THE SACRAMENT OF PENANCE
By Rev. H. Harrington
I. INTRODUCTION- PENANCE AND THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
"Even though, after you have been accepted by him,
you should have gone astray, even though you return to him naked, yet God
will receive you again as his son, because you have returned to him" (De
Poenitentia, viii). In these words the early Christian writer
Tertullian expounds the lesson to be learnt from the parable of the
Prodigal Son- that God is always ready to forgive the repentant sinner.
The same lesson can be drawn from other parables, notably that of the Good
Shepherd, and from the general tenor of Christ's teaching and actions. It
is impossible to think that God would spurn the sinner who turns to him
Since this is so, those who have sinned have surely only
to seek for the means of forgiveness. It is with this quest that this
essay is concerned. When we consider the effects of sin, and the
consequent meaning of forgiveness, we can conjecture at once that sin will
be remitted sacramentally. Revelation, coming from God, must be a
consistent body of doctrine. Since grace is conferred and strengthened by
sacraments, we may well expect that when lost it is by a sacrament that it
will be restored.
Moreover, since sanctifying grace is so immensely
important, and its loss so great a disaster, it is in keeping with our
desires and God's great goodness that some clear sign of forgiveness
perceptible to the senses should exist. Otherwise we should be doubtful of
pardon, and our very faith, our very repentance, would be sources of
misery. The more fully we realized the evil of sin, the more earnestly we
lamented our fall, the greater would be our anxiety and fear, the more
should we dread the inevitable final judgment.
Thus, even a priori reasoning leads us to hope that
that final judgment may be anticipated by an earthly judgment, which will
give us yet another chance of winning salvation. We should, then, be ready
to believe gratefully that such a sacrament has indeed been instituted.
Our knowledge of the sacramental system enables us to make
reasonable inferences as to the form such a sacrament would take, and
these should guide us in our inquiry. The sacraments are external signs of
inward grace; and, since they are signs, they must accord with the nature
of the grace conferred. A sacrament of pardon would confer the grace of
remission of sins. But sins are culpable acts- crimes. The natural sign of
the remission of a crime is a judicial decision, necessarily preceded by
an investigation of the accusation. We should expect to find, then, if
Christ did institute a sacrament for the remission of sins, that this
sacrament would be a judgment, and would necessitate an inquiry into the
sins to be remitted.
Further, sin and its guilt are, at least partially,
secret. Hence an inquiry into a sinner's guilt can be made only through
his own voluntary admissions- i.e., by means of confession. Such
confession must be accompanied by sorrow, for we know from Christian
doctrine on grace, that without sorrow sin cannot be forgiven. But our
sorrow would be merely fictitious if we were not ready to atone as far as
we can for the insult we have offered to God. Therefore, if there be a
sacrament by which our sins are forgiven, we should expect it to include
confession, contrition, and satisfaction, as the necessary acts of the
penitent sinner. And these acts, being part of the sacrament, would have
to be expressed externally.
Since the judicial decision that is to follow is also part
of the sacrament, this too must be external. It must therefore be uttered
by some man. But clearly if a man is to be judge over our souls, then to
help him to use that authority rightly, our manifestations of guilt, of
sorrow, and of readiness to atone must be made to him. Moreover, mere
general avowal of guilt will not help him to judge prudently and justly:
our confession then must be a full statement of all that he needs to know
before he can give a sound decision.
But if this judicial remission of sin is to be of use, if
it is to be sacramental, it must be really effective. The sacraments
actually confer grace. Hence this sacramental judgment must be effective,
and not a mere declaration of pardon already otherwise secured. The man to
whom so immense a power is given must clearly receive it from God, and
that such a commission has been given must in some way be evident
externally, for we cannot submit to an unknown judge. Hence it is probable
that if there be a sacrament of pardon only the officials of the Church,
the priests, would be capable of receiving the authority to administer it.
Some sacrament, therefore, whereby sins can be forgiven,
is desirable, is in accordance with God's goodness, and is consistent with
Christian Revelation. Such a sacrament would be suitably a judgment and
would fittingly include confession, contrition, and satisfaction from the
penitent, and a sentence from the judge. This judge would probably be one
of the priests of the Church, authorized by the Church to pass sentence.
It remains now to see whether Christ did in fact institute
such a sacrament.
II. THE SACRAMENT IN SCRIPTURE
In our endeavor to ascertain whether Christ instituted a
Sacrament of Penance we must distinguish essentials from non-essential
details. Many modern customs that surround the administration of the
Sacrament are incidental. The one thing that matters is to show that
Christ instituted a sacrament which consists essentially in an effective
judgment over sinners. If he gave to his Church power to forgive sins or
to refuse to forgive them, then he did institute this Sacrament. The
ceremonial with which such a power is exercised is not relevant to our
- The power of the keys
Apart from the general teaching of the Gospels that
Christ came to call sinners to repentance, certain texts explicitly
declare that he gave to the Church this power to judge sinners
effectively in God's name. To St. Peter he made the promise first. "And
I will give to thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. And whatsoever
thou shalt bind upon earth shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever
thou shalt loose upon earth shall be loosed also in heaven" (Matt. xvi.
19). Using the same words, save for the necessary change in the number
of the pronoun, he later gave the same promise to all the Apostles
(Matt. xviii 18). Finally, after his Resurrection, he carried out his
promise and conferred this authority on them. "'As the Father hath sent
me, I also send you,' When he had said this he breathed on them, and he
said to them. 'Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive,
they are forgiven them: and whose sins you shall retain they are
retained'" (John xx 21-23).
We can summarize the information to be drawn from these
texts: Our Lord gave his Church wide discretionary powers, so that she
can impose her obligations or remit them, and her action will be
ratified by God; in particular, she can forgive sins, or refuse to
forgive; her authority in this matter is to be exercised judicially;
this involves voluntary avowal of guilt, of sorrow and of readiness to
atone, on the part of the penitent; there is no limitation to this
power, granted that the penitent is in the requisite condition; it is
given not to the Apostles alone, but also to their successors; only the
officials of the Church, the priests, are able to exercise it; finally,
subjection to the Church's tribunal is necessary for a sinful Christian
who desires pardon.
- Power of forgiving sin
It is clear from his very words that our Lord gave the
Church power to impose burdens or to remove them, and that this includes
the power to forgive sins. The metaphor of the keys, the general words
used in all three texts, the explicit mention of the forgiveness or
retention of sins, can have no other meaning. Isaias uses this same
metaphor of the keys, "And I will lay the key of the house of David upon
his shoulders; and he shall open and none shall shut; and he shall shut
and none shall open" (Isas. xxii 22). This is the obvious meaning of the
metaphor, that to St. Peter is given supreme power as God's
representative to exclude from or admit into heaven. As St. John
"Those who are living on earth are given the control of
heavenly affairs, and have a power which God has given neither to angels
nor to archangels; for it was not said to them, 'Whatsoever,' etc.
Earthly rulers have indeed the power of binding but only over the body;
this power of binding, however, concerns the soul itself, and controls
heaven; whatever priests do below, God ratifies above, and the Lord
confirms the decision of the servant. For what else did he give them
than complete heavenly power? For he said, 'What sins you shall remit
they are remitted, and what sins you shall retain they are retained.'
What power could be greater than that? 'The Father has given all
judgment to the Son.' And I see them entrusted with all this by the Son"
(St. John Chrysostom (344-407), De Sacerdotio, iii).
This is so clearly a fair summary of the meaning of
these texts that we can leave, the saint's explanation without further
discussion. The Church, then, has power to bind and to loose, and this
power includes that of forgiving sin.
- A judicial power, requiring confession
This power over sin is judicial, and necessitates
confession from the penitent. If the Church's ministers are to forgive
or to refuse to forgive, they must be adequately informed about the
sinner's state of soul. Otherwise, they could not use this power
rightly. As St. Jerome wrote about the clergy, "Having the power of the
keys, in a certain manner they judge before the day of judgment" (St.
Jerome (c. 342-420), Letter to Heliodorus, Ep. Xiv 8). But no man can
judge even earthly offences without a full knowledge of the crime; still
less can we suppose that the Church is to exercise her dread power
arbitrarily, with insufficient knowledge. Therefore it is that St.
Jerome also writes that priests should not bind or loose according to
their moods, but only when, having heard the kinds of sin, they know
whom to bind and whom to loose (Commentary on St. Matthew's Gospel,
iii (in chap. xvi, ver. 19). St. Gregory the Great sums up this
inference from our Lord's words:
"Great is the honor, but terrible the responsibility of
the honor. . . . The cases must therefore be considered, and then the
power to bind and to loose exercised. The fault that has been committed,
the repentance that has followed the fault, must both be known, so that
those whom Almighty God has visited with the grace of repentance, the
judgment of the pastor may absolve" (St. Gregory the Great (540-604), Homilies
on the Gospel, xxvi).
Our Lord's words, therefore, give the Church power to
absolve judicially from sin, and this power necessitates full confession
from the penitent.
It is so obvious that the sinner must be repentant, and
must avow his sorrow, that we need do no more than mention it. Moreover,
this repentance must clearly include readiness to atone. These truths
follow from the Christian teaching on Sin and on Repentance (Cf. Essay
Some have interpreted this power as the commission to
baptize and to preach the gospel of Redemption. But this is against the
plain meaning of the words; it overlooks the fact that the commission to
baptize was given on another occasion; and it limits the Church's power
to remitting by baptism the sins of the unbaptized, whereas our Lord
said in entirely general terms, "Whose sins," and "Whatsoever you shall
bind." A Christian who has sinned may well insist that when our Lord
gave the Church power to forgive, he did not withdraw her subjects from
- Universal power
Moreover, no sin is excluded, for our Lord's words are
as wide as possible in their reference. As St. Augustine tersely wrote: "There
are some who said that penance was not to be allowed to certain sins;
and they were excluded from the Church, being heretics" (St. Augustine
(354-430, Sermons, ccclii 3). St. Pacian also thus answers the
Novatians who attempted to except some sins from the Church's power to
forgive (St. Pacia (c. 390), Epistles, iii 12): "He excepted
nothing at all. He said, 'Whatsoever.'" These quotations are short, but
to the point. To deny the universality of the Church's power to forgive
is to deny the words of Christ.
