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The Sacrament of Penance

by Austin B. Vaughan


Austin B. Vaughan discusses the sacrament of penance including the decline in numbers of people going to confession, possible reasons for the decline, and suggestions to correct the current problems. He says, "…we need a clear teaching on the practical need people have of the Church for salvation. If we already have a clear teaching on this, we need an effective apologetic for it."

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, June 1984

I have two points to make—one in the name of the United States Bishops' Conference, and one in my own name.

Many of our bishops attribute the decline in numbers of people going to confession at least in part to confusion among our people on the notions of sin, conscience, need for penance and reconciliation. Many of the bishops expressed a hope for a clear teaching from the Synod on these matters.

At the moment, there is confusion or disagreement as to:

I. What constitutes a serious sin—is it an act or an orientation—or, more accurately, how do they relate to each other?

II. Which sins need to be confessed? Objectively or subjectively? The problem has arisen from a whole set of notions proposed in recent years, viz.:

1. Fundamental option and its consequences for the moral value of individual acts.

2. A distinction between mortal sin and serious sin.

3. The meaning and consequences of freedom of individual conscience, where it seems to involve a conflict with explicit teaching of the Church.

4. A questioning of moral absolutes.

5. Emphasis on psychological factors that limit human freedom and hence a human's capacity to commit sin.

6. The assertion that parvity of matter can apply to sexual sins (objectively).

7. A questioning of the degree of subjective responsibility in sexual sins.

8. A theory of ontic evil that attaches moral responsibility to the intention of the person acting much more so than to the nature of what the person is choosing or doing.

9. A questioning of the power of the Church to bind people under pain of mortal sin to things not required by divine law.

In many cases, fairly clear answers have been supplied for these questions in authoritative Church teachings in recent years. But disagreement persists in varying degrees on the level of theological faculties, seminaries, secondary schools and catechetics. On the level of catechetics, it more often takes the form of ignoring a particular teaching or playing down its significance, than of flatly contradicting it.

A simple re-statement of Catholic doctrine by authorities is, at times, rejected, because the competence of the authority to speak intelligently in this area is questioned.

I am not describing anything new— we have lived with dissent in the Church for the last 15 years in many parts of the world. The report on the follow-up to the Synod of 1980 and to Familiaris Consortio that we heard last week makes frequent reference to it.

I am simply pointing out that dissent or disagreement is a much bigger or more immediate problem when it touches on practical norms (you must do this—you are forbidden to do that) than when it deals with speculative issues.

Confessors Need Guides

It is not hard for most people to live with being told that there is no one Catholic position on a given matter, so they are free to reach their own conclusions within the framework of Christian principles. But it is intolerable for people to be told by one authority that they must do things and by other guides in the Church that they need not, or to be told by one authority that they are forbidden to do something, and by another that they may do it. In cases of this kind, many people stop seeking or accepting guidance at all.

I believe that this whole situation has been aggravated by the general absence of casuistry from moral theology in recent years. Confessors have no clear guides to follow in many cases. The biggest burden falls on priests who are confessors; they are in the front lines. No matter what guidance they give, a penitent will have a basis to question it. This makes hearing confessions harder and less appealing as a ministry.

III. There is a third problem that seems to me to be a greater one than the one just mentioned—confusion or disagreement as to the possibility or frequency of mortal sin. Most of us learned to regard it as a real possibility or imminent danger once we had reached a certain age, and the Sacrament of Penance assumed a great importance as a cure for sin or a bulwark against temptation. Mortal sin was something that could happen every day or several times a day for people who did not live very close to Christ. Now we are faced with practical approaches that regard it as scarcely possible, or possible only a few times in a lifetime. Actions that were regarded as seriously sinful before are still wrong--but they do not involve the profound commitment of a person that is required for a mortal sin.

When Is A Sin Mortal?

A reply has been made to this in the Declaration of the Congregation of Doctrine of the Faith on Sexual Ethics (Persona Humana) and a reply is to be found in the Instrumentum Laboris of this Synod, which indicate that mortal sin can be committed by individual acts. Both statements are good, but they remain on the theoretical level. They do not reply directly to the pastoral problem: Is mortal sin a daily danger for many of our people, or something very rare, or something in between? The answer to this will have a profound effect on the importance we attach to the Sacrament of Penance in practice; we have drifted from an implicit belief that it was vitally important to one that sees it as a beautiful and useful sign.

What can we do about this in the Synod? It is easier to describe problems than to provide solutions, but, in general, we can:

1. Face the pastoral question of how frequent—or dangerous—mortal sin is for people in our day.

2. Face the pastoral question of the effect had on the Sacrament of Penance by dissent as to the binding force of practical norms, and what we can do about it.

