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Chapter 32: Penance, Anointing, and the Life of Self-denial

Question D: How can the sacrament of penance be a principle of the whole of a Christian’s life?

1. The sacrament of penance plainly is a vital principle for the Christian lives of those who commit mortal sins. But this function does not make it a principle of the whole of every Christian’s life. However, this sacrament also is an apt way of overcoming venial sin. Because venial sin is pervasive, in this function the sacrament can organize the whole of a Christian’s life. The present question will show how this is possible and even, in a certain sense, necessary. Questions E and F will treat two important aspects of the penitential ordering of Christian life.

2. Venial sins are of many sorts. Some involve grave matter but fall short of mortal sin because of defects in reflection or consent. Others are unknown faults, defects in voluntariness other than wrong choice (9‑G). Yet all venial sins are real moral evils—privations in one’s willing. Venial sins which involve morally wrong choices are, as it were, little secondary selves, morally split from one’s better Christian self. Venial sins of other sorts are fragments of some such little self, somehow surviving as a parasite on one’s Christian self.

3. Faith is the fundamental option of Christian life (16‑G). Unlike mortal sins, venial sins do not violate specific requirements implied by this fundamental option. Still, they really deprive the Christian personality of perfect integration with living faith. Hence, they weaken the effectiveness of faith as a fundamental option and render its supremacy in life less absolute than it ought to be. The coexistence of living faith with venial sin is uneasy. If one deliberately persists in venial sins, one will be likely to commit more serious sins (18‑C). Thus, it is important that a Christian make faith fully effective as a fundamental option by treating venial sin of all sorts as a threatening evil to be overcome.

4. This struggle against venial sin is a strict requirement of Christian life, not something optional. It is demanded by the sixth mode of Christian response which inclines one to a devout life of striving toward single-mindedness or purity of heart (26‑I). Although perfect love of God—love with one’s whole mind, heart, soul, and strength—is an ideal, all Christians are called to work toward this perfection (27‑E). This is so because Christian life means following Jesus by cooperating in his redemptive work, not least as it bears upon oneself.

5. While venial sins can be forgiven apart from the sacrament of penance, in time the confession of devotion became common for those seriously striving for perfection. This practice was attacked during the Reformation and vindicated by the definitive teaching of the Council of Trent, which commends it as a proper and advantageous practice of devout persons (see DS 1680/899, 1707/917).10

6. While acknowledging that venial sins can be expiated in other ways, Pius XII strongly commends use of the sacrament of penance: “But to ensure more rapid progress day by day in the path of virtue, We will that the pious practice of frequent confession, which was introduced into the Church by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, should be earnestly advocated. By it genuine self-knowledge is increased, Christian humility grows, bad habits are corrected, spiritual neglect and tepidity are resisted, the conscience is purified, the will strengthened, a salutary self-control is attained, and grace is increased in virtue of the Sacrament itself.”11 Pope Pius considers opinions which tend to discourage frequent confession “most dangerous to the spiritual life.”12 In the context of an exhortation to clerics, but without limiting his statement to them, John XXIII recalls Pope Pius’ teaching on this matter and says parenthetically that the pious practice of frequent confession is “necessary to the attainment of sanctity.”13

7. Since Vatican II, the sacrament of penance often has been called “the sacrament of reconciliation.” Reconciliation most properly is the restoration of mortal sinners to divine friendship and ecclesial communion. To speak of the sacrament as effecting reconciliation might therefore seem to suggest that its use to overcome venial sin is not appropriate. However, as was explained above, venial sin also is a real evil, which requires repentance and is healed only by God’s mercy. While the better self of a Christian guilty only of venial sin need not be reconciled with God and the Church, his or her alienated, little, fragmentary selves need to be reconciled with God, the Church, and the better self of living faith. The Introduction to the new rite of penance makes it clear that the traditional practice is appropriate. Frequent confession of devotion “is not a mere ritual repetition or psychological exercise, but a serious striving to perfect the grace of baptism.”14

8. John Paul II considers the Eucharist and penance together: “two closely connected dimensions of authentic life in accordance with the spirit of the Gospel, of truly Christian life.” Without constant conversion the Eucharist is deprived of its full redeeming effectiveness, while communion with Jesus’ perfect self-oblation in the Eucharist arouses “the need to turn to God in an ever more mature way and with a constant, ever more profound, conversion.” Pope John Paul also declares that Christ has a right to encounter sacramentally “each one of us in that key moment of conversion and forgiveness. By guarding and affirming the sacrament of Penance, the Church expressly affirms her faith in the mystery of the Redemption as a living and life-giving reality that fits in with man’s inward truth, with human guilt and also with the desires of the human conscience.”15

9. Theological reflection easily clarifies the reasons for the Church’s strong encouragement of the use of the sacrament of penance to overcome venial sin. The sacraments’ value is in making it possible for human persons to cooperate fittingly and consciously in their own redemption and that of others (30‑B). The context of Pius XII’s teaching on devotional confession is a warning against quietism, which leaves everything in Christian life to God’s action and nothing to ours. Grace is primary, but Christians “should strive to reach the heights of Christian perfection and at the same time to the best of their power should stimulate others to attain the same goal,—all this the heavenly Spirit does not will to effect unless they contribute their daily share of zealous activity.”16 As a divinely given mode of cooperation with the grace of the Holy Spirit, the sacrament of penance most fittingly enables Christians to strive for their own perfection while making it clear that everything they achieve, including this very effort itself, is entirely the result of God’s grace.

