Penance, Sacrament of
PENANCE, SACRAMENT OF
The sacrament of penance is the sacrament through which Christians "obtain pardon from the mercy of God for offenses committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example, and by prayer labors for their conversion" (LG 11). Conversion (metanoia ) and reconciliation were central to the mission of Jesus and remain the foundation of disciples' life in Christ. Those preparing for baptism and Eucharist learn to be part of a converting and reconciling community. Those already baptized who sin return to the path of conversion and to Eucharist in this second sacrament of conversion. Though the understanding and practice of the sacrament have changed over the centuries, the essential elements (substantia ) have remained constant: calling sinners to conversion and supporting those who respond ("binding"); reconciling the repentant who have undergone conversion ("loosing").
Terminology. The earliest name for this sacrament was paenitentia secunda, from the Latin translation of the
Greek metanoia (conversion, repentance): baptism was the first conversion and penance the second. In the early Middle Ages "confession" became the usual term because of its ritual prominence and this usage has continued into our time. The twentieth century saw the return of "penance" to common use, and Vatican Council II and its new ritual stressed reconciliation. Theologically, this is a sacrament of both conversion (penance) and reconciliation, with the two mutually required: conversion leads to reconciliation with God and Church, and reconciliation requires conversion.
Origins. The sacrament is broadly based in the ministry of Jesus who preached repentance and conversion to the reign of God. Forgiveness of sins was prominent in his ministry (Mk 2:3–12), and the early Church believed it was authorized to continue his ministry (Mt 16:l9, 18:18; Jn 20:22–23). Baptism was the most striking expression of this authority, but sinners in the community also had to be dealt with. The ministry of binding and loosing included both the authority to exclude serious sinners from the community and its Eucharist and the authority to restore to the community of salvation those who underwent conversion (1 Cor 5:5; 2 Cor 2:11). Some communities were reluctant to forgive certain sinners (1 Jn 5:14–17; Heb 6:4–8; 10:26–31; 12:16–17), but generally conversion was the only prerequisite to welcoming them back.
Ancient Penance. The Shepherd of Hermas (c. 140) contains the earliest evidence of a second penance entrusted by Christ to the Shepherd. It was limited, like baptism, to once only but was open to all sinners. Other early authors—Clement of Rome (d. c. 96), Ignatius of Antioch (d. c. 110), Polycarp (d. c. 156), and 2 Clement (c. 150)—witness to this sense of clemency but say little about procedures. As pastor, the bishop was responsible for this ministry.
Everyday sinners repented and generally found support and reconciliation in the Eucharist. Practice varied on which sins required ecclesial ministry. The practice of penance took several forms, including fasting, almsgiving, wearing sackcloth and ashes, prayer and works of charity. Tertullian's description of exomologesis (confession, in the sense of celebrating God's greatness) in the De Paenitentia gives us some detail on the making of penitents in a liturgy confessing God's mercy. Sackcloth symbolizing the goats separated from Christ's flock, ashes symbolizing exclusion from the paradise of the Church, penitential practices (kneeling, prayer, fasting, works of charity), and community prayer for penitents were major ritual actions marking a person's entrance into the communal process of conversion called the order of penitents.
Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258), in the mid-third century, speaks of the laying on of hands in exorcism at the entry into penance and again at its completion, this time granting peace with the Church through communion with the Holy Spirit. These show how he understood the operational dynamics of conversion and reconciliation and also the liturgical orientation of the penitential works that characterized the time of penance: they expressed in practice the repentance manifested to the Church in becoming a penitent; at the same time they, together with the community's prayer and example, moved that repentance toward maturity.
Controversy over how to maintain the Church's holiness and opposition to reconciling some sinners helped shape Western development. The East, largely unaffected by this rigorism, kept more of a gospel leniency that gave priority to healing the community by healing sinners.
The elitist ecclesiology of third-century Montanists and Novatianists challenged the bishop's authority to forgive certain sins; e.g., Tertullian in De paenitentia held out hope of pardon to all sinners through exomologesis (liturgical conversion) but as a Montanist in De pudicitia denied the bishop's power to forgive those guilty of certain unpardonable sins. Such puritans, as they were termed at Nicaea, called the guilty to conversion but refused reconciliation. Cyprian of Carthage went against this when he authorized penance and reconciliation for the dying and, expecting another persecution, for all sinners, even those who had earlier apostacized. Rome followed a similar policy.
Nicaea upheld the Church's authority over all sinners, calling for the Eucharist to be given to the dying, even those who could not enter penance. This exceptional adaptation of procedures suggests that forgiveness was understood as due to divine mercy, not the penitent's efforts. Pacian (d. before 392) and Ambrose (d. 397) both upheld the Church's full authority as expression of divine mercy.
