The Sacrament of Penance, as described by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 1962

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'The Sacrament of Penance is for spiritual wounds received after Baptism. Original sin was washed from the infant in Baptism, and in the case of the adult, personal sins as well. But the Lord is “practical.” He knows that the white robe given in Baptism is not always kept immaculate; that the “just man falleth seven times a day,” and that the offenses against us should be forgiven “seventy times seven.” Therefore, in His mercy, He instituted a sacrament which is a tribunal of mercy for spiritual healing.

There have been those who say that there is no difference between the Sacrament of Penance and psychoanalysis because, in both, the human mind, when disturbed, seeks to throw off its burden. True it is that as the hand will go to the eye to provide relief from a speck, so the tongue will come to the aid of the heart to secure relief. As Shakespeare put it: “My tongue will tell the anger of my heart; Or else my heart, concealing it, will break.” We are not here criticizing the psychoanalytic method, but only the error of saying that there is no difference between it and the Sacrament of Penance. But the differences between psychoanalysis and confession are enormous.

Contrast of Psychoanalysis and Confession

Psychoanalysis is the avowal of an attitude of mind; confession is an avowal of guilt. The first comes from the subconsciousness, the other from conscience. A person can be proud of his state of mind; some are proud of being atheists, or immoral, or gangsters. Many a patient will tell a psychiatrist, “Have you ever heard a case like mine, Doctor?” On the contrary, no one is ever proud of his guilt. Even in isolation, the sinner is ashamed. It takes no courage to admit that one is “mental” but guiltless; but it takes a tremendous amount of heroism, of which few are capable, to take the burden of one’s own guilt to Calvary and lay one’s hands at the feet of the Crucified and say: “I am responsible for this.”

Psychoanalysis proceeds according to a theory, and not always one theory. Confession, however, is based upon conformity or non-conformity to the absolute standard of the law of God. Psychoanalysis does not agree on a particular theory by which a mental state is to be judged. There are three main theories: one attributes mental disturbances to sex (Freud); another to an inferiority complex (Adler); and the third to a drive toward security (Jung). The analyst, because he is guided by a theory, is never required to have any moral fitness for his task; his personal ethical right to receive confidences is never raised. He may be living with his sixth wife, and yet advise people how to be happy in marriage.

But in confession, it is different. The deliverances of the penitent are always on the moral plane – not on the psychological. The penitent knows that he is before a judgment, not a theory, and that the confessor who hears his sins stands in the place of God. Because the priest is the mediator between God and man, the Church always asks that the priest who absolves the penitent be himself in the state of grace; that is to say, a participant in divine life. The avowal of guilt, therefore, on the part of the penitent is not subject to the individual whims, theories, idiosyncrasies, and kinks of the one who hears it, but to the divine law, and to the order and the moral standards of Christ Who taught that one must be holy to make holy.

A third difference is that in psychoanalysis, there is the probing by an alien or outside mind; in confession, it is the penitent himself who is his own prosecuting attorney and even his own judge. In analysis, there is often a seeking out of attitudes to bolster up a theory; but in a spontaneous confession, the penitent analyzes his own faults and confesses them without having them wander and riot in “free association” and then be submitted to “private interpretation of the subconscious” which took the place of private interpretation of the Bible. Man naturally accords pardon to others who have done injury by a simple avowal of faults, without someone else dragging them out. One indispensable condition of receiving pardon in the sacrament is this open avowal of guilt, such as the prodigal son made when he returned again to the father’s house.

Another difference is that what is told in the confessional is absolutely secret, and may never be divulged, or made part of a book, or turned into a case history, such as is often done with the material that is brought out in a psychoanalytic examination. The offenses man commits against God do not belong to any man; hence, he may not make use of them. The material of confession belongs to God, and sins may never be revealed by the confessor until God does so on the Day of Judgment. The confessor’s ears are God’s ears, and his tongue may never speak what God has heard through his ears.

Another difference is in the attitude that a person assumes in confession and psychoanalysis. In one instance, the mentally disturbed person is on a couch; in confession, he is on his knees. There is a passivity about the admission of a mental state on a couch; but there is a humble activity on the part of one who admits moral guilt while on his knees. In the psychological examination, there is never any such thing as contrition or satisfaction. In confession, sorrow and the making up for our sins are integral parts of the sacrament. When one sees a string of confessional boxes in a large church, with feet protruding from under the curtains like wiggling worms, one realizes that man has reduced himself almost to the humble state of the worm, in order that he might rise again, restored to the glorious friendship of the Christ Who died for him.

