More on the topic of Penance and Valid Confession

This post was occasioned by a post at the New Theological Movement blog by Fr. Ryan ‘Reginaldus’ Erlenbush. In that post, For Divine Mercy Sunday, How to make a good confession, he asserts and teaches the grave doctrinal error that their confessions are not valid unless then accept their assigned penance and resolve to complete it. This false teaching endangers souls, and is contrary to the definitive teaching of the ordinary and Universal Magisterium on the Sacrament of Forgiveness.

Fr. Reginaldus: “The principal means of satisfaction for sin is the accomplishment of the penance imposed upon us by the priest. This penance must be agreed to by the penitent – and, if the penance seems either too great or too small, the penitent is free to ask the confessor for a different penance (however, the priest is not necessarily obliged to comply with the request). If the penance is not accepted – if the penitent does not resolve to complete the penance – the sacrament will be invalid.”

Numerous sources can be cited to show that this claim is in error.

“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 Sacrament of Penance, The Catholic Encyclopedia)

The sins of human persons result in both a guilt and a punishment due. The full effect of the Sacrament is to forgive both guilt and punishment due. To obtain this full effect, one usually must do penance after contrition and confession. But if the penance is omitted, the guilt is still forgiven. For the first two parts of the Sacrament, contrition and confession, are sufficient in themselves to forgive sins; the subsequent penance of the penitent satisfies the temporal punishment due, but the sins being satisfied are already forgiven.

To say otherwise is to imply that the penance assigned by the priest forgives guilt, or — what is worse — to imply that when priest, speaking for Christ, tells the contrite penitent that he is absolved of all his sins, he is lying. For the claim is made that if the penitent has true contrition for his sins, confesses his sins properly, and receives absolution, he is still not forgiven by the Sacrament, it is claimed, unless he accepts and resolves to complete the particular penance assigned by his confessor.

When I offered the above quote to Fr. Ryan, he replied (in the comments to the blog post in question) with a long explanation citing numerous sources to show that satisfaction is integral to the Sacrament and is the matter (as it were) of the Sacrament. But that point is not in dispute. And then he draws the conclusion, which does not follow from his citations and argument, that: “the intention to fulfill the penance (satisfaction) which the penitent accepts from the priest is both necessary and integral to fruitful reception of the sacrament.” Thus he still asserts the same error.

He proves, and I agree, that satisfaction is integral to the Sacrament and is part of the matter of the Sacrament. However, the mere intention to do penance is not satisfaction, so this intention is not part of the matter of the Sacrament, nor is it (per se) one of the three parts of the Sacrament. Suppose that a penitent, because he is new to the confessional or has long been away or has not been well taught, does not have the intention to do penance and does not do any penance. Is he still forgiven? Fr. Ryan claims that he is not. But the Magisterium teaches that he is still forgiven. Suppose that a penitent is distraught due to his deep contrition and, when the priest gives him a long and complex penance, he forgets what it is. Must he then repeat the confession because he cannot do the penance assigned? The mercy of God says ‘No!’ and so does the Magisterium.

The satisfaction that is essential to the Sacrament, as one of its three parts, is first and foremost fulfilled by Christ in every contrite reception of absolution. So every contrite reception of absolution has all three parts of the Sacrament: contrition, confession with absolution, satisfaction. Furthermore, every act of contrite confession with absolution is itself a type of penance that accomplishes some satisfaction. In some cases, this satisfaction is sufficient to remit all the temporal punishment due (see my proof later in this post).

“Canon 959: In the sacrament of penance the faithful who confess their sins to a legitimate minister, are sorry for them, and intend to reform themselves obtain from God through the absolution imparted by the same minister forgiveness for the sins they have committed after baptism and, at the same, time are reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by sinning.” (Code of Canon Law, 1983)

This Canon refers to the first part of the Sacrament of Forgiveness by saying that the faithful person is sorry for his sins, and intends to reform himself. Sorrow and the intention to reform are part of contrition. The Council of Trent describes the intention to reform as ‘the purpose of not sinning for the future’:

“Contrition, which holds the first place amongst the aforesaid acts of the penitent, is a sorrow of mind, and a detestation for sin committed, with the purpose of not sinning for the future.” (Trent, Session 14, chap. 4)

The above Canon law refers to the second part of the Sacrament of Forgiveness by saying that the penitent confesses his sins to a legitimate minister, and receives absolution. When these two parts of the Sacrament are completed, Canon law tells us, the person is forgiven for the sins his has committed. As often happens in Canon Law, this Canon is a direct expression of a teaching of the Magisterium, and not a law per se. But notice that the performance of the assigned penance is NOT cited as necessary for a valid Sacrament. Although Canon Law concerns mainly the laws of the Church, it also includes teachings of the Magisterium on what is necessary for a valid Sacrament. The above cited Canon law, and the entire section on the Penitent (Can. 987 – 991), describe what is necessary for the valid Sacramental forgiveness of sins; satisfaction in the form of penance is not mentioned therein.