Communal disciplinary and liturgical structures developed to highlight the Church's authority over sin. Those who had begun to repent spoke privately with the bishop or his delegate. They entered the order of penitents in a public liturgical rite. The order of penitents provided community ministry parallel to the catechumenate. Fasting, prayer, and works of charity symbolized turning from self-centeredness to God and neighbor. The process of conversion often took years and frequently required celibacy and withdrawal from public life.
We know little of the liturgy reconciling penitents until after the resolution of the penitential controversies and the emergence of canonical penance. The liturgy then became increasingly dramatic, perhaps to compensate for an abbreviated and less committed conversion, but certainly to highlight the Church's authority to reconcile all repentant sinners. In the fifth century the ritual of reconciliation took place after the dismissal of catechumens, at the time when penitents normally "came under the hand" to receive the community's exorcism-blessing and prayer. Penitents expressed their sorrow, their prayer became the community's, the bishop was asked to reconcile them, he prayed to voice the penitent's prayer now become the prayer of the Church, and he imposed hands to show that the penitents from freed from sin and restored to the Eucharist.
Penitents reached the completion (absolutio ) of their conversion in a public liturgy just before Easter. Ritual dynamics expressed that both conversion and forgiveness were in and through penitents' relationship to the community of salvation: they were reconciled to God by being reconciled to the Church. However, the refusal to allow more than one such reconciliation (a parallel with baptism) signaled a failure to reflect in practice the doctrine of the Church's full authority.
Canonical regulation of the order of penitents in the fourth and fifth centuries also failed to take adequate account
of the changing socio-cultural situation of the Church where sin was no longer the experience of a return to pagan ways. Coercive penalties were often inconsistent from one region to another; their severity discouraged many people from undertaking the ecclesial conversion that was increasingly experienced as punitive. Not surprisingly, there was a rise in deathbed penance, as many sought to avoid or mitigate the harshness of doing penance and the public stigma of being branded a public penitent. Voluntarily joining the ranks of the conversi was much like religious profession for the pious—Francis later founded three orders of penance—but those forced to undergo the canonical discipline were often penalized for life.
The demise of the catechumenate meant that the developing season of Lent took on a penitential rather than baptismal spirit. In the fifth and sixth centuries others began to join the penitents and by the tenth century all were expected to. Lent thus became a communal form of penance.
In many places, particularly the East and Gaul, repentant sinners undertook conversion on their own or with the assistance of a spiritual advisor but without the official and liturgical support of the Church. The East, however, provided prayers for forgiveness in the Hours and Liturgy that maintained a communal orientation to penance.
Medieval Penance. Doing penance privately without official ecclesial and liturgical support increased in the early Middle Ages. In the West Celtic monks extended to the laity the ministry of soul-friend. Spiritual advisors, usually nonordained monks or nuns, gave counsel on how best to compensate for sin (a perspective of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic culture also evident in Anselm's theory of redemption). Advisors adapted the celtic penal system with tarriff and commutation in evaluating the penance that needed to be carried out for sin. This took the form of penitentials, lists of sins and appropriate remedies or penalties which generally functioned as tariffs imposed on sins.
The depth of the penitent's contrition was, however, taken into account. Unlike canonical penance, there was no public stigma, penalties were often mitigated by commutations and redemptions (later, indulgences), and, most importantly, penance could be done repeatedly for any sin at any time to reassure the anxious. All that was needed was contrition (sincere repentance), detailed confession, and the performance of assigned penances.
"Confession" grew in importance. This was no longer the praise of a merciful God calling the sinner to conversion (exomologesis ) but the detailed admission of sinfulness to the advisor for the purpose of receiving an appropriate "penance." After this was done, the individual could return to eucharistic communion. If what was later called "absolution" existed—and this is doubtful—it was given by lay as well as ordained advisors who heard confession.
After unsuccessful efforts to revive canonical penance during the ninth-century Carolingian reformation, the official structures were adapted in a fashion that accepted private confession and penance for grave sins not publicly known. With the growing popularity of the Celtic practice of confession, a private liturgy of penance began to develop. At first this was simply confession (in the sense of admitting one's sins to receive the benefit of the confessor's advice and assignment of penance), but in the tenth century reconciliation (absolution) was added immediately after the confession. The private ritual contained many elements from the canonical liturgy but lost the public, communal process that liturgy engendered and the consequent sense of identity for both community and penitents. Priests were to serve as confessors and, after penance, to give an official declaration of completion, the absolution, as an exercise of the power of the keys. The penitent's active participation was largely limited to responding to the priest's questions regarding sin, listening to the Latin prayers, affirming faith and confidence in response to the priest's questions, and receiving the declaration of forgiveness (absolution). Confession and absolution were the ritual foci. It was the failure of penitents to return for absolution after doing their penance led to absolution being joined to confession in the tenth century.