- Permanent power
St. Pacian also proves that this power was not given to
the Apostles alone, but was to be passed on to their successors: "But
perhaps this power was only given to the Apostles? Then to them alone
was it permitted to baptize, to them alone was it permitted to give the
Holy Ghost, and to them alone was it granted to remove the sins of the
world. For all these were ordered to no other but to the Apostles. . . .
If, therefore, the power to baptize and to confirm has come to the
bishops from the Apostles, so too have they the power to bind and to
loose" (Ep. i 7).
He states here the principle by which we know that this
power was given to the Church permanently: whatever powers are needed
for the Church's work, even though the words conferring them were
necessarily spoken to the Apostles alone, are also given to their
successors. The power of forgiveness is obviously necessary for the
salvation of men. Our Lord indeed makes it clear that he gave it to the
Church that she might continue his work; he introduces its bestowal by
saying, "As the Father has sent me, I also send you."
This power, therefore, is one that the Church must wield
for all time, for it is given to her to enable her to accomplish her
- Granted only to priests
It is also at least suggested by our Lord's words that
only priests can forgive sins. It is, as we have seen, a judicial power.
But no judge can exercise his authority without a definite commission, a
commission which in any society is given only to qualified officials.
The Church is a perfect society, with her own officials, and normally
these alone can exercise authority in matters concerning the purpose of
the society; therefore these alone can validly exercise this judicial
"This right is granted only to priests." "Christ granted
this right to his Apostles, and it was transmitted by the Apostles to
the priests" (St. Ambrose (c. 333-397), De Poenitentia, i 2; ii
2). In these two sentences St. Ambrose sums up for us Christian
tradition and the implication of our Lord's words.
- Necessary power
Finally, these words show that if we desire pardon we
must submit to this tribunal of the Church. To bestow authority over
subjects and not to enforce subjection on the subjects is an
inconsistency we dare not attribute to God. If, when the Church refuses
forgiveness, pardon can be nevertheless secured, then our Lord was
jesting with his Apostles, and has failed to carry out his promise. Thus
St. Gregory VII asserted boldly his authority over all Christian. "Who,
I ask, thinks himself excluded from the jurisdiction of Peter in this
universal grant of the power to bind and to loose? Unless, indeed, it be
some unhappy man who, refusing to bear the yoke of the Lord, subjects
himself to the burden of the devil, and wishes not to be numbered among
Christ's sheep" (St. Gregory VII (c. 1020-1085), Letter to Heriman of
Though St. Gregory is here speaking particularly of the
claim that kings were above the power of the Church, his words show us
how futile would be the gift of authority if the subjects could with
impunity withdraw themselves from its control. We must therefore
recognize that, apart from submission to the Church's forgiving power,
there is no pardon for grave sins.
This, then, is the plain meaning of our Lord's words,
these are the necessary implications. It has been suggested that our
Lord did not mean what his words say, but merely authorized his Apostles
to declare that sins are pardoned which have been already forgiven apart
from their decision. But thus to reduce the power of absolution to a
barren declaration is not only to distort Christ's words but also to
make them, especially in so solemn a setting, an absurd anticlimax. Our
Lord has sent the Apostles to carry on the work of redemption; to help
them in this onerous task he has given them the Holy Ghost; it is
inconceivable that he should then proceed to tell them in very
misleading language that they would be able to declare sins forgiven
after they had been forgiven independently of their action. These words,
to fit the solemnity of the occasion, must bear their obvious meaning,
that the Apostles are empowered by divine commission to judge sinners
and to pass on them effective sentence.
Nor may we limit the power of remission to the remission
of punishment alone. Eternal punishment cannot be remitted apart from
the guilt, for the two are inseparably joined. Punishment is the
inevitable consequence of guilt. If the punishment is remitted, then the
guilt also must be remitted. On the other hand, the temporal punishment
due to sin can be lessened or remitted in so many other ways that any
Christian can secure this by his own actions. It is unthinkable that our
Lord's solemn injunction, and his gift of the Holy Ghost, could issue in
so trivial a conclusion as the bestowal of a power already enjoyed by
all Christians. It would be unsound exegesis to accept an interpretation
of our Lord's words so unsuited to the context, and at the same time so
remote from the plain meaning of the words themselves. We must then
conclude that Christ gave to the Apostles and to their successors a
power so great as to seem almost incredible- the power effectively to
forgive the sins of men or, equally effectively, to refuse forgiveness.
"What is impossible for men is possible to God, and God
is able to grant pardon for sins. . . . It seemed impossible that sins
should be forgiven through penance; yet Christ granted this to his
Apostles and by the Apostles it was handed on to the ministry of the
priests. Hence what seemed impossible has been made possible" (St.
Ambrose, De Poenitentia, ii 2).
"But God who promised mercy to all makes no distinction
(between forgiving slight and grave sins), and concedes to his priests
the power of forgiveness with no exceptions" (Ibid., i 3).
"In baptism surely there is remission of all sins; what
does it matter whether priests exercise this power granted to them, at
baptism or through penance? In both there is the one mystery" (Ibid.,
These sayings of St. Ambrose sum up the plain meaning of
our Lord's words as always understood by the Church. We may therefore
conclude with St. Leo: "And there did the Apostles receive power to
forgive sins, when after his Resurrection the Lord breathed on them and
said, 'Receive the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive they are
forgiven;" (St. Leo, Sermon lxxvi, De Peontecoste, ii 4).
Other scriptural evidence is in itself not so clear. But
if we remember our Lord's words it becomes clearer, and affords at least
indications that the Apostolic Church claimed and exercised this power
to forgive sins. The Apostles knew well that Christians sinned
seriously, and yet did not write of such sinners as though they were
finally lost. They even write of them as though they could still enjoy
effective membership of the Church (Cf. 1 Peter, 2 Corinthians,
Titus, Apocalypse, passim). It is true we have no detailed
narrative of the actual exercise of the power of absolution; there are
at best some possible references (Cf. Acts xix 18 sqq.;
Jas. v 16, and 19-20, etc.). But knowing our Lord's words to the
Apostles, knowing, too, the Christian teachings on salvation and on the
Church, we can justifiably see in this treatment of sinful Christians
evidence that the Church was using the power to forgive that had been
conferred upon her.
- Some objections
Certain difficulties have been raised and must be
resolved. The comparative silence concerning the use of the forgiving
power is best treated when we encounter the same difficulty in later
history. There are also texts which seem at first to suggest either that
a sinful Christian had no hope of salvation or that there was a limit to
the Church's power to forgive.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews (vi 4-6) St. Paul writes: "For
it is impossible for those who were once illuminated, have tasted also
the heavenly gift and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, have
moreover tasted the good word of God and the powers of the world to
come, and are fallen away, to be renewed again to penance, crucifying
again to themselves the Son of God, making him a mockery."
Taken out of its context, this passage does seem to
imply that if a Christian sinned he was finally lost. But in its context
the meaning is clear. The Epistle is written for Jewish Christians to
stress the fact that Christ is the Messiah and that they can look for no
other; if they desert Christ then they cannot expect salvation, for God's
promises have been fulfilled, and to expect another Messiah is to wish
to crucify the Son of God again and to make him a mockery. This is
therefore no difficulty to the doctrine of Penance; it is, indeed, a
part of that doctrine: the sacramental power comes from Christ's
Again, both our Lord and St. John speak of a sin that
shall not be forgiven. Our Lord calls it blasphemy against the Holy
Ghost (Mass. xii 31), and St. John writes of the sin unto death (1 John
v 16). The explanation of these statements removes all difficulty. This
sin has been identified by some as final impenitence, which manifestly
is not forgiven. A fuller explanation is that this sin is the hardening
of the heart against grace, which makes a man refuse to seek pardon.
Such a sinner certainly is not forgiven, for he will not ask. This is
the age-long explanation of the Church's writers, and is consistent with
the scriptural statements. Neither our Lord nor St. John says that the
sin cannot be forgiven, but that it will not be forgiven.
Scriptural evidence therefore shows us clearly that Christ
did indeed institute this Sacrament of Reconciliation which we so deeply
need, and that its nature is what we might have anticipated.
III. THE SACRAMENT IN TRADITION
In discussing this doctrine we cannot neglect its history;
by its development it has become better understood, errors have been
averted, and we have learnt to practice it more frequently and with
- Comparative silence of early centuries
We must first treat of the difficulty we met in
Scripture and find again in later history, that references in the
Sacrament are so vague and so comparatively rare that some misguided
scholars have even denied its Apostolic origin.
Many reasons account for this comparative silence. Of
course, we must not expect modern phrases, such as "going to confession,"
or "saying one's penance." These phrases are merely our way of
describing the practice.
We are somewhat disappointed in the early references to
Penance because we too often do what early Christian writers did not: we
are apt to concentrate on one belief at a time and to forget the
Christian Revelation as one united system. If we remember Christian
teaching on the Church, on salvation, and on membership of the Church,
much apparently vague language of early writers becomes very definite,
teaching that Penance after sin avails for sanctification and procures
for us pardon by authoritative reunion with the Church.
Also the first Christians used Penance less than we do.
It was used mainly for the pardon of grave sins. Consequently, as it did
not figure so frequently in their lives, it did not come into their
minds so readily. The majority of them had been converted from the
horrors of paganism, and their great act of Penance was their
conversion, the passage from vice to virtue. Therefore when they thought
of Penance they thought most readily of their baptism, which had meant
so great a change in their lives.
Again, as the doctrine was not as yet fully developed,
the rites varied considerably from place to place. Consequently the
evidence is not only slight but often confusing. Even on doctrinal
points there were discussions which authority had to settle before we
could hope for uniform evidence.