A final and important difference between psychoanalysis and confession is this: in psychoanalysis, the admission of mental states comes from ourselves; in confession, the impetus or the desire to confess our sins is from the Holy Spirit. The night of the Last Supper, Our Blessed Lord said that He would send His Spirit to convict the world of sin (John 16:8). It is only through the Spirit of Christ that we know we are sinners, as we see our lives in relationship to the Cross. The Holy Spirit summons the soul to find its way back to the shelter of the Father’s arms. When a person is in sin, he is in exile from home, a dweller in a foreign land who looks forward to the joy of return. It is an urge to share in the joy of the Good Shepherd as he carries back the lost sheep and the straying lamb to the sheepfold of the Church.

The reason this summons must come from God is that we are captives of sin. Just as a prisoner cannot release himself from the chafing bars or chains, so neither can the sinner without the power of the Spirit. To God alone belongs the initiative in this sacrament. It is His voice which calls us to repentance. We may make our confessions because our conscience urges us to do so, but the voice that speaks to us is the voice of the Holy Spirit telling us of God’s mercy and love and righteousness. Under the impetus of the Holy Spirit, the soul feels like Lazarus risen from the dead.

Two Basic Requirements for the Sacrament

detail of a a ceiling painting emblematic of Penance, date and artist unknown; Church of the Holy Family, Porto Alegre, Brazil; photographed on 7 July 2011 by Eugenio Hansen, OFS; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsIn order that there might be a Sacrament of Penance, two things are required, both of which are, from a human point of view, almost impossible to find. First, one must create the penitent and, secondly, one must create a confessor. To create a penitent, one must take a man in his pride, enveloped in a glacial silence, which refuses to unburden its guilt, and say to him: “Thou shalt come to a man and kneel before him – a man who is perhaps no better than you are – and you shall tell him what you hide from yourself and your children. You shall tell him that which makes you blush; and you shall do all of this on your knees.”

However difficult it may be to create a penitent who will confess everything with a firm purpose of amendment, it is even more difficult to create the confessor. Where find one empowered by God with authority to forgive sins? How train the human heart to heal the wounds of others, and then seal his lips forever that what he has learned as God’s representative be never revealed to men?

Only God could bring these two creations together, for outside of His power and mercy, we would say: “Humanity is too proud, you will never have penitents”; “Humanity is too indiscreet, you will never have confessors.” And yet the sacrament exists. There are penitents because there are confessors, and there are penitents and confessors because Christ is God.

The Sacrament Deals with Sins

When a baby is born, it is generally healthy; but as time goes on, it becomes subject to diseases and organic troubles which oppress and torment life. In the spiritual order, too, though the soul is made clean and free from all sin by Baptism, it nevertheless contracts stains and spiritual diseases during life. These are known as sins. If the sin is serious enough to rupture the divine life within, then it is called “mortal” because it brings death to the life of Christ in the soul. If the wrong done does not destroy the divine life, but only injures it, it is called “venial.”

A serious sin always produces in the soul a three-fold effect. The first is self-estrangement. A sinner feels in his inmost being like a battlefield where a civil war rages. He no longer is a unit but a duality in which two forces within him struggle for mastery.

Serious sin estranges the sinner from his fellow man, because a man who is not at peace with himself will not be at peace with his neighbor. World wars are nothing but the projection, into great areas of the earth’s surface, of the psychic wars waging inside of muddled souls. If there were no battles going on inside of hearts, there would be no battlefields in the world. It was after Cain’s murder of Abel that he asked the anti-social question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The most serious effect of sin is not alienation from self and from fellow man; it is the estrangement from God. Inasmuch as grace is the divine life within the soul, it follows that a serious sin is the destruction of that divine life. That is why the “Epistle to the Hebrews” asks: “Would they crucify the Son of God a second time, hold Him up to mockery a second time, for their own ends?” (Hebrews 6:6) Sin, therefore, is a second death. The merits we gained are lost; but those merits can be regained, thanks to the mercy of God, in the Sacrament of Penance.

Instituted by Christ

The Sacrament of Penance was instituted by Christ in the form of a judgment, for the remission, through sacramental absolution, of sins committed after Baptism and granted to a contrite person confessing his sins.

All through the Old Testament there was a preparation for this sacrament, inasmuch as God strove to induce men to acknowledge their sins before Him. To elicit a confession, God said to Adam: “Hast thou eaten of the tree?” God said to the first murderer: “Where is thy brother?” In Mosaic legislation, a sinner brought a sin offering, which was burned in a public place, to show that the sinner was not afraid to admit his guilt. The prophet, Nathan, heard David’s confession after his sin with Bethsabee, and assigned to him a penance. John the Baptist heard the confession of those who came to hear him preach. These were only types and figures of the sacrament that was to come, because forgiveness became possible only through the merits of Our Lord’s Passion.

No one questions the fact that Our Blessed Lord had the power to forgive sins. The Gospels record the miraculous cure of the paralytic at Capharnaum. Our Lord first told the paralytic that his sins were forgiven him, whereupon those round about laughed at Him. In response the Savior told them that it was just as easy to cure the man as it was to forgive his sins; so He cured the paralytic: “To convince you that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins while He is on earth” (Mark 2:10).

