once a month . . . for it had become customary.” And while examples such as these are, perhaps, outliers in their intensity, Jesuit initiative certainly lay behind the hundreds of newly-constituted lay associations which enjoined monthly communion—and, it may reasonably be assumed, the sacramental confession required to prepare for reception of the Eucharist—upon their members.
For those sixteenth-century laity who were approaching the confessional more often than their annual obligation demanded, the Jesuits were almost certainly behind this increase, whether through their sermons and immediate ministry, their pastoral writing, or their indirect influence through lay confraternities. Not surprisingly, then, members of the Society of Jesus were among the most active in considering pastoral questions surrounding the sacrament of confession—among them, the roles of fear and love, attrition and contrition in the spiritual life.
Finding clear answers proved no straightforward task. On the one hand, affirming the orthodoxy of Trent required accepting both that attrition is a sufficient condition for sacramental absolution and that the fear of infernal punishment characterizing it should generally be seen as a preparatory grace rather than an unhealthy spiritual disposition. On the other hand, a long-standing tradition concerning the progression of the spiritual life held such timor servilis to be only that: a preparatory grace, unfitting for the mature Christian whose relationship with God was familial, even spousal. How were pastors and confessors to find an equilibrium within this tension, recognizing that attachment to self and fear of punishment do not bar a person from pursuing holiness and may even impel him to begin this journey, while at the same time helping such persons to mature in love and put away the timor servilis?
Such questions became particularly urgent in light of Jesuit spirituality that emphasized the importance of pastoral counsel in the confessional. Confession was not to be simply an opportunity for the penitent to rattle off a scrupulously compiled, itemized list, but a place of instruction, another forum for preaching the Word of God. One of the earliest leaders of the Society, Jerónimo Nadal, asserted that “this other ministry of the Word of God would have a form of a private sermon delivered after the confession of sins.” If the sacrament of confession was intended to function as a private school or individualized homily instructing the Christian penitent in the spiritual life, what kinds of lessons were confessors being trained to preach?
The Breve Directorium of Juan de Polanco, SJ
Of course, the best way to answer this question would be to consult extensive and detailed records kept by penitents of their experiences in confession. Lacking such records in number and kind, we turn to Juan de Polanco’s Breve Directorium ad confessarii et confitentis (1554), one of the most popular Jesuit confessional manuals of the period. Drawing on a medieval tradition of pastoral aids, these confessional manuals assisted members of the Society in discharging one of their most significant duties. It is undoubtedly true that some priests had no access to such manuals, and that others, through ignorance, disinterest, or pastoral ineptitude, either did not study them or failed to successfully implement their counsels. At the same time, Robert Maryks has numbered at least 755 editions of Jesuit works on confession, printed in sixty-one cities all over Europe, in the years preceding 1650 alone.
Such widespread printing and translation suggests that Jesuit confessional manuals were, at the very least, in active circulation and that substantial numbers of priests were interested in receiving pastoral formation through this medium. Polanco’s Breve Directorium was one of the most popular of these manuals, numbering 76 editions in total. Translated into various European vernaculars—including Portuguese, French, and Italian—within only a few years of its initial publication in Latin, it was the preeminent Jesuit confessional manual until the end of the sixteenth century. Although other manuals gained in popularity around the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Breve Directorium continued to be printed, and its last edition dates almost to the turn of the twentieth century. It thus provides a likely indication of the kind of instruction early modern priest-confessors received regarding how to treat of fear and love in the spiritual life of the Christian.
The Directorium itself is divided into four relatively short chapters which treat in turn the character and disposition of the confessor, how the confessor is to comport himself so as best to help the penitent, how to instruct and form the penitent so that his confession bears ongoing fruit in his life, and, finally, how to properly confer absolution. It is the Directorium’s third chapter that most clearly develops the idea of confession as a school of growth in the spiritual life; the priest is to be concerned not simply (or even mainly) with exacting a precise list of sins so that he can offer absolution, but with how he can form the penitent’s soul to better progress in the love of God. In fact, Polanco’s preface asserts that properly discharging the office of confessor demands “not only that “the penitent . . . be reconciled with God through the pardon of sins, but also that he amend his life, recover peace and spiritual consolation, and become disposed to grow in grace.”
