Clare Bolin--Penance

History 220 Spring 2011
Douglas County RAC

What is Penance

Penance is a belief of the Roman Catholic faith as a way for a person to be forgiven of a sin. It is not just a ceremony or to do list but a sacrament instituted by Christ granted by a Priest. Penance is the promise and action to satisfy the true sorrow of the Person who sinned. Penance is part of Confession, where a Priest and the Penitent meet and the sins are offered up for forgiveness. The Priest then decides or assigns the sacrifices or actions to the Penitent to complete for forgiveness.

Christ instituted the Sacrament of Penance after His Resurrection. Christ is believed to be the Son of God sent to Earth and crucified by the Romans to forgive the Original sin, or the sin of Adam and Eve. When Christ rose it is believed He did not approve of repeated Baptisms to forgive sins. While Christ healed the sick He felt Penance was an even more impactful spiritually. It allowed the Penitent the chance to enter into heaven while healing the sick only helps the healed enjoy a mortal life on earth. Baptism is believed to be a spiritual birth while Penance is the spiritual forgiveness of the soul contracted after birth.
The Catholic Church believes that each person can confess his or her Sin while they are in this world while the satisfaction and the forgiveness granted by the priest and is acceptable to God. The Church, the Priest themselves, or anyone else cannot grant forgiveness. Forgiveness is left to God and God alone. The granting by Christ of the power to forgive sins is the first essential of the Sacrament of Penance; in the actual exercise of this power are included the other essentials. The sacrament as such and on its own account has a matter and a form and it produces certain effects; the power of the keys is exercised by a minister (confessor) who must possess the proper qualifications, and the effects are wrought in the soul of the recipient, i.e., the penitent who with the necessary dispositions must perform certain actions (confession, satisfaction).

How it evolved

There was a divide in what power if any Penance had in the Catholic Church. Pope Callistus (218-222) published his “peremptory edict” in which he declares that he forgives the sins of adultery to those who have done penance. Tertullian a Montanist wrote in his paper “De pudicitia” rejecting that the Church could forgive all sins. Instead he sets up distinction between lighter sins that the Bishop could forgive and more severe sins that which God alone could forgive. He also distinguishes two kinds of penance, one as a preparation for baptism, the other to obtain forgiveness of certain grievous sins committed after baptism, i.e., apostasy, murder and adultery.

In another divide around A.D. 140 a work titled “Shepherd” written by Hermas, made public a view of rigorists who insisted that there was no pardon for sins committed after Baptism (Hanna). The Church took a stand on this thought process and taught Penance was God’s work. Several works of that time period also stated that there is only one repentance. A person is only allowed one Penance on this earth. The Church and scholars believe these works were intended to say that the sinner could be absolved only once in his whole life is by no means a necessary conclusion. His words may well be understood as referring to public penance and they imply no limitation on the sacramental power itself. A public Penance was one where a Priest or Bishop would lead a ceremony of Penance.

How firmly rooted in the Catholic mind is the belief in the efficacy and necessity of confession, appears clearly from the fact that the Sacrament of Penance endures in the Church after the countless attacks to which it has been subjected during the last four centuries. Not only was the obligation recognized in the Catholic Church throughout the Middle Ages, but also the schismatic Greeks held the same belief and still hold it. If at the Reformation or since the Church could have surrendered a doctrine or abandoned a practice for the sake of peace and to soften a "hard saying", confession would have been the first to disappear. Yet it is precisely during this period that the Church has defined in the most exact terms the nature of penance and most vigorously insisted on the necessity of confession.

For those who sought to escape the obligation of confession it was natural enough to assert that repentance was the affair of the soul alone with its Maker, and that no intermediary was needed. It is this pretext that St. Augustine sweeps aside in one of his sermons: "Let no one say I do penance secretly; I perform it in the sight of God, and He who is to pardon me knows that in my heart I repent" (Hanna).


