Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Father William Most Collection

Sacrament of Penance

[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]

The Three Synoptics describe how Jesus first forgave the sins of a paralytic let down through the roof, then cured his bodily illness. The scribes who were present complained within themselves, saying that only God can forgive sins. Yet, Jesus proved He had forgiven by working that cure.

That which people used to think could be done only by God Himself, can now be done by the priests. Jesus on His very first visit to the Apostles in Jerusalem (John 20-22-23) gave His Apostles this stupendous power to forgive sins. He did it on His very first visit, as if He could hardly wait to give out that forgiveness for which He had just paid so terrible a price in His passion.

Protestants say He did not give the Apostles such a power - He told them to preach that God would forgive their sins in justification by faith. But that is not at all the normal meaning of the words. For Jesus said: "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven then." The apostles were to forgive, not to merely announce God would forgive.

Further, part of this process needs to be confession of at least mortal sins. How else could an Apostle or priest know what or whether to forgive without being told the sins? Priests would never have invented such a thing, for hearing confessions is a difficult and not pleasant task.

At the last Supper, Jesus had promised to send the Holy Spirit, to lead them into all truth (John 16:13 cf. 14:26). This did not mean new public revelations (cf. DV ยง4). It meant that over the centuries the Holy Spirit would lead the Church to an ever deeper penetration into the deposit of faith once given. So as a result even though there was no explicit mention of the Immaculate Conception in the first centuries, yet it was defined in 1854. And the Assumption was defined in 1950.

In view of this gradual penetration into truth, it is not strange if the Church did not at first realize everything about the Sacrament of Penance. Look how slow Peter was, in Acts 10, to see He must admit gentiles into the Church, even though Jesus had told Him: "Go and make disciples of all nations" (Mt. 28:19).

So we do not at first meet clear mentions of the Sacrament of Penance. This does not mean it was not used, it only means we do not happen to have any record of it. Had it been suddenly invented later, there would have been an uproar, such as came when new heresies developed. But there is no such thing.

In the Didache, dating perhaps to about 140 A.D., we meet these words (14:1): "On the Lord's day, gather together, break bread and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so your sacrifice may be pure." So: Did they hear Confessions before Mass on each Sunday? Not so likely. This probably meant a sort of liturgical confession, like our Confiteor. When we first meet fully clear mentions of this Sacrament, the process is very long and difficult, hardly to be a routine before Mass.

There is another text like this in the Epistle of Pope Clement I, sent to Corinth, probably around 95 A.D. (51:1): "It is good for a man to confess his failings rather than to harden his heart." This probably expresses a general disposition to admit failings and not become hard.

But something entirely clear appears in the work called the Shepherd, by Hermas. This Hermas was a brother of Pope Pius I (140-150). Yet Hermas mentions that the vision told him to make a copy and give it to Clement - who is most likely Pope Clement I, elected probably 88 or 92, though some would make it a decade earlier.

Early in this work, Hermas has a vision of an old woman, who stands for the Church. But in most of the work he tells of seeing the angel of the Sacrament of Penance. In Mandates 4. 3. 1 we read this remarkable passage, in which Hermas speaks to the angel, and the angel replies. Hermas says: "Sir, I have heard from some teachers that there is no other repentance but that which happened when we went down into the water and obtained the remission of our former sins." Then the angel replied: "You have heard correctly, for it is so. One who has received remission of sins should never sin again , but live in purity."

This of course refers to baptism. But it is puzzling to hear there is no other means of forgiveness, especially since the angel goes right on and explains that there is one: "But since you question carefully about everything, I will explain this too to you, without giving any inducement to those who in the future come to faith, or those who already believe. Those who already believe, or who will believe in the future, have no repentance for sins, but they do have the remission of their former sins. But the Lord appointed a repentance for those who were called before these days. For the Lord knows the heart, and since He knew all things in advance, He knew the weakness of man, and the subtlety of the devil. The Lord, then, being compassionate, acted kindly with His creation, and established this repentance. And control of it was given to me. But I say to you, after this great and holy calling, if a man be tempted by the devil and sin, he has one repentance. But if he sins and repents repeatedly -- repentance is of little value to him, and will difficulty will he live."

The language is surely puzzling. First the angel says there is only one means, Baptism. But right away he admits there is another, the Sacrament of Penance. Yet he seems to say it can be used only by those who were called to the faith long ago. But there seems to be no means of repentance for others.

Commentators think the language is deliberately slanted for psychological reasons. The author wants to make it appear first, that there is no other sacrament, then, admitting there is, he seems to limit its use very greatly. The purpose was to deter anyone from freely breaking the seal. For by Baptism we are sealed as God's property and, no one should ever break that seal.

