Jacques Maritain Center : Elements of Moral Theology


§ 1. The virtue and the sacrament.

Penitence is a moral virtue of the will, producing painful detestation of past sin from some spiritual motive, with purpose of casting off that sin and of bearing whatever God may lay upon the penitent as a penalty (not equivalent) for his sin.

As a moral virtue of the will, it should be distinguished from the inward sorrowful passion of sensibility, sorrowful shame, pain at loss or disgrace, and the like, which are not part of the virtue, although they may accompany it. Tears, therefore, and similar signs of sorrow, although they are natural, are not parts of repentance, though they may be signs of it. But they may also be absent from true repentance. The virtue is in a will which freely chooses to forsake evil, and in a rational soul which detests its actual sin as an offence against God. As such a virtue, not as a passion of the sense-appetite, it is commanded, because we can freely intend to blot out sin so far as lies in our power to do so, and to use the Divine means for removing it. Such a repentance proceeds from filial fear, and can spring only from some love of God in the soul (III. lxxxv.).

Perfect repentance blots out all sin through the merits of Christ's Cross (Ezek. xviii. 21), for the Passion of Jesus our Saviour avails for the sins of the whole world (1 Ep. S. John ii. 2). But the condition required implies the ability to repent, not merely the feeling remorse for the consequences of sin, but the hating it for God's sake. For no sin that man wishes to be destroyed, will God permit not to be destroyed. The blasphemy against the Holy Ghost which is irremissible, seems to be that sin which comes from such utter hardness of heart that no repentance will ever follow it.

Furthermore, repentance is an indispensable condition of salvation; and no actual mortal sin can be remitted without it. For the offence of mortal sin consists in aversion from God and turning to some transitory good. Hence for its remission is required that our will be so changed that it turns to God with detestation of that choice of other good and full purpose of amendment of life. This is the virtue of penitence (III. lxxxvi. 1, 2).

Since venial sin is not absolutely inconsistent with the love of God, a general sorrow for whatever is displeasing to our Father, and a sincere and persistent effort against such offeaces, a general confession of them in the Lord's Prayer so far as they are perceived, may be acceptable proofs before God of a penitent mind with respect to such transgressions (III. lxxxvii. 1).

The consequences of sin are not taken away in its remission. The soul turns to God and is forgiven, but the disposition to fall, and other penalties also, may still remain, the "chastening" of the Lord.

But our Lord instituted a sacrament of penitence for the remission of sins committed after baptism (S. John xx. 23). No material thing is consecrated as the instrument of Jesus' love for sinners, but he consecrates certain living agents to do His will.

And yet, in the narrowest and strictest sense of the word sacrament, this gracious gift of Jesus' love may not be so entitled in the Anglican Church. For though there is an "outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace" -- sc., the person consecrated for the purpose -- we may not be able to say that any one visible or audible sign besides the minister of grace is so determined by Christ's institution that the grace given is inseparable from that sign or those words.{1}

The schoolmen, in accordance with their theory, made sins as detested, the matter of the sacrament; inward repentance, the res sacramenti; the form lately adopted in the West -- viz., "Ego te absolvo" -- the necessary words; and the remission of sins, the spiritual gift. But the Anglican Catholic will regard this scholastic subtlety as a needless narrowing of the gracious love of the Redeemer.

The matter. Although the 25th Article mentions the fact that the Lord seems to have attached His absolution of sins to no "visible sign or ceremony," the laying on of hands is an apostolic sign of the conveyance of some special grace, and it became so commonly associated with sacramental absolution that the rite itself was called by that name (Conc. Carthag. 4). But though, for the reasons just given, this ceremony cannot be considered as essential to a valid sacrament, and in the public absolutions of the Church it is quite impossible, yet in private confession it will be certainly expedient to follow primitive usage in this respect when the absolution is given. (See Blunt's Annotated Prayer Book, page 285).

