More on the Penance Controversy

Has Fr. Ryan Erlenbush changed his theological position on the validity of Confession and on the claimed necessity of accepting the particular penance assigned by the confessor? It is difficult to tell. First, there was this post in April of 2011:

“This penance must be agreed to by the penitent – and, if the penance seems either too great or too small, the penitent is free to ask the confessor for a different penance (however, the priest is not necessarily obliged to comply with the request). If the penance is not accepted – if the penitent does not resolve to complete the penance – the sacrament will be invalid.” (Source)

In a comment to the same post, Fr. Ryan adds:

“In other words, the intention to fulfill the penance (satisfaction) which the penitent accepts from the priest is both necessary and integral to fruitful reception of the sacrament.”

So he states, quite clearly and unequivocally, that the penitent must be willing to do the penance assigned. He does not say the penance must be actually completed. Rather, he is referring to the willingness of the penitent to do the particular assigned penance — not any penance chosen by the penitent, but solely the assigned penance. If not, then he claims that the Sacrament is invalid.

When confronted (by me) with this quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia,

“Satisfaction is not, like contrition and confession, an essential part of the sacrament, because the primary effect, i.e., remission of guilt and eternal punishment – is obtained without satisfaction; but it is an integral part, because it is requisite for obtaining the secondary effect – i.e., remission of the temporal punishment.” (Source)

Fr. Ryan pretends to agree with the quote, but then his explanation moves quickly back to claiming that the assigned penance (and no other) is essential for forgiveness: “It is true, satisfaction is not necessary in the same way that contrition and confession are necessary, but it is integral and it is required.”

Then later in the comments to the same post, he seems to modify his position (apparently in reaction to my arguments), so that only an implicit willingness to make satisfaction in some way is required:

“Contrition implicitly contains confession and satisfaction — since, if we are truly sorry, we want to confess and to make amends for our wrongs. Thus, if one is contrite, but is unable to actually confess to the priest and perform satisfaction (for example, if a man is dying and is unable to speak), his contrition includes a virtual confession and satisfaction and the priest ought to absolve him.”

But I must point out to the reader that the Council of Trent, the document of Pope John Paul II ‘Reconciliation and Penance’, and the CCC, all define contrition without any mention of this claimed implicit satisfaction. But even this claim, that contrition must include an implicit desire to make satisfaction, does not imply that the only acceptable satisfaction, in order for the contrition to be true contrition and for the Sacrament to be valid, would be the particular penance assigned by the priest. So there are two claims here: that the desire to make satisfaction is required for contrition to be real contrition, and that this satisfaction is solely the assigned penance.

To the contrary, the primary satisfaction of the Sacrament is found in the sacrificial act of Christ on the Cross. And the acts of the penitent found in choosing to be contrite, and in choosing to properly confess his sins, are themselves a type of satisfaction. So it is contrary to Catholic doctrine to claim that no contrition is true contrition, or that no satisfaction at all is found in this Sacrament, unless the penitent is willing to accept the particular penance assigned by the confessor.

Does contrition implicitly contain satisfaction? The Council of Trent infallibly defined contrition without any mention of satisfaction, implicit or explicit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the document of Pope John Paul II on this topic, called Reconciliation and Penance, have the same definition. So it is not true that a penitent must be considered to lack contrition, and therefore be unable to validly receive forgiveness, if his contrition does not implicitly include the desire to make satisfaction. But it is especially harmful to distort the doctrine of the Church on contrition to such an extreme extent as to claim that only the penance assigned by the confessor can suffice as the object of the desire to make satisfaction.

I can see why Fr. Ryan would mistakenly think that satisfaction is essential for true contrition. Certainly, perfect contrition — sorrow for sin out of love for God and neighbor — includes contrition for all sins, mortal and venial, and includes the desire to make satisfaction. For love seeks all that is good. We could even say that perfect contrition implicitly includes many other things, since love of God points us toward all that is good.