An extreme stress on that seal is seen in Tertullian, On Baptism 18. 4: (between 200 and 206 AD) "For no less reason the unmarried should put off [Baptism], for in them there is an aptness to temptation --in virgins because of their ripeness, as also in the widowed on account of their freedom - until either they are married, or are made stronger for continence. One who understands the seriousness of Baptism will fear to receive it more than to defer it."

We need to know that there was a big three then: murder, adultery, and apostasy. Some extremists said that these could not be forgiven by the Bishop or Priest. Tertullian, after becoming a heretical Montanist, in his De pudicitia 18. 18 (RJ 386 -dated 213-23) wrote: "But if the clemency of God is open yet to those who are ignorant [of Him] and infidels, surely also penitence invites clemency to itself, that kind of penitence being still on hand after believing [after Baptism] which can obtain pardon for [relatively] lesser faults from the Bishop, or for greater and unforgivable ones from God alone."

Yet in the same work, in 19. 24-25 Tertullian clearly implies confession for many lesser sins: "For to whom does it not happen that he is unjustly angry, and beyond the setting of the sun, or that he lays violent hands [on someone] or that he easily curses or swears rashly, or violates the faith of a contract, or that he lies out of shame or necessity. In businesses, in duties, in making money, in manner of living, in looking, in hearing - what great temptations! So that if there be no pardon for these things, salvation would be open to no one."

But earlier, before he became a heretic, in his work De paenitentia 4 (RJ 312): Tertullian said: "For all sins, then, whether of the flesh or the spirit, whether committed in act or [only] in will, He who destined punishment by judgment, also promised pardon for penance... . God then, foreseeing his [the devil's] poison, though the door of forgiveness and intinction has been closed and fastened, He allowed something to yet be open. For he placed in the vestibule a second penance, which is open to those who knock, but once, since it is already the second time."

We gather then that at one time Tertullian did believe in the Sacrament of Penance, and did not rule out the use of it even for the big three. There seems to have been confession for lesser things, for he spoke of sins committed only in will and not in action, that is, only by forming an intention to sin, without carrying it out.

This agrees with the words of St. Cyprian c. 250 (RJ 569): "In lesser sins, sinners do penance for the fixed time, and according to the order of discipline, come to confession and, through the imposition of the hands of the Bishop and clergy receive the right of communion."

Tertullian in De paenitentia 7. 13 at least hints the sacrament could be used more than once: "Let it be irksome to sin again, but let it not be irksome to repent again. Let it be irksome to be in danger again, but not to be freed again."

Tertullian, De pudicitia (dated 213 to 223 -- he was then a heretical Montanist). In this work, in section 1, he [now a heretic] ridicules the "peremptory" edict of the "Bishop of Bishops" who says he can remit the sins of adultery and fornication. This may mean Pope Callistus - debated.

St Cyprian, On the Lapsed [in persecution] 251 AD: "Then how much greater and better the fear of those who though bound by no guilt of sacrifice or certificate, yet, since they have even thought of doing this, sorrowfully and simply confessing this very thing before the priests of God, make their confession of conscience."

COMMENT: This is the persecution of Decius, who ordered all to have a certificate saying they had sacrificed. Some bought these, but then, showing them, was a denial of Christ. Here Cyprian speaks of those who had not done either thing, but only considered it, but yet came to confession for the sin of thought.

Origen, On Leviticus 14. after 244 AD: "There is always an opening for recovery when, for example, some mortal guilt [culpa mortalis] has found us out that does not consist in mortal crime [crimen mortale] like blaspheming the faith, but in some vice of speech or habit... . Such guilt can always be repaired, and penance is never denied for sins of this kind. In the case of the graver crimes, only once is there given place for penitence; but these common things, which we frequently incur, always admit of penance, and without intermission they are redeemed."

COMMENT: Origen speaks of mortal sins that are not mortal crimes, such as blaspheming the faith. For ordinary mortal sins, he says, there is always penance - for the crimes, only once. We must remember that technical terms, such as mortal sin, had not yet become precise by his time.

Origen, On Psalm 37. 6. Homily 2. "Only look around very carefully to whom you should confess your sin. First test the physician to whom you should explain the cause of your sicknesses. If he understands and foresees that such is your sickness that it should be explained in the gathering of the whole church and be cured, so that perhaps others may be edified and you yourself may more easily be healed, this is to be carried out with much deliberation and with the very skilled counsel of that physician."

COMMENT: Here seems to be a preliminary private confession, to decide if public penance is needed or not. Written before 244 AD.