The form. S. Thomas Aquinas (III. lxxxiv. 3) shows that the words, "I absolve thee," are most suitable, "convenientissima," but not that the grace is tied to that form; and we know that the early Church seems to have employed precatory forms, like those now used in the Anglican Church in public absolutions. But the priest is consecrated with authority to do what the more personal words, like the corresponding form, "I baptize thee," express; and though not necessary for validity, those words are eminently suitable ones for private absolution, as in fact the English Church requires them in the only case where the form of private absolution has been appointed; sc., in the confession of the sick. On the other hand, the American Church, in her only provision for private absolution after confession, sc., that of prisoners appointed to die, has required the Absolution of Communicants to be used. Either form, then, must be regarded as equally valid; but the one is personal, the other plural in form, and seems therefore less suitable for the ordinary exercise of this sacerdotal office.

Christ Himself has ordained this sacrament in his Church, but not as "generally necessary to salvation" in the sense in which the two greater sacraments are necessary. For Baptism and Holy Eucharist would be needed for all in order to attain to union with Christ, under any circumstances; but this is a refuge in case of lapse from baptismal grace, necessary as medicine in sickness, the ordained means for spiritual cure by Him who said, "Whose sins thou dost remit they are remitted to them; and whose sins thou dost retain they are retained."

Contrition for sin being regarded, in accordance with the spirit of the Anglican Church, as the requisite condition for a beneficial use of this ordinance, whether in private or in public ("Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins," etc.), its three parts will be (1) confession, (2) absolution, (3) satisfaction.

§ 2. Contrition.

Contrition is detestation of past sin, which causes inward pain on account of it and humbling before God, with fixed purpose not to offend again, and cheerfully to hear whatever God may impose because of it. It is perfect when it proceeds from charity, from the love of God. It is imperfect when the motive, although supernatural, is lower -- e.g., thought of the baseness of sin, fear of hell, not merely of temporal consequences, and desire of heaven. But this imperfect contrition may be, and doubtless often is, deepened into perfect contrition for sin as an offence against the love of God, by a devout use of this means of grace.

Contrition, however, in both cases must be complete to be effectual; i.e., the sin must be detested more than anything beside, and the penitence must be, implicitly at least, universal, as including all sins.

Intensity of feeling, as we have seen in viewing the virtue of penitence, is not essential to complete contrition; for it is in the rational soul which hates and detests sin, not in the sensitive feelings, except accidentally and by a kind of overflow.

Some sins may be forgotten, and then only a general contrition, like that expressed in the daily offices of the Anglican Church, can be offered to God. But they may be partially forgotten, and then the searching of conscience which is obligatory will bring them more fully before the soul, and will itself be a sign and cause of more complete contrition.

The purpose for the future must bean efficacious one; i.e., the fixed intention of using all necessary means and efforts to avoid all occasions of sin. (Qu.: Expressed fears of relapse?)

Such contrition, finally, is life-long; for the lost state of innocence can never be recovered, the time lost in the turning from the road to blessedness never brought back; and pardon therefore does not wholly wipe out the past.

Perfect contrition, with purpose of confession to God and due satisfaction, gives full restoration to His love, a full title to absolution. Charity covers the multitude of sins, and brings full remission of their eternal consequences.

§ 3. Confession.

Confession is an outward act of penitence, made with the lips which speak to God. It is public, made with the whole congregation assembled together, or it is private confession of particular offences made to the minister of God's absolution alone, in order that pardon may follow for the individual soul. The manner of confession is a matter of positive ecclesiastical law, and has varied in different parts of the Church in different ages.

Since the Anglican Church has now no positive law respecting confession, even in case of mortal sickness, the sinner being only counselled in the matter, private confession must be regarded as subject of counsel, not of precept. The argument for it, so far as the penitent is concerned, is the greater certainty of the requisite conditions of absolution the confession, not in general terms, but of actual particular offences against Divine love. The very act of confession, where it is not obligatory, which is our own case, makes the private act a far more weighty sign of true contrition than the habitual and familiar words of a general confession can be.