Our Blessed Lord was saying that God in the form of Man had the power to forgive sins; that is to say, through the instrumentality of the human nature, which He received from Mary, He was forgiving sins. Here is an anticipation of the fact that it is through humanity that He will continue to forgive sins; i.e., through those who are endowed with sacramental power to do so. Man cannot forgive sins, but God can forgive sins through man.

Our Lord promised to confer this power of forgiveness, first of all, to Peter whom He made the rock of the Church. He told Peter that He would ratify in heaven the decisions which Peter took on earth. These decisions were explained in two metaphors of “binding” and “loosing.” The power of jurisdiction was given to the one who had the keys of the kingdom. This promise made to Peter was followed up a little later on by one made to the Apostles. The second promise did not bestow the primacy, for that was reserved to Peter. Our Lord told the Apostles:

“I came upon an errand from my Father, and now I am sending you out in my turn. With that, he breathed on them, and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit; when you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven, when you hold them bound, they are held bound.” (John 20:21-23)

Our Divine Redeemer here says that He was sent by the Father; now He sends them with the power to forgive or not forgive. These words imply “hearing confessions,” because how would the priests of the Church know which sins to forgive and which sins not to forgive if they did not hear them?

One can be very sure that this sacrament is not of human institution, for if the Church had invented any of the sacraments, there is one that it certainly would have done away with, and that is the Sacrament of Penance. This because of the trials that it imposes upon those who have to hear confessions, sitting in the confessional box for long hours while listening to the terrific monotony of fallen human nature. Because it is a divine institution – what a beautiful opportunity it is to restore peace to sinners and to make them saints!

It may be asked, why did Our Lord demand a telling of sins? Why not bury one’s head in one’s handkerchief, and tell God that one is sorry? Well, if this method of being sorry is not effective when we are caught by a traffic policeman, why should it be effective with God? Shedding tears in one’s handkerchief is no test of sorrow, because we are then the judges. Who would ever be sentenced to prison, if every man were his own judge? How easy it would be for murderers and thieves to escape justice and judgment simply by having a handkerchief ready!

Because sin is pride, it demands a humiliation, and there is no greater humiliation than unburdening one’s soul to a fellow man. Such self-revelation cures us of many a moral illness. Hurtful things often hurt more if they are shut up. A boil can be cured, if lanced to release the pus; so too is a soul on the pathway to the Father’s House when it admits to its own sin and seeks forgiveness. All nature suggests an unburdening of oneself. If the stomach takes a foreign substance into it which it cannot assimilate, it throws it off; so it is with the soul. It seeks deliverance from that which troubles it, namely the unbearable repartee within.

Furthermore, when a sin is avowed and admitted, it loses its tenacity. Sin is seen in all its horror when viewed in relationship to the Crucifixion. Suppress a sin, and it becomes buried, and later on will come out in complexes. It is very much like keeping the cap on a tube of toothpaste. If one submits it to great pressure, the toothpaste will come out somewhere; one does not know where. The normal place for it to come out is through the top. So too, if we suppress our guilt or deny it, we put our mind under pressure and it creates abnormalities. The guilt does not come out where it ought to be, namely, in the sacrament. Thus it was that Lady Macbeth’s guilt came out in the washing of hands. It should have been her soul that was washed, and not her hands.

Confession to a Priest

detail of an oil painting 'The Confession', c.1750 by Pietro Longhi; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Tuscany, Italy; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsIt may be asked, why confess one’s sins to a priest? Maybe he is not as holy as the penitent. That indeed could be. But though he is not holier in his person, he is holier in his powers, because Christ gave this power to His Church – only the Church claims it, and only the Church exercises it. The mayor of a town may not be as good as some of the citizens, but he has the power which the citizens do not; so it is with the priest.

Furthermore, it is not the priest who absolves: he is only the instrument of Christ. Can man of and by himself forgive sins? No! Can man united to God forgive sins? Yes! That is the way Christ the Son of God forgave sins through His human nature. That is the way He forgave the sins of Magdalen; that was the way He forgave the sins of the paralytic, that was the way He forgave the sins of the thief on the right. That power He gave to His Church.

Because the priest acts in Christ’s name, he is bound by the seal of confession. Not even under the penalty of death may he reveal sins that are confided to him in confession. As a person, he has not heard any sins. They are not a part of his knowledge. It was Christ Who heard the sin and He alone has knowledge of it. Suppose a murderer came into a rectory and confessed to a priest. On leaving the priest, the murderer shook hands with him. After the murderer left, the police entered, found blood on the priest’s hands and accused him of the murder. The priest could not say: “It was the man who just went out. I did not do it.” He may not make any defense of himself, nor may a priest outside the confessional ever speak to that person about his sins. For example, he may not say to a penitent whom he meets on the street, “Oh, did you ever pay back the hundred dollars you stole?” If someone stole money from a drawer in my desk, and then came and confessed the stealing of money; I could order the money returned, but I would not be permitted to lock the drawer, because that was information which I gained in God’s sacrament.