From both St. Cyprian and Origen we gather that there at least probably was something milder than the public penance used for the big three. Public meant, incidentally, not a public confession, but only performing the penance publicly. It could last for years, and everyone would know that sinner must have done something very great to bring that on.

Yet it seems that the Sacrament was seldom used in general. For St. Augustine, in his Confessions 9. 13, asks prayer for his mother who died 10-15 years earlier) and says he is not sure she never committed any sins after Baptism. No hint of the use of Confession in her case.

In those first centuries some things were understood better than now; other things were not seen at all.

They saw better than people today the need of atonement, that is, of reparation for sin. This thought used to be commonplace in theology. But in recent times it has fallen out, or rather, been suppressed by those who do not like it. But Paul VI on January 1. 1967, in the doctrinal introduction to his new constitution on indulgences (AAS 59. 5) expressed it well.

He began by pointing out (AAS 59. 5): "For the correct understanding of this doctrine... it is necessary that we recall certain truths which the universal Church, illumined by the word of God, has always believed." This is a significant statement. Paul VI tell us that what he is about to present is part of the universal belief of the Church. But that belief is infallible (cf. LG 12).

On p. 6. 2: "As we are taught by divine revelation, penalties follow on sin, inflicted by the divine Holiness and justice... ." It is important to note that Holiness is put in the first place. The old theory of St. Anselm on the redemption unfortunately said God had to provide satisfaction for sin. Of course not! God does not have to do anything. Further, Anselm focused on the justice of God. Now that is not wrong, but the more basic consideration is His holiness, put in first place by the text of Paul VI. For if we center our thought on justice, some objectors may say: "When someone offends me, I do not always demand full justice. Why cannot God just be nice about it?" The answer is, that even though He could act that way, His love of what is objectively right urges Him to provide that rebalance.

So Paul VI continues: "For every sin brings with it a disturbance of the universal order, which God arranged in unspeakable wisdom and infinite love." In other words, God being Holiness itself, loves everything that is right. This was a striking idea when it first broke on the world. For the gods of Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome were not just immoral but amoral - they acted as if there were no morality at all. But Psalm 11:7 told the world: "God is sadiq [morally righteous] and He loves the things that are morally right." Hence the notion that sin is a debt which the Holiness of God wants paid.

Against this background Paul VI continued (p. 7): "Therefore it is necessary for the full remission and reparation of sins... not only that by a sincere conversion of mind friendship with God be restored, and that the offenses against His wisdom and goodness be expiated, but also that all the goods, both personal and social, which pertain to the universal order itself, which were diminished or destroyed by sin, be fully restored, either through voluntary reparation... or through enduring penalties established by the just and most holy Wisdom of God."

Simeon ben Eleazar, a Rabbi writing about 170 A.D. (Tosefta, Kiddushin 1. 14), and claiming to base himself on Rabbi Meir from earlier in the same century, gives us a striking comparison which helps to illustrate the text of Paul VI: "He [meaning "anyone"] has committed a transgression. Woe to him. He has tipped the scale to the side of debt for himself and for the world."

The image is a two-pan scales. The sinner takes from one pan what he has no right to have. The scale is out of balance. The Holiness of God wants it righted. How do that? If he stole some property, he begins to rebalance by giving it back. If he stole a pleasure, he begins to rebalance by giving up some pleasure of similar weight.

But we kept saying "begins". For the imbalance from even one mortal sin is infinite, an Infinite Person is offended. So if the Father wanted a full rebalance - He did not have to - the only way to achieve it would be to send a divine Person to become man. That Person could produce an infinite value. Paul VI put the redemption into this framework.

Since the chief topic of this constitution was that of indulgences, which depend on the "treasury of the Church" Paul VI spoke of the redemption in that background. He said the "treasury of the Church is the infinite and inexhaustible price which the expiations and merits of Christ the Lord have before God... ."

All sinners of all times took an immense weight from the two-pan scales. But Jesus gave up far more than they had stolen, in His terrible passion.

So this is the price of redemption, the rebalancing of the objective order, which the Holiness of God willed. Rom 5:8 said, "God proved His love." Yes, if someone desires the well-being of another, and starts out to procure it, but then runs into an obstacle - if a small obstacle will stop him, the love is small. If it takes a great obstacle, the love is great. But if that love could overcome even the immense obstacle of the terrible death of Jesus, that love is immense, beyond measure. It was not only the physical pain, but the rejection by those whom He loved that hurt Him. The pain of rejection can be measured by two things: 1) how severe is the form of the rejection; 2) how great is the love for the one who is rejecting. If someone jostles me in a crowd, that is a small thing. But if he wanted to kill me, that is far worse, and if he means to do it in the most hideous way possible - then the rejection is at the peak . And what is His love?: Inasmuch as He is a Divine Person, the love is infinite; in as much as we consider the love of His human will, able to overcome such a measureless obstacle - the love is beyond measure.