The Roman argument for the necessity of private confession, so far as the minister of absolution is concerned, is based upon his office as spiritual judge. He is to receive the worthy, to reject the unworthy, to bind and to loose on earth what is bound or loosed in heaven. But it is evident that the priest's judgment must necessarily be limited to what is truly and fully laid before him. So far we can be of accord with Roman discipline. The question asked by the penitent, "Am I fit to come to Holy Communion?" may well be answered by the counsel, "Make your private confession, and then your priest will be your earthly judge, and give you, if you be truly penitent, the comfortable personal ministration which God has employed him for."

But the assertion that he is to be judge in all cases whatsoever, is not that of the Anglican Church; it does not seem possible, even if expedient; for it implies a knowledge which cannot be had, which even the penitent himself may not have. How, for example, can he be judge of sins which the penitent has forgotten, or of the reality of a general contrition for those offences? Neither has trial proved it expedient, if supposed to he possible, judging by such testimony as we find in Gaume.

The Anglican Church gives warning that we must judge ourselves, so far as that is possible; she commands a confession following on self-examination, and there would seem to be no good reason for not making very brief pause in order to recall the "manifold sins" . . . in "thought, word, and deed."

But if the private confession be made, there are plain obligations of the priest in hearing it.

(1) He must avoid all signs of wonder, horror, even of rebuke, during the confession, lest the penitent be discouraged and even cloak his sins. Let him rather give encouragement to continue, because there is no sin too great for the love of Jesus to cleanse.

(2) He must allow no needless mention of others' faults; even cooperators in sin must not be named, and the approach to that must be promptly checked.

(3) If ignorantly in fault the penitent may be better instructed (a) in what is necessary to salvation; (b) when society is concerned and scandal is to be avoided; (c) when the penitent himself is in doubt and makes inquiry; (d) when there is reasonable hope of ultimate good from doing so, and no danger of great injury to any other. If none of these four conditions be present, the confessor is not always bound to make known obligations which would probably be not fulfilled if known. Silence is sometimes golden. For example, restitution may be certainly due, but the penitent has been acting in good faith, and will certainly not be able to see his obligation. (4) After the penitent has finished what he has to say, only the fewest and most necessary questions should be asked, and those suited to the age and person. Spiritually intelligent adults may need none, except perhaps to elicit necessary or qualifying circumstances.

Boys, and in general those unaccustomed to self-examination, may be assisted in this respect.

(5) In questioning children, say, in preparing for Confirmation, the utmost caution must be used respecting purity of life, lest they be prompted to evil knowledge; but, on the other hand, it may be quite too readily presumed that no unchaste words or actions have defiled their souls, even in the case of girls.

(6) The sick need, of course, the greatest tenderness and in mortal disease favourable presumption must he stretched to its utmost limit. Half-articulate words, distracted attention, drowsiness, the effect of medicines exciting the brain, or producing partial delirium or somnolency -- all these and the like seem almost insuperable obstacles, and charity will take the most favourable view which circumstances reasonably allow.

The seal of ccnfession can under no circumstances whatever be broken. Outside of his ministry for God the priest does not know what in confession he hears; it must be as though it had never entered his ears. Not even to the penitent himself may God's minister allude to it, without permission first asked and obtained; and this even when action with respect to others is expedient. The Anglican Church, while recognizing private confession, has ruled that the seal is sacred, adding, however, an exception from the ordinary law of the Church. Canon cxiii. of 1603 says,{2} "If any man confess his secret and hidden sins to the minister, . . . we do straitly charge and admonish (said minister) that he do not at any time reveal and make known to any person whatsoever any crime or offence so committed to his trust and secrecy (except they be such crimes as, by the laws of this realm, his own life may be called into question for concealing the same), under pain of irregularity " -- i.e., of deposition.

§ 4. Absolution.

The Church has received the keys of the kingdom of heaven (S. Matt. xvi. 19). The door stands open, because Christ has opened it, to all believers. But it is sin that closes it again, and the power which removes that obstacle is called a "key." God alone has that power; but in the Man Christ Jesus was that power to take away that obstacle by the merits of His Passion, and He has the keys. But the ministry of them is on earth, and has its outward as well as its inward part. As He inwardly washes in Holy Baptism, employing the visible element of water, so He inwardly absolves, employing the consecrated instrument on earth.