Medieval theologians debated how penance fit into the new category of sacrament and how the penitent's acts (contrition, confession, and satisfaction as phases of personal conversion) and the priest's absolution related to one another in effecting forgiveness. These debates developed out of the private individual experience of repentance and the lack of a clear sense of reconciliation to the Church that had been expressed in the ancient liturgy.
Influenced by the spirit of Celtic culture that had shaped private penance, some theologians emphasized the penitent's efforts to make satisfaction. However, the displacement of confession-penance by confession-absolution meant that penance (satisfaction) diminished in importance and became more lenient. This led many twelfth-century theologians to emphasize contrition, interior penance or repentance manifested in confession, as the source of pardon (e.g., Abelard). Others (e.g., the Victorines) emphasized the power of the keys removing guilt. Bonaventure saw confession and absolution disposing a person to contrition, with that the cause of forgiveness, and there were other attempts at synthesis.
Aquinas achieved a balance between the personal and ecclesiastical factors by regarding the penitent's acts as the matter of the sacrament and the priest's absolution as the form. The two act as a single cause, with the penitent's acts sacramental signs and the absolution dominant. Grace is the formal, efficient, and final cause of both contrition and forgiveness; contrition and forgiveness are the material cause of grace and dispose the person to receive it; absolution serves as the instrumental cause. Attrition (incipient contrition) is the remote disposition for grace. In the sacramental ritual attrition matures into contrition and becomes the proximate disposition for grace. There is thus a single means of postbaptismal justification, in the sacrament or outside it: contrition as the expression of faith and love in response to grace.
Later scholastics exploited ambiguities in Thomas' explanation to relate the subjective and objective elements in a more extrinsic manner. Duns Scotus distinguished sharply between attrition and contrition (on the basis of motive, whether self-love or the love of God above all things) and gave prominence to the absolution by seeing only attrition as needed in the sacrament but "perfect" contrition required outside it.
In addition to private confession, the Middle Ages made use of other forms of penance: solemn penance (the rarely used remnant of ancient canonical penance's liturgy), the Lenten season, pilgrimage, and general (public) absolutions in the liturgy. Lay confession continued to be used into the fourteenth century, especially when a priest was not available, and was often considered sacramental or quasi-sacramental, although Scotus' view of absolution as the essence of the sacrament eventually led to it not being regarded as sacramental.
Modern Penance. Lateran IV (1215) began the transition from medieval to modern penance by requiring each Christian of the age of reason to make an annual confession to his or her priest for the sake of receiving absolution. Confessors were encouraged to interrogate penitents, a sign that penitents' understanding of sin and penance was shallow. Yet, in the face of Albigensianism, confession became a sign of loyalty to the Church and the obligatory means of forgiveness. Most lay people, submitted reluctantly to the priest's judgment. Most commentators saw this compulsory confession as binding only those conscious of mortal sin, a view given tacit approval by trent and incorporated into the 1983 Code of Canon Law.
The official requirement of confession and absolution began a shift from medieval understanding and practice. Confession became the ordinary means to gain forgiveness of serious postbaptismal sin. For some this was onerous discipline; for others, consoling grace.
luther's understanding of justification by grace through faith led him to regard penance as the gospel promise of grace encouraging the sinner to confident trust in divine forgiveness. He criticized requiring integral (full) confession of all mortal sins. By limiting the power of the keys to proclaiming the gospel of forgiveness he rejected priestly absolution as a juridical act.
Trent's response (Session 14, 1551) was to insist on penance's institution by Christ for the forgiveness of postbaptismal sin. It solemnly reaffirmed integral confession of mortal sins to the priest and his absolution as a judgment reconciling the sinner with God. Both were declared to be iure divino, but at the time the term's meaning varied from a custom in line with the divine will to something essential by God's will.
The importance of the penitent's confession and the priest's absolution grew in response to Reformation criticism. The 1614 Rituale Romanum removed or diminished liturgical elements, including prayer, to show the centrality of integral confession and juridical absolution. As a consequence, few penitents experienced confession as ecclesial worship.