But Paul VI made clear that we, all of us, must join in this work of reparation, or rebalancing the scales of the objective order. Incidentally, this is the same as the syn Christo theme in St. Paul: we are not saved as individuals, but inasmuch as we are members of Christ, and like Him in all things, especially in this matter of reparation.

The first centuries, then, understood the weight of reparation due for even one mortal sin. Hence penances were heavy, and might last for years. Quite different from 7 Our Fathers and Hail Marys! Today the Church to a large extent leaves it up to us to do the required penance. It has almost eliminated Lent, and in many countries, including ours, has given a dispensation from the Friday abstinence. However as to the Fridays, the document of the U. S. Bishops made clear that if someone uses the Friday dispensation, he is obliged to do something else of similar weight. For the Church cannot dispense us from the divine law of penance. And if we leave this world without having done our share, then purgatory will be needed to make up.

A nation, such as Japan or the U. S. that has an extremely high level of material comforts, needs penance especially. Without it, spiritual eyesight becomes dimmed. Pius XII said long ago that the chief fault of the age was the loss of the sense of sin. He was right in his day, still more so in our day. As to material affluence, even a family on the so-called poverty line has comforts greater than did a Roman Emperor who lacked air conditioning, radio, TV, stereo, cars etc.

Still another thing much better understood in the first centuries than now is the need of penance to bring about a real change of heart. Imagine a Christian in the first centuries called into the Roman court. The judge says: Are you a Christian? If so, I am going to take you apart, and that is no metaphor. The man might say to himself; I do not want to be taken apart. I know what I will do. I will say I am not a Christian, then Saturday evening I will go to Confession, get a few Hail Marys, and all will be well.

But it would not work. First of all, there would be no real change of heart - the Saturday was completely preplanned. Secondly much more than a few Hail Marys was needed for real reparation. Hence the heavy penances of the time. Today in the U. S. no one is called into a pagan court - though we might yet see such a thing with the dreadful collapse of morals now. But today marriage breakups are common - some say 60% break up. If the couple are still young, they will want to remarry. Some do not even bother to try for an annulment. Or they might try and not get it, but remarry anyway. In Arlington diocese, many cases are refused. Then if they attempt another marriage - it will not be a real marriage, just living in sin. But suppose they say to each other. Let us keep handy the phone number of the priest, so if either of us is in danger of death, we can phone to go to confession. Would that be a real change of heart? One wonders. I would not suggest despair, for grace is very powerful and especially the proximate fear of death can knock some sense into a person. But I would not want to stake my eternity on such a chance. Long penances in the early Church were designed to bring a real change of heart. (In passing: Many grow up today under influence of something sometimes called the New Spirituality. It means: To give up any creature or pleasure , voluntarily - in contrast to accepting providentially sent things - does one no good. Such people live with their finger on the panic button. Do things only as long as they feel good, then stop. Such persons are not really capable of a permanent commitment - marriage has to be that. Hence many invalid marriages).

Something however they did not see in the first centuries was the potential of the Sacrament for spiritual growth. If used well, it can foster that. Each absolution brings, if dispositions are enough, an increase in sanctifying grace, plus a claim to further actual graces as needed to keep clear in the future of the sins just confessed.

However, we need to notice that condition: if the dispositions are good enough. If one has merely the same level of love of God as usual - to illustrate, let us put in numbers, though they do not apply. - suppose he has normally 5 degrees. If he confesses only at that level, he gets a claim to an increase, but does not receive it. For that he would have to be more open, heart enlarged as it were.

And this brings us to a problem that existed early and continues now. It is often called affection to venial sin. The term is a poor one. One does not really have a warm love for a sin. He simply does it. But what it means is this: there is a sort of gap in one's purpose of amendment. It is as if a person were to say: I do not intend to commit mortal sins, nor every venial sin as the opportunity comes. But I have a few reservations, e.g., if it gets to be too hard to keep up a conversation without a bit of uncharity, I will join in. Or if it becomes hard to avoid lying, I will surely lie.

Such a person has as it were a clamp about the heart spiritually. He sets a limit. His heart will not, cannot, expand beyond that limit. So the sad case can occur, and perhaps is not so rare: A person may cultivate many devotions, live a very good life in general, yet because of one of these reservations or affections to venial sin, he sets up a block to any further spiritual growth. So it is good to take time out at times, especially at a retreat, to see if one has any such a block.