However, his claim that imperfect contrition absolutely must include a desire to make satisfaction, or it is not contrition at all, is contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium. The definition of the Council of Trent is beyond reproach on this question:

“Contrition, which holds the first place amongst the aforesaid acts of the penitent, is a sorrow of mind, and a detestation for sin committed, with the purpose of not sinning for the future.” (Trent, Session 14, chap. 4)

And the most recent magisterial documents say nothing more in defining contrition. There has been no development of doctrine that would add ‘at least an implicit desire to make satisfaction’ to this essential definition. Although perfect contrition, in my view, includes such a desire, imperfect contrition need not include such a desire. And what is perfect should not be turned into a minimum requirement for salvation. The Magisterium infallibly teaches, under Conciliar Infallibility and under the Universal Magisterium, that the definition of contrition (as the minimum needed for forgiveness in Confession) does not include the desire to make satisfaction.

It is a tenable theological position that perfect contrition includes the desire to make satisfaction. But it is contrary to the infallible teaching of the Church to claim that even imperfect contrition must includes that desire, at least implicitly, or else it is not true contrition and the Sacrament is invalid. Such a claim is heresy, since it contradicts an infallible teaching, and — like all heresies — causes grave harm to souls.

I could cite Pope John Paul II’s document, Reconciliation and Penance, or the CCC, on contrition. But Fr. Ryan ignores those sources. This controversy has been on-going for several months now; he has repeatedly made these types of claims. And he has not once, to my knowledge, cited or referenced in any way that important document of Pope John Paul II. So here is my response to his position: read what the Baltimore Catechism says on contrition. Like the documents of the Council of Trent, there is no requirement, for contrition to be true contrition, that the penitent even implicitly desire to make satisfaction.

On a Related Topic

The Baltimore Catechism contradicts Fr. Ryan’s claim (discussed here) that imperfect contrition must include contrition, at least implicitly, for all sins mortal and venial. Fr. Ryan goes so far as to claim, on that basis, that anyone who dies without contrition for even one venial sin, will be condemned forever to Hell. But the Baltimore Catechism states that a person might have true but imperfect contrition for one sin and not another: “when we have only venial sins to confess, we must have sorrow for at least one of them.” And since Trent defined contrition as always including the resolve to avoid sin in the future, this assertion by the Baltimore Catechism also implies that one might have true contrition for one venial sin, but not another: “If a person has only venial sins to confess, he must have the purpose of avoiding at least one of them.” Why do I cite the Baltimore Catechism rather than more recent magisterial sources on this topic? It is because Fr. Ryan will not accept correction from recent magisterial documents.


In a recent post, Fr. Ryan spoke as if he were changing his position on the validity of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

“A few friends of mine have helped me to reconsider my claim that reconciliation is not valid if the penitent does not agree to the penance imposed by the confessor.” (Source)

But then he goes on to reassert much the same position, that “actually and intentionally refusing to do any penance whatsoever which the priest might ask” is required for the forgiveness of sin. Formerly, he said that the mere lack of a willingness to accept the particular assigned penance made the Sacrament invalid. Now he makes the act of the penitent active, rather than passive, by using this wording: “if the penitent directly and purposefully (with full knowledge of the seriousness of the matter) refuses to fulfill the penance given by the priest”. But he still says that the penitent is not forgiven if the penitent refuses this particular penance.

Is the Sacrament invalid in such a case?

“I will admit that I should not have said that the sacrament would be ‘invalid’, since this is not the technical language which the Church uses. I should have said that the penitent will not receive the sacrament worthily, that he commits a sin (which is probably a serious sin, according to St. Alphonsus and others), and that those sins (at least those mortal sins) confessed without the intention of completing the penance must be confessed again in a later confession”

He claims that he should not have used the word ‘invalid’ — but only because he can’t find any magisterial document making such a claim with that particular wording. He still says that mortal sins must be re-confessed, i.e. they were not forgiven in the confession in which the penitent was unwilling to accept the particular assigned penance. Essentially, then, if the Sacrament of Confession does not forgive mortal sins, it was not a valid confession. So he is merely modifying his language, not his position. And notice, again, that the penance assigned by the confessor is at issue, not any penance at all.

But in the comments to this same post, he seems to modify the claim made in the post itself.