Although ecclesiastical faculties to hear confessions and knowledge of various kinds of sins and cases suffice for the validity of the sacrament, Polanco notes that the priest-confessor must also display kindness, prudence, and circumspection if the sacrament is to facilitate the overall spiritual growth of the penitent. Without fraternal charity, the confessor becomes a less “fitting instrument . . . of divine kindness.” In fact, Polanco goes so far as to warn priests that if they are negligent in how they confer the sacrament, they may even “impede the strength and efficacy of the blood of Christ and the outpouring of divine generosity upon the penitents.”
Consequently, no matter the gravity of the sin disclosed, and presumably even if the priest must suggest some meditation on judgement or hell, he is nevertheless not to lose his gracious and affable manner. Polanco reports that, in Spain, a woman who had gotten permission to leave her convent sought out a Jesuit confessor, “having heard that our confessors received penitents with love and gentleness.” Similarly, in another town, a Jesuit confessor was procured for a number of persons who had not made a sacramental confession in years, and who “regretted what they had done . . . but determined they would rather die than confess to their pastor.”
It seems that that members of the Society had indeed developed a reputation in keeping with the kind of pastoral advice Polanco offers in the Directorium. Polanco at no point suggests that the priest, either in words or comportment, should represent God as angry or desirous of punishing humankind. Quite to the contrary, the priest is only able to aptly manifest the character of God and to help the penitent mature in love of God if he is unfailingly patient and loving.
Fear does play a role in this growth, though its usefulness in particular instances must be discerned based on the circumstances and disposition of a given penitent. Unlike Trent, the Directorium does not clearly differentiate between contrition and attrition, instead simply noting that “contrition of heart” is one of three necessary parts of the sacrament and consists in “being pained by sins one has committed, with the purpose of not returning to sin.” The source of pain and the exact nature of the incentive to avoid sin are not specified, thus making the definition broad enough to encompass both perfect contrition, motivated by timor filialis, and imperfect contrition (attrition), motivated by timor servilis. Polanco here distills the teaching of Trent by treating the distinction as pastorally irrelevant as regards the validity of sacramental confession: demonstrated pain over sin and purpose of amendment, whatever the deeper motive, are sufficient conditions for the priest to offer absolution.
This does not mean, however, that Polanco considers the distinction pastorally irrelevant as regards the overall spiritual life of the Christian into which sacramental confession fits. Polanco does discuss both fear of punishment and love of God as impulsions to sorrow for sin, and he circumscribes the situations in which and the persons for whom fear of punishment is beneficial. Such situations, however, are never proposed as applicable to the majority of laypersons with whom priests will interact. With regard to sacramental confession in particular, he notes that fear and shame are more likely to be obstacles to making a good confession than incentives. Aware of this, the confessor’s general approach with most penitents should be to help them to become less fearful through “showing them affection and kindness, that they may speak of everything with confidence and sincerity.” Still, in keeping with strains of the tradition that place the timor servilis at the beginning of the journey to God, Polanco too recognizes that fear may, in certain instances, be necessary to turn individuals towards God.
In three key passages in which Polanco recommends that confessors describe God’s judgement and the torment of hell, he at once endorses and circumscribes the role of fear in the spiritual life. Polanco generally sees fear in the confessional as counterproductive—something penitents bring to the confessional, and from which the priest is hopefully able to assist in liberating them, not something they take away from it. Occasionally, however, the priest may encounter a penitent who seems to have very little sorrow for his sins at all. In such instances, Polanco recommends that the priest admonish the penitent thus:
The priest is to bring it about that the sinner feels the seriousness of his sins, by showing him in a general way how serious mortal sin is, as is proved by the judgments of God on Lucifer and against our first parents for a single sin, and the punishment owed to any mortal sin: with it one loses the grace of God and the kingdom of eternal happiness; with it the sons of God become slaves of the devil and are condemned to the torments of hell, which will never end. He will demonstrate also the seriousness of the wound by drawing attention to the difficulty of the remedy, since in order to cure it, he had to prepare the medicine with the blood of Christ, Son of God, with torments and ultimately with a most bitter death.
In typically Jesuit fashion, Polanco recommends that the penitent who approaches the sacrament without sufficient repentance to receive absolution engage in imaginative meditation in hopes of engaging his affect. Although fear is not specifically mentioned in this passage, it is clear that Polanco intends the recommended meditation on the consequences of mortal sin to elicit sorrow through natural human repugnance of hell.
