Sacrament of Penance (Catholic Church)

Sacrament of Penance (Catholic Church)

In Roman Catholic teaching, the Sacrament of Penance (commonly called "Confession", "Reconciliation" or "Penance") is the method given by Christ to the Church by which individual men and women may be freed from sins committed after receiving Baptism. (It is not necessary to confess sins committed before baptism, as baptism itself is considered to remove the guilt of all prior sins.) This sacrament is known by many names, including penance, reconciliation, and confession ("Catechism of the Catholic Church", Sections 1423-1442). Official Church publications of the Latin-rite always refer to the sacrament as "Penance," or "Reconciliation" or "Penance and Reconciliation." However, many lay Catholics continue to use the term "confession" in reference to the sacrament.

In 1215, a requirement that every Roman Catholic Christian receive this sacrament at least once a year was instituted as part of the Canon Law at the Fourth Council of the Lateran.

Minister of the Sacrament

Catholics believe that no priest, as an individual man, however pious or learned, has power to forgive sins. This power belongs to God alone; however, God can and does exercise it through the Catholic priesthood. [can. 959, CIC 1983] Catholics believe God exercises the power of forgiveness by means of the sacrament of penance, which can be administered validly by every validly ordained priest or bishop having jurisdiction to absolve the penitent. [can. 966, CIC 1983]

Form of the Sacrament

The form of Penance has not changed for centuries, although at one time confessions were made publicly. The role of the priest is as a minister of Christ's mercy. He acts "in persona Christi". In the Roman Catholic tradition, the penitent confesses mortal sins in order to restore his relationship to God and to receive the fullness of God's grace and salvation. The sinner may as a pious matter confess venial sins, especially if the sinner has no mortal sins to confess. The intent of this sacrament is to provide healing for the soul as well as to regain the grace of God, lost by sin. The Council of Trent ("Session Fourteen, Chapter I") quoted John [ 20:22-23] as the primary Scriptural proof for the doctrine concerning this sacrament, but Catholics also consider Matthew [ 9:2-8] and 2 Corinthians [ 5:17-20] to be among the Scriptural bases for the sacrament.

The words of Absolution in the Latin Rite take this form:

God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The essential words, however, are: "I absolve you from your sins."

The penitent makes an act of contrition, a prayer acknowledging his/her faults before God. It typically commences: "O my God, I am heartily sorry..." Reconciliation is necessary before receiving the sacrament of Eucharist for the first time. The Catholic Church teaches that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the only ordinary way in which a person can receive forgiveness for mortal sins committed after baptism. [can. 960. CIC 1983] However, perfect contrition (a sorrow motivated by love of God rather than of fear of punishment) is an extraordinary way of removing the guilt of mortal sin before or without confession (if there is no opportunity of confessing to a priest). Such contrition would include the intention of confessing.

Conditions for validity

In order for the sacrament to be valid the penitent must do more than simply confess his known mortal sins to a priest, who has faculty to absolve, and if a reserved sin have the special faculty to absolve it. [can. 966 CIC 1983, can. 722, CCEO 1990] He must:a) be truly sorry for each of the sins he committed,:b) have a firm intention not to commit them again.Also, in addition to confessing the types of mortal sins committed, the penitent must disclose how many times each sin was committed, to the best of his/her ability.

Frequency of reception

The Code of Canon Law requires all Roman Catholics to confess mortal sins at least once a year, [can. 960 CIC 1983] although frequent reception of the sacrament is recommended. Traditionally many receive the sacrament during the liturgical seasons of Lent or Advent, or prior to special times in life such as confirmation or marriage. While some branches of the Catholic Church do not require confession to be completed on any set schedule, the Latin rite requires that its practitioners confess at least once a year. This is commonly known as the second precept of the Church. [Catechism of the Catholic Church #2041-2043]

Frequent confession has been recommended by Popes. Confession of everyday faults is "strongly recommended by the Church." (CCC 1458) According to Pius XII and echoed by Pope John XXIII, "We particularly recommend the pious practice of frequent confession, which the Church has introduced, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, as a means of swifter daily progress along the road of virtue." Paul VI said that frequent confession is "of great value."

John Paul II who went to confession weekly and who stressed the universal call to holiness as a characteristic mark of Vatican II, enumerated these advantages of frequent confession:
* we are renewed in fervor,
* strengthened in our resolutions, and
* supported by divine encouragementBecause of what he considered misinformation on this topic, he strongly recommended this practice and warned that those who discourage frequent confession "are lying." [ [ The Spiritual and Psychological Value of Frequent Confession by Fr. John Hardon] ]

Seal of confession

For Catholic priests, the confidentiality of all statements made by penitents during the course of confession is absolute. This strict confidentiality is known as the Seal of the Confessional. According to the Code of Canon Law, 983 §1, "The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason." Priests may not reveal what they have learned during confession to anyone, even under the threat of their own death or that of others. (This is unique to the Seal of the Confessional. Many other forms of confidentiality, including in most states attorney-client privilege, allow ethical breaches of the confidence to save the life of another.) A priest who breaks that confidentiality incurs "latae sententiae" (automatic) excommunication reserved to the Holy See (Code of Canon Law, 1388 §1). In a criminal matter, a priest may encourage the penitent to surrender to authorities. However, this is the extent of the leverage he wields; he may not directly or indirectly disclose the matter to civil authorities himself.