But the keys are a power of binding as well as of loosing, of shutting as well as of opening. As God Himself puts no impediment in the way of any one trying to enter the kingdom of heaven, but withholds His grace from the unworthy, so the priest can make no impediment on earth, but he may be bound not to use the keys in opening and loosing, because he cannot remove impediments unless God first inwardly take them away. God Himself must first absolve, in order that there may be place for the absolution of the priest. If God do not absolve, the other is an empty form.

Furthermore, in this, as in every other ministerial act, the priest must have jurisdiction as well as authority. Such jurisdiction he receives when some part of the Lord's people is committed to his care. Special jurisdiction he may receive in special cases, as the law, custom, or special license of the Church allows.

(Qu.: Must not consent of the pastor be had in receiving the private confession of a parishioner?)

The chief earthly union with Christ is in Holy Communion; but it is a sacrament of the living. If sin close the door to that union, the door must be unlocked through confession and absolution. The Anglican Church, accordingly, has made these an essential part of her liturgy. And her people should be instructed not to receive if they come so late to church that they have not truly and earnestly confessed their sins and received that public absolution.

Art. xxxiii. and the canon law of the American Church (title ii. can. 12) distinctly claim the authority of the Church to refuse to open the door of the kingdom of heaven ("depriving of all privileges of Church membership;" excommunication), which of course excludes from even the outward form of confession and absolution.

Doubts respecting the present disposition of the penitent are to be decided in his favour when absolution is in question. The minister, who has only the outward part of sacraments to perform, leaves all beyond to the only competent Judge.

Conditional absolution may sometimes be given; not, indeed, conditioned by any future act, but when the return of a relapsed penitent does not fully justify refusal to give absolution, and charitable presumption, on the other hand, is unable to solve the doubt in his favour.

Or, again, a sick and dying man may have expressed some contrition and sent for the priest, and God's minister may be doubtful whether, if the sick had the power so to do, be would penitently confess his sins. If there had certainly been intention to make a contrite confession, there would be no ground for keeping back absolution because the priest arrived too late to receive that confession in God's name. But in the doubtful ease the conditional absolution may be given.

Absolution must be denied (1) when there is no evidence of a determination to amend; (2) when restitution or satisfaction is refused; (3) when the remedies directed are refused, or previously proposed remedies have not been employed, especially when evil habits are concerned, nnd no special contrition is exhibited on account of the new sin; (4) when there is evident unwillingness to forgive others; (5) when perseverance in evil ways is shown by an unwillingness to avoid the proximate occasions of sin, or of giving occasion to others' sin, those occasions being voluntary and not necessary.

By "proximate occasions understand those which, in the particular case, bring strongest temptation and great probability of sin. Some of these are morally involuntary; but others are voluntary; i.e., they will cause only trifling loss, if any. The latter must be abandoned, no matter what purpose of resisting the temptation is professed, and absolution must be deferred until this is done. Round dances and the use of stimulants may serve for examples when they are occasions of sin. Fear of future relapse, even if reasonable, is not good ground for withholding absolution from a contrite soul, if there be no evident clinging to the sin.

Absolution may be deferred for a short time, and the delay may aid in deepening penitence for sin, (1) when the penitent has previously promised to avoid occasions of sin but has not done so; (2) if, able to make thorough self-examination, he have neglected it; (3) if he have promised restitution or signs of forgiveness to another, and have not done so; in general, it may be safer to defer absolution until obligatory restitution has been made.

(4) Habitual sinners may be absolved only if there seem to be full purpose of amendment of life; but if there have been neglect of previously prescribed discipline, absolution should surely be deferred until sincerity has been more fully evinced than by the feeling, perhaps a transient one, shown at the time of confession.

