The local inquisition in Venice forbade any priests under the age of thirty-six from hearing women’s confessions. The Society of Jesus, however, enjoyed the right, by papal authority, to hear anyone’s confession. Ignatius did not want to press the dispute publicly. So he arranged that for the only Jesuit in Venice above the minimum age (the forty-five-year-old Alberto Azzolini) would be the only one to serve as confessor to those women who sought the sacrament from the Jesuits. Azzolini was pious and guileless. In dealing with certain types of questions that arose during in confession, though, he lacked self-confidence. Previously, he had begged Ignatius to remove him from a rectorship because he felt manifestly inept at the job. With the situation in Venice, Azzolini asked his rector for advice, who urged him to proceed more courageously in the confessional. Two weeks later, Azzolini wrote to Ignatius, who replied in the following letter. While some of what Ignatius says may sound rigorous, his advice was less rigorous than the common opinions of theologians at the time. And one need only regard contemporary portraits of women of the nobility to whom Ignatius was friend and advisor to know that they felt no need in those circumstances to go about uncoiffed, dressed in plain muslin gowns, and bereft of jewels.
For more sources from Ignatius, please visit the Letters of Ignatius of Loyola.
The peace of Christ.
Dear Father Master Alberto:
From a letter of Father Rector we learn that Your Reverence is uneasy about the practice of the women in Venice in matters of dress and personal adornment—and rightly so, for they give occasion (which others frequently take) to offend God our Lord. However, where the practice is general and there neither appears to be nor is there any going beyond the usual custom in the matter itself, nor any intention of sinning or leading others to sin, it is not considered mortally sinful. Indeed, if done by a woman to please her husband, it is not venially sinful. We have written to other places on this matter as follows. Where there is no excessive singularity or going beyond the ordinary and no evil intention, although there might be a degree of vanity in wanting to make a beautiful appearance among other women, etc., they could be absolved the first time with an admonition and some advice. But if they confess this again, especially if they receive the sacraments regularly, they must be gotten to give up this vanity and cut back these bad practices as much as possible. If they refuse, you could say that you will absolve them this time but not in the future, and that they should look for another confessor if they do not want to withdraw from their vanity, since even though not condemned as a mortal sin, it still is a great imperfection, and the Society does not want to be involved with people who are unwilling to withdraw from imperfection. However, since Your Reverence may be letting your holy zeal lead you astray, you should follow the judgment of the rector in such matters, since he too is able to be informed about things known and seen outside of confession; and you should avoid being fearful or anxious in matters where he thinks you should not.
I will say no more, except that charity and the desire to help souls usually makes the members of the Society courageous, and so God helps them. I pray that he will impart himself to Your Reverence with an abundance of his gifts.
Rome, June 29, 1555
Original Source (English translation):
Ignatius of Loyola: Letters and Instructions, ed. John W. Padberg, et al. St. Louis, Mo.: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996, “To Alberto Azzolini, Rome, June 29, 1555,” pg. 579–580.