Polanco situates this consideration, however, between two others, which propose for meditation Scriptural themes focusing on four other subjects: Lucifer, Adam and Eve, and Christ. Thus, even as the penitent learns to shun sin through consideration of the deleterious effects it may have on him, he is already being encouraged to move beyond this self-referential love through thinking of its effects, not on himself, but on others. The meditation on the pain and difficulty of Christ’s sacrifice, moreover, is not intended to invoke fear of the servile kind at all, but rather a sense of the “benefits and kindness of God” that throw into sharper relief the ingratitude of human sin.
In this way, Polanco attempts to guard against the danger that sorrow or fear of hell will erroneously color the Christian’s perception of God. Any conception of God as judge or executioner provoked by the first two meditations must necessarily be countered by the vision in the third that depicts God as a conscientious doctor and loving victim unto death. If Polanco does here propose a focus on punishment in order to solidify in the penitent a resolve not to sin, it is at least as much a focus on the punishment Christ has already borne on my behalf as it is on the punishment I might incur as a sinner. Thus, even as this advice clearly recognizes that some penitents would do well to take more to heart the potential eternal consequences of their actions, it balances meditations aimed at evoking fear with meditations aimed at evoking love and gratitude.
In a second passage, Polanco explicitly mentions fear in rather vivid terms, as he moves on from discussing penitents who generally lack sorrow for their sins to discussing those whose sins are both habitual and more serious. This combination of the gravity of the acts and the evident lack of a resolute and sincere intention of changing in the penitent cause Polanco to raise the possibilities of taking more drastic measures. “One must be more demanding and even excessive,” he writes, “that they may hate their sins the more.” And he then continues:
He [the confessor] may occasionally even act to inculcate in them the fear of the divine vengeance if they do not leave behind their sins. They must note that the pain of mortal sins will surpass all internal pain and, so that they will be pained over them, that they do not possess the true contrition that they ought.
Polanco is notably cautious in recommending this threat of divine vengeance, recognizing that it borders on excess and qualifying its legitimate use as occasional. At the same time, he recognizes that those entrenched in serious, habitual sin may need to be pierced by fear and pain to overcome the attachment they have to this sin.
Polanco recognizes, however, that an excess of fear is just as likely to afflict penitents as a scarcity of it. Certainly, priests must be able to discern what constitutes a sin and how serious it is, so that those approaching the sacrament should conduct a thorough examination of themselves, and that those who have not done so should be helped to do so or even be told to return more prepared at another time. At the same time, Polanco both foresees and forestalls the potential spiritual risks of placing too much emphasis on the exactitude of someone’s personal examen, describing the way in which some suffer from scruples and become entirely dejected in their affective reaction to sin. Such persons must be “encouraged and set at peace with examples of divine kindness,” and confessors may even, at times, deem it most helpful to curtail their enumeration of sins altogether.
Even those who are not prone to scrupulosity or intense affective reactions may doubt their ability to make an examen sufficient to ensure the efficacy of the sacrament. If someone demonstrates a genuine desire to leave sin behind and has done his best to examine himself honestly, Polanco asserts, he ought not fear that he has made an insufficient examen. Instead, the priest should console the penitent by telling him that “the mercy of God and the blood shed by Christ will make up what is lacking in discernment and in contrition, provided that you have spoken with sincerity and honesty all that you remember.” In his Chronicon, Polanco describes a Belgian Jesuit who implemented these pastoral measures. In most confessions, he asked penitents to recount “only . . . the essentials.” In more complicated instances, however, he “strove to answer the penitent’s difficulties and leave his soul in peace.” Such an approach is consistent with Polanco’s emphasis in the Directorium that the validity of the sacrament requires honesty, but not juridical completeness or perfect memory.
The final passage showcasing Polanco’s thoughts on inducing fear in the confessional is found in his explanation of how the confessor may help the penitent to develop in virtue and the Christian life. Polanco notes that one should also recollect “the benefits of God, the penalties of which the sinner will make himself deserving, and death, whose hour of visitation is so uncertain, and also the judgment of God, which will be a witness and a duty.” Certainly, these meditations seem calculated to stir the sinner to put away sin, aware that, if he delays doing so, he might die unexpectedly and be subject to judgment for those sins he refused to renounce while he still had time.