Two writers at least give us another reason for
primitive silence on this doctrine. Tertullian and the author of the Pastor
both tell us that they were reluctant to mention Penance lest they
should thereby lead converts to minimize the change that ought to have
taken place at Baptism, lest they should even be encouraging Christians
to sin, by showing that after Baptism pardon could still be secured.
We can now turn to the actual evidence. Space forbids a
full survey; we must be content to record the most telling testimony.
- Clement of Rome
St. Clement, Bishop of Rome in the first century, wrote
to the Corinthians about a schism. He stresses the duty of submission to
lawful authority and exhorts sinners to repent.
"You therefore who are responsible for this sedition, be
subject in obedience to the priests, and bending your knees in spirit
receive correction unto penance. . . . It is better for you to be
insignificant and of good fame in the flock of Christ, then to be
rejected for excessive pride from all hope of him" (St. Clement (Pope
92-101), First Epistle to the Corinthians).
It is difficult to see in this anything other than a
statement that after sin submission to the priests unto penance can
secure membership of the Church again, and with it hope of salvation,
whereas a refusal to submit involves the loss of salvation. This is the
Catholic teaching on Penance.
Though second-century authors seem at times to imply
that there is no hope for the sinful Christian, they are in reality
merely repeating St. Paul's teaching to the Hebrews. St. Irenaeus,
moreover, tells of heretics pardoned (St. Irenaeus (c. 140-200), Adversus
Haereses, I and iii), and divides Christians into those who
persevered from the beginning and those who were restored after a fall
by repentance (Ibid. i). Finally, these writers stress the
Christian doctrine of the connection between membership of the Church
and salvation (Cf. St. Ignatius (martyred 107), Letter to the
Philadelphians;l Second Clementine Epistle to Corinthians, c.
150; St. Ireaeus, Adversus Haereses, iv., v. - Note
especially the importance of Christ, and the gravity of apostasy); hence
we know that for them a restoration of membership involved pardon of
- Pastor of Hermas
The two chief witnesses before the controversies of the
third century are the author of the book known as Pastor of
Hermas and Tertullian. The controversies make it certain that the Church
of the third century taught our doctrine of today; Tertullian and the Pastor
show the same for the earlier period.
The Pastor is difficult, for its allegory
obscures its teaching. But the use made of it during the later
controversies, and the very meaning of the allegory show that it teaches
a belief in sacramental absolution for sin. Written in the middle of the
second century at Rome, it is divided into Visions, Commandments, and
Parables. The allegories teach that the Church is an organized society,
membership of which is necessary for salvation. The book itself is
mainly an exhortation to penance, and certain doctrines are plain.
Repentance is open to all and can secure forgiveness; but it is only to
be used once; however, if a man fall again after this his state is not
entirely desperate; Penance is an external rite and results in formal,
external reunion with the Church, and therefore in internal freedom from
guilt; this last point is made abundantly clear by the close parallel
instituted between the unquestionably sacramental baptism and the second
That this interesting allegory may relieve the tedium of
exposition we give short extracts from it.
When the author is shown in vision a tower built upon
water, and the rejection of many stones from the building, he speaks to
the lady who is his guide: " 'And that, Lady, is the use of my seeing
this if I do not understand it?' Replying she said to me, 'You are a
cunning man, wanting to know all about the tower.' 'Yes, Lady,' I said, 'that
I may tell the brethren, and they may be gladdened.' . . . She, however,
said: 'Many indeed will hear, and some will rejoice, but others will
mourn. But even they who mourn will rejoice when they have done penance.
. . . The tower you saw being built is myself, the Church' . . . I asked
her: 'Why is the tower built upon the water, Lady?' She said: '. . .
because your life is saved and will be saved through water. . . . Hear
now about the stones. . . . Those square white stones which fitted so
well are the Apostles, bishops, doctors and deacons, who have lived holy
lives in God. . . . Those which were cast away . . . are those who have
sinned and wish to do penance. And therefore they are not thrown far
outside the tower, for if they do penance they will be useful in
building. . ' So she ended her exposition of the tower. . . . I asked
still more, whether all the stones which were rejected were unsuitable
for the building, or whether there was yet repentance for them, and they
might have a place in the tower. 'They have,' she said, 'and opportunity
for penance, but they cannot be put into this tower; they will be put
into another and much lesser place, after they have suffered and
accomplished the days of their penance'" (Vision III).
Later in the Commandments: " 'Yes still, Sir,' I said, 'I
wish to ask questions.' He replied, 'Speak.' 'I have heard,' I said, '.
. . that there is no other penance save that one when we descend into
the water and receive remission of our earlier sins.' He answered, 'You
have heard rightly . . . for he who receives remission of sins ought not
to sin again, but should remain chaste. Since, however, you ask about
everything carefully, I shall disclose this also to you- not, indeed, to
give temptation thereby to those who . . . have just come to faith in
the Lord. . . . But for those who were called before these days the Lord
has provided penance . . . and to me the power of this penance has been
given. But I say to you that after that great and holy calling (i.e.,
baptism) if anyone . . . should sin, he has one chance of penance. If,
however, he sin again, and does penance, it is useless, for with
difficulty he will have life" ' (Commandment iv 3).
This last sentence needs comment. In the early Church,
as we shall see, sins due to malice were treated more severely than
those due to weakness. Public penance was, as a rule, imposed on grave,
malicious sins, especially if they were public, though there were
exceptions; this public penance could be used once only. There was a
tendency evidently to feel that sin renewed again and again indicated a
lack of sincerity in the repentance, which rendered forgiveness
difficult. Sinners who, after once doing public penance, relapsed into
sins that normally deserved this public penance, were usually not
re-admitted to communion; but they were allowed to assist at worship
within the Church, and their case was not considered desperate.
Occasionally, perhaps, individual bishops would re-admit these sinners
privately, or possibly even publicly; our evidence is, after all,
imperfect. But certainly they were not considered finally lost, and
equally certainly there was no salvation apart from membership of the
Church. This severe practice, however, though perfectly lawful, was
ill-suited to Christian teaching, which gradually reacted against it; in
doctrine it is certain that the Church never taught that a grave sin
after penance was irremissible. This is really the tenor of the Pastor's
teaching here. He is apt to make a sweeping statement that requires
modification, and to add almost at once the modification needed. We have
an example of this at the opening of this quotation. Here at the end is
another. We must therefore understand the word "useless" in the light of
the subsequent phrase, "with difficulty."
In the Parables penance is often mentioned. Thus, the
angel of penance shows Hermas a field. "And he showed me a young
shepherd. . . . And there were many sheep grazing, enjoying themselves
luxuriously and in their joy leaping hither and thither; and the
shepherd was joyful with his flock. . . . and he ran about among his
sheep. . . . 'This,' he said, 'is the angel of luxury and pleasure. He
destroys the souls of the servants of God, turning them from truth,
deceiving them with evil desires in which they perish. . . . For these
therefore there is no penance leading to life; they have added to their
sins and have blasphemed the name of God. Death is the fate of such
sinners. The sheep which you saw standing still are those who have given
themselves indeed to luxuries and to pleasure, but have not blasphemed
against God; . . . for them there is the hope of penance by which they
may live. . . . He showed me a tall shepherd, rough in appearance, with
a knapsack on his shoulder and holding a knotted rod and a great whip.
His appearance was so savage that I was afraid of him. . . . This
shepherd received those sheep who enjoyed themselves in luxury but did
not skip about. And he drove them into a steep and thorny place full of
thistles, so that they were caught by the thorns and thistles. These . .
. being beaten by the shepherd suffered cruel torments. . . . And when I
saw them thus flogged and tortured, I was sorry for them and said: '. .
. Sir, who is this savage and cruel shepherd so pitiless of his sheep?' "This,'
he said, 'is the angel of punishment. . . . When they have suffered
every kind of torture they are handed over to me for admonition, and are
confirmed in the faith, and for the rest of their lives they serve God
with pure hearts'" (Parable VI).
Tertullian's evidence is similar. Before his fall into
heresy he wrote De Paenitentia. In this he treats first of the
virtue of repentance, then of that virtue at baptism. He then explicitly
declares that there is a second penitence which is also the last. He
mentions it reluctantly, "lest by treating of the help of repentance yet
left to us, we may seem to afford opportunity of sinning again" (It is
difficult to give precise references. The book is comparatively short,
and I have summarized long passages with occasional citations). However,
he does mention it, and compares it with Baptism, thus indicating its
sacramental nature. Though he says that penance can be used only once,
he suggests that this was not universally held. "Let nobody therefore
become worse, because God is so good, renewing his sin as often as he is
pardoned. Otherwise he will come to the end of his opportunities for
pardon before coming to an end of his sins." This certainly suggests a
frequently renewed pardon, and in the context a formal pardon.
He asserts even more clearly the existence of this
second repentance. He tells us that having been once saved from
shipwreck we should avoid further danger. But lest Christians should
fall before the devil's attack God has provided other means of
salvation. "God therefore knowing these poisons (I.e., the
poisons of the devil), although the gate of innocence is closed and
bolted by baptism, has yet left somewhere an opening. He has placed in
the vestibule a second penance which will open to those who knock. But
this is one only, for it is the second time. . . . Let the soul be weary
of sinning again, but not of repenting again. . . . Let no one be
ashamed; for renewed ill health there must be renewed medicine."
After this he describes the second penance. "Confession
of sin is as much a relief as concealment is an aggravation of the
burden." The second penance "commands to lie in sackcloth and ashes, to
hide the body in squalor, to abase the mind with sorrow, to accept hard
treatment for the sins committed, to abstain from food and drink, . . .
to throw yourself before the priests, to kneel to those dear to God, to
join the petition of the brethren to his own prayer. All this penance
does . . . that it may, I will not say frustrate eternal punishment by
temporal sorrow, but that now say frustrate eternal punishment by
temporal sorrow, but that it may wipe it out. When, therefore, it abases
a man it raises him up the more; when it accuses him it excuses him;
when it condemns him it absolves him" (The confusion of pronouns is in
This is clearly an external ceremony. Indeed, Turtullian
continues by expressing regret that some from shame avoid confession. He
compares them, as so many other early writers do, to patients ashamed to
disclose secret illnesses to doctors. Then he asks why sinners should
fear to manifest their sins to the brethren who, united in one Spirit
from one Lord and Father, will welcome their sorrow, not mock their
"In each member is the Church, but the Church is Christ.