Comments to the post Reconsiderations

In the comments to the post, someone named George thinks that Fr. Ryan has retracted his claim about the invalidity of the Sacrament. After all, Fr. Ryan did say that he should not have used the word ‘invalid’.

George: “Regarding you reconsideration concerning the validity of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it is good of you to have retracted yourself, because, as you say, it was misleading. Of course, a penitent should strive to make his penance, but saying the Sacrament was invalid it he omitted it was just plain wrong. All the best.”

What is Fr. Ryan’s response? He accuses George of perhaps intentionally misrepresenting his earlier article and of being uncharitable, merely for saying that Fr. Ryan was ‘just plain wrong’.

Fr. Ryan: “George, I’m not sure you if you intentionally misrepresenting my earlier article or if you are truly mistaken. [in any case, it is not particularly charitable to say that I was “just plain wrong”, especially since you don’t even understand what I said in the first place]”

Then later, he adds:

Fr. Ryan: “Sorry Gregory, your comment shows that you are making no effort to read my comments or articles in a spirit of charity … in fact, you are very clearly misrepresenting what I have expressly stated.”

Notice that he attributes bad intentions to George, claiming that he is not reading in a spirit of charity and that he is deliberately misrepresenting what Fr. Ryan said. As I have noted before, Fr. Ryan responds to criticism by making personal attacks and accusations. Anyone who says that he is wrong on any substantive matter is accused of being uncharitable. He does not admit that his theological positions are his own understanding, which could possibly err. Like so many other Catholic fundamentalists, he really believes that he is merely presenting the teaching of the Church, or of the Saints and greatest theologians, without any interpretation, addition, or change.

Fr. Ryan: “I never said that confession was invalid if a penitent simply omitted to complete his penance. What I had said was that the penance would be invalid if the penitent refused to do any form of penance whatsoever and did not even have any intention of making satisfaction for his sins.”

Actually, as the above quote in this article proves, that is not what Fr. Ryan said. He was very specific that one must intend to do the particular penance assigned by the confessor, not ‘any form of penance whatsoever’. But more importantly, as I point out in this article, sometimes a penitent will have no temporal punishment remaining to be satisfied after a good confession. So not only all the sins, but all the temporal punishment due, is forgiven by contrition and confession with absolution, without the assigned penance. So how could the Sacrament be invalid, due to a lack of willingness to make satisfaction, when all satisfaction is already fulfilled?

Fr. Ryan: “It must be recalled, however, that contrition implies also the desire to make satisfaction — hence, if a penitent lacks any desire at all to complete any sort of penance whatsoever (i.e. he explicitly refuses to complete any satisfaction at all), then he lacks even imperfect contrition. This would be a very serious fault indeed — it could invalidate the sacrament, through compromising the requirement of (at least imperfect) contrition.”

“My point is that contrition itself at least implicitly contains a desire to make satisfaction (i.e. to do some sort of penance) for our sins. Without a desire (at least an implicit desire) to make satisfaction, we do not have contrition and therefore we do not have a valid sacrament.”

Now he is back to saying that the Sacrament is invalid, and he claims again that he never specified that the assigned penance was essential (when in fact he did repeatedly make that claim).

Fr. Ryan now claims that the lack of desire to do any penance is what makes the Sacrament invalid, and now he says that this is because at least an implicit desire to make satisfaction is necessary to contrition. Is that claim true? Not according to the infallible teaching of the Council of Trent, which defined contrition as: “a sorrow of mind, and a detestation for sin committed, with the purpose of not sinning for the future.”

Although the Catechism of Trent (the Roman Catechism) mentions the desire to make satisfaction for our sins, that source does not say that contrition is not true contrition, and the Sacrament is invalid, if such a desire is lacking. Our contrition ought to be perfect, and it ought to include a desire to make satisfaction. But the claim that, absent such a desire, the contrition is not true sorrow for sin, and the Sacrament is not valid, and the person guilty of actual mortal sin remains in danger of eternal punishment, such a claim is absent from the teaching of the Church.

Furthermore, the Catechism of Trent is not a document of the Council. The Roman Catechism is non-infallible. Therefore, we must consider the subsequent teaching of the Magisterium since that time (since the 16th century!!) — which Fr. Ryan is utterly ignoring, especially the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Pope John Paul II document Reconciliation and Penance. Both of those later sources teach the same definition of contrition at the Council, without any need for a desire to make satisfaction.