10. Moreover, sacramental penance is explicit and conscious cooperation with Jesus’ redemptive act as it bears upon the recipient’s own self. As John Paul II explains, the sacrament affords “a more personal encounter with the crucified forgiving Christ, with Christ saying, through the minister of the sacrament of Reconciliation: ‘Your sins are forgiven’; ‘Go and do not sin again.’ ”17 Then too, in the sacrament the penitent sensibly experiences redemption: “In this sacrament each person can experience mercy in a unique way, that is, the love which is more powerful than sin.”18

11. Furthermore, Christian life is not a lonely struggle for a sanctity which concerns only oneself. The entire life of faith is a life of membership in the Church. But even venial sin lessens the Church’s vitality and stunts the fruitfulness she deserves of her members. The devotional use of the sacrament of penance responds perfectly to this reality. Confessing venial sins acknowledges their ecclesial dimension, and the Church herself forgives them by giving absolution through her ordained minister. More perfectly a member of the Church, the absolved sinner benefits more richly from the limitless and unending atoning power of Jesus. This power, present in the Church, is made available in the sacrament and has a lasting effect on the life of the penitent.19

12. The sacramental act of the recipient gains added value insofar as it is an act of liturgical worship. The practice of sacramental penance also has a unique revelatory value, for it manifests God’s mercy and proclaims the Spirit’s power to sanctify those who make faith in Jesus their fundamental option. In sum, the work of overcoming venial sin by frequent use of the sacrament of penance is a different and far richer Christian act than any other suited to this obligatory task.

13. In addition, the devotional use of the sacrament of penance has certain advantages which might be attained otherwise but in practice often are not. One’s work toward perfection is likely to be more systematic and persistent if one receives the sacrament frequently. The sacrament also provides a context for individual spiritual direction, which is helpful for progress toward perfection. These incidental advantages partly explain the good effects of regular use of the sacrament pointed out by Pius XII.20

14. When Christians begin to strive for holiness, venial sin is pervasive in their lives. Much of this sin is not recognized as such; much of it consists of unknown faults. These defects impair the fundamental option of living faith and all other Christian commitments. As sin is gradually overcome, these commitments are reaffirmed over and over; they become purer and firmer by excluding more and more wrong options. Thus the sanctified personality of the Christian permanently bears in its healed wounds the marks of Jesus’ cross and God’s love. Because faith and the commitments which implement it shape one’s entire Christian life, in perfecting these commitments the sacrament of penance becomes a principle of the whole of Christian life.

10. For practical guidance on the practice of devotional confession, see St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, trans. John K. Ryan (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972), 111–14; Benedict Baur, O.S.B., Frequent Confession: Its Place in the Spiritual Life, trans. Patrick C. Barry, S.J. (London: St. Paul Publications, 1959), 23–47. The frequent reception of the sacrament should consecrate a genuine striving for perfection, and so sins should not be confessed without contrition, which necessarily includes a real purpose of amendment.

11. Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi, 35 AAS (1943) 235; The Papal Encyclicals, 225.88.

12. Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 39 AAS (1947) 585; The Papal Encyclicals, 233.177.

13. John XXIII, Sacerdotii Nostri primordia, 51 AAS (1959) 574–75; The Papal Encyclicals, 264.95–96.

14. The Rites, 347.

15. John Paul II, Redemptor hominis, 71 AAS (1979) 313–15; The Papal Encyclicals, 278.82–83.

16. Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi, 35 AAS (1943) 234–35; The Papal Encyclicals, 225.87.

17. John Paul II, Redemptor hominis, 314–15; 83.

18. John Paul II, Dives in misericordia, 72 AAS (1980) 1219–20; The Papal Encyclicals, 279.132.

19. See Bernard Leeming, S.J., Principles of Sacramental Theology (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1956), 363–66.

20. Considering the importance of sacramental penance in a devout Christian life, one understands how sound is the practice of preparing children to receive this sacrament for the first time and encouraging them to do so before they make their first Communion. The Holy See has insisted that this practice be maintained: Sacred Congregations for the Clergy and for the Discipline of the Sacraments, “Sanctus pontifex,” 65 AAS (1973) 410; “Declaration on First Confession and First Communion,” in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery, O.P. (Northport, N.Y.: Costello, 1975), 241.