When, therefore, you throw yourself at the brethren's knees, you are
touching Christ, you are imploring Christ; and when they shed tears over
you it is Christ who suffers, Christ who prays to the Father. . . . Is
it better to be damned in secret than to be absolved in public?"
To encourage confession he insists upon its
"If you shrink from confession think of hell, which
confession will extinguish for you." "Therefore since you know that
after the first protection against hell given by the Lord's baptism,
there is still in confession a second help, why do you defer your
From this we must infer that Tertullian knew of the
existence of the power to forgive sins. He doubted, indeed, whether it
could be used for one person more than once, but he implies that this
doubt penance, like baptism, is an external ecclesiastical rite, and
therefore effective before God. Finally, he expounds the doctrine in its
right setting: the Christian is saved by union with Christ in the
Church; this union is broken by sin, penance restores it, and that
restoration therefore involves absolution, and is indeed effected by it.
Thus Tertullian and the Pastor reach the same
doctrine. It is clear from their testimony that Christians in the second
century believed in the Church's sacramental power to forgive sin. But
they also show that this power was used chiefly for grave sins and that
there was dispute as to its extent, a dispute as yet not authoritatively
settled. In the third century this led to serious controversies, for
which Tertullian himself is one of our main authorities.
- The Montanist heresy
After being so great a Christian champion he was
unhappily misled by the Montanist heresy. This, like so many of the
great heresies, was Puritan and Manichaean in its doctrines. The
frequency with which this Puritan, Manichaean spirit rises against the
Church is in itself an interesting exposition of Catholic belief.
Puritanism, which over-stresses human wickedness, distrusts the goodness
of God's creation, and is therefore excessively hard on the sinner, and
even on innocent worldly pleasures, is inevitably opposed to
Christianity. All Catholic doctrine, being God's revelation, is
consistent; knowing its basic doctrines of the goodness of God, and the
union of Justice and Mercy in the Incarnation and Redemption, we must
expect that the Church would reject any doctrine too harsh towards the
sinner. She is a forgiving Church, because she is the body of the
forgiving Christ, our Savior.
Consequently the Popes of the third century, notably St.
Callixtus, rejected the incipient tendency to severity, and asserted
that pardon of any sin would be given to all who repented. Tertullian,
then a Montanist, attacked him bitterly. He declared that the power to
forgive could be wielded only by spiritual men, and that homicide,
adultery, and idolatry, could not be forgiven at all.
However, the Montanists in their severity were the
innovators, not the Catholics in their lenience. He boasts that he has
advanced and has put away the things of a child. "Even in Christ
knowledge had different ages" (De Pudicitia, i). This statement
again displays a tendency of most heresies, to think that Christ's
Revelation can be altered to suit the times, a tendency to-day called
In his De Pudicitia he tries to demolish the
arguments whereby he had formerly defended Cathollic clemency. His
effort shows us the true meaning of those arguments. It becomes clear
that the Church claimed to forgive sins by the ministry of her
hierarchical officials, and that she claimed to forgive all sins. The
Catholic tradition and development was in favor of lenience and against
excessive severity. Its greatest opponent then proves that the authority
of Rome was conservative, ecclesiastical, and clement.
Another attack on St. Callixtus, however, implies that
he was innovating (St. Hippolytus (fl. c. 200). Philosophumena
is the work here used). This was delivered by that strange St.
Hippolytus, saint, schismatic, even materially heretic, ultimately
martyr, and the first anti-Pope of history. He had been opposed to St.
Callixtus, and afterwards reviled his memory. But his very bitterness
invalidates his testimony. He accuses Callixtus of having encouraged all
sins, even concubinage and infanticide, thus making him responsible for
the misuse that some made of his gentleness. This is the bitterness of a
defeated rival, whose anger has obscured his judgment. He himself mourns
that Callixtus had his followers and drew even good men after him; and
we know that the papal teaching prevailed, even in conservative Rome. We
are forced, then, to conclude, on the evidence of Tertullian, of earlier
and of later history, that the supposed innovation was merely the
rejection of an excessive Puritanism that misguided zealots were trying
Shortly afterwards Novatian, also a schismatic, tried to
revive this severity at least against the sin of apostasy. Though before
his fall he had written to St. Cyprian of Carthage, maintaining the
Catholic tradition, he later reacted against the growing lenience. But
though he succeeded in establishing a party temporarily, the truth was
too strong, and novetianism failed as had Montanism.
With this defeat the existence of the Church's power to
forgive all sins to repentant sinners was clearly established. Whatever
discussions were still possible, whatever rites were actually used, the
existence of the Sacrament of Penance is beyond doubt from the third
century onwards. Gradually lenience increased, the use of the Sacrament
became more frequent, venial sins were more often submitted to the
tribunal, and forgiveness was accorded more easily, and repeated again
and again as often as a sinner repented. But all this development
involved no new doctrine. From now to the Protestant rebellion, the
fundamental doctrine of Penance was not seriously attacked.
Even before the third century it is clear that the
Church's teaching was the same. The very controversies of that century
lose all point if the Church were not then making the claim to forgive
all sins. Of what use also Tertullian's earlier exportations, of what
use the severity described both in the Pastor and by Tertullian,
of what use to question lenience, if sinners could secure forgiveness
without submission to the Church, or if the Church were not claiming to
The evidence of the first three centuries shows that
heresy doubted or minimized the Church's power to forgive sin; Catholic
truth maintained this power in its fullness. As Lactantius at the
opening of the fourth century wrote:
"That is the true Church, in which there is confession
and repentance, which cures effectively the sins and wounds to which
carnal weakness is subject" (Lactantius, writing c. 305, Divinae
Institutiones, iv, 30-36).
IV: THE MATTER OF THE SACRAMENT
- The acts of the penitent
In discussing the sacrament it is convenient to follow
the usual division into Matter and Form. The Matter of a sacrament is
that part of the external sign, which of itself is not fully
significant, but is capable, when defined by the Form, of being a
constituent of the sign.
Usually the "matter" of a sacrament is actually
material. But in Penance this is not so; it is a sacrament that concerns
human acts, and there is no tangible thing in its composition. The
Council of Trent, therefore, using the language of St. Thomas Aquinas,
declared that the acts of the penitent - confession, contrition and
satisfaction- are the quasi-matter of this Sacrament.
The use of this term, which reflects the fact that
Penance has no tangible "matter," has left the way open to dispute. Some
theologians say that the essence of the Sacrament, comprising both
matter and form, is the Absolution, the acts of the penitent being
conditions necessary for validity. The majority, however, hold that the
acts of the penitent are the actual matter of the Sacrament. The dispute
has little importance, for it is certain that that the acts of the
penitent are necessary for the validity of the Sacrament (The chief
importance of the dispute in practice is in connection with the
absolution given to an unconscious man, unable to give external signs of
Before we discuss these acts severally, there are some
general considerations to be made which apply to them all.
Though the acts of the penitent are normally taken to be
the matter, the very sins confessed are clearly connected materially
with the Sacrament, and are essential to it. They are not indeed part of
the sign of forgiveness, but they are indispensable to the sign. They
are therefore usually called the remote matter.
Essential matter must be distinguished from integral.
Essential matter is that without which the Sacrament cannot exist.
Integral matter, though necessary for the perfection of the Sacrament,
and therefore normally even for its validity, is not essential, and may
therefore, provided there are adequate reasons, be lacking without
destroying the Sacrament. Further, since this is a sacrament- i.e.,
an outward sign- the acts of the penitent must have some external
expression. Full external manifestation is integral though not
essential. Thus normally there must be full confession, clear expression
of sorrow and of the readiness to atone. Where circumstances render
these impossible, there must be such external manifestation as is
These general points concern all the acts of the
penitent equally. We must now discuss them severally.
Contrition is obviously necessary. It is shown in
another essay (Essay xxvi, Sin and Repentance) that without sorrow we
cannot expect forgiveness; also that perfect contrition, arriving solely
from love of God's goodness offended by sin, of itself secures pardon,
though it necessarily includes a will to submit to the tribunal of
Penance if this be possible. We need not repeat what has been said there
concerning the qualities necessary for true sorrow.
It is enough here to observe that the imperfect sorrow
called "attrition" is adequate for the purposes of this Sacrament. That
this is a good thing to itself and useful for salvation no Catholic can
doubt, for it has been defined by the Council of Trent. That attrition
is also adequate for Penance is assumed by the Council, and is now
universally held by Christians. If it were not adequate we should be
forced to conclude that the Sacrament never actually produces the effect-
the remission of sin- for which Christ instituted it. For perfect
contrition, as soon as it occurs in the soul, cleanses it from sin.
Though it includes the desire to submit to the Sacrament, it frees from
sin even before that submission. Consequently, if perfect contrition
were the only sorrow adequate for Penance, then absolution would always
be given to souls already pardoned. Thus some other form of sorrow must
Again, the insistence of the Church upon the need for
absolution and the traditional Christian horror of dying without it,
show that absolution can give pardon which could not otherwise be
obtained- i.e., can give pardon even to those who are not capable
of perfect contrition. Thus St. Celestine, writing of refusal to absolve
the dying, says: "What is that practice other than to slay the dying and
to kill the soul must cruelly, if it be not absolved?" (St. Celestine
(Pope 422-432), Epistle, iv) In the words of Duns Scotus, if attrition
be not adequate, "then the Sacrament cannot be the second plank of
safety after shipwreck, since it never frees the shipwrecked from the
peril of drowning" (John Duns Scotus (c. 1270-1308), Comm. In Sent.,
in iv dist. 14, q. 4, n. 6) Attrition, in short, is able to do all that
is required for the sacramental effect- to remove the continued
attachment to sin which is an obstacle to pardon. Therefore, since the
sacraments when administered secure their effect, provided there is no
obstacle to the presence of grace in the soul, attrition is adequate for
The second act of the penitent is confession. Here we
are confronted with certain historical problems, which we have not the
space to treat fully. They are not, however, of such doctrinal
importance as to make this matter for serious regret.
