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CHAPTER LXXIIOf the need of the Sacrament of Penance, and of the Parts thereof

THE Sacrament of Penance is a spiritual cure. As sick men are healed, not by being born again, but by some reaction (alteratio) set up in their system; so, of sins committed after baptism, men are healed by the spiritual reaction of Penance, not by repetition of the spiritual regeneration of Baptism. Now a bodily cure is sometimes worked entirely from within by the mere effort of nature; sometimes from within and from without at the same time, when nature is aided by the benefit of medicine. But the cure is never wrought entirely from without: there still remain in the patient certain elements of life, which go to cause health in him.994994The lack of these ‘elements of life’ makes the class of ‘incurables.’ The sinner who, having open access to the Sacrament of Penance, disdains it, or will not co-operate towards receiving it, is a spiritual incurable. A spiritual cure cannot possibly be altogether from within, for man cannot be set free from guilt but by the aid of grace (B. III, Chap. CLVII). Nor can such a cure be altogether from without, for the restoration of mental health involves the setting up of orderly motions in the will. Therefore the spiritual restoration, effected in the Sacrament of Penance, must be wrought both from within and from without. And that happens in this way.

The first loss that man sustains by sin is a wrong bent given to his mind, whereby it is turned away from the unchangeable good, which is God, and turned to sin.995995Cf. Aquinas Ethicus I, pp. 209, 213, 256, 346, 347: II, 367. As we speak of the ‘orientation’ of churches, we might call this deordinatio mentis a ‘deorientation,’ the soul no longer looking towards its First Beginning. Under this head, as will be seen, St Thomas includes the privation of charity, which is the principal loss incurred by mortal sin. Throughout this chapter the sin spoken of is mortal sin. The second is the incurred liability to punishment (B. III, 394Chapp.CXLICXLVI). The third is a weakening of natural goodness, rendering the soul more prone to sin and more reluctant to do good. The first requisite then of the Sacrament of Penance is a right ordering, or orientation of mind, turning it to God and away from sin, making it grieve for sin committed, and purposing not to commit it in future. All these things are of the essence of Contrition. This re-ordering of the mind cannot take place without charity, and charity cannot be had without grace (B. III, Chap. CLI). Thus then Contrition takes away the offence of God, and delivers from the liability of eternal punishment, as that liability cannot stand with grace and charity: for eternal punishment is in separation from God, with whom man is united by grace and charity.996996Reading this passage, any instructed Catholic will see that St Thomas is speaking of that contrition which is called ‘perfect,’ as being founded on the love of God for His own sake above all things. An act of such contrition delivers the soul from mortal sin at once, before absolution is pronounced, not however without a purpose (in the instructed Catholic) of confession and absolution to follow in due time. The Catholic also knows that an inferior supernatural sorrow, called ‘attrition’— not mentioned in the Contra Gentiles — is enough, when conjoined with absolution; and to such a case St Thomas tacitly alludes, when he says below: “The case is quite possible of a person at confession receiving grace and forgiveness of the guilt of sin by the power of the keys in the very instant of absolution,” i.e., not before then.

This re-ordering of the mind, which consists in Contrition, comes from within, from free will aided by divine grace. But because the merit of Christ, suffering for mankind, is the operative principle in the expiation of all sins (Chap. LV), a man who would be delivered from sin must not only adhere in mind to God, but also to the mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. ii, 5), in whom is given remission of all sins. For spiritual health consists in the turning of the mind and heart to God; which health we cannot gain otherwise than through the physician of our souls Jesus Christ, who saves his people from their sins (Matt. i, 21); whose merit is sufficient for the entire taking away of all sins, since He it is that taketh away the sins of the world (John i, 29). Not all penitents however perfectly gain the effect of remission; but each one gains it in so much as he is united with Christ suffering for sins. Our union with Christ in baptism comes not of any activity of our own, as from within, because nothing begets itself into being; it is all of Christ, who hath regenerated us unto living hope (1 Peter i, 3): consequently the remission of sins in baptism is by the power of Christ, uniting us to Himself perfectly and entirely; the result being that not only is the impurity of sin taken away, but also all liability to sin is entirely cancelled, — always excepting the accidental case of those who gain not the effect of the Sacrament, because they are not sincere in approaching it.997997St Thomas is thinking of the case of an adult coming to baptism without any intention of leading a good life. The conditions of the baptism of John (Luke iii, 10-14) hold likewise of Christ’s baptism: so St Peter, μετανοήσατε καὶ βαπρισθήτω ἔκαστος (Acts ii, 38). But these are preliminaries, not parts of baptism; whereas the contrition and confession of the penitent are as true sacramental parts of the Sacrament of Penance as the absolution of the priest. But in this spiritual cure (the Sacrament of Penance), it is our own act, informed with divine grace, that unites us with Christ. Hence the effect of remission is not always gained totally by this union, nor do all gain it equally. The turning of mind and heart to God and to detestation of sin may be so vehement as to gain for the penitent a perfect remission of sin, including at once purification from guilt and a discharge of the entire debt of punishment. But this does not always occur. Sometimes, though the guilt is taken away and the debt of eternal punishment cancelled, there still remains some obligation of temporal punishment, to save the justice of God, which redresses fault by punishment.

