Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

The MOST Theological Collection: A Basic Catholic Catechism

"Part XIV: The Sacrament of Penance"


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1. Institution, and History of the Sacrament

The first gift Jesus gave to His Apostles assembled on the first Easter evening was this great Sacrament. He gave it so soon, as if eager to provide so great a means of giving out the forgiveness He had just so painfully earned for all: "Jesus came and stood in their midst and said: 'Peace be to you'. And saying this He showed them His hands and His side... 'as the Father has sent me, I also send you'. And saying this He breathed on them and said to them: 'Receive the Holy Spirit: Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained'" (John 20:19-23).

All Bishops and Priests have this power. Since the absolution has the nature of a juridical act, the Church can reserve the right to determine when a priest may have jurisdiction to use this power. But today the Church gives this jurisdiction to all priests who have received "faculties", i.e., jurisdiction, from their own Bishop, to be used anywhere in the world.

Since our Lord gave the power to both forgive and to retain sins, it is evident the Bishop or Priest must know what sins there are: hence the obligation of confession of all mortal sins committed since Baptism or since the last confession. The Council of Trent in 1551 defined (Canon 7 on Penance) this need of confession. If the penitent were to deliberately hold back even one mortal sin, there would be no forgiveness, but instead, a sacrilege, another mortal sin.

At the Last Supper, Our Lord promised to send the Holy Spirit to lead the Church into all truth (John 16:13; 14:26).

As a result not all things were perfectly clear at the start: some, such as the Immaculate Conception, had to slowly mature in the understanding of the Church, as guided by that Holy Spirit.

The first clear mention of the use of the Sacrament of Penance comes in The Shepherd, by Hermas, brother of Pope St. Pius I (140-150). This work seems to have been started in the 90s, finished only during the time of Pius I. Of course the Sacrament was in use before that - and we do have less clear earlier mentions that may refer to it, e. g, Pope Clement I, writing to Corinth in about 95 AD says (6:8): "It is good for one to confess his sins, rather than to harden his heart."

The first mentions of the Sacrament seem to view a public use of it. This does not mean a person confessed his sins in public, but the penance, long and severe, was publicly known. But a private use of the Sacrament for lesser things - probably anything but the "big three", murder, apostasy adultery - seems to have been in use very early. In his work On Modesty (18:8), Tertullian, writing between 213 and 223, speaks of a penitence "which can obtain pardon for lesser faults from the bishop." In the next chapter (19:24-26) he mentions some of the lesser faults: unjust anger, cursing or swearing rashly, violating a contract, lying etc. Similarly St. Cyprian of Carthage in his Epistle 10, written about 150 AD, mentions that "in lesser sins, sinners do penance for a fixed time, and... come to confession, and through the imposition of the hands of the bishop and clergy receive the right of communion." In his work On the Lapsed (28) he speaks of mere sins of thinking of denying Christ, and then "confessing this very thing before the priests of God."

People then seem to have grasped the need of much penance to insure sincerity of change of heart , and to really make up for sins. They seem not to have realized the possible use of the Sacrament for spiritual growth, by frequent confession. Today things seem reversed, we understand the former less, the latter more.

In the first centuries, Baptism was often called the seal (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:22), which meant that God by Baptism marked a soul as His property - the seal should never be broken, by any sin at all. Hence the ideal of not even needing the Sacrament of Penance. Thus in The Shepherd of Hermas the vision says (Mandates 4. 3. 2): "He who has received forgiveness of sins [in Baptism] should never sin again, but remain in purity."

2. Requirements for the penitent

All mortal sins committed after Baptism must be confessed, giving the number of times and circumstances that substantially alter the matter. It is not required to confess venial sins, yet it is to be encouraged. For the sacramental grace of this Sacrament gives a special claim to helps, at times when they are needed, to stay out of the sins that were confessed.

However, doubtful mortal sins need not be confessed, though it is strongly recommended that lax persons confess them. It is good for anyone to confess them, as doubtful, unless one is scrupulous.

It is a very good practice especially when one has not much to confess, to add at the end something like this: I wish to include also the sins of the past against commandment X or virtue X. This tells God we still wish we had not offended Him, and gives us a special title to graces to help keep out of the same things in the future.

The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 decreed that children should receive the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Eucharist when they reached the age of reason.