- Secret confession in history
The problem can be summarized:
It is sometimes stated that secret confession is seldom
explicitly mentioned before the fourth century; that in the early Church
public sins were publicly confessed, publicly punished, and publicly
pardoned; that gradually the clergy usurped authority over men's souls
and instituted private confession; that this is unnecessary and
Even if the supposed facts behind this false statement
were true; they would not be incompatible with Catholic doctrine. Our
Lord did, as we have seen, give the Church power the forgive sins by a
judicial process. This makes confession in some way necessary. Even if
at first this confession had been usually public, this would merely mean
that at first the Church used her power in a different manner. Even if
secret sins had not been confessed at all, this would mean that secret
sinners did not avail themselves of that power. Christian doctrine
develops, and the development is sound since it does not destroy what
was formerly believed, nor add new dogmas to those revealed by Christ.
All that development does is to make the Christian Revelation more fully
understood in all its implications, to give to it clearer expression in
order to avert error, and finally to introduce new practical
Even if the Church had at first used public confessions
as a rule, she would be within her rights, as experience showed the
value of private confession, to decide in the interests of penitents
themselves that cases should be heard in camera. Secrecy would
secure candor of confession, and make the use of the Sacrament easier
for Christians. Such a development would not affect Christian doctrine
itself. In fact, it would merely illustrate one Christian belief: that
the sacraments are given to men in their own interests.
Thus the Council of Trent anathematizes anyone who says "that
secret confession to the priest alone, which the Church from the
beginning has always observed and observes, is alien from the
institution and command of Christ and is a human invention" (Sess. XIV,
Canon 6). Christ's words do not indeed mention secrecy, but they involve
confession of sins, and therefore suggest secrecy. For, as Christ did
not impose public confession, it is manifest that if confession is to be
made at all, the Sacrament will be more widely used, Christ's gift will
be the more valuable, if secrecy is preserved. Consequently the Council
does not question the existence of public confessions, but Council does
not question the existence of public confessions, but merely asserts
that the Church did make use of private confession, and that this is
consistent with Christ's institution, and even arises from it.
But although we could therefore admit the supposed fact
of the wide use of public confession in early days, to do so would be
historically unsound. The documents do not show that private confession
was rare, and there are even indications that it was the usual practice.
Certain preliminary considerations help us to interpret
the documents more accurately than is often done.
The word used by early writers which is translated "confession"
usually refers to the whole penitential rite, without specific reference
to the actual confession. This rite certainly was public when considered
as a whole, but that fact tells us nothing of the actual avowal of sins,
which may have been, and probably was, private. To remember this wide
connotation of the word translated "confession" will help us to
interpret many of the apparent references to public confession more
Again, the interest of early writers on Penance is
nearly always about the extent of the power to forgive. Hence they
rarely give us more than a very vague account of the actual rites.
These, moreover, were in their details very varied in the different
churches, and it is therefore difficult to acquire precise knowledge of
Finally, these very controversies on the extent of the
power dhow us that the Church claimed to forgive all sins. But some sins
of their very nature it would be undesirable, and even almost
impossible, to confess publicly. Apart from sins the public avowal of
which might cause grave social difficulties within the particular
Christian community affected, there are, as St. Basil pointed out later,
sins which could hardly be confessed publicly for fear of the secular
law. One of these, be it noted, was a sin which certain heretics
declared the Church could not forgive - homicide. The existence of the
controversy indicates that the Church did forgive this sin, yet it is
difficult to think that it would often be confessed publicly.
When we turn to the documents we find that they do not
force us to set aside this reasoning and accept the theory that
confession was always or even normally public. Even such a description
of the penitential rite as that given by Tertullian and quoted already
does not show that confession as such was public, but merely that the
penitential rite involved public shame. Public penance, and public
absolution, especially in days when penance was normally only used for
grave sins, would certainly do this. The other quotations already given
are capable of the same interpretation, and this interpretation, as we
have seen, is the natural one.
Moreover, there are certain texts that are definitely
more consistent with the practice of private confession than with that
of public detailed avowal of sins. Thus Origen recommends Christians to
consider their choice of confessor carefully, "so that if he should
judge your sin to be such that it ought to be declared and pardoned by
the whole Church" (Origen (185-254), Homily on Psalm 36, ii 6),
the penitent should be willing to submit to his ruling. He also says
that "if we have revealed our sins not only to God but also to those who
can heal our wounds and our sins, then these are remitted" (Homily on
St. Luke xvii). Both these texts, especially the first, imply a
confession, with a view to absolution, made to a priest alone. Certainly
they are more consistent with such a secret confession.
St. Methodius, commenting on the Jewish precept that
lepers should show themselves to the priests, says: "As the ancients
showed themselves to the priests, so do we to the priest" (St. Methodius
(died c. 311), De Lepra, vi). This saying also is surely more
compatible with private consultation than with public confession.
St. Cyprian, when treating of the sin of apostasy,
recommends those who have sinned only in thought to confess with sorrow
to the priests (St. Cyprian (c. 200-258), De Lapsis, xxviii). The
same saint and the Council of Carthage insist, in view of the different
degrees of guilt, on the examination of each case (Epistles, lv,
lvii). Again, such an investigation and the confession even of thoughts
are more suggestive of a private tribunal, especially as the
investigation seems to have had for its purpose to settle whether there
was need of public penance. This we can see at a later period in a
remark of St. Augustine's that some are sinners through weakness, others
through malice; that the first should not be compelled to endure the
grievous and mournful penance, but the others should be made to submit
to it" (St. Augustine; De Diversis Quaestiombus, lxxxiii: xxvi, De
differentia peccatorum). It is clear from this that in the fifth
century, certainly some sinners were absolved without any publicity; but
it also shows us that there was always private confession first, and
then for some people public penance. In the absence of any evidence of
change, and in view of Origen's advice, this surely illustrates the
practice of the third century, where there was also this preliminary
Thus, though the actual documentary evidence is slight,
it does not prove that public confession was the rule, but actually
suggests that a private confession preceded the penitential rites, and
that sometimes, if the judge so decided, a penitent was not subjected to
this grave trial. It would be impossible to maintain that there was an
optional private tribunal for those penitents who did not like the
public shame; it is equally impossible to assert that there was no
private element in early penitential discipline. There was certainly a
practice of consulting priests secretly about sin. This practice, taken
in conjunction with the existence of the power to absolve, and the facts
of human nature, forces us to hold, since no evidence contradicts, that
there was confession, and that not all confession was public.
That this preliminary avowal was a sacramental
confession it seems impossible to deny. The existence of the Sacrament
demands such an avowal; we have it here and it is connected with the
subsequent judgment: absolution or refusal to absolve.
As St. Leo said when condemning a local practice of
enforcing public confession, that practice was against Apostolic
tradition. "It suffices to expose one's guilt to priests alone in secret
confession" (St. Leo, Epistle clxviii 2).
The difficulty that if secret confession were normal it
would be more frequently mentioned, especially by such preachers as St.
John Chrysostom, who devoted much eloquence to the praise of penance, is
a negative argument. As much it cannot stand against positive evidence,
however slight this may be. Moreover, the difficulty is not so great as
it appears. When public penance was the rule, that would be the most
striking feature of the Sacrament; private confession would be
comparatively easy. Consequently, attention was naturally focused on the
severe public discipline. Moreover, Christian writers, to insist upon
the sacramental nature of absolution, usually wrote of the confession as
made to God, in whose name the priest was acting. That St. John is
silent is indeed an example of how faulty such negative arguments are.
For by this time there can be no doubt that private confession existed.
We can only conclude that his silence affords us no evidence at all of
the non-existence of private confession.
- The nature and extent of the obligation
We must now treat of the nature and extent of the
obligation to confess. Obviously, from what has been said, all those in
mortal sin, if they desire pardon, must confess their sins to a priest.
There is also the positive precept of Easter Duties. This was first
issued by the Lateran Council, 1215. Strictly there is no time assigned
for the fulfilment of the obligation. But, as Easter is appointed for
the obligatory annual communion, the confession is conveniently joined
to it. This practice, moreover, the Council of Trent declared, ought to
continue. Since only mortal sins must be submitted to the sacramental
tribunal, this precept does not bind those who are not in mortal sin. We
might add that it is at least more in keeping with Christian duty to
confess any mortal sins as soon as possible after they have been
committed. Only thus can they be remitted, and it is not consistent with
Christian duty voluntarily to remain in mortal sin for any length of
Certain characteristics that confession must have should
be mentioned. It must normally be vocal, and not in writing nor by
signs. This is a positive precept of the Church due to the greater
security vocal confession gives. Also confession must be secret. The
validity of public confession in earlier days is not questioned. But the
practice of the Church, confirmed by experience, has decided against
publicity with its dangers and difficulties.
