Classic Catholic Reflections on Penance

Classic Catholic Reflections on Penance July 29, 2018


1. Penance

A. Servant of God John A. Hardon, S. J.

The virtue or disposition of heart by which one repents of one’s own sins and is converted to God. Also the punishment by which one atones for sins committed, either by oneself or by others. And finally the sacrament of penance, where confessed sins committed after baptism are absolved by a priest in the name of God. (Pocket Catholic Dictionary, New York: Doubleday Image, 1980, 320)

B. Ludwig Ott

The virtue of penance, which is insistently recommended in both the Old and New Testaments . . ., and which at all times was a necessary precondition for the forgiveness of sins, is that moral virtue, which inclines the will to turn away inwardly from sin, and to render atonement to God for it. It consists in sorrow of the soul for sins committed, in as much as sin is an insult to God, together with a purpose of amendment. External manifestations of the virtue of penance are the confession of sins, the performance of penitential works of every kind, for example, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, mortifications, and the patient bearing of all trials sent by God. (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 1974, 416)


A. Bertrand Conway

Not only must the sinner be truly sorry for his sins, he must also make satisfaction for them. Even when sins have been pardoned by God, there often remains the liability to temporal punishment to atone for the injury done Him, and to bring about the sinner’s reformation. God often requires Satisfaction of the sinner for the transgression of His laws, both natural and supernatural. The impure man may be forgiven his sin, and yet be punished for his immorality by ill health; the murderer may be pardoned his crime, and yet have to expiate it in the electric chair. The Scriptures tell us that God pardoned Adam his disobedience, the Israelites in the desert their murmuring and idolatry, Moses his lack of faith, and David his murder, adultery and pride; but they were all severely punished by Him (Gen 3:19; Exod 22:14,27; Num 14:20-23; 20:12; Deut 32:51-52; 2 Sam 12:13-14, ch. 24). St. Paul also speaks of sickness and death as temporal punishments for unworthy communions (1 Cor 11:30-32). (The Question Box, New York: Paulist Press, 1929, 293)

B. Servant of God John A. Hardon, S. J.

It is a divinely revealed truth that sins bring punishments inflicted by God’s sanctity and justice. These must be expiated either on this earth through the sorrows, miseries, and trials of life, and above all through death, or else through purifying penalties in the life beyond. Moreover, they are to be expiated either by the sinner himself or also by others who make reparation, as far as possible, in his stead.

The just and merciful God imposes these punishments for the purification of souls, the defense of the sanctity of the moral order, and the restoration of his glory to its full majesty. Every sin, we believe, causes a disturbance in the order established by God, along with the destruction of precious values within the sinner and in the human community. Christians have always regarded sin not only as a transgression of the divine law, which it is; they have also seen it as disregard for the friendship between God and man, an offense against the Creator, and an ungrateful rejection of the love of God shown us in so many ways but especially in the person of Jesus Christ.

To obtain full remission of sins, therefore, two things are necessary. Friendship with God must be re-established by a sincere conversion of heart, and amends must be made for the injustice committed against his goodness. In addition, however, all the personal and social values and even those of the universal nature that have been diminished or destroyed by sin, must somehow be repaired. Call this reparation or reintegration. The important thing is that the restoration be done either by voluntarily `making up’ for the wrong done or freely accepting the punishments demanded by an all-wise and holy Lord. As the Scriptures so eloquently declare, the very existence and gravity of the punishment should impress us with the folly and gravity of sin and its harmful consequences to mankind. (The Catholic Catechism, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1975, 560-561)

C. Ludwig Ott

The virtue of penance, which is insistently recommended in both the Old and New Testaments (cf. Ezek 18:21 ff.; 33:11; Jer 18:11; 25:5 ff.; Joel 2:12 ff.; Matt 3:2; 4:17; Acts 2:38), and which at all times was a necessary precondition for the forgiveness of sins, is that moral virtue, which inclines the will to turn away inwardly from sin, and to render atonement to God for it. It consists in sorrow of the soul for sins committed, in as much as sin is an insult to God, together with a purpose of amendment. External manifestations of the virtue of penance are the confession of sins, the performance of penitential works of every kind, for example, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, mortifications, and the patient bearing of all trials sent by God. (Ott, ibid., 416)

The faithful on earth can, by their good works performed in the state of grace, render atonement for one another.