Another reason for confessing sins to a priest is that no one sin is individual. We are members of the Mystical Body of Christ. If one member is unhealthy, the whole body is unhealthy. If we have an earache, the whole body suffers. Now, every personal sin has a social effect: all the other cells of the body of the Church are affected because of the defect in this one cell. Every sinner is blameworthy, not only in regard to himself, but also in regard to the Church, and first and foremost to God. If he is ever to recover, it can only be by the intervention of the Church, and by an intervention of God.

No medicine will act on a member of the body, unless the body co-operates in some way with the medicine. Because every sin is against God and the Church, it follows that a representative of God and His Mystical Body must restore the sinner again to fellowship. The priest, acting as the representative of the Church, welcomes back the penitent to the community of believers. When Our Blessed Lord found the lost sheep, He immediately integrated them again into His flock:

“Jesus was to die for the sake of the nation; and not only for that nation s sake, but so as to bring together into one all God’s children, scattered far and wide.” (John 11:52)

The priest re-establishes the sinner in grace; he restores the sinner to his rights as a son of the Eternal Father; he reconciles him not only to God, but also to God’s society of the Church.

The social nature of Penance is seen further in the fact that the penitent recognizes the right of the Mystical Body to judge him, since it is through the Mystical Body he is in relation with God. Forgiveness of sin, then, is not just a matter between God and our individual souls. It is the Church which has been injured by transgressions. Therefore, our sins are not just our concern, they are the concern of the whole Church – the Church Militant on earth and the Church Triumphant in heaven.

The Examination of Conscience

Before the penitent goes into the confessional box, there is the examination of conscience. This used to be a daily practice of Christians, and still is among many. It was not even unknown to the pagans. The Stoics, for example, recommended it. The examination of conscience centers not only on the wrong we have done, but also on the motivations. Our Blessed Lord, examining the conscience of the Pharisees, called them “whited sepulchres, clean on the outside, but on the inside full of dead men’s bones.” He pierced beneath the pretensions and hypocrisies of their prayers, their almsgivings, and their philanthropies, saying they did these things to be seen by men and to have a human reward – and that is the only reward they will ever receive. So in the examination of conscience, all the thoughts, words, and deeds of the soul are brought to the surface, examined, and considered in conformity with the law of God.

One of the differences between psychoanalytic examination and examination of conscience is that in the former one stands in one’s own light; in the examination of conscience, one stands in the light of God. That is why Scripture says, “Search my soul, O my God.” The divine light looks into the mind, takes the mind off itself and its own false judgments, and makes things appear as they really are; at the end, one does not say, “Oh, what a fool I’ve been,” but rather, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

A day comes when the abused conscience will turn with fury and harass its victim, tormenting his waking life and making his dreams a poison and his darkness a nightmare. When night gives inner vision scope, the guilty conscience lies awake fearful of being known in its ugliness. There is nothing that so much arouses an unhealthy fear as a hidden guilt. As the cock crowed when Peter denied Our Lord, so our nature rises in revolt against us when we have denied the Lord of conscience. Sins have a way of finding us out. Just as a refusal to study in childhood begets an ignorance in mature life, so too, sins which we rationalize away are thrust down into unconsciousness, but somehow they make themselves felt in our health, our mental attitudes and our general outlook on life.

Alongside every human being there are three pools, each of which gives a different reflection. We look into one pool and we are pleased with ourselves, because in that pool we see ourselves as we think we are. In the second pool, we see ourselves as our neighbor sees us, or as our press clippings reveal us. In the third pool, we see ourselves as God sees us, and as we really are. It is into this third pool that examination of conscience takes us, bringing to the surface the hidden faults of the day, discovering the weeds that are choking the growth of God’s grace, our sins of omission and commission, the good deeds left undone, the failure to aid a needy neighbor, the refusal to offer a word of consolation to one burdened with sorrow, and malicious remarks, lies, acts of dishonesty, and the seven sins which are the enemy of peace: self-love, inordinate love of money, illicit sex, hate, over-indulgence, jealousy, and laziness.

Examination of conscience also embraces what is called our predominant passion. Every person has one sin which he commits more than another. Examination of conscience roots out all our self-deception, for every person has a little corner in his heart he never wants anyone to venture into, even with a candle. We say we are following our consciences, when actually what we mean is that we are making our consciences, and then following what we made. It is this kind of deceit that is unveiled in the examination and, by curing us of self-deception, it cures us of depression. Depression comes not from having faults, but from refusing to face them. What else is self-pity but a total unconcern with the interests of others?