The most important characteristic of confession is the
need for integrity. This means that mortal sins are necessary matter for
the Sacrament. All must therefore be confessed. In addition, they must
be so confessed that the priest knows exactly what kind of sin has been
committed. Therefore all circumstances which alter the kind of sin must
also be told. Finally, the number of times that each sin has been
committed must be mentioned as far as possible. Venial sins, though not
necessary matter, are sufficient matter. There is therefore no
obligation to confess venial sins, but they can be confessed. Some sin
must be mentioned if the Sacrament is to be conferred. Hence a penitent
who wishes to secure an increase of grace by keeping to his regular
confession, but who has committed no sin that he can remember since his
last confession, must repeat in general terms some sin of his past
already forgiven. Material integrity, however, is not essential; in some
cases this is impossible; the confession must be as complete as
Satisfaction is the last of the penitent's acts. At one
time, as is evident from what has been written, the penances imposed
were very severe. There has been a practical development toward
lenience, and today, as all Catholics know, the penances given are very
slight. Still, as no act of a creature in itself can atone for an
offence against the Creator, the expiatory value of the penance imposed
is not wholly judged by its severity. All satisfactory acts depend for
their value on their union with Christ's atonement. But whereas ordinary
acts depend on the fervor of the agent for the degree of their union
with Christ's merits, the penance given in confession has a sacramental
value which is independent of the devotion of the penitent.
Nevertheless, as modern penances are so slight, it is desirable that
penitents should increase their value by earnestness in their
accomplishment, by other works, and by gaining indulgences (The actual
performance of the penance imposed is not necessary for the validity of
the Sacrament; it is sufficient that at the time of absolution the will
to do the penance be present. But the performance of the penance is an
integral part of the Sacrament, and therefore any penitent who culpably
omitted it would commit a sin).
It is convenient to append here a treatment of
Indulgences, since these concern penance chiefly in that they complement
the sacramental satisfaction.
As few Catholic doctrines are so misunderstood,
sometimes even by Catholics, we must begin with a clear definition.
According to the Catechism, "An Indulgence is a remission, granted by
the Church, of the temporal punishment which often remains due to sin
after its guilt has been forgiven." This, of course, is to be understood
as meaning that the remission avails before God.
Thus an indulgence can never be considered a permission
to commit sin, nor even an encouragement. Anyone who sinned the more
readily because he could so easily get all punishment remitted would be
defeating his own ends: he would not gain the indulgence because of that
very presumption. Finally, an indulgence is not a pardon of sin; that
can be obtained only by the Sacrament of Penance.
- Doctrinal bases
Before discussing Indulgences further, we must expound
shortly the doctrinal bases of the system. Three doctrines are involved,
the Communion of Saints, the existence of a spiritual treasury, and the
power of the keys enjoyed by the Church.
For a full treatment of the first we can refer to the
essay on The Mystical Body of Christ. Here we must be content
with a short summary. The Church is not merely a number of individuals
joined by belief in the same truths, by the practice of the same
worship, and by submission to the same authority. It is this, indeed,
but it is more. It is the Mystical Body of Christ. By his death Christ
made it possible for us to gain that supernatural life of sanctifying
grace whereby "we are made partakers of the Divine Nature." Those who
possess this life are united with each other by their common union with
Christ from whom they all receive it. Thus Christ's merits and
satisfaction are shared by faithful Christians through their union with
Christ in the Church. Further, so close is this bond of union that, as
our Lord said, the Christian Church may be likened to a vine and its
branches. The whole of this body, then, is benefited by the spiritual
health of any one member, as the branches flourish with the vine.
Following on this doctrine of the Communion of Saints is
that of the existence of a spiritual treasury. As in this world any act
results in an indefinite series of effects, so, too, in the supernatural
life any act of virtue once posited must have a value. If it be not
immediately productive of its full effect, it remains, as it were, in
existence, capable of being used so that its full benefit may be
secured. Thus Christ's atonement being infinite is inexhaustible, and
all the sins of the world can be expiated by it. Moreover, the saints
have often made satisfaction in excess of what they require to atone for
their own sins. This satisfactory value of their acts, not being used
for themselves, remains in existence and can be used for others. This is
that spiritual treasury often called the "Treasury of Merits," from
which can be unceasingly drawn satisfaction for the sins of Christians.
Since, as we have seen, the Church has the power of the
keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, this treasury is in her control. She can
therefore draw from it satisfaction which she can apply to the souls of
her members. This is an obvious corollary of the doctrine discussed in
an earlier page. If the Church has the power to loose, surely she is
able to loose from penalty, especially as she has at her disposal
expiatory acts which the solidarity of the Christian Church renders of
value to any Christian to whom they are applied.
If, therefore, we find that the early Church taught and
put into practice these doctrines, then, even though she did not confer
indulgences according to modern forms, the system is none the less
primitive. It is certain that she taught both the Communion of Saints
and her own power to bind and to loose; these points are discussed
elsewhere. Did she use this power to bind and to loose so as to remit
penalties as well as guilt? And if she did, did she do so by applying to
Christians the expiatory merits of Christ and the Saints? If we can
answer these two questions in the affirmative, we show at once that the
system of indulgences is but the practical application of doctrines
contained in Revelation.
We have almost answered our questions by wording them as
we have done. Most certainly the whole penitential system of the Church
was considered to remit partially at least the temporal punishment due
to forgiven sin, and equally certainly it was by the application of
Christ's merits to the individual soul that this was effected. This is
the clear implication of most of our quotations on this subject. Hence
we can conclude that the doctrine that underlie the system of
indulgences were always taught and practiced by the Church.
But the Council of Trent declared not only that the
power to confer indulgences had been bestowed on the Church, but also
that she has always made use of this power (Session XXV, Decretum de
Indulgentiis). Consequently, we might expect to find a clearer use
of this power elsewhere than in the Sacrament alone. We must not,
however, look for modern forms; it is sufficient if we find that the
Church authoritatively remitted penalties in virtue of its control of
the treasury of merits. In the second Epistle of St. Paul to the
Corinthians there is recorded the pardon granted by the Apostle to the
incestuous Corinthian. This is often regarded as the prototype of
indulgences. St. Paul's act does, indeed, show that claim to control sin
and its effects which underlies the whole system, even though we must
acknowledge that to speak of it as an indulgence is somewhat too
But in the first centuries there are examples of
relaxations of ecclesiastical penalties with subsequent readmission to
union with the Church (The most frequent cases were at the moment of
death, the reconciliation of converted heretics, the reconciliation of
penitent clerics. See d'Als, L'Edit de Calliste, pp. 443-449).
As the penalties were considered of effect in the sight of God, and as
admission to communion was thought to imply a full restoration to the
friendship of God, such concessions are truly of the same kind as
indulgences. They were remissions of temporal penalties, valid before
God, made by ecclesiastical authority through the application to the
soul of the merits of Christ.
Though we should hesitate to describe definitely as
indulgences the remission granted through the intercession of martyrs,
yet the "letters of peace," given to a repentant apostate by a martyr
about to die, if accepted by the bishop, are formal applications of the
doctrines by which indulgences are justified. The bishops, by relaxing
at the request of a martyr the penalties imposed by the Church, clearly
implied that they could relax efficaciously the penalties due to sin,
and that they did so because the martyrs, possessed of abundant merits,
implored the favor.
To see that these examples justify us in regarding the
system of indulgences as primitive, we have only to remember the
teaching of the Church on sin, its punishment and its forgiveness.
Christians who sinned, and then in repentance submitted to the judgment
of the Church, were restored to supernatural life, and their penance was
efficacious before God. Hence any dispensation from this penance, which
was accompanied by readmission to the Church, assumes the belief that
the Church could control the penalty due to sin.
After the days of persecution and of primitive severity
rapid development occurred. For various reasons a system of commutation
of ecclesiastical penalties grew up. But the substituted work was in the
circumstances often of less difficulty than the original penalty.
Consequently discussion arose on the propriety of thus easing
satisfaction. In the course of this discussion the power of the Church
to apply the merits of Christ and the Saints began to be more clearly
understood. The Crusades gave impetus to the development. Participation
in them was declared authoritatively to free a man from all the temporal
punishment due to his forgiven sins. Gradually, after the system was in
existence, the doctrinal bases were fully elaborated, and erroneous,
misleading, and insufficient wording was removed.
There were still abuses, however. The wide use of
indulgences in days when there was no printing, no speedy means of
communication, and consequently less efficient central control than
today, was attended with great difficulties. Undoubtedly some bishops
were too lavish, undoubtedly almsgiving was sometimes too prominent
among the works imposed as conditions for the reception of an
indulgence, thus suggesting simony; undoubtedly also there were too many
frauds among the preachers, who often either abused their authority, or
having no authority played upon the credulity of the simple.
One phrase in particular was dangerous: Indulgentia a
poena et culpa ("Indulgence from penalty and from guilt"). To
understand this phrase rightly, we must understand jurisdiction (See
below, p. 982). When an indulgence was granted it was often joined to a "confessional
letter," which entitled recipients to choose as confessor a priest who
had not faculties, or had restricted faculties, and to give him full
faculties in the name of the Church. This phrase was invented to
describe such concessions. Certainly it is liable to abuse, and was at
times abused; but when it occurs officially, as it rarely does, it has
always the sense explained.
As a result of the abuses and partly as a result of the
attacks occasioned by them, the Council of Trent reformed the practical
use of the system, but avoided the Protestant error of condemning the
whole system because of the abuses.
- Kinds and conditions
In modern times, then, the system is as described at the
beginning. The conditions on which an indulgence can be gained are
three. The recipient must be in a state of grace, must have the
intention of gaining the indulgence, and must perform the prescribed
The indulgence, when gained, is gained through the
authority of the Church. It is not the reward of the recipient's virtue,
but a grant by the competent authority. Hence when a living person gains
an indulgence it is by an authoritative act on the part of the Church.
But some indulgences may be applied to the souls in Purgatory. Over
these the Church has not disciplinary authority. Consequently these
indulgences are not applied to the suffering souls by an authoritative
decree, but the Church offers to God expiation from her treasury in the
interests of the soul to whom the indulgence is applied. As this
offering is official and as the expiation offered is from the treasury
of merits, on which only the official Church can draw, and indulgence so
applied is more certain of its effect than our own personal prayers for
the suffering souls.