Penance Today
The Catholic teaching is that all mortal sins must be confessed of which the penitent is conscious, for these are so related that no one of them can be remitted until all are remitted. Remission means that the soul is restored to the friendship of God; and this is obviously impossible if there remain unforgiven even a single mortal sin. Hence, the penitent, who in confession willfully conceals a mortal sin, derives no benefit whatever; on the contrary, he makes void the sacrament. While mortal sin is the necessary matter of confession, venial sin is sufficient matter, as are also the mortal sins already forgiven in previous confessions. A mortal sin is a grave or serious violation of God’s law. Examples of mortal sins are adultery, murder, and idolatry or worshiping false Gods. A venial sin is not a grave sin or a sin not done with full knowledge. “These early Christians also faced the risk of arrest, prison, torture and martyrdom from the Jews or Romans. Consequently, the early Catholic Church leaders threatened their members with severe penances and excommunication if they fell into one of the “big three” sins: murder, adultery, or apostasy (such as yielding to Paganism under threats, etc.). Such sinners would be moved into the category of paenitentes, obligated to a long period of fasting and penance, and granted only one chance of reconciliation. This reconciling was made only by the Bishop, usually at the Holy Thursday liturgy, with the whole Catholic community present” (Fr. Stephen F. Somerville).

“Gradually the Church modified her penitential discipline by introducing what we now call indulgences. The main reason for this was the growing realization that sins could be expiated not only by the sinner but by others; indeed that the whole Church, militant, suffering and triumphant cooperates in the expiation of sins” (Hanna).

“The practice of allowing prayers and practices of piety to replace severe penances of former days goes back to the early Middle Ages. But even as late as the 1960’s, when Pope Paul VI authorized the new “Norms and Grants on Indulgences,” the Catholic faithful would earn partial indulgences of “seven years,” or “forty days.” This meant that, through the merits of the Church, a person expiated as much temporal punishment as in the early days would be atoned by performing the severe penalties imposed, say, for seven years of forty days” (Hanna).
As a believer and follower of Christ, I found no where in the Bible where the act of Penance was talked about or even instituted by Christ. In Revelations 1:5-6, it says that "5And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, 6And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen" (The Bible). So if I have been made a priest unto God, then why do I need to go and confess my sins to a priest for him to forgive me of them. Who gives these Priests the right to forgive my sin when they have committed sins and are human just as I am? I was raised Protestant, specifically Church of God, and I have been taught that the scripture James 5:16 "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective" (The Bible). I agree that confessing my sins is good, but just telling or confessing my sins to that person does mean I am forgiven.

While Penance has been debated and how it’s delivered, the importance of the Sacrament has not. The church and its followers have always understood that God’s forgiveness is a fundamental of the Religion. I do not think that the act of penance is bad or wrong necessarily, I just do not understand how a man or woman can listen to a persons confession of a sin and then authorize them to do something to make certain they are forgiven of that sin. Who can forgive a person, but God.

ALBERTUS MAGNUS, Opera (Lyons, 1851); ALEXANDER OF HALES, In duodecim Aristotelis Metaphysicæ libros (1572); IDEM, Universæ Theologiæ Summa (Cologne, 1622): St. THOMAS AQUINAS, Opera (Parma, 1852-72), especially the Opuscula De Natura Materiæ, De Principio Individuationis, De Spiritualibus Creaturis, In Boethium de Trinitate, De Principiis Naturæ, Quodlibet, IX, Q. iv, De Mixtione Elementorum; ARISTOTLE, Opera (Paris, 1619); ST. AUGUSTINE, Opera (Antwerp, 1679-1703); ST. BONAVENTURE, Opera (Paris, 1864-71); CAIETAN, Summa . . . Thomæ a Vio . . . Commentariis illustrata (Lyons, 1562); DE WULF, Histoire de la Philosophie Médiévale (Louvain); FARGES, Matière et Forme en présence des Sciences modernes (Paris, 1892); GROTE, Aristotle (London, 1873); IDEM, Plato and the other companions of Socrates (London, 1865); HARPER, The Metaphysics of the School (London, 1879); LORENZELLI, Philosophiæ Theoreticæ Institutiones (Rome, 1896); MERCIER, Ontologie (Louvain, 1902); NYS, Cosmologie (Louvain, 1904); SCOTUS, Opera (Lyons, 1639); SAINT-HILAIRE, Œuvres d'Aristote (Paris, 1837-92); SUAREZ; Metaphysicarum disputationum (Mainz, 1605); UEREEWEG: History of Philosophy, tr. MORRIS (1872); WINDELBAND, A History of Philosophy, tr. TUFTS (New York, 1893).
"Excursus on the Public Discipline or Exomologesis of the Early Church." Morinus, De Disciplina in Administratione Sacramenti Poenitentiae; Bingham, Antiquities; and Hammond, The Definitions of Faith, etc. Note to Canon XI. of Nice.
Fr. Stephen F. Somerville, STL. Confession after Vatican II Part II - Penance or Reconciliation? 2002-2007. 20 April 2011 <>.
Hanna, Edward. "The Sacrament of Penance." 1911. The Catholic Encyclopedia. 2011 April 24 <>.