The Canon that mentions assigned penances (981) states an obligation on the part of the priest to impose a penance, and an obligation on the part of the penitent to perform the penance, but does NOT require penance as a condition of validity of the Sacrament, nor as a condition for the forgiveness of sins.

The Sacrament consists in three parts: 1. contrition, 2. confession (with absolution), 3. satisfaction. What Fr. Reginaldus fails to understand, is that satisfaction always occurs in any good confession, with contrition and confession and the reception of absolution. This satisfaction is from the contrite confession of sins and from the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. So all three parts of the Sacrament are present, making the Sacrament valid (even apart from the later penance if any by the penitent).

“Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.” (CCC, n. 615).

“our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited Justification for us by His most holy Passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us unto God the Father….” (Trent, Session 6, chap. 7)

“even as no Catholic ever thought, 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….” (Trent, Session 14, chap. 8)

The Sacrament of Forgiveness includes satisfaction for sin. But the source of satisfaction that is present in every valid confession is the Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. So even if a penitent does not do the assigned penance (as he generally ought to do), all three parts of the Sacrament are present, and the Sacrament is valid.

The question of whether the penitent can only satisfy any remaining temporal punishment due by the particular penances assigned by his confessor is in effect answered by the Council of Trent:

“The Synod teaches furthermore, that so great is the liberality of the divine munificence, that we are able through Jesus Christ to make satisfaction to God the Father, not only by punishments voluntarily undertaken of ourselves for the punishment of sin, or by those imposed at the discretion of the priest according to the measure of our delinquency, but also, which is a very great proof of love, by the temporal scourges inflicted of God, and borne patiently by us.” (Trent, Session 14, chap. 9)

The penances that the faithful perform in order to remit the temporal punishment due for their sins can certainly include any fitting acts of penance (prayer, self-denial, works of mercy) even when these are not suggested by their confessor. For “so great is the liberality of the Divine munificence,” and so far from Pharisaism is the Way of Christ, that a penance need not be assigned by authority in the Church in order to be effective. We may voluntarily take upon ourselves penances, and these are effective in remitting temporal punishment as part of the Sacrament of Forgiveness. For the holy Sacrament of Reconciliation begins with contrition outside the confessional, continues with confession and absolution in the confessional, and ends with sufficient penance outside the confessional. This Sacrament is not confined to the confessional.

The teaching that some of the punishment due for sin, not the guilt only, is remitted by contrition and confession was implied by the teachings of the Council of Trent.

“Finally, as regards satisfaction … 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.” (Trent, Session 14, chap. 8)

The above declaration by the Council of Trent rejects as false the idea that the guilt of sin can NEVER be forgiven without also forgiving the whole punishment due for sin. Rephrasing this statement from negative to positive: the Council taught that the punishment due for sin is NOT ALWAYS entirely forgiven with the guilt. This phrasing suggests that at times all the punishment due is satisfied along with the forgiveness of the guilt, and at other times it is not.

“If any one says 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.” (Trent, Session 14, Canon 12)

The Magisterium condemns the idea that the whole of the punishment is ALWAYS remitted with the guilt, but does not condemn the idea that sometimes the whole of the punishment is remitted with the guilt. And again, note that the Council taught that the satisfaction in the Sacrament is founded upon the satisfaction that Christ made for us.

“If any one says that the keys are given to the Church, only to loose, not also to bind; and that, therefore, priests act contrary to the purpose of the keys, and contrary to the institution of Christ, when they impose punishments on those who confess; and that it is a fiction, that, after the eternal punishment, has, by virtue of the keys, been removed, there remains for the most part a temporal punishment to be discharged; let him be anathema.” (Trent, Session 14, Canon 15).

The Council taught that, after the sin is forgiven, along with the eternal punishment (in the case of actual mortal sin), there “remains for the most part” (“usually remains” DS 925) temporal punishment to be satisfied. Again, the phrasing implies that in some cases (though not in the usual case in this sinful world) no temporal punishment remains at all, after contrition and confession (with absolution). Now the penitent can only have contrition and receive absolution if he has sins to confess, and all sin produces guilt and the debt of punishment. So how was the punishment for sin satisfied without subsequent acts penance? It was satisfied by contrition and confession, which are acts of the penitent in cooperation with grace, and which acts can satisfy some punishment. But more important is the teaching that every Sacrament has the ability, from the satisfaction that Christ made for us on the Cross, to forgive some temporal punishment due for sin.

So in some cases, no temporal punishment remains at all to be satisfied, and therefore no subsequent penance and no subsequent satisfaction is needed. This point absolutely refutes the claim that the very Sacrament of Forgiveness itself would become invalid if the penitent does not do the particular assigned penance.

The document Reconciliation and Penance, can also be cited to support these same points.

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2 Responses to More on the topic of Penance and Valid Confession

  1. Mary says:

    Hi. Thank you for the clarification of this thoughtful post.

  2. Jonathan Simcoe says:

    Thank you for demonstrating how this issue is a doctrinal error. This highlights even more why it was justified to reveal Fr. Reginaldus’ real identity. He can be corrected, just like anyone can be corrected when an error is made. This is called fraternal correction, and all are subject to it, even priests.

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