Finally, there are two kinds of indulgences, plenary and
partial. A plenary indulgence remits all the penalty still due to
forgiven sin. Partial indulgences, which are still conferred in terms of
the former penitential discipline, remit as much of the temporal
punishment due to sin as would have been remitted by the penalty
mentioned in the concession. It is futile to ask how much of the
temporal penalty is therefore remitted: we cannot say definitely. The
remissions are as effective as was the former penitential discipline.
That is all we know. With special indulgences, such as the Portiuncula,
the Jubilee, indulgence in articulo mortis, we cannot deal here.
Thus indulgences, so often misunderstood, are merely
further examples of God's untiring goodness to his children. It is for
us to see to it that we do not, through indifference, fail to secure the
full benefits of membership of the Church so richly endowed.
VI. THE FORM OF THE SACRAMENT AND ITS MINISTER
The form is that part of a sacrament which, added to the
matter, makes up the whole sign, by defining precisely the significance
more generally indicated by the matter.
In penance the form is the absolution uttered by the
priest which gives to the penitent's acts their full significance, by
making it clear that the Sacrament is a judgment, and not mere
humiliation or general petition for forgiveness.
In the Latin Church the full form is:
"May Almighty God have mercy upon thee, and having
forgiven thy sins, may he lead thee to eternal life. Amen.
"May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve thee; and I by his
authority absolve thee from every bond of excommunication (of
suspension) and of interdict, as far as I can and you need. Therefore I
absolve thee from thy sins, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and
of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
"May the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of
the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of all the saints, whatever good thou hast
done, and whatever evil thou hast borne, avail thee for the remission of
sins, the increase of grace, and the reward of eternal life. Amen"
(Actually, of course, the form is in Latin).
However, though this full form is normally obligatory,
it contains much that is not strictly necessary to give sacramental
significance to the matter. Thus for good reasons the first and last
prayers may be omitted, and only the actual absolution uttered. In cases
of extreme necessity there is an even shorter form prescribed, since it
contains all that is required to make the Sacrament.
"I absolve thee from all censures and sins, in the Name
of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen." Though even
shorter forms, such as "I absolve thee from thy sins," would be probably
valid, few occasions would arise to warrant their use.
The form must be spoken by the priest in the presence of
the penitent. To avoid difficulties and abuses, a judgment delivered in
writing or by signs is not normally permitted.
Moreover, the judgment must be definite; its effect must
not be doubtful. Thus conditional absolution is valid only if the
condition is one already fulfilled. But it is only when there is no
possibility of verifying the fulfillment of the condition that a priest
is allowed to use a conditional form.
- The form in early times
The form in the Latin rite is indicative. This is
necessary for validity in the West. An assertion is the most fitting way
in which to pass sentence, and therefore in the West only an indicative
form is allowed.
But in the early Church, and still in Oriental rites,
deprecative forms were, and are, valid and permissible. The priest gave
absolution at one time, and still does in the East, by a supplication to
God to forgive the penitent's sins.
Two difficulties arise from this. It seems at first
strange that an essential part of the Sacrament should be variable. A
sacrament is instituted by our Lord, and its essentials can therefore
surely not be altered even by the Church. Actually, however, nothing
essential has been altered. Our Lord founded this Sacrament as a
judgment, but he said nothing as to the actual form of words to be used
in passing sentence. Indeed, there is even now no set from for retaining
sins by refusing absolution. It is therefore enough that the judgment
should be preserved; over the form of words to be used in delivering
judgment the Church has authority. If the words prescribed by the Church
are compatible with a judicial decision the essence of the Sacrament is
But this seems to make the deprecative forms invalid. A
supplication to God seems hardly consistent with a judicial sentence
passed by the priest. Does any judge pass sentence in an optative form
expressing his hope that the accused be acquitted or condemned by
someone else? No judge is England, for example, ends a trial by saying: "I
trust that His Majesty will agree that you are guilty and that you ought
to go to prison for ten years."
However, such forms are valid, even in earthly
judgments, if they are the recognized mode of judicial decision. It is,
for example, conceivable that the tradition of English justice should
have imposed such a form as that imagined above. If it came at the end
of a trial, after the hearing of evidence, and were the legally admitted
form of passing sentence, it would be a true judgment. In short, the
form of this Sacrament must be indicative in its true meaning in the
circumstances, even though it be deprecative in the apparent meaning
according to a dictionary. It is certain that both in the early Church
and in the East the deprecative forms used are to be understood as
conveying the definitive sentence of the judge. They are therefore
However, the indicative form has this advantage, that it
stresses clearly the judicial authority of the priest, which in the
other forms is obscured by the customary meaning of the words.
- The minister
With the form it is convenient to discuss the minister
who utters it. Any priest and only a priest can be minister of this
Sacrament. It is true that in earlier days bishops were the usual
ministers, but even then priests occasionally dispensed the Sacrament.
Any instances of laymen or of deacons administering this Sacrament are
isolated. They can be explained, when it is a question of genuine
attempt to administer the Sacrament, and not a mere matter of hearing
confessions without attempting to absolve, by a mistaken desire to do
all that was possible for a penitent in the absence of a priest. At no
time has the Church, as such, sanctioned the administration of the
Sacrament by any other than a priest.
But the priesthood alone does not enable a man to
absolve validly. He needs, in addition, jurisdiction from the competent
authority- normally from the bishop of a diocese. To explain this a
parallel is useful. In creating a judge the Government cannot make an
indiscriminate appointment; certain legal qualifications are normally
necessary in the man to be appointed. But even when he is created judge
a man must be assigned a definite area in which to exercise authority,
before he can validly do so. He cannot walk into any court he likes and
decide to try cases there. So with Penance. Only a priest can be
appointed, but when, by his ordination, he has been given the power to
absolve sacramentally, he still needs a further commission before he can
exercise this power even validly. He must have subjects definitely
assigned to him.
This is usually expressed by saying that a priest must
have faculties. If a priest without faculties were to attempt to
absolve, he would not remit the sins. The Church, like the State, can
decide upon what conditions she will permit her judges to pass effective
A priest, therefore, must have received, normally from
the bishop, faculties to administer Penance in his diocese. Outside that
diocese he still indeed has the power, but he cannot exercise it. In a
canonically constituted parish, the parish priest has this jurisdiction
by the very fact of his appointment. Other priests must receive definite
commissions from the bishop. In those houses of religious orders which
are exempt from episcopal control, the superior gives faculties for
hearing the confessions of those under his authority. Of course, the
Pope has full jurisdiction over the whole Church, and can therefore give
faculties for the whole Church.
Historically this need for jurisdiction has always been
realized. In the early Church the bishop, who by his appointment
receives authority, gave the absolutions. As the number of Christians
increased, bishops delegated priests to do a work that had become too
great for the bishops single-handed. During the Middle Ages the Church
was very strict on this matter of jurisdiction; hence arose the
confessional letters which we mentioned in connection with Indulgences.
Finally the Council of Trent definitely taught that both orders and
jurisdiction were necessary for the valid administration of Penance.
There are certain cases where the Church grants general
jurisdiction to any priest. Thus, when circumstances are such that
absolution could not otherwise be given, and is strictly necessary, as
at the moment of death when there is no possibility of securing a priest
with faculties, any priest validly absolves. Also, when there is an
unavoidable and widespread error, so that the faithful are generally and
inculpably receiving absolution from a priest, who in some way lacks
authorization, the Church supplies the necessary jurisdiction.
Connected with the question of jurisdiction is the
practice whereby certain sins are reserved. The authority conferring
jurisdiction may limit it, and withdraw certain sins from the priest's
power. Some of these reservations are made by the general law of the
Church, and the sins are reserved either to the Holy See or to the
bishops. Moreover, bishops within their own dioceses may reserve other
sins to themselves. This means that a priest cannot normally (There are
certain cases in which reservation loses all force, and any confessor
has general faculties; the two most notable are the moment of death, and
when to apply for special faculties would endanger the seal) absolve
from these sins, without first applying for special faculties from the
authority to whom the sins are reserved. Meanwhile the penitent must
wait. The practice is in keeping with the traditional severity of the
Church towards certain sins. It is intended to have a remedial value, by
deterring people from certain very grave sins, especially when there is
danger of their frequent commission. But for the ordinary Christians
reservation has not much practical importance, as the sins reserved are
always very grave and are comparatively few.
- Judge, physician, teacher
As minister the priest has certain duties. He must act
as judge; he must decide whether the penitent is adequately disposed for
absolution; should he, as rarely happens, decide that the penitent is
not so disposed, he must refuse absolution. Though he must not try to
compel a penitent to confess in greater detail than is necessary, as
judge he may ask for necessary information and is entitled to receive
He is also doctor. As doctor it is his duty to do what
seems to him possible to heal the souls of his penitents by
strengthening their wills and helping them to avoid sin. This duty is
particularly pressing with penitents who are habitual sinners. The
priest must, of course, proceed with prudence, but he would be wrong to
neglect this duty altogether.
Finally, he is a teacher. The intimacy of confession may
disclose ignorance in his penitents which it is his duty to remove. This
is particularly true when the penitents are young or illiterate.
- The seal of the confessional
There remains to be discussed the grave obligation of
preserving the secrecy of confession; "keeping the seal," as it is
usually termed. The priest cannot, without the gravest sin, make any use
of confessional knowledge to the detriment of the penitent, however
slightly, nor in such a way as to risk discrediting the Sacrament. He
should therefore not normally use his knowledge even to the penitent's
advantage, as this might be misunderstood and might cause Christians to
hesitate to use the Sacrament.
In practice, the observance of the seal has been
remarkable. There are few cases recorded of direct breach. Even of
indirect breach- i.e., a disclosure of confessional knowledge,
not by explicit statement, but through carelessness and by inference-
there are not many examples. The observance is indeed strangely easy.
