As the Greek commentators have remarked, this canon speaks of those who have been married more than twice. It is not known what were the ancient ordinances of penitence which the synod here refers to. In later times digamists were condemned to one years penance, and trigamists from two to five years. St. Basil places the trigamists for three years among the “hearers,” and then for some time among the consistentes.
“The appointed time of penance is well known.” These words Zonaras notes must refer to a custom, for, says he, “before this synod no canon is found which prescribes the duration of the penance of bigamists [i.e. digamists].” It is for this reason that St. Basil says (in Epist. ad Amphilogium, Can. 4) in speaking of the penance of trigamists “we have received this by custom and not by canon, but from the following of precedent,” hence the Fathers received many things by tradition, and observed these as having the force of law.
From the last clause of this canon we see the mind of the Fathers of this synod, which agrees with that of Ancyra and Nice, that; with regard to the granting of indulgences, for in shortening the time of penance, attention must be paid to the penitence, and conversation, or “conversation and faith” of each one separately.
With this agrees Zonaras, whose remarks are worthy of consideration. On this whole subject of the commutation of the primitive penance and of the rise of the modern indulgences of the Roman Church Van Espen has written at length in his excursus De Indulgentiis (Jure Eccles., P. I. i., Tit. vij.) in which he assigns the change to the end of the XIth century, and remarks that its introduction caused the “no small collapse of penitential discipline.” 124
This canon is found in the Corpus Juris Canonici, Gratian, Decretum, Pars II., Causa xxxi., Quæst. i., c. viij. where for “conversio,” (ἀναστροφὴ) is read “conversatio,” and the Greek word is used in this sense in Polybius, and frequently so in the New Testament.
The reader is referred also to Amort, De Origine, progressu, valore ac fructu Indulgentiarum, and to the article “Ablass” in the Kirchen Lexicon of Wetzer and Welte. Also for the English reader to T. L. Green, D.D., Indulgences, Absolutions, and Tax tables, etc. Some of the difficulties which Roman theologians experience in explaining what are called “Plenary Indulgences” are set forth by Dr. Littledale in his Plain Reasons against joining the Church of Rome, in which the matter is discussed in the usual witty, and unscrupulous fashion of that brilliant writer. But while this remark is just, it should also be remarked that after the exaggeration is removed there yet remains a difficulty of the most serious character.