It must not be thought that in the examination of conscience one concentrates on his own wounds; rather he concentrates on the mercy of God. A sick person thinks less of his own sickness than the physician who will heal him. The examination of conscience develops no complex, because it is done in the light of God’s justice. The self is not the standard, nor is it the source of hope. All human frailty and human weakness are seen in the light of God’s infinite goodness. Sorrow is aroused, not because a code has been violated, but because love has been wounded. As an empty pantry drives the housewife to the bakery, so the empty soul is driven to the bread of life. Examination of conscience, instead of inducing morbidity, becomes an occasion of joy.

There are two ways of knowing how good God is: one is never to lose Him through the preservation of innocence; the other is to find Him again after He has been lost. There is no self-loathing, there is only a God-loving character about the examination of conscience. We put ourselves in God’s hand as we would put a broken watch in the hand of a watch maker, certain that he will not ruin it, but will make it function well.

The closer we get to God, the more we see our defects. A painting reveals few defects under candlelight, but the sunlight may reveal it as a daub. It is true that we do find ourselves quite unlovable in the examination of conscience, but it is this that makes us want to love God because He is the only One Who loves the unlovable.

When one has finished the examination of conscience, there may be a load to drag into the confessional, which is sometimes called the “box.” If it is a “box,” it is not Pandora’s for at the bottom of it is hope. Then we realize that we are bringing it to Christ Himself. It is wonderful to know that there is one place where we can taste the freedom of heaven, where a man can be spared the hypocrisy of maintaining a pose. There comes the joy of knowing that neither the penitent nor the priest ever recalls the sin confessed. A shutter drops. Something is put into a well, and a cover is laid on it forever.

In the early Church, sins which were committed publicly were confessed publicly. This survives in the “Roman Pontifical,” in a ceremony called “The Expulsion of Public Penitents on Ash Wednesday”; another ceremony is called, “The Reconciliation of Penitents on Maundy Thursday”; and still another special rite is used for the absolution of those who have been publicly excommunicated. Though public sins in the early Church were confessed publicly, secret sins were confessed secretly and under the seal.

Sorrow for Sin: Contrition

oil painting 'The Return of the Prodigal Son' by Pompeo Batoni, 1773; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThe other sacraments demand that the subject has proper dispositions, but they do not constitute the matter of the sacrament. In Penance, sorrow is not only a condition, it is the matter itself; for without the sorrow for sin, forgiveness is not granted.

The priest gives absolution from sins in the sacrament provided there is sufficient sorrow of mind, or contrition, which is a hatred of the sin committed with the resolution not to sin again. The word contrition is taken from the Latin word which means to grind or pulverize; in an applied sense, it means being bruised in heart. Contrition is a sorrow of mind, not an emotional outburst or psychological remorse.

The prodigal son had gone through many emotional stages of remorse, particularly when he was feeding the swine, or realizing how much better the servants in his father’s house were. But the real sorrow did not come until it penetrated his soul with the resolution: “I will arise and go to my father.”

Sometimes it is said that all a Catholic has to do is go to Confession and admit his sins, and he will come out white as snow and then continue committing the same sins. This is a libel upon the sacrament for, where there is no purpose of amendment, there is no sorrow. The sins of such a penitent are not forgiven. The sorrow for sin necessarily includes a resolution not to sin again; this is not merely a wish which has no relationship to practice. Part of the act of contrition contains this amendment: “And I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance, and amend my life. Amen.” It means that here and now we take the resolution not to sin; we resolve to take all the means necessary for avoiding sin in the future, such as prayer and staying away from the occasions of sin. The absolution will not be efficacious if there is not in the sorrow this essential element, a purpose of amendment.

This does not imply an absolute certitude that no one will ever sin again, for that would be presumption. There are two ways to verify a firm purpose: one is to make up for the sin as soon as possible; for example, if one is guilty of sarcastic remarks against a neighbor, to seek the neighbor’s pardon or, if one has stolen, to return what has been stolen. The second is to avoid the occasions of sin, such as bad reading, evil companions, drinking parties, or any act that previously led us into sin.

There are two kinds of contrition: perfect and imperfect. Both are implied in the Act of Contrition which the penitent says in the confessional:

“And I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell,” [imperfect sorrow]; “but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love” [perfect sorrow].

Two kinds of fear serve as the basis of distinction between the two kinds of contrition or sorrow: one is a servile fear, the other is a filial fear. A servile fear is a fear of punishment, which we justly deserve from a master whom we disobeyed. Filial fear is the fear that a devoted son might have for a loving father; namely, the fear of injuring him. Applying this to contrition, servile fear draws us toward God because of the dread of a punishment for sin, namely, hell. Filial fear is a dread of being separated from God, or of offending Him Whom we love.

Imagine twins who had disobeyed a mother in exactly the same way. One of the twins runs to the mother and says: “Oh, Mommy, I am sorry I disobeyed. Now I can’t go to the picnic, can I?” The other one throws her arms around the mother’s neck and weeps: “I’ll never hurt you again.” The first has imperfect contrition, the second perfect contrition.

