Exercise of The Power
The granting by Christ of the power to forgive sins is the first essential
of the Sacrament of Penance; in the actual exercise of this power are
included the other essentials. The sacrament as such and on its own account
has a matter and a form and it produces certain effects; the power of the
keys is exercised by a minister (confessor) who must possess the proper
qualifications, and the effects are wrought in the soul of the recipient,
i.e., the penitent who with the necessary dispositions must perform certain
actions (confession, satisfaction).
Matter and Form
According to St. Thomas (Summa, III, lxxiv, a. 2) “the acts of the penitent
are the proximate matter of this sacrament”. This is also the teaching of
Eugenius IV in the “Decretum pro Armenis” (Council of Florence, 1439) which
calls the act’s “quasi materia” of penance and enumerates them as
contrition, confession, and satisfaction (Denzinger-Bannwart, “Enchir.”,
699). The Thomists in general and other eminent theologians, e.g.,
Bellarmine, Toletus, Francisco Suárez, and De Lugo, hold the same opinion.
According to Scotus (In IV Sent., d. 16, q. 1, n. 7) “the Sacrament of
Penance is the absolution imparted with certain words” while the acts of the
penitent are required for the worthy reception of the sacrament. The
absolution as an external ceremony is the matter, and, as possessing
significant force, the form. Among the advocates of this theory are
St. Bonaventure, Capreolus, Andreas Vega, and Maldonatus. The Council of
Trent (Sess. XIV, c. 3) declares: “the acts of the penitent, namely
contrition, confession, and satisfaction, are the quasi materia of this
sacrament”. The Roman Catechism used in 1913 (II, v, 13) says: “These
actions are called by the Council quasi materia not because they have not
the nature of true matter, but because they are not the sort of matter which
is employed externally as water in baptism and chrism in confirmation”.
For the theological discussion see Palmieri, op. cit., p. 144 sqq.; Pesch,
“Praelectiones dogmaticae”, Freiburg, 1897; De San, “De poenitentia”,
Bruges, 1899; Pohle, “Lehrb. d. Dogmatik”. Regarding the form of the
sacrament, both the Council of Florence and the Council of Trent teach that
it consists in the words of absolution. “The form of the Sacrament of
penance, wherein its force principally consists, is placed in those words of
the minister: “I absolve thee, etc.”; to these words indeed, in accordance
with the usage of Holy Church, certain prayers are laudably added, but they
do not pertain to the essence of the form nor are they necessary for the
administration of the sacrament” (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, c. 3).
Concerning these additional prayers, the use of the Eastern and Western
Churches, and the question whether the form is deprecatory or indicative and
personal, see ABSOLUTION. Cf. also the writers referred to in the preceding
“The effect of this sacrament is deliverance from sin”
(Council of Florence). The same definition in somewhat different terms is
given by the Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, c. 3): “So far as pertains to its
force and efficacy, the effect (res et effectus) of this sacrament is
reconciliation with God, upon which there sometimes follows, in pious and
devout recipients, peace and calm of conscience with intense consolation of
spirit”. This reconciliation implies first of all that the guilt of sin is
remitted, and consequently also the eternal punishment due to mortal sin.
As the Council of Trent declares, penance requires the performance of
satisfaction “not indeed for the eternal penalty which is remitted together
with the guilt either by the sacrament or by the desire of receiving the
sacrament, but for the temporal penalty which, as the Scriptures teach, is
not always forgiven entirely as it is in baptism” (Sess. VI, c. 14). In
other words baptism frees the soul not only from all sin but also from all
indebtedness to Divine justice, whereas after the reception of absolution in
penance, there may and usually does remain some temporal debt to be
discharged by works of satisfaction (see below). “Venial sins by which we
are not deprived of the grace of God and into which we very frequently fall
are rightly and usefully declared in confession; but mention of them may,
without any fault, be omitted and they can be expiated by many other
remedies” (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, c. 3). Thus, an act of contrition
suffices to obtain forgiveness of venial sin, and the same effect is
produced by the worthy reception of sacraments other than penance, e.g., by
The reconciliation of the sinner with God has as a further consequence the
revival of those merits which he had obtained before committing grievous
sin. Good works performed in the state of grace deserve a reward from God,
but this is forfeited by mortal sin, so that if the sinner should die
unforgiven his good deeds avail him nothing. So long as he remains in sin,
he is incapable of meriting: even works which are good in themselves are, in
his case, worthless: they cannot revive, because they never were alive. But
once his sin is cancelled by penance, he regains not only the state of grace
but also the entire store of merit which had, before his sin, been placed to
his credit. On this point theologians are practically unanimous: the only
hindrance to obtaining reward is sin, and when this is removed, the former
title, so to speak, is revalidated. On the other hand, if there were no
such revalidation, the loss of merit once acquired would be equivalent to an
eternal punishment, which is incompatible with the forgiveness effected by
penance. As to the further question regarding the manner and extent of the
revival of merit, various opinions have been proposed; but that which is
generally accepted holds with Francisco Suárez (De reviviscentia meritorum)
that the revival is complete, i.e., the forgiven penitent has to his credit
as much merit as though he had never sinned. See De Augustinis, “De re
sacramentaria”, II, Rome, 1887; Pesch, op. cit., VII; Göttler, “Der hl.
Thomas v. Aquin u. die vortridentinischen Thomisten über die Wirkungen d.
Bussakramentes”, Freiburg, 1904.
Written by Edward J. Hanna. Transcribed by Donald J. Boon.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI. Published 1911.
New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1911.
Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur.
+John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York