Saturday, January 14, 2012

Penance and Satisfactory Punishment

I suppose this post is more of a question than a commentary. I have often noted that penances imposed by most confessors these days are a bit on the light side: praying three Hail Mary's, reading one Psalm, "doing a good deed", or something similar. I have likewise reflected that, were one to make these confessor-imposed penances the sole source of penance in one's life, that individual would still be far from the detached, mortified Christian that the saints envision in their moral exhortations. I wonder, for serious sins like adultery or apostasy, if the penance given by the confessor is too light, is the debt of punishment even wholly made up for?

Suppose someone commits the sin of adultery, which we all agree is a serious sin that incurs a large stain that must be expiated by penance. Now suppose the confessor assigns a penance of three Hail Mary's. Assuming the penitent is properly contrite and has the fitting dispositions, is this penance sufficient to atone for the stain of sin incurred by the sin?

I can only think of three possible solutions:

1) The penance is not sufficient because of a defect in the degree of the penance itself. There remains a debt to be expiated, the amount of which is relative to the insufficiency of the penance. Supporting this approach would be the praxis of the Church throughout the ages, wherein confessors have typically given heavier penances for more serious sins, suggesting that atoning for a more serious sin requires a corresponding penance that is equally weighty. St. Thomas' teaching that the debt of punishment is removed by the imposition of a "satisfactory punishment" that is able to restore "equality of justice" would also support this (I-II, Q. 87, art. 6).

2) The penance is entirely sufficient, not because of the content of the penance itself, but because of good disposition of the penitent in performing it, especially by virtue of obedience to the confessor's command, even though the content of the penance might be materially insufficient. Supporting this position would be the teaching of many of the saints, who state that it is not their penances considered materially that are effacacious (because suffering is not intrinsically good), but rather the degree to which they proceed from charity or obedience. Thus, an act that is in itself neutral can be rendered good by virtue of obedience. This is why St. Thomas calls it a "special virtue" (II-II, Q. 104, art. 2). Therefore, a materially insufficient penance carried out in obedience to a confessor with the proper disposition is able to completely expiate the punishment due to sin insofar as the grace that comes through acting in obedience fills whatever is lacking in this respect. Obedience makes it work.

3) The penance may be neither totally sufficient not totally insufficient, but will be as sufficient as the charity of the penitent makes it. In this scenario, neither the content of the penance nor the factor of obedience determine the sufficiency of the penance, but the intensity of the charity on the part of the penitent (although I would presume the charity must be that much more intense if the penance is materially insufficient). I like this explanation because it can encompass the other two - it does not deny that a penance may be materially insufficient, and also can factor in obedience since, as St. Thomas say, obedience flows from charity (II-II, Q. 104, art. 3). But if this were the case, it would leave the majority of penitents in a bad place, since, if we are operating on the assumption that the vast majority of penances imposed today are materially insufficient, it is up to the penitent to "make up for this" either by extra, self-imposed penances or by performing the materially insufficient penances with an extraordinarily intense degree of charity, which I doubt the vast majority of penitents in this country are doing.

I am not a theologian, and this is something I am a bit foggy on. Does anyone have any light to shed? What happens to the fellow who commits adultery, gets assigned three Hail Mary's, and does them with the proper (but not extraordinary) dispositions? To what degree is the debt of punishment remitted?


Noah Moerbeek said...

I am afraid that it is a mystery and I know of a lot of stories from the desert fathers, lives of the saints etc that seem to indicate that the degree of contrition also depends on the degree of expiation. It seems to me that the effects of the sacrament of Holy Communion and Penance depends a great deal on the disposition of the soul.

Anonymous said...

I have found that priests, even very good ones, often assign lighter penances for more serious sins (i.e. one Hail Mary for a mortal sin) when the person has a tendency to scrupulousity.

Clifford Carvalho said...

Basic Church Teaching tells us that Confession remits all eternal punishment and a portion of temporal punishment. The question then becomes, does the penance imposed in confession remit all the remaining temporal punishment?