3. Look to providing some casuistry to help confessors in areas that are troublesome right now.

My second point is offered in my own name, not that of the Conference.

I believe that decline in the number of confessions is also tied in with a diminished sense of the need for redemption, and of the need for the mediation of the Church to receive forgiveness for sin.

On the first point (diminished need for redemption), I believe that this comes from a set of beliefs that are now widely accepted by Catholics at least implicitly and sometimes explicitly:

1. A presumption that everyone or almost everyone will go to heaven, so that there is no danger of anyone's losing his or her soul:

Because of God's infinite mercy and his divine salvific will;

Or because few sins are mortal sins— and it is almost impossible to commit one subjectively (since most actions that are designated as seriously wrong will not, by themselves, turn around a person's fundamental orientation to God).

2. The consequence is that there is no urgent need on the part of the individual for reconciliation—or for the Church--or for Christ.

3. The reality of Hell is questioned— or at least serious question is raised as to whether anyone actually goes there.

There is no mention of Hell, or of the human soul, or of saving souls, in the Instrumentum Laboris, nor in the paper offered us by the International Theological Commission, (unless it is implicit in the phrase "sins which exclude from the kingdom of God" on p. 22) nor in the Relatio, which began these discussions. There is no mention in any of them of Purgatory or of Indulgences (except for a passing reference in the ITC document) or of the role of a debt of temporal punishment in the plan of salvation. There is no mention of the role that penance has played in the lives of most of our canonized saints, nor of the motivations for their penance; it seems that a great part of our practical tradition has been skipped over. In the documents, I find no eschatological dimension at all, and yet surely this was uppermost in our training of people for the sacrament and in their use of it in the past.

Now, omission of these things obviously is not a sign of disbelief; not everything can be said in a short document. But, a well-known writer of fifteen years ago offered the opinion that, in the future, defined doctrines would change in the Church not by being formally denied, but by being put on a shelf and ignored ("made peripheral"). We have to be careful that we do not lose pastorally-significant parts of our teaching in the course of moving in new and praiseworthy directions.

God's Mercy Presumes Salvation?

I believe that our whole pastoral effort, and especially our pastors on the Sacrament of Penance, has been profoundly affected by a commonly accepted notion that there is no urgency in bringing salvation to people, because it reaches them anyway.

We need a clear teaching on how real we think mortal sin is, and how profound and widespread its effects on individuals are. If we already have a clear teaching on this matter, then we need an effective apologetic for it.

On my other point (diminished sense of the need for the mediation of the Church in order to receive forgiveness for sin), the idea has emerged in recent years that the Holy Spirit is operating in all people and in all religions to a sufficient degree to bring them salvation. Hence, the Church is not the ark of salvation, and there is no urgency in bringing people to join it. Where forgiveness is needed, it can be attained readily outside the Church and its sacramental system (through the action of the Holy Spirit in other religions and in nature).

There are many things that have contributed to this approach. Not the least of them is the fact that a large part of the population of the earth has never formally joined the Church, and we are certainly not inclined to write them off as lost.

Sometimes the result has been to play down missionary efforts, or to see them more in terms of raising human living standards than of receiving people into the Church.

This has had an effect on vocations, not just in missionary communities, but in dioceses and in congregations of many kinds, because the work of priests and brothers and sisters no longer seems to be so vitally important.

Again, we need a clear teaching on the practical need people have of the Church for salvation. If we already have a clear teaching on this, we need an effective apologetic for it.

Confession Of Venial Sins

I would like to speak in my own name on the role of confession of venial sins (devotional confession) in the spiritual life of our people. (We are talking about a confession where none of the matter is obligatory—either venial sins never before confessed or forgiven, or sins previously confessed and forgiven).

Not Always A Profound Experience

Such confessions were strongly encouraged in the first seventy years of this century. Now they are sometimes discouraged, more often not encouraged, because they are regarded (by some) as unnecessary, or focusing on trifles, or encouraging scrupulosity, or encouraging immaturity, or wasting a priest's time, or merely routine and hence impersonal.

In recent years, some encouragement has been given to devotional confession if it becomes a genuine spiritual experience, or if it provides some spiritual guidance or direction. I believe in the value of spiritual guidance in the sacrament of Penance because many people receive little or none of it elsewhere. I believe in the value of a priest's being friendly and helpful in Penance, because for many people it is their only personal contact with a priest. I believe that priests and penitents have an obligation to do what they can to make the sacrament in which they are worshipping God together more fruitful.

But, I would also like to defend the value of "routine" devotional confessions, which often do not involve any identifiable profound spiritual experience; often these confessions are brushed aside as useless or worse.