But since the infliction of punishment for fault requires a trial, the penitent 395who has committed himself to Christ for his cure must await the judgement of Christ in the assessment of his punishment. This judgement Christ exercises through His ministers, as in the other Sacraments. No one can give judgement upon faults that he is ignorant of. Therefore a second part of this Sacrament is the practice of Confession, the object of which is to make the penitent’s fault known to Christ’s minister. The minister then, to whom Confession is made, must have judicial power as viceregent of Christ, who is appointed judge of the living and of the dead (Acts x, 42). There are two requisites of judicial power, authority to investigate the offence, and power to acquit (potestas absolvendi) or condemn. This science of discerning and this power of binding or loosing are the two keys of the Church, which the Lord committed to Peter (Matt. xvi, 19). He is not to be understood to have committed them to Peter for Peter to hold them alone, but that through him they might be transmitted to others; or else the salvation of the faithful would not be sufficiently provided for. These keys have their efficacy from the Passion of Christ, whereby Christ has opened to us the gate of the heavenly kingdom. As then without Baptism, in which the Passion of Christ works, there can be no salvation for men, — whether the Baptism be actually received, or purposed in desire, when necessity, not contempt, sets the Sacrament aside; so for sinners after Baptism there can be no salvation unless they submit themselves to the keys of the Church either by actual Confession and undergoing of the judgement of the ministers of the Church, or at least by purposing so to do with a purpose to be fulfilled in seasonable time: because there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we are to be saved (Acts iv, 12).998998The sinner who will not confess is guilty of a sort of contempt of court, despising the summons of his Judge and the name of his Saviour.

Hereby is excluded the error of certain persons, who said that a man could obtain pardon of his sins without confession and purpose of confession; or that the prelates of the Church could dispense a sinner from the obligation of confession. The prelates of the Church have no power to frustrate the keys of the Church, in which their whole power is contained; nor to enable a man to obtain forgiveness of his sins without the Sacrament which has its efficacy from the Passion of Christ: only Christ, the institutor and author of the Sacraments, can do that. The prelates of the Church can no more dispense a man from confession and absolution in order to remission of sin than they can dispense him from baptism in order to salvation.

But this is a point to observe. Baptism may be efficacious to the remission of sin before it is actually received, while one purposes to receive it: though afterwards it takes fuller effect in the gaining of grace and the remission of guilt, when it actually is received. And sometimes999999In the case of infant baptism, always. the very instant of baptism is the instant of the bestowal of grace and the remission of guilt where it was not remitted before. So the keys of the Church work their effect in some cases before the penitent actually places himself under them, provided he have the purpose of placing himself under them. But he gains a fuller grace and a fuller remission, when he actually submits himself to the keys by confessing and receiving absolution. And the case is quite possible (nihil prohibet) of a person at confession receiving grace and the forgiveness of the guilt of sin by the power of the keys in the very instant of absolution [i.e., not before then].10001000The case is not only quite possible, but probably occurs daily. Since then in the very act of confession and absolution a fuller effect of grace and forgiveness is conferred on him who by his good purpose had obtained grace and remission already, we clearly see that by the 396power of the keys the minister of the Church in absolving remits something of the temporal punishment which the penitent still continued to owe after his act of contrition. He binds the penitent by his injunction to pay the rest.10011001It is not the present practice for the confessor regularly to impose a penance such as he reckons adequate to all the debt of temporal punishment still owing for the sins confessed. Penances comparatively light and easy are imposed for grievous sins: for the rest, the penitent is left to his own penitential efforts, to the gaining of indulgences, and to the justice of God. When confessarius primus has imposed a penance smacking of the old canonical rigour, confessarius secundus finds next time that the penance has not been performed, nor is going to be. The fulfilment of this injunction is called Satisfaction, which is the third part of Penance, whereby a man is totally discharged from the debt of punishment, provided he pays the full penalty due. Further than this, his weakness in spiritual good is cured by his abstaining from evil things and accustoming himself to good deeds, subduing the flesh by fasting, and improving his relations with his neighbour by the bestowal of alms upon those neighbours from whom he had been culpably estranged.

Thus it is clear that the minister of the Church in the use of the keys exercises judicial functions. But to none is judgement committed except over persons subject to his court. Hence it is not any and every priest that can absolve any and every subject from sin:10021002Ut quidam mentiuntur, is St Thomas’s insertion here. To absolve, you require not only Order, but also Jurisdiction. priest can absolve that subject only over whom he is given authority.


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