TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


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


Repentance and reparation for sin—one’s own as well as others’—are necessary elements in the pilgrimage of Christian life. The sacraments of penance and anointing of the sick organize Christian life from this point of view.

The sacrament of penance, or at least some sort of desire for it, is necessary for those who commit mortal sin after baptism. Its effect is reconciliation with God. The requirement of confession gives the sacrament an essentially judicial character. It is not enough simply to seek reconciliation with God in one’s heart, for sin also disrupts one’s relationship with the Church, and so reconciliation requires that the sinner be restored to God by being humanly reconciled with the Church.

Contrition, the basic act of the penitent, includes a firm purpose of amendment and rejection of past sins, along with a sincere intention to fulfill the sacrament’s other conditions. “Imperfect contrition”—sorrow for sin based on awareness of its evil and fear of punishment, together with the intention to amend—is a divine gift which disposes sinners to seek forgiveness in the sacrament of penance. St. Thomas reasonably holds that perfect contrition and the conferral of charity are mutually dependent—they are given together—and this can happen before or when the sacrament is received. It is clear from the teaching on penance that the divine gift of charity is restored to those who receive penance worthily at least as soon as absolution is administered. Since charity is not psychologically recognizable, however, one cannot be certain of having perfect contrition before receiving the sacrament.

Even forgiven sin deserves some punishment. Something must be done to undo its existential consequences and to make up for the damage done to the sinner’s relationship with God and the Church. The “penance” imposed in the sacrament is only a token of the will to make reparation; beyond it, all the repentant sinner does that is good and suffers in life can serve as penance. In doing penance, sinners are ennobled by being made like Jesus, who satisfied for all human sins.

Insofar as it is used to overcome venial sin, the sacrament of penance can shape the whole of a Christian’s life. The struggle against venial sin is a strict requirement of Christian life, and the Church’s teaching makes it clear that the sacrament of penance is the most appropriate—even in some sense the necessary—way to carry on this struggle. The sacrament of penance links in explicit and conscious cooperation the actions of the Holy Spirit, Jesus as man, the Church, and penitents themselves in overcoming their sins. Thus, overcoming venial sin by means of the sacrament is a different and far richer Christian act than any other suited to this obligatory task.

The avoidance of occasions of sin can pertain to the sacrament of penance. An occasion of sin is a situation or action which conduces to sin and can be avoided or modified so that temptation is less likely or more easily overcome. Where occasions of sin can be avoided, they should be. Many occasions cannot be avoided but can be modified: either by modification of the situation or action as it is objectively, or by modification of its context or meaning, by taking a different stance toward it. Since the avoidance of occasions of sin should affect the whole of a Christian’s life, the constant effort to do so can contribute to the ordering of life by the sacrament of penance.

The reparation or satisfaction for sin essential to the sacrament of penance can transform all of the self-denial essential to Christian life. “Self-denial” signifies various things: detachment, moral practice (asceticism in the strict sense), mortification (the putting to death of sin), and resignation. All forms of Christian self-denial are aspects of the Christian’s sharing in the cross of Jesus; all are components of the work of penance by which one submits one’s whole self to the requirements of love.

Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer have traditionally been regarded as the three typical acts of penance. The self-restraint of fasting makes up for the destructive self-indulgence of sin, the mercy of almsgiving for its damage to the Church’s communion of love, and prayer for the alienation from God it involves. Today the Church places these practices in a contemporary framework—urging, for example, that fasting and abstaining be a form of witness to Christian values in the face of the attitudes and practices of a consumer society.

To the sacrament of penance Trent links the sacrament of anointing of the sick, calling it a “culmination” of penance and of a penitential Christian life. Thus, the sacrament of anointing organizes Christian life by shaping it into a penitential preparation for suffering and death in the Lord Jesus, and is an important general principle of Christian morality. It helps the dangerously ill person in every way appropriate in this ultimate situation. Here one’s life is consecrated to the ultimate penance, suffering and death with Jesus—the passage for which one’s whole life should be preparation.