St. Cyprian of Carthage’s (16th september) DE LAPSIS

by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

Saint of the Day, Tuesday, July 9, 1968

“A Roman and Apostolic Catholic, the author of this text submits himself with filial devotion to the traditional teaching of Holy Church. However, if by an oversight anything is found in it at variance with that teaching, he immediately and categorically rejects it.”

 The words “Revolution” and “Counter-Revolution” are employed here in the sense given to them by Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira in his book Revolution and Counter-Revolution, the first edition of which was published in the monthly Catolicismo, Nº 100, April 1959.


St. Cyprian’s treatise titled De Lapsis[1] states, “It is condemnable to easily forgive those who apostatized out of cowardice.” The lapsis were Catholics who had no courage to face martyrdom and thus sacrificed to idols. From lapsus, singular, lapsis, plural, comes the word relapso [relapse] in Portuguese. St. Cyprian of Carthage says that it is wrong to easily forgive lapsis because they would throw a handful of incense on the pyre where embers burned in honor of the gods and be released. When they got home, they would begin to feel remorse and go to the catacombs to ask forgiveness.

It turns out that the presence of those cowards in the catacombs, precisely where the future martyrs lived, would considerably lower the level and give the others ideas: “Why should I not burn incense and then make myself forgiven? I end up saving my soul anyway.” If the lapsis were easily taken back, many people would find this idea extremely inviting. They could not be denied forgiveness because the Church forgives everybody who is repentant and has a firm intention not to sin. But if they were forgiven very easily, the whole discipline of the Church would become soft.

So the Church had this very delicate problem: “What to do about them”? Church doctors of that time abundantly dealt with this question, which always remains relevant because the Church is full of lapsis, people who more or less sin, slack off, etc. What to do with them? It is a very interesting question.

How to go about it? There was a time in the Middle Ages, for example, when people were given public penances. The person sinned, [went to confession, and was given this penance, for example]: go on foot to Santiago de Compostela. That would be like going, for example, from Sao Paulo to Aparecida. If asked, the penitent was obliged to tell people what he was doing: “What are you doing? I am doing a penance the priest gave me.” Naturally, people figured that if he is doing penance, there must be a reason for it.

That begs the question of whether the penance regime used in the Middle Ages was good and would be applicable today. Forgiveness [is] always [granted], but what penance to give? That is the problem.

St. Cyprian of Carthage says,

“One can understand and forgive him who has yielded under torture and repented of his betrayal. But after that defeat, what wounds can he show, what tortures did he bear, as his faith did not falter, but he gave in to perfidy?”

He meant that it was easier to forgive someone who presented himself with signs of torture, but what happened when he was not tortured? How did he come forward to ask for forgiveness?

“By speaking in this way, I do not intend to increase the brothers’ guilty feelings, but to encourage them to ask for forgiveness.”

This is very well stated. He is not mocking those who have sinned out of sheer panic without being tortured. He absolutely does not want them to be denied forgiveness but to help them come to their senses and realize the depth of their guilt.

“For as it is written, he who calls you fortunate leads you into error and blurs the path you should follow; and he who treats a sinner softly, with flattering niceties, fails to repress violations but rather feeds them and fosters sin.”

You cannot say that this is the attitude of the contemporary clergy.

Saint Cyprian would have difficulty speaking today! He says that a person who flatters a sinner, treats him softly, tries to be nice to make himself popular with human intentions, and does not tell the sinner the truth is not his friend. In a little while, I will explain the spirit of all this, and it is fascinating. Conversely, he that seriously rebukes, advises and instructs his brother puts him on the path of salvation. “I rebuke and chastise those I love, saith the Lord (Ap 3:19). That is exactly what the Second Vatican Council does not do.

“In this way, it is also fitting that a priest of the Lord should not deceive with illusory kindnesses but use healthy remedies. He is an inept doctor, who rubs swelling wounds with indulgent hands while keeping in them the poison that piles up more and more.”

You need to squeeze the abscess to get rid of the pus. If a doctor gently rubs his hand over the abscess instead of squeezing it, he is no friend of the patient.

“Squeezing hurts. You need to open the wound and cut it, and once all rottenness has been removed, apply strong medicine to it. Let the sick cry out that he will not resist such pain: when he heals, he will thank us.”

“Dear brothers, a new kind of damage has emerged. As if the fury of the storm of persecution had been little, a doubtful, evil, and pernicious slackness has added to the height of misery under cover of mercy. Due to the recklessness of some, the discipline of communion has become slack among the incautious. That runs counter the vigor of the Gospel and the Law of Our Lord and God.”

That means they were giving communion to people who should not receive it.

“That false sense of security is dangerous to those who convey it and useless to those who receive it. They do not want true medicine, exclude penance from their hearts, hide mortal wounds with simulated pain, and approach the sacrament of the Lord still fresh from the altars of the devil.”

In other words, the lapsis, who had just sacrificed to idols, were receiving communion.

“This peace sold with false words is not peace but war. What is separated from the Gospel does not join the Church. This facility [to receive communion] does not grant peace but takes it away. It is yet another persecution and trial. It serves as a cover for those who have defected to cease their regrets, alleviate their pain, efface their sin from memory, suppress remorse from their chest and tears from their eyes rather than atoning with great penitence to the highly offended Lord. Remember where you have fallen and do penance.”

Rather than interpreting every sentence of this erudite text, I think it would be more beneficial to explain Church doctrine on sinners.

