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 Penance & Reconcil. 


As stated above, the absolution given by the priest to a penitent who confesses his sins with the proper dispositions remits both the guilt and the eternal punishment (of mortal sin). There remains, however, some indebtedness to Divine justice which must be cancelled here or hereafter (see PURGATORY). In order to have it cancelled here, the penitent receives from his confessor what is usually called his “penance”, usually in theform of certain prayers which he is to say, or of certain actions which he is to perform, such as visits to a church, the Stations of the Cross, etc. Alms, deeds, fasting, and prayer are the chief means of satisfaction, but other penitential works may also be enjoined. The quality and extent of the penance is determined by the confessor according to the nature of the sins revealed, the special circumstances of the penitent, his liability to relapse, and the need of eradicating evil habits. Sometimes the penance is such that it may be performed at once; in other cases it may require a more or less considerable period, as, e.g., where it is prescribed for each day during a week or a month. But even then the penitent may receive another sacrament (e.g., Holy Communion) immediately after confession, since absolution restores him to the state of grace. He is nevertheless under obligation to continue the performance of his penance until it is completed.

In theological language, this penance is called satisfaction and is defined, in the words of St. Thomas: “The payment of the temporal punishment due on account of the offence committed against God by sin” (Suppl. to Summa, Q. xii, a. 3). It is an act of justice whereby the injury done to the honour of God is required, so far at least as the sinner is able to make reparation (poena vindicativa) ; it is also a preventive remedy, inasmuch as it is meant to hinder the further commission of sin (poena medicinalis). Satisfaction is not, like contrition and confession, an essential part of the sacrament, because the primary effect, i.e., remission of guilt and eternal punishment—is obtained without satisfaction; but it is an integral part, because it is requisite for obtaining the secondary effect—i.e., remission of the temporal punishment. The Catholic doctrine on this point is set forth by the Council of Trent, which condemns the proposition: “That the entire punishment is always remitted by God together with the guilt, and the satisfaction required of penitents is no other than faith whereby they believe that Christ has satisfied for them”; and further the proposition: “That the keys were given to the Church for loosing only and not for binding as well; that therefore in enjoining penance on those who confess, priests act contrary to the purpose of the keys and the institution of Christ; that it is a fiction [to say] that after the eternal punishment has been remitted in virtue of the keys, there usually remains to be paid a temporal penalty” (Can. “de Sac. poenit.”, 12, 15; Denzinger, “Enchir.”, 922, 925).

As against the errors contained in these statements, the Council (Sess. XIV, c. viii) cites conspicuous examples from Holy Scripture. The most notable of these is the judgment pronounced upon David: “And Nathan said to David: the Lord also hath taken away thy sin: thou shalt not die. Nevertheless, because thou hast given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, for this thing, the child that is born to thee, shall surely die” (2 Samuel 12:13, 14; cf. Genesis 3:17; Numbers 20:11 sqq.). David’s sin was forgiven and yet he had to suffer punishment in the loss of his child. The same truth is taught by St. Paul (1 Corinthians 11:32): “But whilst we are judged, we are chastised by the Lord, that we be not condemned with this world”. The chastisement here mentioned is a temporal punishment, but a punishment unto Salvation.

“Of all the parts of penance”, says the Council of Trent (loc. cit.), “satisfaction was constantly recommended to the Christian people by our Fathers”. This the Reformers themselves admitted. Calvin (Instit., III, iv, 38) says he makes little account of what the ancient writings contain in regard to satisfaction because “nearly all whose books are extant went astray on this point or spoke too severely”. Chemnitius ("Examen C. Trident.”, 4) acknowledges that Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine extolled the value of penitential works; and Flacius Illyricus, in the “Centuries”, has a long list of Fathers and early writers who, as he admits, bear witness to the doctrine of satisfaction. Some of the texts already cited (Confession) expressly mention satisfaction as a part of sacramental penance. To these may be added St. Augustine, who says that “Man is forced to suffer even after his sins are forgiven, though it was sin that brought down on him this penalty. For the punishment outlasts the guilt, lest the guilt should be thought slight if with its forgiveness the punishment also came to an end” (Tract. cxxiv, “In Joann.”, n. 5, in P.L., XXXV, 1972); St. Ambrose: “So efficacious is the medicine of penance that [in view of it] God seems to revoke His sentence” ("De poenit.”, 1, 2, c. vi, n. 48, in P.L., XVI, 509); Caesarius of Arles: “If in tribulation we give not thanks to God nor redeem our faults by good works, we shall be detained in the fire of purgatory until our slightest sins are burned away like wood or straw” (Sermo civ, n. 4). Among the motives for doing penance on which the Fathers most frequently insist is this: If you punish your own sin, God will spare you; but in any case the sin will not go unpunished. Or again they declare that God wants us to perform satisfaction in order that we may clear off our indebtedness to His justice. It is therefore with good reason that the earlier councils—e.g., Laodicaea (A. D. 372) and Carthage IV (397)—teach that satisfaction is to be imposed on penitents; and the Council of Trent but reiterates the traditional belief and practice when it makes the giving of “penance” obligatory on the confessor. Hence, too, the practice of granting indulgences, whereby the Church comes to the penitent’s assistance and places at his disposal the treasury of Christ’s merits. Though closely connected with penance, indulgences are not a part of the sacrament; they presuppose confession and absolution, and are properly called an extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment incurred by sin.

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

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