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5. Punishment of Delinquents

Antiquities of the Christian Church
CHAPTER VIII. Of Ordination

5. Punishment of Delinquents 

The stern and awful sanctity of the primitive christians is peculiarly manifest in the severity of that discipline to which they subjected offending members of their communion. Their system of discipline towards laymen who were subject to it, is fully developed in a subsequent part of this work, chap. xvii. But the clergy of every grade were the subjects of a discipline peculiar to their body; and in some respects even more severe than that of private members of the church. The' latter might, by suitable demonstrations of penitence, be again restored to their former standing; but this privilege was never accorded to a degraded or excommunicated minister. If, for any offence, he once fell under ecclesiastical censure, he was excluded from the clerical order entirely and forever.

The offences for which a clergyman was liable to censure or punishment were very numerous, and continually increased as the spirit of ancient Christianity degenerated and gave place to the ostentatious formalities of later times. They may, however, be comprised under the following classes: apostasy, heresy, simony, neglect of duty of any kind, especially departure from the prescribed forms of worship; and open immorality.

Many of these offences evidently related to the peculiar trials to which the primitive Christians were subject, and to the heresies and defections which were consequent upon them. Offences of this character were visited with peculiar severity upon the clergy.

The punishments inflicted upon offending members of the clerical body during the first seven or eight centuries, may be reduced to the following heads: suspension, degradation, exclusion from the communion, imprisonment, corporal punishment, and excommunication.

  1. Suspension. This related either to the salary of the clergyman, or to his office. Both methods of punishment were practised by the ancient church. An instance is related in the writings of Cyprian of some whos6 monthly wages were suspended, while they were allowed to continue in the discharge of their office. Decrees to this effect were ordained by the councils of Nice, Ephesus, and Agde.

    Suspension from office was varied according to circumstances. At one time the offender was suspended from the performance of the active duties of his office, whilst he still retained his clerical rank with his brethren in the ministry. At another, he was forbidden to perform some of the duties of his office, while he continued in the discharge of others; and again, he was debarred the performance of all ministerial duties for a definite period of time.

  2. Degradation. This punishment consisted, as its name implies, in removing the offender from a higher to a lower grade of office.. This sentence of degradation appears to have been final and irrevocable. Bishops were in this manner transferred from a larger to a smaller or less important diocese. Presbyters were degraded to the order of deacons; and deacons, to that of subdeacons. This species of punishment was also inflicted upon bishops in Africa by superseding them in their expected succession to the office of archbishop or metropolitan. 
  3. Exclusion from the communion. Of this there were two kinds, which were denominated communio peregrina, and communio laica. The former has sometimes been confounded with the latter, or it has been supposed to denote a communion in one kind, or communion only at the point of death, which, in the Romish church, was regarded as a kind of passport to the future world. The most probable explanation of this point, confessedly obscure, is, that the term communion implied not only a participation of the eucharist, but in all the rights and privileges of a member of the church. Travellers and strangers, unless they had testimonials certifying to their regular standing in the church, were presumed to be under censure, and were not allowed the privileges of full communion, though permitted to receive, if need be, a maintenance from the funds of the church. An instance is related of Chrysostom, who on a certain occasion hospitably entertained the bishop of Alexandria, who had fled from persecution to him at Constantinople; but the bishop was not allowed to partake of the eucharist, until it had been fully ascertained that no just accusation could be brought against him. Clergymen under censure were sometimes treated in this way in their own communion. They were placed in the same relations as strangers, which was denoted by the phrase communio peregrina. Under these circumstances they could neither officiate nor be present at the celebration of the Lord's supper, until they had given the prescribed satisfaction.

    The act of communion was indeed the highest privilege of a layman; but it was a severe rebuke to one who had been elevated to the rank of the clergy to be again degraded to the condition of a layman, and to be required to communicate as a layman at the table of the Lord. This was a kind of mitigated excommunication. He was excluded from the body of the clergy and reduced to the condition of a humble individual. In this situation he was required to perform certain services for that same body from which he had been expelled. This was styled communio laica, and the subject of this penalty was said to be delivered over to the secular arm, curiae tradi, in the phraseology of the ancient canonists.

  4. ImprisonmenL The custom of confining delinquent clergymen in monasteries appears to have taken its rise in the fourth and fifth centuries. At a later period it became a frequent mode of punishment.
  5. Corporal punishment. This kind of punishment, together with the last mentioned, was inflicted only on clergy of the inferior orders. This mode of punishment was by no means uncommon in the time of Augustine. A presbyter, who had given false witness, could first be deposed from his office; and then, as a layman, might be subjected to corporal puinishment. Connected with the churches in large cities, such as Constantinople, there were houses of correction, decanica, for administering the correction of imprisonment and of corporal punishment.
  6. Excommunication. This was the last and highest form of ecclesiastical censure. It cut off all hope on the part of the offender from ever being again reinstated in the ministry, even if he were restored to the fellowship of the churches. None who had at any time been exposed to public censure, were restored again to their office. 

The above penalties appear to have been inflicted by authority of ecclesiastical councils alone, or at least to have been prescribed by them.

Cyprian, Ep.28.(al. 34.)

Cone. Nie. c. 8: Tolet. 1, c. 4: Trull, c. 20: Chalced. c. 29.

August. Ep.36.

Cone. Tolet. ], c. 1, 3, 8: Ilerdens, c. 1, 5: Arausiac. I. c. 24: Taurinens, c. 8.

Socrates, h. e. lib. vi. c. 9: Sozomen, h. e. lib. viii. Synes. Ep.: Siegel, Handbuch. Archaeol.Bd. iii. 82.

Cone. Agaih. c. 30,41: Epaon. c. 15: Matiscon, c. 5.

Const. Apost. 27, 30, 51: Cone. Neocaesar. e. 1: Agath. c. 8, 42.

Siegel's Allerthümer 111, Bd. 79.


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