There are limited cases where portions of a confession may be revealed to others, but always with the penitent's permission and always without actually revealing the penitent's identity. This is the case, for example, with unusually serious offenses, as some excommunicable offenses are reserved to the bishop or even to the Holy See, and their permission to grant absolution would first have to be obtained.

It is worth noting that the Sacramental seal can bring penalties if misuse is attempted.

With due regard for c.1388, whoever by any technical instrument records or publishes in the mass media what was said in the sacramental confession by the confessor or the penitent, real or feigned, by him/herself or another person, incurs a "latae sententiae" excommunication. This decree goes into effect the day of promulgation. [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Decree, "Congregatio pro Doctina Fidei" in "AAS" 80 (1988) p 1367, quoted in "Sacraments: Initiation, Penance, Anointing of the Sick" Woestman, WM, Ottawa 2004, pg 277]

Civil authorities in the United States are usually respectful of this confidentiality. However, in 1996, an ambitious attorney in Portland, Oregon, secretly recorded a confession without the knowledge of the priest or the penitent involved. This led to official protests by then local Archbishop Francis George and the Vatican. The tape has since been sealed (and later destroyed), and the Federal Court has since ruled that the taping was in violation of the 4th Amendment, and ordered an injunction against any further tapings. []

The Manuals of confession in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages the manuals of confession constituted a literary genre. These manuals were guidebooks on how to obtain the maximum benefits from the sacrament. There were two kinds of manuals: those addressed to the faithful, so that they could prepare a good confession, and those addressed to the priests, who had to make sure that no sins were left unmentioned and the confession was as thorough as possible. The priest had to ask questions, while being careful not to suggest sins that perhaps the faithful had not thought of and give them ideas.Manuals were written in Latin and in the vernacular. See (in French) about manuals of confession in medieval Spain.

Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism

Within the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, it is understood that the Mystery of confession and repentance has more to do with the spiritual development of the individual and much less to do with purification. Sin is not seen as a stain on the soul, but rather a mistake that needs correction.

In general, the Eastern Christian chooses an individual to trust as his or her spiritual guide. In most cases this is the parish priest but may, in fact, be any individual, male or female, who has received permission from a bishop to hear confessions. This person is often referred to as one's spiritual father or mother. Once chosen, the individual turns to his spiritual guide for advice on his or her spiritual development, confessing sins, and asking advice. Eastern Christians tend to confess only to this individual and the intimacy created by this bond makes the spiritual guide the most qualified in dealing with the person, so much so, that no one can override what a spiritual guide tells his or her charges. What is confessed to one's spiritual guide is protected by the same seal as would be any priest hearing a confession.

In general practice, after one confesses to one's spiritual guide, the parish priest (Who may or may not have heard the confession but canonically should have) covers the head of the person with his Epitrachelion (Stole) and reads the prayers of repentance, asking God to forgive the transgression of the individual. It is highly possible that the person confesses his sins to his spiritual guide on a regular basis but only seeks out the priest to read the prayer before communing.

In some Eastern Catholic Churches, clergy make their confession in the sanctuary, in public view but quietly.


Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Catholic Church — This article is about the church in communion with the See of Rome. For other uses, see Catholic Church (disambiguation). Roman Christianity redirects here. For other uses, see Roman Christianity (disambiguation). Part of a series on the Catholic …   Wikipedia

  • Catholic Church hierarchy — The term Hierarchy in the Catholic Church has a variety of related usages. Literally, holy government , the term is employed in different instances. There is a Hierarchy of Truths,[1] which refers to the levels of solemnity of the official… …   Wikipedia

  • Catholic Church and ecumenism — The Roman Catholic Church has been heavily involved in the ecumenical movement since the Second Vatican Council (1961 1965).Definition and practices of ecumenism Before the Second Vatican Council The Catholic Church sees itself as the One, Holy,… …   Wikipedia

  • Sacraments of the Catholic Church — This article is an expansion of a section entitled Sacraments within the article: Roman Catholic Church .The Sacraments of the Catholic Church, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, are efficacious signs of grace perceptible to the… …   Wikipedia

  • Eucharist in the Catholic Church — The institution of the Eucharist has been a key theme in the depictions of the Last Supper in Christian art, as in this 16th century Juan de Juanes painting. At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic… …   Wikipedia

  • Criticism of the Catholic Church — This article is about the church headquartered in Vatican City, an enclave within Rome. For Criticism of the Christian Church, see Criticism of Christianity. Part of a series on …   Wikipedia

  • Anointing of the Sick (Catholic Church) — Anointing of the Sick is the ritual anointing of a sick person and is a Sacrament of the Catholic Church. It is also described, using the more archaic synonym unction in place of anointing , as Unction of the Sick or Extreme Unction. [The Council …   Wikipedia

  • The Sacrament of Penance —     The Sacrament of Penance     † Catholic Encyclopedia ► The Sacrament of Penance     Penance is a sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ in which forgiveness of sins committed after baptism is granted through the priest s absolution to… …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • Roman Catholic Church — The Roman Catholic Church, officially known as the Catholic Church, [] ] Norman, p. 12] Pope Benedict XVI summarized this mission as a threefold responsibility to proclaim the word of God, celebrate the sacraments, and exercise the ministry of… …   Wikipedia

  • Fasting and abstinence in the Roman Catholic Church — For Roman Catholics, fasting is the reduction of one s intake of food to one full meal a day. This may or may not be accompanied by abstinence from meat when eating. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that all people are obliged by God to perform… …   Wikipedia