There are many times when the sacrament of Penance will not be an emotionally uplifting experience—either because the penitent finds it hard to confess at all, or hard to confess even some particular venial sins—or because the penitent is tired or out of sorts or distracted—or because the priest leaves much to be desired in his response, through his own fault or through nobody's fault—or because the penitent wants to get in and out in a hurry—or because there are long lines waiting, so the process cannot be slow and easy. There are times when both priest and penitent may be glad to get it over with.

Even then, every use of the Sacrament of Penance is an implicit acknowledgment and re-affirmation of basic attitudes in Catholic life. Let me just list ten, although there are many more:

1. Every time I go to confession, I implicitly acknowledge that I am a sinner —not just a part of a "massa damnata" —but with sins of my own that were my own fault.

2. Every time I go to confession, I affirm implicitly that God's mercy is always available to me—that I can never get so far away that he does not care about me—that no sin is unforgivable— that God is a Father who sent his Son to save me by his suffering and death. (This has a special significance in an age when many people wonder if God or anyone else really cares about them.)

3. Every time, I implicitly affirm that God's mercy comes through Christ. The most poorly instructed penitent knows that it is the power of Jesus, not just the priest, who is forgiving his sins.

4. Every time, I implicitly affirm that God's mercy reaches me through the Church —that she is a mother who loves me in this sacrament, even when I cannot love myself and that God himself wants me to come to him by sharing in the Church's life.

5. Every time I go to confession, I reaffirm that a priest is God's minister in a unique way.

6. Every time I go, I implicitly reaffirm that I can do things with God's grace that I will never succeed in doing on my own. Otherwise, sometimes a purpose of amendment would be meaningless.

7. Every time, I implicitly affirm that God wants me to face my sins squarely —say I am sorry for them specifically— and mean it. This means rejecting a part of my past life, so that the days ahead can be better than those behind.

8. Every time, I implicitly reaffirm that God expects me to do better, with and through his grace.

9. Every time, I implicitly reaffirm that he wants me to make up for my sins and those of others.

10. Every time a penitent goes to confession, he is implicitly drawn to reception of the Eucharist.

In a sense, devotional confession is our need for redemption come alive.

We live in a time when things done out of habit are regarded as having less value than those done from careful conscious choice; and sometimes, when we do things routinely, we can forget why we started doing them in the first place. But many of our habitual actions contain judgments that are deeply a part of us, and that indicate how deeply faith in Jesus has permeated our lives. Frequent recourse to the sacrament of Penance preserves my sensitivity to my own sins, and to my need for God's help. It also assures someone who is struggling with temptations that God's love and mercy and grace are near.

Finally, we believe that reception of the sacrament brings a growth in grace, an increase of divine life in our souls. St. Thomas Aquinas' explanation of this in theological terms was that the infusion of God's grace elicits a new and more profound act of charity on the part of the penitent (not necessarily an act of deeper emotional intensity, but a deepening of our commitment to the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity who dwell within us.) I realize that some ways of explaining grace in more recent years have obscured this truth—but it is still valid, even in a new intellectual context — and it is a part of the grasp of the faith possessed by many of our people. They were taught that it is good to receive the sacrament to gain grace, and they are rightly upset if this motivation is made to be of no account. (This could take up a whole talk in itself.)

Up till now, I have spoken only of the Rite for reconciling individual penitents, but undoubtedly many of those who take part in Form 2 (or Form B), the Rite for reconciling many penitents with individual confession and absolution, will be making devotional confessions, with no serious sins to be forgiven. This kind of celebration can deepen their sense of not being alone in their sinfulness or in their reliance on Christ's mercy or in their prayers; they are supported by others who are praying for them and who need their prayers in return, and who need the support of their faith and hope and charity to face the trials and temptations of the future. The forgiveness that Jesus bestowed upon his Apostles, and in a special way upon Peter, turned them into ministers of his forgiveness to others. Jesus can and does use every time we approach the Sacrament of Penance in the same way, but more visibly so at these communal services.

To sum up, devotional confession has value:

1. As a means of spiritual growth for ordinary people;

2. As an intensification of the penitent's own penitential sense and ecclesial sense and attachment to Christ;

3. As a part of ongoing conversion— especially for people who are struggling against temptations, without complete success;

4. As a means of growing in grace, in God's life in us and with us and through us.

Our people have a right to the benefits of the sacrament, and we have an obligation to do what we can to help make those benefits available to them.

Most Reverend Austin B. Vaughan, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of New York, was a delegate of the U.S. Bishops' Conference to the 1983 Roman Synod. The material in this article was presented by him at the Synod. Bishop Vaughan is Episcopal Vicar for Orange County, New York, and a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. For a number of years he was Rector of St. Joseph's Seminary in Dunwoodie, Yonkers, New York.

© The Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Ignatius Press, 2515 McAllister St., San Francisco, CA 94118, 1-800-651-1531.

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