Which kind of contrition, perfect or imperfect, is sufficient in sacramental Confession? Imperfect contrition is sufficient, though it is our belief that most penitents are sorry not because of the punishment their sins deserve from God, but rather because they heartily are sorry for having recrucified Christ in their hearts.

Suppose, however, that a person is in a state of mortal sin and is unable to go to confession; for example, a soldier who is ordered into battle. Would imperfect contrition then suffice for the forgiveness of sins? No, but perfect contrition would, if he had the resolution to receive sacramental confession at the earliest opportunity.

That makes a word about perfect contrition more imperative. The usual attitude of penitents is to make a personal equation between their own sins and the Crucifixion. Each one says in his heart as he receives the sacrament: “If I had been less proud, the crown of thorns would have been less piercing. If I had been less avaricious and greedy, His hands would have been dug less by the steel. If I had been less sensual, His flesh would not be hanging from Him like purple rags. If I had not wandered away like a lost sheep, in the perversity of my egotism, His feet would have been less driven with nails. I am sorry, not just because I broke a law: I am sorry because I wounded Him Who died out of love for me.”

Our Lord had to die on the Cross before the abysmal dimensions of sin could be appreciated. We do not see the horror of sin in the crimes paraded in the press, nor in the great crises of history, nor in the wholesale violence of persecutors. We see what evil is only when we see Goodness nailed to the Cross. If any of us says in our heart, “I am not as bad as those who crucified Him,” we are forgetting that they did not crucify Our Lord; sin did. They were our representatives, our ambassadors, that day at the court of Satan. We empowered them with the right to crucify.

One look at the crucifix, therefore, is a double revelation! A revelation of the horror of sin and the love of God. The worst thing that sin can do is not to kill children or bomb cities in nuclear warfare; the worst thing that sin can do is to crucify divine love. And the most beautiful thing that Love can do, at the moment of crucifixion, is to extend to us forgiveness in the priestly prayer to His heavenly Father: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

In perfect contrition, we become tremendously impressed with the infinite endurance of Our Lord to suffer the worst that evil can inflict, and then pardon his enemies. He certainly did not teach us to be indifferent to sin, because He took its full consequences upon Himself. He paid for it, but on the other hand, there was mercy with that justice. He offered forgiveness in the hope that we would repent out of gratitude for His payment of the debt which our sins created.


Satisfaction for sins, or what is sometimes called “penance,” is distinct from sorrow. Few dwell sufficiently on the difference between being forgiven and atoning for the sin which was forgiven.

Suppose I stole your purse in the course of a conversation, and then I said to myself: “What a scandal I am to this person. I am supposed to bring justice and the love of God, and here I violate God’s law of justice, impugn His mercy, and nail Him to the Cross by stealing the purse.” So I say to you, “Will you forgive me?” In your kindness, you would certainly say: “I forgive you.” But you would also say something else, would you not? Would you not say, “Give me back my purse?” Could I really say that I was sorry unless I returned the purse?

There is a story told, which is sheer imagination with no basis in fact, about a man who came to confession to a priest. During the course of the confession, he stole the priest’s watch. At the end of the confession, he said to the priest: “Oh, Father, I forgot to tell you. I stole a watch.” The priest, emphasizing the necessity of satisfaction, said: “You must return the watch to the owner.” The penitent said: “I’ll give it to you, Father.” The priest said: “No, I don’t want it. Return it to the owner.” The penitent said: “The owner doesn’t want it.” The priest said to him: “Well, in that case, you can keep it.”

Immediately one can see some of the fallacies. First, there was no real sorrow in confession; otherwise, he would not have added a sin while confessing others. Second, there was deceit in his satisfaction. There must always be satisfaction for sin, because every sin disturbs the order of God. Sin upsets a balance. It is to no purpose to say, “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” just because we happen to have spilled someone else’s milk. If we cannot gather up the spilled milk, we can at least pay for the bottle, or buy some more milk.

At the end of the confession, the priest gives to the penitent what is called a “penance,” a certain number of prayers to say, or fasting, or the giving of alms, or acts of mortification, or a way of the Cross, or a rosary. All of these are to “make up” for the sin, and to prove that the sorrow was sincere. This is what Catholics call “saying my penance” or “doing my penance.”

God does not ask us to make an exact reparation for our sins, but rather to do it in a proportional manner. This is because the Sacrament of Penance is less a tribunal of strict justice than a reconciliation between friends. The priest, representing Christ, is not a judge sentencing a criminal to prison. The penitent is not an enemy. He is a reconciled friend, and the reparation, penance, or satisfaction is the work of friendship between members of Christ’s Mystical Body. The penance also has a medicinal value, that of healing the wounds of the soul, which is why it has to be performed in a state of grace. Our Lord forgave our sins on the Cross, but He paid for them in justice. Our Lord forgave the thief on the right, but He did not stop his crucifixion. The pain the thief endured was a reparation for his evil life. Penance is a sign that we are applying Christ’s death on Calvary to ourselves.