The effect of the atonement is the remission of temporal punishment for sin. The possibility of vicarious atonement is founded in the unity of the Mystical Body. As Christ, the Head, in His expiatory sufferings, took the place of the members, so also one member can take the place of another. The doctrine of indulgences is based on the possibility and reality of vicarious atonement . . .

Even in the Old Testament the idea of vicarious atonement by innocent persons for guilty is known. The innocent person takes on himself responsibility for the displeasure of God which the guilty person has merited, in order by sacrifice to win again the Divine favour for the latter. Moses offers himself to God as a sacrifice for the people who sinned (Ex 32:32). Job brings God a burnt offering, in order to expiate the sins of his children (Job 1:5). Isaiah prophesies the vicarious suffering of atonement of Christ as a ransom, as an offering in atonement for the sins of mankind. The Apostle Paul teaches that also the faithful can rend expiation for one another. Col 1:24: `Who now rejoice in my suffering for you and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ in my flesh for His body, which is the Church.’ 2 Cor 12:15: `But I most gladly will spend and be spent myself for your souls.’ 2 Tim 4:6: `I am even now ready to be sacrificed’ (that is, to suffer a martyr’s death) . . .

The possibility of meriting for others is based on the friendship of God for the just, and on the communion of saints. More effective than such merit is prayer for others. Cf. James 5:16: `Pray for one another, that you may be saved, for the continual prayer of a just man availeth much’ (cf. 1 Tim 2:1-4). (Ibid., 317, 269)

D. Council of Trent (1545-63)

Session 14, November 25, 1551

On the Most Holy Sacrament of Penance and Extreme Unction

Chapter 8: “On the Necessity and on the Fruit of Satisfaction”

Finally, as regards satisfaction, – which as it is, of all the parts of penance, that which has been at all times recommended to the Christian people by our Fathers, . . . – the holy synod declares that it is wholly false, and alien from the word of God, that the guilt is never forgiven by the Lord without the whole punishment also being therewith pardoned. For clear and illustrious examples are found in the Sacred Writings (Gen 3:16 ff., Num 12:14 ff., 20:11 ff., 2 Sam 12:13 ff., etc.), whereby, besides by divine tradition, this error is refuted in the plainest manner possible . . .

For, doubtless, these satisfactory punishments greatly recall from sin and check as it were with a bridle and make penitents more cautious and watchful for the future; they are also remedies for the remains of sin, and, by acts of the opposite virtues, they remove the habits acquired by evil living. Neither indeed was there ever in the Church of God any way accounted surer to turn aside the impending chastisement of the Lord than that men should, with true sorrow of mind, practise these works of penitence (Matt 3:8, 4:17, 11:21, etc.). Add to these things that, whilst we thus, by making satisfaction, suffer for our sins, we are made conformable to Jesus Christ, Who satisfied for our sins (Rom 5:10, 1 Jn 2:1 ff.), from Whom all are sufficiency is (2 Cor 3:5); having also thereby a most sure pledge that, if we suffer with Him, we shall also be glorified with Him (Rom 8:17). But neither is this satisfaction, which we discharge for our sins, so our own as not to be through Jesus Christ. For we who can do nothing of ourselves, as of ourselves, can do all things, He cooperating who strengthens us (Phil 4:13). Thus, man has not wherein to glory, but all our glorying is in Christ (1 Cor 1:31, 2 Cor 10:17, Gal 6:14): in Whom we live; in Whom we merit (cf. Acts 17:28); in Whom we satisfy; bringing forth fruits worthy of penance (Lk 3:8), which from Him have their efficacy; by Him are offered to the Father; and through Him are accepted by the Father . . .