In such cases, also, it is wise, and may prove very beneficial, to require an explicit promise of return immediately upon the first lapse, if any should occur. This very thing will itself be a most salutary penance and discipline, if there be any sincerity in the sinner's soul.

Absolution, however, should not be deferred in these cases for a long period; a fortnight will usually be long enough.

§ 5. Satisfaction.

Although satisfaction is an act of justice in paying a penalty for past transgression, a penalty either voluntarily assumed or made voluntary by cheerfully accepting God's chastisement, no equality according to justice can be dreamed of. Sin is of infinite guilt, and no earthly pains can be adequate compensation. Satisfaction is not to be so understood. But, yet, penalty is accepted as just, and as a painful medicine curing past sins and preserving from future ones. Something has been taken from the honour due to God; therefore something is to be taken from self and given to God as a partial return of that lost honour.

If it be asked how man can "satisfy" or pay his debt to God, we shall reply that man becomes a debtor to God in two ways first, by benefits received; next, by sins committed. And as thanksgiving and worship is the return in the one case, so is satisfaction in the other. But there can be no equivalent return for all that God has done for us; we can only do what lies in our power by way of return. And love accepts this as a just return. So, also, as regards satisfaction to love for oflenees against it, no equivalent can be paid; but something may be offered to love which love will accept for the sake of Christ's merits.

Chastenings from God take something from us without our will, but patient bearing of them makes them become voluntary satisfactions for sin (Heb. xii. 6). So, also, since satisfaction is penal, we can impose penalty on ourselves which, though love makes it light, is still penalty. We can give goods of fortune in alms; goods of body in abstinence or fasting; goods of soul in special prayers. And each of these and the like may be penal satisfaction.

Such penances may be imposed upon himself by any one who turns to God. But since in private confession the soul is submitted to the priest as an earthly judge with power to bind and loose under the Supreme Judge, he is bound to impose suitable penalties while remitting sins in the name of his Lord. These, it has been seen, must be punitive, salutary, and medicinal; if possible, all in one. Thus, the taking away of outward and proximate occasions of sin will be at once punitive, salutary, and medicinal. Games lawful in themselves, society not immoral, may have proved an overcoming temptation; it is properly imposed satisfaction to forbid them. Fleshly lusts may have overcome the weak soul, and the body is punished when its luxuries are prohibited; and so on.

The penance, then, should be according to the sin; but also adapted to the age and condition of the penitent, being such as to test the sincerity of his repentance and to deepen it. It should not be too long continued; a fortnight is usually long enough; it should not be public, not very difficult to observe, or such as will cause physical weariness. Thus, fasting or abstinence, though punitive discipline, may be unsuitable for labourers or children; but other acts of mortification respecting luxuries may be easily substituted for these.

As medicinal, the penance should be adapted to the special sin. Thus special prayer for enemies is a remedy for an unforgiving spirit. At the same time, it will be remembered that long prayers, much time spent in church, and the like, are not marks of penitence or devotion, or fit penances, but rather the doing all in the name of Christ.

Finally, a few words may be added respecting venial sins as coming before the confessor. These may be compared to sins against a father when the son has still filial affection in his heart, and is not turned out of doors. But, on the other hand, they may indicate a habit which, if not repented of, will show mortal contempt of the Father; and if they grow into habits they are sure to end in mortal sin.

If they be not consented to; if they arise from negligence, inattention, sudden motions of the soul, like wandering thoughts in prayer, impatience, vain words, etc., they may receive repeated absolutions under due conditions. For example, let them be followed up by regular and suitable discipline -- say, each evening after a fall, by light penances adapted to them, etc. If there be sincere contrition for them, and a persistent effort to amend, with steady though feeble progress, the penitent is entitled to repeated absolutions for them.

{1} See Homily on Common Prayer and Sacraments. Nothing here or elsewhere said of sacramental ordinances in the Church must be construed as consciously conflicting with that homily, which the writer ex animo accepts.

{2} References of this nature are based on the assumption that unrepealed canons of the English Church (mutatis mutandis) are part of the Canon Law of the Church in the United States.

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