If so, the penance would simply be a plenary indulgence and possibility #2 would be correct. But then why have many other acts indulgenced? A soul does not miraculously regain all its strength just because it said a couple of prayers. All souls would have all punishment remitted regardless of disposition.

If, however, the penance only remitted a further portion of the temporal punishment, then #3 would be case. The exact size of the portion remitted would be proportional to the disposition of the penitent. If the penance was done with enough of a disposition and the punishment small enough, the penance would remit the full punishment. This would also give importance to plenary and partial indulgences.

Other pious acts, such as receiving Holy Communion, forgive venial sins and therefore remit temporal punishment. Ergo, living a pious life proportional to the sin would make up for the remainder of the temporal punishment. This would also account for having to make amends for the damage caused to others (an adulterous woman repairing her relationship, a thief returning stolen goods, etc.)

One can make a serous case for #2 based on various teachings, but #3 seems to make the most sense in light of all of Church Teaching.

Boniface said...


I have heard of that too, although it seems to me that usually scrupulous people are those who do NOT commit serious sins but only think they do.

Suppose a person commits a serious sin and is sorry (though not, perhaps perfectly contrite), confesses the sin, gets absolved and gets a wimpy penance, and perform the wimpy penance with, say, average charity, is it their "fault" on judgment day if more of the debt isn't expiated because they should have done more, or do they get a pass because they were just obeying the confessor and ultimately it was his job to give a more efficacious penance?

Anonymous said...

The penance imposed by the priest is simply a penance of unknown value. We do know a plenary indulgence completely removes all temporal punishment due to sin. If there is a defect on the part of the faithful, the indulgence becomes partial.

The penitent has the right to decline a particular penance if he judges it too difficult or impossible to complete. That is why I ask my penitents if he can do the penance I assign. If they accept the penance, then I give it too them.

The penance is simply an attempt, a show of good faith to repair the harm our sin has caused the Mystical Body of Christ.

However, I avoid "abstract" penances and stick to prayers such as the Rosary or Chaplet of Mercy. Or time (20 minutes) before the Blessed Sacrament, etc.

This seems to satisfy the penitents. Also, just as a penitent can refuse a particular penance, he can also ask for a more involved penance and the confessor is free to provide one if the confessor thinks it prudent.

Nick said...

I was flipping through the "Penny Catechism" (a reliable popular catechism of England) and here is what I saw:

298. What is satisfaction?
Satisfaction is doing the penance given us by the priest.

299. Does the penance given by the priest always make full satisfaction for our sins?
The penance given by the priest does not always make full satisfaction for our sins. We should therefore add to it other good works and penances, and try to gain Indulgences.

This answers your question somewhat definitively in the negative.

Anonymous said...

The fact that confession remits eternal punishment and a portion of temporal punishment contains within itself the presupposition that the penance, assigned within the sacrament, is performed. The penance is not separate from the absolution, but is an integral part of the full sacrament. It is a sin to not perform the penance.

Often, priests give light penances to avoid the possibility of the penitent not performing it and increasing their culpability.

Penance w/in the sacrament has greater atoning value than ones outside of the sacrament. So it is beneficial to request greater penances. If you do those, you will remit more temporal punishment, since they were assigned within the sacrament, than you would if you did them on your own.

Some priests assign optional penances within the sacrament. This has the virtue of offering the greater remittance of temporal punishment, while not binding under sin. I think that this is a great idea.

I was once assigned, as a penance, to look up a picture of a sloth. My confession had to do with that cardinal sin. So, while I dutifully did the penance, I always wonder about the pronunciation of that word (sl'ah'th or sl'oa'th?). Whatever.

My favorite penance was 5 Our Fathers for 5 consecutive days, and if I missed a day, start over. I did not miss a day.

I once received a penance to build a fence, but did not do so. I confessed that to the priest the next time I went to confession, and was relieved of the duty.

Since then, I have learned that it is a venial sin to not perform a light penance (3 Hail Marys) and a mortal sin to not perform a heavier penance (a Rosary, building a fence, or whatnot).

Ask for greater penances. It will help you in many ways.