Because of the great reverence due to the Holy Eucharist, the Church requires that if one has sinned mortally, the state of grace must be regained through the Sacrament of Penance, even though perfect contrition can actually restore it. Perfect contrition means one looks back on the sin, sees it differently, sees that it is really wrong, says he wishes he had not done that against God who is so good in Himself - not just that He is good to us, though that is of course also true.

There is an emergency case, which happens more readily today than in the past, if someone by social pressure must go to Mass and Holy Communion - for everyone seems to go at every Mass - but yet has committed a mortal sin, perhaps during the night, and has no opportunity for confession before receiving. That one may receive on the strength of such an act of perfect contrition, but with the obligation of getting to confession as soon as reasonably possible. Even the old theologians before Vatican II admitted this, and would say that if a person would spend a bit of time, perhaps even as little as 5 clock minutes, in quiet and trying to think of the motives for perfect contrition, it would be legitimate to assume the effort was successful.

Attrition, that is a sorrow based on something less than what was described for perfect contrition, can suffice for the Sacrament. This means sorrow out of fear of His just punishment -not just out of servile fear of hell - and because God is good to us.

Outside of very special cases confession must be individual. However before battle in war, and at times when there is real need to absolve a large group, and there is no time to hear each one separately, general absolution may be given. But the obligation to confess individually later remains for those persons.

After absolution, the penitent must say or do the penance given. To omit it deliberately after a mortal sin is gravely wrong. If one forgets, he should ask again if possible. If not possible, it would be sufficient to do what was most likely the penance given.

Even after doing the penance, usually there will be temporal punishment left over. It is good for the person to voluntarily try to do something for this. We recall that in the early centuries the Church made really large penances mandatory. Now the Church leaves it up to us to do enough. Many probably do not do much. When the dispensation for Friday abstinence was given, the document reminded us that the Church cannot dispense from the divine obligation of penance, and therefore said, that if one uses that dispensation, he/she must do something equivalent.

The priest who hears a confession - and anyone who by chance happens to overhear - is bound by the seal of confession, the most stringent kind of obligation. No reason whatsoever would ever justify revealing anything covered by it.

3. Indulgences

As we said earlier, the Church is led by the Holy Spirit over the centuries to an ever deepening penetration of the original deposit of faith. It is quite clear in the New Testament that, in view of the union of the Mystical Body, one can make up for another. St. Paul in Colossians 1:24 says he is filling up in his own body that which is lacking to the sufferings of Christ for His body, the Church. Of course, Christ the Head lacked nothing in suffering; but His members may fail to do their part. Paul, and others, can make up.

But it seems it took the Church some time to go further , so as to see that the Church has the keys to a great treasury, as it were, of merits and satisfactions from Christ and our Lady and the Saints, which can be given out by what we call indulgences. Of course, these are not permission to sin, as the Protestants used to charge (in spite of Luther's famed dictum in Epistle 501: "Even if you sin greatly believe still more greatly.")

Around 250 A.D. when the Church's requirements for penances for sins were still great, many were in prison who had confessed their faith in the Roman courts while their friends outside were under the obligation of long penances. Some of those in prison began to write letters to St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, saying in effect: I wish to offer my sufferings for the sins of this friend of mine. Please relax his penance. St. Cyprian began to realize this could be done, and so helped the whole Church to see the possibilities.

A plenary indulgence if fully gained gives complete freedom from the penalties left over from sins. A partial indulgences does less.

The conditions for gaining a plenary indulgence are very great. One requirement is that the one who does the good work be free from all attachment to any sin at all, even venial sin. Then the person must confess and receive Holy Communion and pray for the intentions of the Holy Father. Confession might be made within about a week before or after the time the prescribed work is done. Holy Communion should be on the same day as the good work.

The prayers for the Holy Father should be at very least one Our Father and Hail Mary, or equivalents. If the good work called for is a visit to a church, one must say at least an Our Father and the Apostles' or Nicene Creed in addition.

If a plenary indulgence is not gained fully, there will still be a partial indulgence.

Plenary indulgences can be gained only once a day, except for the plenary indulgence at the moment of death.

The Church grants a plenary indulgence at the moment of death even if a priest is not available if the person is in the state of grace, has been in the habit of reciting some prayers during his life, and has the intention of gaining it.

However, the authority of the Church over souls ends with death, and so plenary indulgences gained for particular souls in purgatory are left to God's decision.

In a partial indulgence instead of mentioning so many years etc. as formerly, the Church now says in effect: Whatever value your good work would have without an indulgence, we now double, by giving an indulgence to it.

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