Is penance required for a valid Sacrament of Penance?

The Sacrament often called simply ‘Confession’ by the faithful, is also termed: the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or the Sacrament of Penance, or the Sacrament of Forgiveness. It is a conduit of the forgiving and healing grace that flows to us from Christ on the Cross through the Church and through Her Sacraments. In this Sacrament, when the priest says “I absolve you from all your sins….”, he speaks in the person of Christ. And so truly it is Christ who is saying “I absolve you from all your sins….” When a contrite penitent makes a good confession, and the priest absolves him from all his sins, the penitent is thereby forgiven from all sins by Christ through the Church.

Now the Sacrament consists of three things:

1. contrition
2. confession with absolution
3. satisfaction

The satisfaction includes the penance done by the penitent after confession. But such penances are only effective because by them the pardoned sinner joins his prayers, sacrifices, and acts of mercy to the prayer, sacrifice, and act of mercy of Jesus dying on the Cross to obtain salvation and forgiveness from sin for us. Thus the primary satisfaction of the Sacrament of Penance is that performed by Jesus Christ. But even before the penitent performs any acts of penance, his contrition and good confession are themselves types of penances, which obtain satisfaction through the satisfaction of Christ on the Cross. Therefore, even if the penitent does not perform any acts of penance after contrition and a good confession with absolution, he is nevertheless forgiven from all his sins. His participation in this Sacrament has all three elements: contrition, confession with absolution, and satisfaction.

A penitent should perform acts of penance after confession, because sometimes there remains, after a good confession, some temporal punishment justly due for his sins. But it is certainly possible, too, that after a good confession, there might remain no temporal punishment that has not already been satisfied by contrition and confession themselves, united to the satisfaction that Christ obtained for us on the Cross.

In general, a penitent should do the penance assigned by his confessor. But the penitent is also free to follow his conscience and to use his own judgment, perhaps substituting a different penance, other than the one assigned. This is a particularly laudable practice in the situation (which I think is common today) whereby priests assign very light penances, regardless of the gravity of the sins confessed. A devout Catholic may substitute a more rigorous penance. I suppose it is also possible, if the confessor assigns a penance that is too heavy for a particular penitent (which I think would be rare), for the penitent to substitute a lighter penance, or at least a different penance that he feels more able to complete.

But even if the penitent performs no acts of penance at all, he is still forgiven by a contrite and good confession with absolution.

The ordinary and Universal Magisterium has always taught that a contrite penitent who makes a good confession, is forgiven from all his sins when the priest absolves him in the confessional. The Magisterium has never taught that, if the penitent does not perform any penances afterward, or does not perform the penances assigned by his confessor, or substitutes a different penance, the Sacrament is invalid.

At the New Theological Movement blog, Fr. Ryan Erlenbush teaches the following heresy:

“The principal means of satisfaction for sin is the accomplishment of the penance imposed upon us by the priest. This penance must be agreed to by the penitent…. If the penance is not accepted — if the penitent does not resolve to complete the penance — the sacrament will be invalid.” (‘For Divine Mercy Sunday, How to make a good confession’)

The claim that the Sacrament of Forgiveness is not valid implies that the penitent is not forgiven, and that his sins remain. Although perfect contrition forgives sin apart from the Sacrament of Confession, all perfect contrition includes at least the implicit (and for a Catholic generally the explicit) desire to subsequently receive the Sacrament. And imperfect contrition requires a valid Sacrament of Confession (though in some cases the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick can suffice) in order to obtain forgiveness.

This claim by Fr. Ryan is heresy because it directly contradicts the infallible teaching of the Universal Magisterium on an important matter of faith or morals.

The potential harm that is done by this grievous doctrinal error is great. A penitent who has not been performing the penances assigned by his confessor for the past 10, 20, or 30 years might (incorrectly) think that he is not forgiven. But the task of confessing again all those previously confessed sins would be a daunting (and entirely unnecessary task). The penitent might despair of the mercy of God, thinking that forgiveness is now out of reach. The penitent might (incorrectly) think that he cannot receive Communion until he has confessed again his past sins.

The Spread of Errors Online

This error by Fr. Ryan is not merely an abstract idea or a speculative proposal. It is an attack on the validity of a Sacrament that is nearly essential to salvation for anyone who has fallen into grave sin. Fr. Ryan also teaches errors on Baptism, on the Eucharist, and on the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, and on other important topics. See this summary of his errors.

Fr. Ryan’s grave doctrinal errors are spreading quickly by means of the internet. Through his blog, he teaches false doctrines to persons beyond his own diocese. As he convinces persons online of these errors, they in tern assist him in spreading error, by repeating them in other places online, and by promoting his blog.

I used to read Taylor Marshall’s blog, Canterbury Tales, regularly. There were a number of edifying and insightful posts. But recently his blog has taken a turn for the worse. He reiterates Fr. Ryan’s errors on some points. He permits Fr. Ryan to use the Canterbury Tales blog to spread his errors to a larger audience. Taylor seems to have become a disciple of Fr. Ryan.

It is particularly problematic when a priest uses the internet to spread doctrinal errors, under the guise of teaching what the Church teaches. Many of the faithful lack the theological understanding to recognize or to refute these errors. They give much greater credibility to the assertions of a Catholic priest than to other persons, without testing those assertions against the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, and the Magisterium. And so the errors spread more quickly and do more harm than otherwise. By this misuse of the internet, the priest in effect become like the itinerant preacher of past times, moving from diocese to diocese and spreading errors, with few persons speaking out to correct him.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Biblical scholar

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1 Response to Is penance required for a valid Sacrament of Penance?

  1. Matt says:

    Even the Blessed Virgin Mary in Medjugorje does not include penance in the following statement:

    July 24, 1982

    “Regarding a question asked about being bad all ones life and asking forgiveness: “Whoever has done very much evil during his life can go straight to Heaven if he confesses, is sorry for what he has done, and receives Communion at the end of his life.”

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