Gradually the priest seems to acquire two distinct mental sections, the
confessional and the non-confessional, and it becomes easy to keep the
two apart. Moreover, even if a priest wished, he would often find it
difficult to break the seal. To the penitent his confession is the only
one; to the priest it is but one of hundreds heard in the dark, through
a grating, and in a whisper. Normally it is difficult to remember
anything clearly, or to connect anything remembered with any definite
The strictness of this secrecy has, of course,
developed, but secrecy is of divine imposition, for it arises out of the
words of institution. There were indeed difficulties in the early
Church. The extent and the strictness of the obligation at first were
not always so clearly understood as today. Though confession was secret,
penance was public; as the Sacrament was used only for grave sins,
submission to it involved the public acknowledgement of the commission
of a grave sin, even though that were not specifically told.
Still, the manner in which confession was made,
injunctions such as those quoted from Origen on the choice of confessor,
comparisons of confession to medical consultation, the manner in which
early writers such as St. John Chrysostom always talk of confession as
made to God alone, all point to the recognition of the need of secrecy.
St. Leo gives us a summary of the traditional teaching:
"I decide also that the breach of apostolic rule which I
learn lately some have dared to commit should be entirely suppressed; I
mean that in penance, which is demanded by the faithful, the written
confession of their sins should not be recited publicly, since it is
sufficient that these manifestations of guilt in conscience should be
made to priests only in secret confession. . . . For then, indeed, many
can be excited to penance, if the conscience of the penitent be not
published to the ears of the people" (St. Leo, Epistle, clxviii
Thus St. Leo gives us nor only the existence of the
seal, but one reason for it, that without it Christians would be
reluctant to use this Sacrament so necessary for their salvation.
During the Middle Ages the duty of secrecy was clearly
recognized. But theologians did discuss its extent. The strictness of
the obligation, however, was so fully appreciated that Lanfranc- though
wrongly- advocated confession to a cleric not a priest, if confession to
a priest involved danger of the breach of the seal (Lanfranc, Archbishop
of Canterbury (1070-1089), De Celana Confessione).
At length in the seventeenth century Innocent XI ended
all possible dispute. He condemned the proposition that confessional
knowledge could be used to the detriment of the penitent, even though
there was no revelation of sin, and though the non-use of confessional
knowledge would be more to the detriment of the penitent than its use.
Thus today the obligation of the seal is as strict as it can be. Even
reservation is removed if the priest deems it impossible to apply for
faculties without danger of breach of the seal; the Church accords him
general faculties in these circumstances. A priest, then, can in no way
use his confessional knowledge outside confession to the harm of the
penitent or the discredit of the Sacrament.
The gravity of this obligation does not arise merely
from the natural duty of secrecy concerning solemn confidences. Doctors
and lawyers are bound to secrecy by ordinary natural law. The priest is
bound, in addition, by the positive revealed law of Christ, though the
exact basis in revelation is disputed. Here we may add to the reason
given by St. Leo this further consideration, that the priest in
confession has the grave responsibility of acting in God's name. He is
there not as man merely, but as God's representative. And he must not
betray the secrets of God. Hence this obligation is so strict that
nothing can destroy it. No advantage for any man, no law of any state,
no command from any superior, even the Pope, no evil to be averted, not
death itself, can ever justify a priest breaking the seal of confession.
VII. THE EFFECTS AND USE OF THE SACRAMENT
It is clear from what has been said that the chief
effect of this Sacrament is the remission of mortal sin, and the
consequent restoration to the soul of sanctifying grace, lost by grave
sin. For a treatment of what this means to the soul we must refer to the
relevant essays in this work (Cf. Sanctifying Grace, The Supernatural
Virtues, Man and his Destiny, Sin and Repentance, Eternal Punishment,
and Heaven, in particular).
As a further consequence of the remission of mortal sin,
eternal punishment is necessarily remitted also; for this is closely
connected with sin as its inevitable sequel (Cf. p. 931). A soul from
which sin has been removed cannot therefore be under sentence of eternal
punishment. This, though not expressly defined, is certain Catholic
doctrine, and is assumed by the Council of Trent.
Eternal punishment follows from mortal sin inevitably.
But even when the sin has been forgiven there remains a debt of temporal
punishment which must be paid to restore right order upset by sin. This
temporal punishment is not necessarily entirely remitted by the
Sacrament. We have incurred it through our own fault, and it is but
just, after God's exceeding mercy in remitting our sin and its eternal
punishment, that we should in some way atone for our guilt. But the
Sacrament does lessen the amount of punishment due to us. It applies
Christ's merits to our souls, and therefore the performance of
satisfactory acts as part of the Sacrament has a greater effect than the
same acts would have independently thereof. But as even these could
lessen the temporal punishment due to us, clearly the sacramental
satisfaction can lessen this punishment even more effectively.
Since, however, any mortal sin is incompatible with the
presence of grace in our souls, one mortal sin cannot be remitted while
others are retained. Consequently if a man has committed more than one
grave sin, he must be sorry for all, before he can be pardoned.
Venial sin also can be forgiven sacramentally, as we
have already seen in the course of this essay. But venial sin does not
destroy the life of grace. Therefore it is possible for us to be
pardoned for our mortal sins, and to be restored to supernatural life
even though no venial sin be remitted. Hence this Sacrament forgives
those venial sins for which the penitent is sorry, and only those.
With the restoration and strengthening of the life of
grace there is restored and strengthened all that accompanies that life.
Thus those supernatural virtues (Cf. Essay xviii, The
Supernatural Virtue, pp. 640-641) which have been lost by sin are
restored to us by this Sacrament, and are even strengthened. Also the
merits which we formally possessed and which we forfeited by our sin,
are given back to us, at least in some measure, by the sacramental
These are the necessary sacramental effects. It is
possible, however, for subjective dispositions to modify these effects,
though, as long as we are not interposing obstacles to grace, mere lack
of fervor cannot prevent them altogether. But intensity of devotion can
increase them. Hence the extent to which temporal punishment is
remitted, grace strengthened in us, our merits restored to us, is
determined partly by the earnestness with which we receive the
- Practical use of the Sacrament
So important is this Sacrament in the lives of
Christians that some practical advice seems desirable as a complement to
a doctrinal treatise. We have to use our knowledge to guide our actions.
One grave danger must first be mentioned. The practicing
Catholic receives this Sacrament so often that he is sometimes apt to
forget that it is a Sacrament, a momentous event in his life. For those
in mortal sin, confession is like a new baptism, as we have seen the
Fathers of the Church insisting. We should therefore remind ourselves of
this and strive to make our confessions the notable occurrence they
should be. In them we are receiving pardon for mortal sin, then nothing
in our lives save baptism is of equal importance. For those in mortal
sin confession is even of greater immediate necessity than the Sacrament
of the Eucharist.
Since this is so, and since many of the effects of the
Sacrament are increased by fervor, we should try to be as fervent in its
reception as possible. It not merely forgives our sins, it also gives
strength to resist sin in future. Penitents, however, who are struggling
against some habit of sin, often fail to secure the full benefit of
their confessions, because they do not make effort enough when they
receive the Sacrament.
To secure this fervor we should remember that this is a
Sacrament of sorrow. Our preparation should largely consist in an effort
to arouse in ourselves deep and true sorrow. In our examination of
conscience we should avoid excessive introspection; if we are
frequenting the Sacraments regularly, serious sin will come to our minds
easily, and if we have to search with notable diligence, it is
reasonably certain that the deliberation in our acts was so slight as to
deprive them of all gravity. But having found our sins we should dwell
almost fiercely of even the slightest venial sin, on its ingratitude to
God, who gave us the very powers we use in sinning and who keeps us in
existence while we sins, and above all on the Passion of our Lord,
endured because of sin. This should be the chief part of our preparation
if we are to receive the full benefit of this Sacrament. Our very
resolution against sin is rendered far stronger, if we have, though only
for a time, felt real sorrow for our sins and a genuine detestation of
In confession, again, we should be humble, inspired
thereto by our sorrow, anxious to disclose fully and truthfully our
shame as a punishment for the foul guilt we so deeply regret.
Our thanksgiving and our satisfaction, too, ought to be
quickened by this same contrition. We should feel intense gratitude to
God for his goodness in thus enabling us to be free from the shame of
sin. We should say our penance with real earnestness, only sorry that it
is so slight, and that of ourselves we can do nothing to atone for the
sins for which we are now so repentant.
A confession so made will have permanent effect,
especially if we frequent the Sacrament regularly as we should do. It is
a good practice to go to confession once a week, for thus we receive
regularly an increase of grace to strengthen us against sin, and form
gradually a habit resistance to sin, by frequently renewing our sorrow
for it, and our detestation of it. Even, therefore, if we should be so
fortunate as not to have fallen since our last confession, yet we should
go at the usual time and renew the confession of past sins, and sorrow
To secure more fully the benefits of the Sacrament,
Origen's advice is important: to choose our confessor carefully. Regular
guidance is useful to the soul. A doctor, for complete efficiency, needs
to know the medical history of his patient, and the circumstances of his
life that may affect his health; so, too, the priest can help us better
the more he knows of our spiritual history and of the circumstances of
our life that may affect our spiritual wellbeing.
In choosing this confessor we should be guided by
spiritual motives. He should be a man we find sympathetic and
spiritually helpful. Normally one who knows us outside confession is
able to be of more use to us than a stranger. He knows our lives, our
circumstances, our difficulties, very fully, has no need to ask many
questions, and is less likely to be ignorant of some fact, perhaps
important, that we overlook through a failure to realize its importance.
Of course, if our regular confessor be not available and we have urgent
need of absolution we should go to any priest who is at hand; it would
be foolish, because of the absence of any one man, to remain longer in
mortal sin than is necessary.
Having chosen a confessor, we should help him by asking
for guidance if we need it. Otherwise he may be hampered by fear of
intruding on a soul, and perhaps doing harm by offending his penitent.
We must remember, above all, that this is a Sacrament,
and an astounding proof of God's great goodness. If it did not exist, we
should earnestly desire it. God in his goodness has given it to us. To
fail to use this gift, then, or to use it carelessly, is to add to our
other sins the crime of black ingratitude to God for the immense favor
he has bestowed upon us.