Now certainly, it may well be the case and should be the case that we have such a desire to make satisfaction. But the Magisterium has never taught that, without such a desire, contrition is not truly contrition and the Sacrament is invalid. And the Magisterium has also never taught that the particular penance assigned by the confessor is the sole object of that desire to make satisfaction, as if the desire to make satisfaction in any of a myriad of different ways chosen by the penitent would be utterly rejected by our merciful Lord. Pharisaism is alive and well in the Church, despite our Lord’s strong and repeated condemnation of it.

The commentator named George then continues to try to argue his point with Fr. Ryan.

George: “Contrition and confession with absolution are indispensable for the validity of the Sacrament. But the penance of the penitent is essential only for ‘the completeness or the fruitfulness of the sign,’ not for the validity of the Sacrament. The satisfaction of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, and of the penitent’s contrition and confession are sufficient for a valid Sacrament, even without any acts of penance.”

The commentator ‘George’ is not me, but he is quoting or rephrasing my position from my posts.

Fr. Ryan: “And, btw, true contrition requires the desire to make satisfaction for our sins (at least an implicit desire). Hence, anyone who explicitly refuses and rejects any act of satisfaction (i.e. penance) does not really have contrition for sin. Now, if contrition is lacking (as you yourself admit) the sacrament will be invalid. ‘Penance requires . . . the sinner to endure all things willingly, be contrite of heart, confess with the lips, and practice complete humility and fruitful satisfaction.’ (CCC 1450, Roman Catechism II,V,21, cf Trent [DS 1673])”

I notice that the Roman Catechism (the Catechism of Trent) says that penance requires ‘the sinner to endure all things willingly’ — but this is said by way of encouragement to perfection, and certainly NOT as a requirement for validity. Similarly, the practice of ‘complete’ humility is perfection, not a minimum requirement for validity, And ‘fruitful satisfaction’ is likewise part of the perfect fulfillment of the Sacrament, and NOT a requirement for validity — just as Pope John Paul II taught in Reconciliation and Penance.

And again, I wish to be very clear that the Magisterium has infallibly defined contrition — at the Council of Trent — such that the definition does NOT include implicit desire to make satisfaction.

Next, George continues to disagree with Fr. Ryan, who then responds with more accusations:

Fr. Ryan: “Is it malice or ignorance that keeps you from reading my comments and articles carefully?”

But has Fr. Ryan now changed his position, such that the particular penance assigned by the confessor is not the essential object of the penitent’s desire to make satisfaction? His posts and comments repeatedly make both assertions. He goes back to saying that the penitent must accept the particular penance assigned by the confessor, but then he switches to the claim that only a general desire to perform some type of penance (satisfaction) is needed.

Fr. Ryan: “Let me say it again (quoting from the above article): ‘I would suppose that, on account of ignorance or confusion or misunderstanding, it has occurred (perhaps even quite often) that a particular penitent has not intended to fulfill the penance of the priest and, because this was not a purposeful and intentional fault, the sacrament has been received in a subjectively worthy manner.’ Hence, even though it may happen that a penitent does not intend to fulfill the particular penance given by the priest it is quite possible that the sacrament be received not only validly but also worthily (due to ignorance).

“The Catechism of Trent teaches us that true contrition requires the desire to complete some sort of penance:
‘In the next place, our contrition must be accompanied with a desire of confessing and satisfying for our sins.’ ‘Only that satisfaction constitutes part of the Sacrament which, as we have already said, is offered to God for sins at the command of the priest. Furthermore, it must be accompanied by a deliberate and firm purpose carefully to avoid sin for the future.’ ‘Such being the nature of satisfaction, it will not be difficult to convince the faithful of the necessity imposed on the penitent of performing works of satisfaction.’

