The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 43, No 4, July-Aug. 1990

Theology for the Laity


By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

All through His public ministry, the message of our Blessed Lord was one of repentance: "Unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish." (Lk. 13:5)

The practice of penance that Our Lord was preaching as necessary for salvation, is the exercise of the supernatural virtue of penance, or as it is perhaps better known, penitence, or repentance. This virtue disposes the sinner to hatred of his own sin because it offends God who is infinitely good, and includes a firm resolve to avoid offending Him.

The nature of this virtue is more clearly understood in regard to grave sin, where the sinner has turned away from God in choosing in a definitive way some passing pleasure or satisfaction in opposition to Godís will. Repentance involves a conversion, a turning away from the forbidden fruit, and turning back to God. Even in venial sin, where one has not turned his back on God, repentance inclines the sinner to detest his failures in lesser matters because they offend God, and includes a resolve to strive to avoid the wrong action done or the wrong pleasure sought.


Because of the importance of repentance in Godís plan of salvation (it is a necessary condition for the forgiveness of sin), and knowing the weaknesses of human nature, Our Blessed Lord not only preached the need for repentance, but raised it to the dignity of a sacrament of the New Law. To this penitential rite He gave special healing and strengthening graces, and a peace of soul flowing from the certainty of forgiveness.

By these words, Jesus conferred on them and their successors the power of forgiving sin in His Name, a power not given to angels whose nature is superior to ours, nor even to His Blessed Mother, the most perfect and exalted person in all creation.

By the above words, Christ conferred on the apostles a power greater than any power conferred on the wonder workers of the Old Testament. And He conferred it, as Pope John Paul II stated, "as something which they can transmit - as the Church has understood from the beginning - to their successors, charged by the same apostles with the mission and responsibility of continuing their work ... as ministers of Christís redemptive work." (Apostolic Exhortation - Reconciliation and Penance)


When Our Lord said to the paralytic "Son, your sins are forgiven you," the Scribes were murmuring among themselves "Who can forgive sin, but only God?" (Mk. 2:5) They were correct in their statement that only God can forgive sin; but they were wrong in not believing that Christ was God. Their statement is just as true today as it was then, even though Christ said to the apostles "whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them." He conferred on them the power to forgive sin, but to forgive sin In His Name. In this sacrament Christ operates through the priest pronouncing the words absolution.

Although Christ has taken His place at the right hand of His Father in heaven, He still exercises His priestly power among us for the sake of our salvation. He comes through the medium of the external sacramental rites of the Church, to act personally with His hidden power to apply to souls the fruits won by His passion and death. In this Sacrament of Penance, then, Christ perpetuates, through the Church, His work of reconciling sinners with God by remitting their sins.


We can better understand why the name by which this sacrament is most commonly known is the Sacrament of Penance when we see the nature of the virtue of penance. That virtue, as understood in theology, involves three things: 1) sorrow for sin, 2) acknowledgement of guilt (at least before God), and 3) adequate satisfaction. When Jesus elevated the practice of repentance to the dignity of a sacrament, He retained those three elements. Yet, by His words He specified that confession - or acknowledgement of guilt - be made outwardly before a human minister rather than inwardly before God alone, and that satisfaction be done as prescribed by that minister. Otherwise, why would Christ have expressly granted that power to His Apostles?

St. Thomas Aquinas, in speaking of the integral parts of Penance in relation to this sacrament, refers to the three parts mentioned above in this manner:

We will consider in detail each of these three ingredients of the Sacrament of Penance.


Contrition, which the Council of Trent has defined as "a sorrow and detestation of sin committed, with a purpose of sinning no more," is the most essential part of the Sacrament of Penance. There can be no valid confession without it. The actual confessing of oneís sins can at times be excused, e.g. because of inability to speak, or lack of privacy in a sick room, etc., but never can there be a valid reason for not being sorry for oneís sins.

