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Canons of the seven ecumenical councils
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Those who have received from God authority to bind and to loose must take into consideration the quality of the sin, and the willingness and readiness of the sinner to return, and thus offer a treatment suited to the sin in question, lest by employing an immoderate adjustment in one direction or the other, they fail in compassing the salvation of the one ailing. For, the diseases called sin are not simple affairs, but, on the contrary, various and complex, and they produce many offshoots of the injury, as a result whereof the evil becomes widely diffused, and it progresses until it is checked by the power of the one treating it. So that a person who is professing the science of treating ailments as a spiritual physician ought first to examine the disposition of the sinner, and ascertain whether he tends to health or on the contrary provokes the malady to attack him by his own actions; at the same time bearing in mind that he must provide against any reversion, and considering whether the patient is struggling against the physician, and whether the ulcer of the soul is being aggravated by the application of the remedy; and accordingly to mete out mercy in due proportion to the merits of the case. For all that matters to God and to the person undertaking pastoral leadership consists in the recovery of the straying sheep, and in healing the one wounded by the serpent. Accordingly, he ought not to drive the patient to the verge of despair, nor give him rein to dissoluteness and contempt of life, but, on the contrary, in at least one way at any rate, either by resorting to extremer and stringent remedies, or to gentler and milder ones, to curb the disease, and to put up a fight to heal the ulcer for the one tasting the fruits of repentance, and wisely helping him on the way to the splendid rehabilitation to which the man is being invited. We must therefore be versed in both, i.e., both the requirements of accuracy and the requirements of custom. In the case of those who are obstinately opposed to extremities, we must follow the formula handed down to us, just as sacred Basil teaches us outright.
After this Council had decreed concerning many different penances, lastly in the present Canon it leaves everything to the judgment of the bishops and spirituals (i.e., confessors), the authority to bind and to loose, saying that they ought to conjecture, or surmise, both the quality of the sinfulness, whether it be pardonable or deadly, and the disposition of the sinner with respect to repentance, and thus to offer the right treatment for his illness; lest by giving persons who are magnanimous and willing to repent lenient penances, and persons who are more unconcerned and pusillanimous on the contrary extreme penances, they fail to correct either the former or the latter, but rather wind up by losing both. Because sin is so complex and various, and grows so fast, that it resists, that is, overcomes, the power and art of the spiritual physician (or, it may be, so complex and various is sin, and so fast does it grow, before it can be checked and overcome by the art of the spiritual physician). So, for this reason, the physician of souls must first and foremost conjecture the disposition and inclination of the sinner, and discern whether he loves the health of his soul with fervid repentance, or, on the contrary, whether he actually is coaxing sin to attack him, and how he behaves in regard to sin, whether he is not opposed to the salutary remedies which he is giving him (as is done by the demented who are opposed to the salutary remedies of physicians of bodies), and whether he is not actually aggravating, or increasing, the lesion of sin with such measures. The confessor, I say, must first of all make conjectures respecting all these things, and thus with due proportion mete out mercy, mitigating, or lightening, the penances in dealing with the man who is unconcerned and pusillanimous, but intensifying, or making them heavier, in the case of a man who is magnanimous; and doing both for mercy’s sake, in order, on the one hand, to cleanse the magnanimous man from sin, and, on the other hand, to avoid making the pusillanimous man’s case worse. And, generally speaking, the whole aim both to God and to the confessor is simply this, to bring about the return of the straying sheep, to cure the one who has been wounded or hurt by the figurative serpent commonly called the Devil, and neither to drive him to despair by heavy penalties, nor again to let him take the bit in his teeth, like a horse, by light penalties, and hence encourage him to contemptuousness and unconcern, but in every possible way, whether with austere or with mild remedies, to endeavor to restore the sinner to health and free him from the wounds of sin, so that he may taste the fruits of repentance, and with wisdom managing to help him to ascend to the splendor of the Holy Trinity above (which is the kingdom of heaven, according to St. Gregory the Theologian). So, then, the confessor must have knowledge of both requirements (just as is said verbatim in c. III of Basil), to wit, accuracy and custom. In case sinners do not care to observe this accuracy, on account of which they are compromisingly allowed a reduction of years and of penances for their sin, let him at least command them to observe the custom, the entire number of years, that is to say, and the penances prescribed by the Canons.