Here the Sacrament of Penance differs from the Sacrament of Baptism. In Baptism, the merits of Christ’s Passion are applied to ourselves without any action on our part; but in the Sacrament of Penance, we make some satisfaction. Power and efficacy are given to our acts, because they are united with the Passion of Christ. There are two debts to be paid for sin. One is the eternal debt, which is hell; and the other is the temporal debt, or atoning in our lifetime for our imperfections and our want of charity, after our sin has been forgiven. The eternal debt of hell is completely remitted in the sacrament. The temporal debt for sin remains.

In Scripture, we find records of people being forgiven, for whom a temporal punishment remains. Adam and Eve were restored to grace, but they were made subject to death. Miriam, the sister of Moses, gained forgiveness for her sin, but she was shut out from the camp for seven days and afflicted with leprosy. Moses was forgiven, but was punished for his lack of trust in God by being excluded from the Land of Promise. David’s sin with Bethsabee was forgiven, but he had to suffer misfortunes for it, and the child died as a punishment.

That is why Saint Paul urges us to take on voluntary penances that we may “help to pay off the debt which the afflictions of Christ still leave to be paid, for the sake of His Body, the Church.” Daniel consoled Nabuchodonosor with the words: “Deign my lord king, to be advised by me; with almsgiving, with mercy to the poor, for fault and wrong-doing of thine, make amends; it may be that he will condone thy guilt” (Daniel 4:24). And Joel writes: “Time now, the Lord says, to turn the whole bent of your hearts back to me, with fasting and mourners’ tears” (Joel 2:12). Did not Our Lord say of certain cities that they would be condemned because in them “were done most of His miracles, but for that they had not done penance (Matt. 9:20).

Penances given after confession are generally light. Some say they are too light. But we must not forget indulgences. To understand them, we should recall that we are members of Christ’s Mystical Body. When we do evil, or commit sin, we affect every member of the Church in some way. This is even done in our most secret sins. It is evident that we do it in stealing, murder, and adultery; but we do it even in our solitary sins, even in our evil thoughts. How? By diminishing in some way the content of charity and love within the whole Mystical Body. Just as a pain in the eye affects the whole organism and makes us hurt all over so, if I love Christ less, do I impair the spiritual well-being of the Church.

But because I can harm the Church by my sin, so can I be helped by the Church when I am in debt. Saint Paul applied to the Mystical Body the lesson of the physical body: “All the different parts of it [the body] were to make each other’s welfare their common care” (I Corinth. 12:25).

Religion is not individual, it is social; it is organic. Look to the natural order, and see how many benefits I receive from my fellow man. There are a million ways in which they are indulgent to me. I did not raise the cow that furnished the leather that went into my shoes. I did not raise the chicken I eat at dinner – but that is a bad example; I do not like chicken! So let us say, the chicken you eat. Somebody’s work or labor allowed you to indulge in this luxury. We might almost say that we are surrounded by social “indulgences,” because we share in the merits, talents, arts, crafts, sciences, techniques, needlework, and genius of society.

Now, in the society of Christ’s people, His Mystical Body, it is possible to share in the merits and the good works, the prayers, the sacrifices, the self-denials, and the martyrdoms of others. If there be an economic “indulgence,” so that I can ride in a plane someone else built, why should there not also be a spiritual indulgence, so that I can be carried to Christ more quickly through the bounty of some members of the Mystical Body.

Go back now to the distinction between forgiveness of guilt and satisfaction for guilt. Every sin has either an eternal or a temporal punishment. Even though our sins were forgiven, there still remained some satisfaction to be made in time; or else in Purgatory after death, provided we die in the state of grace. An indulgence refers not to sin, but to the temporal punishment. Before the indulgences can apply, there must have been forgiveness of the guilt.

Actually, there are several ways of making up for the punishment due after the guilt of sin has been forgiven. Three are personal, one is social:

(1) The saying or doing of the penance given in the confessional box at the end of confession;

(2) Any works of mortification which are freely undertaken during life, such as helping the poor and the missions, fasting, and other acts of self-denial;

(3) The patient imitation of Our Lord’s sufferings on the Cross by enduring the trials of life; and

(4) The social remedy of applying the superabundant merits of the Mystical Body to our souls.

As we depend on intellectual society to make up for our ignorance, so we depend on a spiritual society to make up for our spiritual bankruptcy.

