date, just or unjust, reasonable or unreasonable, was to be received and implicitly obeyed, for there was no appeal from the representative of St. Peter. In a narrower sphere, and subject to the pope, the bishop held an authority which, at least in theory, was equally absolute; while the humbler minister of the altar was the instrument by which the decrees of pope and bishop were enforced among the people; for the destiny of all men lay in the hands which could administer or withhold the sacraments essential to salvation.
Thus intrusted with responsibility for the fate of mankind, it was necessary that the Church should possess the powers and the machinery requisite for the due discharge of a trust so unspeakably important. For the internal regulation of the conscience it had erected the institution of auricular confession, which by this time had become almost the exclusive appanage of the priesthood. When this might fail to keep the believer in the path of righteousness, it could resort to the spiritual courts which had grown up around every episcopal seat, with an undefined jurisdiction capable of almost unlimited extension. Besides supervision over matters of faith and discipline, of marriage, of inheritance, and of usury, which belonged to them by general consent, there were comparatively few questions between man and man which could not be made to include some case of conscience involving the interpellation of spiritual interference, especially when agreements were customarily confirmed with the sanction of the oath; and the cure of souls implied a perpetual inquest over the aberrations, positive or possible, of every member of the flock. It would be difficult to set bounds to the intrusion upon the concerns of every man which was thus rendered possible, or to the influence thence derivable.
Not only did the humblest priest wield a supernatural power which marked him as one elevated above the common level of humanity, but his person and possessions were alike inviolable. No matter what crimes he might commit, secular justice could not take cognizance of them, and secular officials could not arrest him. He was amenable only to the tribunals of his own order, which were debarred from inflicting punishments involving the effusion of blood, and from whose decisions an appeal to the supreme jurisdiction of distant Rome conferred too often virtual immunity.