One fine practice that helps especially when one has not much to confess is to add at the end something like this: I wish to include also the sins of my past especially against commandment number X or against virtue X. Then one stirs up real sorrow for having offended God on those things, saying: I still wish I had not done that, I see how wrong it was. This sorrow can more easily be strong, since there is no more fear of hell, in the case of past mortal sins. And for certain, it gives one a claim to actual graces as needed to continue to avoid the class of sins mentioned.

Many persons waste the priest's time in not confessing things accurately. For example if he says: I cussed and swore. What does that mean? It might be merely a few damns and hells sprinkled in his conversation. If one does not really wish evil to the other, and if there is no anger nor taking of the name of God in vain -- these things are very bad taste, but not sins. He should check on his anger. In itself anger is neutral; it is sinful if it is more than the case on hand justifies - which easily happens because of our weakness. Also, if there is along with it a desire of revenge, then even mortal sin may be present.

If the anger includes long periods of refusing to speak at all to another - there may even be serious sin there.

Many speak loosely of uncharitable speech. Really, there are three levels of speech that could be included here: 1) Slander --charging another with a fault that is a lie . Requires retraction. 2) Detraction - telling a fault of another not yet known to the listeners and not likely to become known to them soon. Then we consider the reason for revealing it, compared with the damage done by revealing it, considering all aspects of person and type of fault, e.g., to charge a Bishop with being drunk is different from saying the same about an ordinary sailor. If there is at least a balance in favor of the good reason, it may be permitted. 3) Two persons are talking about another, but there is no new information. If they have a suitable reason for the talk, there is no sin; otherwise there is.

To say: I was drunk, is vague. Mortal sin begins when the point is reached where the ability to think and make judgments is gravely damaged. Below that it will be venial or even nothing. If questioning shows the person is an alcoholic, in the sense of one who cannot take even one drink without losing control (this echoes the AA definition: "One is too much, a thousand is not enough" - he has a grave obligation to give up all drink. If he is not such, but merely drinks to excess at times, but can drink moderately when he wishes, we do not impose a grave obligation of giving up all drink.

Bad thoughts: a thought comes to one, offers a sexual pleasure. If he simply lets go and takes it in to enjoy it, that is mortal sin. But if on the other hand he tries to get rid of it, even if it takes a dozen or more times before it settles, and even if during those tries he still feels the pleasure -- surely no mortal sin, probably much merit instead. The same applies to looking at pictures or a person that cause sexual stimulation.

There is a tricky pattern worth knowing. If one is at least partly occupied in mind with something, then there is an opening for a thought to crawl into the back of his head, to unroll itself like a movie, to run some time, until there comes a wake-up point at which he says to himself: Oh Oh, I should not be having that, and then gets busy against it - never a mortal sin up to that point. At most, a small sin of carelessness.

Heavy petting or intercourse: if the person can say, if he/she goes back a few more times to the other, it is likely there will be more of the same sin - something serious must be done, or there is no real contrition, which implies changing one's ways. Best would be to give up the other completely - or take a month or two time off. If not, must start with a long careful talk with the other saying: Most people today do not know what love is. They think it is a feeling. Thank Heavens it is not: could not build a lifelong marriage on feelings, they flicker much. To love is to will good to another for the other's sake. Now if two people USE each other for sexual pleasure, that is not being concerned about the well-being of the other - it is putting self and other into such a state that if death happened along, one would be miserable forever. This is closer to hatred than to love. It is obvious that real love could hardly develop in such a framework - but, it will feel the same, for chemistry is the same. Many then mistake chemistry for love, and marry on the strength of it. Later they find out. No wonder the marriage failure rate today is said to be about 60%. Therefore it is only self-interest to protect against such a thing.

Lies: Best definition of a lie is this: any statement or action which, when properly interpreted, is known by the speaker to be false. In other words, we consider not only the dictionary meaning of each word, but the meaning in view of the whole context. If Mother sends the child to the door to tell the salesman she is not home, if he knows English it means: Maybe she is here, maybe not - if she is, she does not want to talk to you. And a statement or action made by a nation in the context of war or national security should be seen as having no definite meaning: cannot expect the nation to tell the facts with grave risk to itself.

Works consulted:

1. Paul F. Palmer, "Jean Morin and the Problem of Private Penance" in Theological Studies 6 (1945) 319-51 and 7 (1946) pp. 281-308.

2. Palmer, Sacraments and Forgiveness, in Sources of Christian Theology II. Newman, Barton, Longman & Todd (London) 1959.

3. Medieval Handbooks of Penance, tr. J. T. Mc Neill and Helena M. Gamer, Octagon Books, N. Y. 1965.



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