There are three distinct kinds of sinners, and Our Lord’s attitude toward sinners in the Gospel, and later the Church’s attitude in their regard throughout her twenty centuries of existence, depends on the state of their soul.

Some sinners sin but reproach the sin they have committed. They know they have done wrong, regret it, and admire those who are upright. When able to advise others, they tell them not to do what they do but to behave well. The Church has every form of patience, forgiveness, and kindness for these sinners because they manifestly sinned through weakness. While it is culpable weakness, it does not entail the most abominable of sins, which is sympathy or approval for evil, a sin of the spirit and not just a grave sin such as the sin of the flesh.

As far as this first type of sinners is concerned, the Church fears mainly that, keenly aware of the seriousness of sin, they become discouraged. So she tries to encourage, stimulate and nurture them, as there is no need to further burden a bending soul under the weight of the evil it has done, by saying, “You misbehaved!” etc., as the person may become discouraged.

What should we do with people like this, generally driven by discouragement? We should try to encourage them, make them pray, and understand that if they pray, they can obtain more grace, and finally, a fulminating grace that will help them make amends. Every one has sufficient grace, but a fulminating grace is a very precious thing for which one must ask.

I believe that a sinner who insistently asks to amend, even though he is guilty (for otherwise, he would not be a sinner), has many possibilities to obtain an extraordinary grace from Our Lady and amend himself.

The best thing a sinner in this condition can do is to take a humble position. If his sin is not known, he should hide it not to scandalize anyone. If it is known, he should tell others, “I have behaved badly; I am no good! Forgive me for my unedifying wrongdoing, pity me, and pray for me.”

That includes both grave and light sins. For example, a person in the habit of lying—which of itself is not a grave sin—who says, “Ah! there’s nothing serious about lying, it’s a venial sin!” is misbehaving. If someone catches a mendacious liar lying, the liar should say, “You see, it is sad; shame on me! To my chagrin, you’ve probably caught me lying more than once. Forgive me for my unedifying example and stick to the truth. For me, it is a great misfortune to be lying. You, who do not lie, ask Our Lady to obtain for me the grace not to lie. I am sorry to lie.”

This sinner’s attitude is like the publican’s in the Gospel, who stands in the back of the temple beating his chest and ends up forgiven. Hence, one must show a lot of patience and mercy to this kind of sinner. We must encourage him in every way, and above all, prevent him from falling or becoming discouraged because discouragement is the top danger for this type of sinner.

There is another kind of sinner in the middle who knows he is doing wrong but is indifferent to his sin and thinks that others who commit it are not wrong. “The Church forbids such and such, but it doesn’t hurt me to break a Church commandment. After all, I still have a chance to confess in the end, take a sliver, and go to heaven.” That person may change his state of mind, but it is doubtful that he will go to heaven if not. He is a lukewarm type who has sympathy for those who commit the same sins and has indifference, rather than admiration, for those who practice virtue.

This lukewarm type of sinner needs to be told the truth. He needs to be enlightened. From some standpoint, he stands opposed to the sinner who repents at least to some degree. He is a sinner who needs to be shaken because he is like a sleeping man. He has become insensitive and no longer has a sense of good and evil. So you need to thunder and speak out to break that crust. His danger is not discouragement but indifference, insensitivity, and so we must be severe with him.

Then you have the third kind of sinner. He lives in sin, rejoices in his sin, and is even proud of it. He has sympathy and affection for sinners and militant hatred against those who live in virtue. He seeks to seduce the virtuous into sin. This kind of sinner needs to be fought as a fierce enemy.

Then we must confront him, argue with him in public and behave as his enemy, not only for the sake of his soul—because he will only respect virtue to the extent that he understands the violence of virtue—but for the sake of others whom he is harming. When I see a sinner induce someone into evil, my greatest pity is not for the latter but for the one leading him to evil. And my way of protecting the one led into evil is by beating up the sinner doing that evil. I, therefore, must be aggressively militant against him.

These are the attitudes one should have toward sinners. For sinners of the first type, the Church understandably opens the torrential graces of her sacraments. Whenever in the proper state to receive a sacrament, they must ask for and receive it with peace of soul. The Church is understandably more reserved toward the second type of sinner and hostile and militant against the third. These are different varieties of sin, corresponding to different positions of the Church.

 (Dr. Plinio, can a person straddle the first and second types?)

It can happen in exceptional situations, but not for strictly religious reasons; for example, a person who sins against chastity and steals. He is in an environment where they tolerate or even applaud sins against chastity but condemn theft. He may be a little ashamed of being a thief and not ashamed of being impure.

So he may have a semi-penitential attitude about his thefts and none about his impurity. But you can see that this is due more to the environment in which he lives than to the commandment of the Church, for otherwise, he would not want to violate it.

(Do these nuanced attitudes apply only to mortal sins or also to venial sins?).

Yes, to both. The number of people in venial sin—second range—is often colossal. They are people who think that venial sin does not deprive them of God’s grace, and so they can do as they please. That attitude of soul is equivalent to behaving toward God like a person who lives with us and says, “I feel entitled to do to him all sorts of little acts of rudeness because, after all, they are not serious insults.” Would we like to live with that person? Yet we think we can impose that kind of convivium on God, don’t we? That exists.

[1] The Fallen (De lapsis), written in 251, deals with the problems encountered in reconciling with the Church those who had apostatized under persecution. These problems were acute especially after the Decian persecution.