Sacrament of Penance

A sacrament of the New Law, instituted by Christ, for the remission of sins committed after Baptism. Implied in the right of “binding and loosing” promised by Christ to the rulers of His Church (Matthew 16:18), the power to forgive sins was unequivocally granted to the Apostles, and consequently to their successors, since the Church is permanent and unchangeable; it was thus granted by the words of Christ to the Apostolic college on the day of His Resurrection: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” (John 20). The fact that Our Lord empowered His earthly representatives with authority not only to forgive but also to retain sins proves, in the first place, that He willed the exercise of this power to be a judicial process, in which the minister is to judge who are worthy, and who are unworthy, of forgiveness. Secondly, it shows that the forgiveness of sins by the use of this power is effected through an external rite or sacrament, since it is only by external communication between judge and culprit that a judicial process can be conducted among human beings. Thirdly, it demonstrates that this sacrament is necessary for the remission of those sins that come under its province; for the power to retain would be useless if the sinner could obtain the full pardon of his transgressions independently of this sacrament. However, from other sources we know that the strict necessity of this sacrament, Penance, as it has been called for many centuries, applies to mortal sins only, and venial sins can be forgiven without recourse to the sacramental tribunal. Moreover, Catholic doctrine teaches that the actual reception of Penance is strictly necessary for judicial forgiveness, and although mortal sins can be taken from the soul by an act of perfect contrition this contrition must imply the intention of submitting them to the sacramental tribunal at the nearest opportunity.

From the notion of Penance proposed in Sacred Scripture and interpreted by tradition and by the practise of the Church, theologians deduce the constitutive elements of this sacrament. The remote matter is sins committed after Baptism, for the judicial character of Penance limits its scope to transgressions committed by those who are subject to the jurisdiction of the Church. The proximate matter is commonly held to be the three acts of the penitent, confession, contrition, and satisfaction. Confession and contrition are essential; the former, because the judicial nature of this sacrament requires that the case being tried should be manifested to the judge; the latter because no sin is forgiven by God unless the sinner be repentant. However, for a worthy reception of Penance, attrition (imperfect contrition) is sufficient. Contrition, of course, implies the purpose of avoiding sin and amendment of one’s evil ways. Satisfaction, or the sacramental penance, since it is directed to the remission, not of sin, but of the temporal punishment remaining after the forgiveness of sin, is only an integral part, i.e., it is required for the perfection, but not for the essential constitution of the sacrament. Hence, the penance may be performed after the sacrament has been conferred, as is the custom nowadays. For the same reason, in certain circumstances, e.g., when the penitent is dying, the priest may refrain from imposing any penance. Finally, the form of Penance is the priest’s absolution. Besides the power of the priesthood, the minister of Penance must possess sacramental jurisdiction over the penitent, for in every judicial process the judge must be invested with authority over the culprit. Jurisdiction is ordinary if it is annexed by law to the minister’s office, delegated if it is deputed to his person by a superior. Penance can be received by any person who has committed sin, whether mortal or venial, after Baptism. Sins forgiven in a previous confession may be made again the matter of absolution, since the soul can always receive the grace which would remit such sins if they were still present. The principal effect of a worthy reception of Penance is the forgiveness of sin by the infusion of sanctifying grace. Being primarily ordained to take away mortal sin and to restore the life of grace to those who are spiritually dead, Penance is a sacrament of the dead. Those who are in the state of grace when they approach the sacred tribunal receive therefrom an increase of sanctifying grace. Penance also confers a claim to actual graces necessary to retain God’s friendship; frequently, too, it gives peace of conscience and joy of spirit. The faithful, if they are conscious of any mortal sin not yet properly confessed and forgiven, are obliged to receive the sacrament of Penance at least once a year; also, when in danger of death, and when they wish to receive Holy Communion.