We are all familiar with the distinction between perfect contrition and imperfect contrition, both of which are supernatural sorrow enlightened by faith. The first is grief of soul because one has offended God who is infinitely good, and a firm resolve to cease offending Him. The second is sorrow for oneís sins because of the fear of punishment due to them. In most of us there is a combination of both; but as one grows in grace, love of God grows, with a greater sorrow for having offended Him. While we should strive for perfect contrition because of the added fruitfulness of the sacrament, imperfect contrition (along with the sacrament) would be sufficient for remitting grave sin. Apart from the Sacrament of Penance, however, imperfect contrition would not be sufficient for removing the guilt and punishment for mortal sin.

While it is true that perfect contrition can remove the guilt and punishment of grave sin even apart from the Sacrament of Penance, that contrition must include a resolve to get to confession at the first opportunity. One very common act of contrition expresses clearly the mind of the Church in this regard: "I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life." However, even with this perfect contrition, one who has fallen into grave sin may not (except for special circumstances) receive Holy Communion until after receiving absolution in the Sacrament of Penance.

The penitent must strive to have true contrition for each and every one of his grave sins insofar as he can. It is not possible to have true sorrow for one mortal sin and not for another. If, for example, out of five grave sins, one has sorrow for only four of them, none of them forgiven.

Too, this sorrow must not be confused with a mere wish to overcome sin, but must include a firm purpose of amendment. We can hardly be said to be sorry for offending someone, if we do not intend to take steps to avoid offending him in the future. Nor are tears always an indication of true sorrow, for one might be unhappy or emotionally upset because he/she is making a mess of his/her life, rather than because God is offended.

Mortal sin causes one to lose not only sanctifying grace, but all the supernatural merits stored up for all the good works done in his entire previous lifetime. The question may be asked: After receiving sacramental absolution for grave sin, does one regain the merits for the good works previously performed? Does he return to an equal degree of grace to what he had before the fall? St. Thomas Aquinas answers that after sacramental absolution one can end up with a lesser degree of grace and merits, or the same degree, or a greater degree than before the fall, depending on the sincerity of his sorrow, and the intensity of the fervor of love with which he turns back to God. (111,89,2) In this way God can bring good out of evil; for at times after a serious fall, one will turn back to God with a greater humility, a greater resolve to serve God and to make amends for his sinfulness than he had before the fall. For one sincerely trying to lead a good life, therefore, his very falls can become stepping stones to spiritual growth. It is thanks to the medicine of this sacrament, says St. Augustine, that the experience of sin does not degenerate into despair.

As we saw with grave sins, either all are forgiven or none. With venial sins, however, this is not true. We may obtain remission for some while others remain in the soul, owing to a hidden attachment to something venially sinful. For this reason some spiritual writers recommend that the penitent single out one of two predominate failings, and concentrate his prayers and efforts at correcting them. As a rule our contrition is no better than our purpose of amendment; and it is not possible to concentrate on the correction of a number of things at the same time. It is true that venial sin can be remitted apart from the Sacrament of Penance by an act of charity, or by some other virtuous act performed out of love for God. However, when remitted in the Sacrament of Penance additional sacramental graces are given to help overcome sin, and the penitent enjoys a greater peace of mind from the certainty of being forgiven.


We have already seen the necessity of contrition for every mortal sin for the valid reception of this sacrament, and the fact that in certain rare situations the confession of them could be omitted. Outside of those extraordinary circumstances, however, all mortal sins committed since baptism and not yet absolved in the Sacrament of Penance, must be confessed as to their number, kind and circumstances that change their nature. This is what theologians refer to as necessary matter for the sacrament, while venial sins are referred to as sufficient matter, i.e. sufficient for absolution.

If, for example, one is guilty of three grave sins and confesses two of them, but not the third - for fear or shame, none of them are forgiven. If on the other hand, in confessing one omits to confess a grave sin because it was forgotten - yet would have been confessed with sorrow if remembered - the forgotten sin is pardoned, but should be mentioned at the next confession.

