The Sacrament of Penance
Penance is a sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ in which
forgiveness of sins committed after baptism is granted through the priest’s
absolution to those who with true sorrow confess their sins and promise to
satisfy for the same. It is called a “sacrament” not simply a function or
ceremony, because it is an outward sign instituted by Christ to impart grace
to the soul. As an outward sign it comprises the actions of the penitent in
presenting himself to the priest and accusing himself of his sins, and the
actions of the priest in pronouncing absolution and imposing satisfaction.
This whole procedure is usually called, from one of its parts, “confession”,
and it is said to take place in the “tribunal ofpenance”, because it is a
judicial process in which the penitent is at once the accuser, the person
accused, and the witness, while the priest pronounces judgment and sentence.
The grace conferred is deliverance from the guilt of sin and, in the case of
mortal sin, from its eternal punishment; hence also reconciliation with God,
justification. Finally, the confession is made not in the secrecy of the
penitent’s heart nor to a layman as friend and advocate, nor to a
representative of human authority, but to a duly ordained priest with
requisite jurisdiction and with the “power of the keys”, i.e., the power to
forgive sins which Christ granted to His Church.
By way of further explanation it is needful to correct certain erroneous
views regarding this sacrament which not only misrepresent the actual
practice of the Church but also lead to a false interpretation of
theological statement and historical evidence. From what has been said
it should be clear:
that penance is not a mere human invention devised by the Church to
secure power over consciences or to relieve the emotional strain of
troubled souls; it is the ordinary means appointed by Christ for the
remission of sin. Man indeed is free to obey or disobey, but once he
has sinned, he must seek pardon not on conditions of his own choosing
but on those which God has determined, and these for the Christian are
embodied in the Sacrament of Penance.
No Catholic believes that a priest simply as an individual man,
however pious or learned, has power to forgive sins. This power
belongs to God alone; but He can and does exercise it through the
ministration of men. Since He has seen fit to exercise it by means
of this sacrament, it cannot be said that the Church or the priest
interferes between the soul and God; on the contrary, penance is the
removal of the one obstacle that keeps the soul away from God.
It is not true that for the Catholic the mere “telling of one’s sins”
suffices to obtain their forgiveness. Without sincere sorrow and
purpose of amendment, confession avails nothing, the pronouncement of
absolution is of no effect, and the guilt of the sinner is greater
While this sacrament as a dispensation of Divine mercy facilitates the
pardoning of sin, it by no means renders sin less hateful or its
consequences less dreadful to the Christian mind; much less does it
imply permission to commit sin in the future. In paying ordinary
debts, as e.g., by monthly settlements, the intention of contracting
new debts with the same creditor is perfectly legitimate; a similar
intention on the part of him who confesses his sins would not only be
wrong in itself but would nullify the sacrament and prevent the
forgiveness of sins then and there confessed.
Strangely enough, the opposite charge is often heard, viz., that the
confession of sin is intolerable and hard and therefore alien to the
spirit of Christianity and the loving kindness of its Founder. But
this view, in the first place, overlooks the fact that Christ, though
merciful, is also just and exacting. Furthermore, however painful or
humiliating confession may be, it is but a light penalty for the
violation of God’s law. Finally, those who are in earnest about their
salvation count no hardship too great whereby they can win back God’s
Both these accusations, of too great leniency and too great severity,
proceed as a rule from those who have no experience with the sacrament and
only the vaguest ideas of what the Church teaches or of the power to forgive
sins which the Church received from Christ.
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