It may be asked where the Church gets power to remit temporal punishment due to sin? Well, the Church happens to be very rich spiritually, just as some men are very rich financially. In a village there lived a rich banker who set up a trust fund in a bank; he bade all of the sick, infirm, and unemployed to draw from that reserve. The banker told them: “Have no fears that this fund will ever run out, for I am rich enough to care for all of you.” If the banker paid part of the hospital bills, that would be a partial indulgence of the debts of the sick; if he paid all of their bills, that would be a plenary indulgence of their expenses and costs.

detail of an illustration depicting Confession by Wilhelm Pichler, 1920; from Katholisches Religionsbüchlein für die unteren Klassen der Volksschule, Vienna, Austria; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThe Church is a spiritual banker. It has all the merits of the Passion of Our Lord and the Blessed Mother, the merits of the martyrs, saints, and confessors, and the patient endurance of persecution in the present time; all of these merits are far greater than those needed for salvation of these saintly and good people. The Church takes that surplus, puts it into her treasury, and bids all her weak and wounded, who cannot pay all the debts they owe for their sins, to draw on those reserves. The Church lays down certain conditions for making use of this treasure, just as the banker did. The users have to be deserving, they have to be in the state of grace, they have to fulfill certain conditions; e.g., a prayer, a pilgrimage, or any one of a thousand little things.

When the debt of temporal punishment due to sin is liquidated only in part by an indulgence, it is called a partial indulgence. But if all the debts of temporal punishment are paid for by fulfilling the conditions, it is called a plenary indulgence.

Suppose I am standing in the center of the room, that you have a right to command me, and that I am bound in conscience to obey you. You order me to take three steps to my right. I disobey, and take three steps to my left. When I take the three steps to my left, I say to you, “I am very sorry. I have disobeyed you. Will you forgive me?” You say: “Yes, I will forgive you.” But look where I am! I am actually six steps from where I ought to be, and I am three steps from being in neutral ground. Since I have taken three steps in disobedience, I must put my foot down three times humbly and in penance, in order to get back to “neutral” before I can begin doing right. Those three steps, taken penitentially, represent the payment of the temporal punishment due to sin.

Now suppose that I just took two steps and someone carried me the other one, I would then have an indulgence of one step. If someone carried me two steps, I would then have the indulgence of two steps. If someone carried me the three steps, that would be a plenary indulgence.

That brings up the question of “days.” One often hears of the indulgence of “forty days,” “one hundred days,” or “forty years.” The Church has to have some standard of measurement, and “days” and “years” are merely approximations. In the first several centuries of the Church, penances were very severe for certain public sins. One might have to dress himself in sackcloth and ashes and beg at a church door for forty days, or three years, or seven years, or sometimes ten years in the case of atrocious crimes. Because these sins gave grave scandal to the public, the penitent would be permitted to assist at the Mass at the door or in a special part of the Church.

Later on, there began to be intercessions of persons of high merit, that they be given more or less extended remission of the temporal punishment due to their sins; these became known as indulgences. The Church then took, as a standard of measurement, the severe penances of the early days and applies them today to indulgences. For example, for saying certain prayers, one receives an indulgence which is the equivalent of “forty days” penance in the early Church, or the equivalent of “one hundred days” penance in the early Church, or a “year,” as the case may be.

There is no exact statistical relation between the sin and its expiation, as there is none between the money you pay for a suit of clothes, and the cooperation of the sheep herder, the wool-gatherers, and the suit manufacturer.

What a beautiful doctrine and how consoling is this sacrament! See how it combines the poor sinner who is in debt, the Mystical Body to which he is restored by absolution in the confessional, and the mercy of Christ, the Head of His Mystical Body Who gave this power to His Church: “Whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth is loosed also in heaven.”

My prayer is only a drop but, when it is joined to the other cells of the Mystical Body, when it becomes a bead in a rosary which unites the Church Militant on earth with the Church Triumphant in heaven and Church Suffering in purgatory, when it fuses into the tears of Christ on the Cross and with the sword in Mary’s heart at the foot of the Cross, then it makes its way to the sea which is God where we all meet. Thus, thanks to my little drop of a prayer, I have the right to say, “I, too, am the ocean.”

One feels like singing for joy, for here is a greater thrill than the bath that cleanses the body. Regular confession prevents sins, worries, and anxieties from seeping down into the unconscious and degenerating into melancholy fears and neuroses. The boil is lanced before the pus can spread into unconsciousness. Our Lord knew what was in man so He instituted this sacrament, not for His needs but for ours. It was His way of giving man a happy heart. It is not easy, indeed, for a man to make his way to the Cross and to admit that he has been wrong. It is very hard; but the penitent knows that it was harder to hang on that Cross! We are never made worse by admitting we are broken-hearted, for unless our hearts are broken, how can God get in?

– from These Are The Sacraments, by described by Venerable Fulton John Sheen, 1962; published by Hawthorn Books of New York; Nihil Obstat: William F. Hogan, S.T.D., Censor Librorum; Imprimatur: James A. Hughes, J.C.D., LL.D., P.A., Vicar General, Archdiocese of Newark, 22 October 1962; Scripture quotes are from the Knox translation of The Holy Bible