The Counter-Reformation continued the medieval association of confession and communion, and as communion became more frequent, so did confession. The introduction of the confessional, intended to prevent accusations of sollicitation, strengthened the sense of privacy and isolation. When Pius X's Quam singulari (1910) lowered the age of first communion, penance, rather than confirmation, became the ritual transition between baptism and Eucharist, and the age of this first confession became a matter of controversy following Vatican Council II. Throughout the era of the Counter-Reformation, highlighting confession as a sign of Catholic loyalty made its ritual performance the only ordinary means of postbaptismal justification. Devotional confession (the confession of venial sins or of already-forgiven mortal sins) became a common practice.
Vatican Council II. The ancient theme of experiencing reconciliation with God through reconciliation with the Church in the context of community worship (Xiberta, K. Rahner) was restored to prominence as a result of nineteenth-and twentieth-century historical study. Theologians consequently shifted focus from contrition (interior penance) to reconciliation with the Church in speaking of how God's action enters sacramentally within human experience (the res et sacramentum, to use the scholastic term).
Vatican Council II emphasized conversion as both personal and ecclesial and called for a reform to express the sacrament's social and ecclesial character (Sacrosanctum concilium 72). It stressed that the penitent sinner is reconciled at the same time with God and Church (Lumen gentium 11; Presbyterorum ordinis 5). Theological consensus on the priority of reconciliation with the Church was matched pastorally by grassroots development of communal celebrations of the sacrament.
The 1973 Rite of Penance provides three sacramental forms (for reconciling an individual, for reconciling several penitents with individual confession and absolution, for reconciling several penitents with general confession and absolution) and nonsacramental penitential celebrations to support conversion. The Introduction reflects theological consensus of the mid-twentieth century. Conversion to God is a personal process in community and the traditional acts of the penitent are restated in this context. Reconciliation is fundamental to the Church's character and responsibility, with bishops and priests exercising the ministry of this sacrament. Reconciliation with the Church is sacrament of reconciliation with God. For the first time in an official ritual social dimensions of sin and reconciliation and the sacrament's orientation to justice are noted.
Rite I, i.e., the rite for reconciling an individual penitent has also been enhanced liturgically with prayer, scripture, and fuller participation. It too is described as the liturgy by which the Church renews itself (RP 11). A pleasant room rather than a dark booth is the appropriate place for this liturgy, although penitents may choose to use a grille to maintain anonymity. Overall, practice has changed little, and focus is still more on confession and absolution than shared prayer.
Rite II situates individual confession and absolution in a new, communal context. Individual confession and absolution follow an initial communal celebration (including a Liturgy of the Word with homily and examination of conscience), ending with a proclamation of praise and prayer of thanksgiving. The difficulty of finding enough confessors to celebrate Rite II properly often means a truncated celebration still focusing on individual confession and absolution and eliminating communal praise and thanksgiving. However, when carried out in full, the communal context of Rite II is able to aid in the formation of one's conscience and a deepened sense of sin, conversion, and reconciliation that is both personal and communal.
Rite III provides a fully communal celebration for reconciling the repentant. The communal celebrations consist of introductory rites (song and prayer), celebration of the Word (including homily and examination of conscience), the rite of reconciliation, and a concluding rite. The rite of reconciliation begins with a general or communal confession, including the Lord's Prayer. Provision is made for a general or communal absolution and a proclamation of praise. The use of Rite III is governed by the provisions of canon 961 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which restricts its use to the following situations: (i) where danger of death is imminent and there is insufficient time for the hearing of individual confessions (c. 961 §1, 1), and (ii) there is grave necessity, i.e., when in view of the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors available for individual confessions within a suitable period of time in such a way that the penitents are forced to be deprived for a long while of sacramental grace or holy communion through no fault of their own (c. 961 §1, 2). The competent person to judge whether such conditions exist is the diocesan bishop (c. 961 §2).
The post-Tridentine increase in frequency of confession slowed and began to reverse in the second quarter of the twentieth century. A changed sense of sin, dissent from Church moral teaching (especially on artificial contraception), and the experience of reconciliation in other contexts (especially Eucharist, with more frequent communion) have been major factors in what amounts to a return to the medieval standard of frequency.
Bibliography: b. poschman, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick (London 1963). k. rahner, "Forgotten Truths Concerning the Sacrament of Penance," Theological Investigations 2 (1963) 135–174. k. dooley, "From Penance to Confession: The Celtic Contribution," Bijdragen 43 (1982) 390–411. k. dooley, "Development of the Practice of Devotional Confession," Quaestiones Liturgiques (1983) 89–117. j. dallen, The Reconciling Community (Collegeville, MN 1986); j. favazza, The Order of Penitents (Collegeville, MN 1988); k. osborne, Reconciliation and Justification (New York/Mahwah, NJ, 1990). international theological commission, "Penance and Reconciliation" (1982); john paul ii, "On Reconciliation and Penance in the Mission of the Church Today" (1984).