For the ancient Fathers likewise both believe and teach that the keys of the priests were given, not to loose only, but also to bind (Matt 16:19, 18:18, Jn 20:23). But not, therefore, did they imagine that the Sacrament of Penance is a tribunal of wrath or of punishments; even as no Catholic ever thought that, by this kind of satisfactions on our parts, the efficacy of the merit and of the satisfaction of our Lord Jesus Christ is either obscured or in any way lessened; which when the innovators seek to understand, they in such wise maintain a new life to be the best penance as to take away the entire efficacy and use of satisfaction. (Dogmatic Canons and Decrees, Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 1977 [orig. New York: 1912; Documents of Councils of Trent and Vatican I], 104-108)

Canons on the Most Holy Sacrament of Penance

Canon III

If anyone saith that those words of the Lord the Saviour: `Receive ye the Holy Ghost, whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained,’ (Jn 20:22 ff.) are not to be understood of the power of forgiving and of retaining sins in the sacrament of Penance, as the Catholic Church has always from the beginning understood them; but wrests them, contrary to the institution of this sacrament, to the power of preaching the Gospel; let him be anathema. (Ibid., 115-116)

Canon XII

If anyone saith that God always remits the whole punishment together with the guilt, and that the satisfaction of penitents is no other than the faith whereby they apprehend that Christ has satisfied for them; let him be anathema. (Ibid., 120)

Canon XIV

If anyone saith that the satisfactions by which penitents redeem their sins through Jesus Christ are not a worship of God, but traditions of men, which obscure the doctrine of grace and the true worship of God and the benefit itself of the death of Christ; let him be anathema. (Ibid., 120-121)

E. Atonement in the Old Testament (New Bible Dictionary) (Protestant)

Atonement is secured, not by any value inherent in the sacrificial victim, but because sacrifice is the divinely appointed way of securing atonement . . . The victims cost something, for atonement is not cheap, and sin is never to be taken lightly . . . There are several allusions to atonement, either effected or contemplated by means other than the cultus . . . Thus in Ex 32:30-32 Moses seeks to make an atonement for the sin of the people . . . Phinehas made an atonement by slaying certain transgressors (Num 25:6-8,13). Other passages might be cited. (J. D. Douglas, editor, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1962, 108)

F. Philippians 3:10

That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death.

G. Colossians 1:24

Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church.

i) Wycliffe Bible Commentary (Protestant)

This idea is to be understood from the standpoint of the Hebrew concept of corporate personality illustrated in Jesus’ graphic statement concerning his church, `Why persecutest thou me?’ (Acts 9:4) . . . Union with Christ involves ipso facto union with Christ’s sufferings: [cites Rom 8:17] . . . The corporate `in Christ’ reality (Gal 2:20) is to be actualized in individual Christians; thus Paul can speak even of his own death as a sacrifice (Phil 2:17; 2 Tim 4:6). (Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison, editors, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Chicago: Moody Press, 1962, 1339)

ii) New Bible Commentary (Protestant)

Christ is still suffering through the sufferings of His people. What Paul endures is therefore an extension of the sufferings of Christ. These sufferings are on behalf of the body, the church as a whole, not just the local community. (D. Guthrie and J. A. Motyer, editors, The New Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 3rd edition, 1970; reprinted in 1987 as The Eerdmans Bible Commentary, 1145)

iii) New Bible Dictionary (Protestant)

Suffering can have a new meaning for those who are members of the body of Christ. They can share in the sufferings of Christ (2 Cor 1:5 ff.; Mk 10:39; Rom 8:17), and regard themselves as pledged to a career or vocation of suffering (Phil 1:29; 1 Peter 5:1-2), since the members of the body must be conformed to the Head in this respect (Phil 3:10; Rom 8:29) as well as in respect of His glory . . . It is entirely by grace, and not in any way by necessity [also the Catholic teaching], that the sufferings in which His people participate with Him can be spoken of as filling up what is lacking in His affliction (Col 1:24), and as giving fellowship in His vicarious and redemptive suffering. (Douglas, ibid., 1221)


(originally 1994)

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