At the same time, Polanco is once again careful to propose the subject of this meditation in such a way that it does not redound to the denigration of God’s character. The judgement of God is not something externally imposed on a wretched sinner because God views that person with wrath or displeasure. Rather, the judgment of God is framed as a “witness” to what the person has already done to himself. Fear by no means predominates in the Breve Directorium, but if anything is to be feared, it is one’s own sinfulness rather than the hands of an angry God.
Following venerable theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas, the Tridentine affirmation of the validity of attrition for sacramental absolution grants fear a role in the Christian’s journey towards God. The pastoral theology recommended to pastors and confessors in Juan de Polanco’s Breve Directorium, however, proposes a spirituality grounded in the mercy of God and loving sacrifice of Christ, having recourse to fear only in certain circumstances. The impulse to tie forgiveness or absolution to true contrition stemming from exclusively from love for God is understandable. It is clear that, as long as a Christian only avoids sin from fear of punishment, he remains caught in a self-referential love which will hinder his ability to develop a mature spirituality in which he simply desires to please God for God’s own sake.
At the same time, it is equally evident that such an approach is both pastorally unrealistic and potentially counterproductive, likely to induce a negative feedback loop of fear, as one doubts the purity of one’s repentance, fears lest it is insufficient, and then finds in this fear the very imperfection of love that would seem to disqualify one from forgiveness. Polanco’s theology of sacramental confession neatly threads this needle. The Breve Directorium recognizes that judicious stimulation of fear may be necessary and helpful for some persons.
Furthermore, its mentions of fear and judgment are always placed alongside pastoral strategies to help Christians move past renouncing sin out of fear so that they may relate to God out of love and the sorrow that comes from injuring a loved one. The evil of sin and the weakness of human nature are both most clearly acknowledged and most potently healed through meditation on the loving sacrifice of Christ.
 Augustine, Enarrationes en Psalmos 127.21-26, Thesaurus Augustinianus, Series A, accessed via Brepols Library of Latin Texts.
 Aquinas, ST II-II 19.2.
Ibid., II-II 19.4 corp.
 Ibid., II-II 19.2 corp.
 Ibid., II-II 19.2 ad 3.
 Ibid., II-II 19.2 ad 3.
 Juan de Polanco, SJ, Year by Year with the Early Jesuits (1537-1556) (St. Louis, MO: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2004), 19.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 17.
 Michael Maher, SJ, “Confession and consolation: the Society of Jesus and its promotion of the general confession,” in Penitence in the Age of Reformations (London: Routledge, 2017), 195.
 John O’Malley, The First Jesuits (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1993), 147-49.
 Quoted in Robert A. Maryks, Saint Cicero and the Jesuits: The Influence of the Liberal Arts on the Adoption of Moral Probabilism (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008), 25.
 Robert A. Maryks, “Census of the Books Written by Jesuits on Sacramental Confession (1554-1650),” Annali di Storia moderna e contemporanea 10 (2004): 415-16, 419-20.
 Ibid., 422.
 Ibid., 423, 470, 474. It was one of the two confessional manuals translated into Portuguese, and the only one “translated into Illyric and Slovenian languages” (Maryks, Saint Cicero, 45).
 Juan de Polanco, Directorio de Confesores (Madrid: Universidad Pontificia Comillas, 2016), 40.
 Polanco, Directorio, 71. English translations are my own.
 Ibid., 75.
 Ibid., 80.
 Ibid., 78.
 Polanco, Year by Year, 394.
 Ibid., 370.
 Polanco, Directorio, 69.
 Interestingly, Polanco only once mentions a fear which maps onto the timor castus/filialis of Augustine and Aquinas, and he ascribes it not to the penitent but to the confessor: “holy fear” describes a reverence and respect for the sacrament of confession that spurs the priest on to worthily celebrate it (Directorio, 75).
 Ibid., 85.
 Ibid., 85.
 Ibid., 85-86.
 Ibid., 72-73, 83-85.
 Ibid., 87.
 Ibid., 87.
 Polanco, Year by Year, 384.
 Polanco, Directorio, 92-93.