Fr. Stephen F. Somerville, STL. Confession after Vatican II Part II - Penance or Reconciliation? 2002-2007. 20 April 2011 <>.

Analysis: In the article Confession after Vatican II Part II – Penance or Reconciliation? Friar Somerville outlines whether the Catholic Church uses the word Penance/Confession or Reconciliation for the Sacrament. He gives a really good description of why they are not interchangeable for the Sacrament.

Is it the same thing to the Catholic church?
  • “the early Catholic Church leaders threatened their members with severe penances and excommunication if they fell into one of the “big three” sins: murder, adultery, or apostasy (such as yielding to Paganism under threats, etc.)”
  • Penance and Confession, conversely, do clearly express these more demanding stages of conversion.”
  • “express well the acts of the penitent.”
  • The word reconcile literally means to make good again, to win over to friendliness. It has a Church meaning also: to restore a penitent, an excommunicated person, to communion”
  • “This name “reconciliation,” is it what we now want to call the Sacrament of Penance? Let us start with a short answer: No, definitely not.”
  • “denotes only the final stage of the process of conversion. It does not express or convey the hard and humbling need for sorrow (contrition), for expiation, for atonement, for confession to a priest.”
  • “an act and a gift of God’s grace and of the Church’s favor, something outside the sinner’s action and doing.”
  • “Reconciliation is not done, but is received by the penitent.”

Early Church
Present Day church
Who used the word?
  • “Remember that when the Church did use that term in the early Church of the Fathers, the reconciliation ceremony was preceded by a long and severe penance.”
  • It was a major change for the Church eventually to assign only a light penance to and to grant absolution before the penance was performed. We do well to keep the name Confession.”
  • “A "reconciliation room" in a modern church lacks the sense of confession or penance.”

Penance and Poetry in the Canterbury Tales
Rodney Delasanta
Vol. 93, No. 2 (Mar., 1978), pp. 240-247
Published by: __Modern Language Association__
Article Stable URL: __
Analysis II: In the Article Penance and Poetry in the Canterbury Tales, the author Rodney Delasanta describes how Chaucer satirizes the Sacrament of Penance in his tale.

Why were they on their pilgrimage?
  • “Chaucer’s pilgrims had been reached two miles from Canterbury as they emerged from the Blean forest at Bobbe-up-and-down or—as it has been identified—Harbledown, the location over-looking Canterbury where even as recalcitrant a pilgrim as Henry II assumed his penitential posture two centuries earlier by stripping himself naked for the monks’ lashes” (241).
  • The “righte wey of Jerusalem celestial,” to which the Parson alludes in the opening lines of his tale” (241)
  • “…this wey is cleped Penitence” (241)
  • “they are, after all, on a pilgrimage, and the ostensible reason for pilgrimage is penance, however besmirched either its motive or its execution” (241).

Biblical view
Worldly View
What was penance according to Chaucer?
  • “the good priest’s understanding of Christ’s lore is as old as the gospels from which he “trewely wolde preche” (241)
  • the form of that repentance, as dictated by the medieval church, involved this holy Parson as indispensable instrument: “Amen I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven” (241-242)
  • “By Chaucer’s time, of course, confession was auricular: sins were heard in order to be forgiven or retained, as the case may have been” (242)
  • “Because it was understood that confession should be complete, that it should posess sacramental integrity, the penitent was urged to compare his current moral condition against some positive or negative standard, like the Ten Commandments or the Seven Deadly Sins” (242)