It is not at all certain that one is without grave sin, who fails to confess some deed gravely forbidden by the official teaching of the Church (e.g. contraception), simply because his/her conscience "allows" it. To such a one Pope John Paul II answered in a general audience (8/17/83):

While an examination of conscience is an important preparation for the Sacrament of Penance, no hard and fast rule can be given for the length of time to be devoted to it. For those who are in the habit of examining their conscience regularly, it need not be a lengthy affair. Many of our readers recall the former catechism that instructed us to confess all mortal sins, and as many venial sins as we may wish to mention. We should strive to have sorrow for all our venial sins, but it is probable that we will have truer contrition if we confess just the predominant ones with a firm determination to strive to correct them; for, as we said, it is not possible to concentrate on correcting many faults at the same time.

In order to increase the fervor of our contrition, we should dwell on the goodness of the God we have offended and Who suffered so much on our behalf, as well as on the ways we have offended Him. When we speak of the fervor of contrition, however, we are referring not to the feelings or emotions, but to the determination of the will to avoid what offends God.

In our last issue we distinguished between venial sins of human frailty, and those that are fully deliberate. These latter should receive our first attention, for there will be little spiritual growth as long as they are ignored.

Too, in order that oneís confession be not superficial, but a revealing of oneís inner self, there should be a humble confessing of oneís failing in their root causes. For example, one might simply mention telling lies, but fail to mention the deep pride that caused him to build up his ego by lies of exaggeration, or that made him guilty of lies of excuse to avoid humiliation.

Those who neglect this sacrament gradually grow insensitive to the little failures of each day that offend God and interfere with the growth of grace. And, because of this neglect they little by little become insensitive to greater violations of Godís law. For those Catholics who neglect this sacrament, believing they can obtain pardon directly from God, Pope John Paul stated:


For each sin that man commits, he incurs both guilt before God for every sin offends Him, and a debt of punishment to satisfy divine justice. Even after the guilt of sin (mortal or venial) has been removed, most often some debt of temporal punishment remains, because of the imperfection of our contrition, and the incompleteness of our turning away from sin. For this reason, true repentance brings us not only to detest sin and stop sinning, but to make reparation for it.

Consequently the penance imposed in this sacrament is not a price one pays for pardon, for no human price could ever repair for even the slightest offense against a God of infinite holiness and majesty. Rather, the prescribed penance - when fulfilled - is offered to the Father by Our Savior, Who unites it with His own infinite satisfaction, thus giving the sacramental penance a special efficacy in remitting the temporal punishment due to sin.


The second Vatican council stressed that Christ is present and confers grace in all the sacraments of the Church. (Const. Lit. 7) Those who confess regularly - in order to guard against routine confessions - should strive for a lively awareness in this sacrament of the presence of Our Divine Savior who has been offended by our sins, and who shed His Blood that the guilt of our sins be washed away.

One who is aware of this divine presence, will not approach this sacrament without humble reflection and a contrite heart. St. Catherine of Siena was filled with gratitude and wonder as she spoke of the mercy of Christ in this sacrament: "Do not despise the Blood of Christ," she exclaimed, "which has bathed us in order to cleanse the face of our souls from the leprosy of sin."

Christ atoned for the whole of mankind by shredding His Blood on Calvary. It is the purpose of the Sacrament of Penance to apply to us the inexhaustible merits of His satisfaction. No matter how great, no matter how many the sins, the absolution of the priest can bring full remission of sin for the penitent properly disposed. This is because the efficacy of the Precious Blood is infinitely greater than the malice of men and fallen angels combined. When applied to the soul of the penitent, it purifies from guilt, lessens the debt of punishment, and restores grace - if it has been lost, or increases it if it is already present in the soul; and it does this in proportion to the penitentís union with Christ, to the fervor and sincerity of his repentance.

As to the fruits of this sacrament, they can hardly be summed up better than did Pope Pius Xll in his encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ:

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