So it is not clear whether Fr. Ryan has abandoned his previous claim that the willingness to accept the particular penance assigned by the confessor is essential for validity. But supposing that he has changed his view to claim that contrition is not true contrition of any kind, neither imperfect nor perfect, without at least implicit desire to make satisfaction, he still errs gravely, as I have already explained. There is no necessity of an implicit desire to make satisfaction within imperfect contrition. To say otherwise is to reject the infallible teaching of the Council of Trent, and so is still a grave doctrinal error (and still heretical). Grave harm is done to souls by asserting that a Sacrament is invalid, when that Sacrament meets the clear and definitive teaching of the Church for validity. This type of grave error on the validity of a Sacrament in the public teaching of a Roman Catholic priest, in the face of repeated corrections from multiple persons, is inexcusable.

Fr. Ryan: “In fact, if a penitent were totally contrary to any act of satisfaction — not even desiring to make amends for his sins or to complete any sort of penance whatsoever — the priest should not grant absolution.”

If Fr. Ryan or any other priest were to deny a penitent absolution from a confessed mortal sin, despite the penitent’s sorrow for sin and purpose of avoiding sin in the future (Trent’s definition of contrition), the priest would be committing a mortal sin and a grave sacrilege. The faithful have a right to receive this Sacrament, especially when they need the Sacrament for salvation (due to mortal sin), as long as they have contrition and properly confess their sins. And this contrition need only meet the Church’s definition of contrition. A priest cannot invent a new, more extensive, requirement for contrition, and then deny this salvific Sacrament to those penitents who dare to contradict his novel teaching. This suggestion by Fr. Ryan that priests ought to deny such penitents absolution is the grave sin of scandal. The Magisterium has NEVER instructed priests to deny absolution in such a case.

Final Thoughts

See my My previous post on this topic. Even Canon Law states that sorrow with the intention to reform, and confession with absolution, are sufficient to obtain forgiveness:

“Canon 959: In the sacrament of penance the faithful who confess their sins to a legitimate minister, are sorry for them, and intend to reform themselves obtain from God through the absolution imparted by the same minister forgiveness for the sins they have committed after baptism and, at the same, time are reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by sinning.” (Code of Canon Law, 1983)

And so does Reconciliation and Penance:

“But the essential act of penance, on the part of the penitent, is contrition, a clear and decisive rejection of the sin committed, together with a resolution not to commit it again” (n. 31, III)

And so does the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“1451 Among the penitent’s acts contrition occupies first place. Contrition is ‘sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again.’ “

Notice that Canon Law does not even use the word contrition, but instead expresses the definition of contrition: sorrow and the intention to reform. In all the magisterial sources cited above, contrition is defined without reference to any desire, implicit or explicit, to make satisfaction, just as the Council of Trent defined it. Moreover, contrition has never been defined such that the rejection of the particular penance assigned by the confessor would indicate that no contrition exists at all.

Most recently, Fr. Ryan added another comment which, it seems to me, merely confuses his position further:

“Contrition is required for validity. And contrition implicitly contains a desire to make satisfaction for sin. Hence, explicit and total rejection (knowing and free) of any sense of satisfaction for sin would make the sacrament invalid. Willingness to accept the penance from the priest is required for a worthy reception — and this penance can be negotiated, if it seems too hard.”

Yes, contrition is required for validity. But the Magisterium has infallibly defined contrition without this claimed implicit desire to make satisfaction. So it is not true that a penitent cannot have at least imperfect contrition unless he desires to make satisfaction. Perfect contrition includes such a desire, but imperfect contrition might not. Generally, the penitent should accept the penance assigned by the confessor. But for a just reason, the penitent may substitute some other penance — and he need not negotiate his salvation with the priest. All holy penances are acceptable before God. Although we can say that a complete rejection of the assigned penance, without a just reason, is unworthy of a faithful penitent, it would be contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium to equate this unworthiness with an invalidation of the Sacrament.

The Sacrament of Forgiveness is a tangible expression of the infinite mercy of God. This Sacrament is an effective application of the graces obtained for us at great cost by Christ on the Cross.

Father Ryan Erlenbush’s Pharisaical attempt to distort the teachings of the Magisterium so that penitents would be denied salvific forgiveness is reprehensible, gravely sinful, sacrilegious, and heretical.

[1 Corinthians]
{16:22} If anyone does not love our Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema! Maran Atha.

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

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