Do Catholics need penance?

VINCENZO PINTO AFP/GETTY IMAGES Pope Benedict XVI arrives to lead an ordination Mass at St Peter’s basilica at the Vatican … Continued



Pope Benedict XVI arrives to lead an ordination Mass at St Peter’s basilica at the Vatican on April 29, 2012, to mark Vocation Day.

Forgiving sins.

Restoring the authority of the priesthood.

This is the agenda of a recent “pastoral exhortation” on penance released by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This call for a return to Sacrament of Penance [also called “reconciliation,” or simply “confession”] is intended to be distributed to parishes on the eve of the penitential season of Lent.

The document is titled “God’s Gift of Forgiveness.” It is short, and it is welcoming. The calm and reassuring language was well chosen because the bishops’ statement is responding to two real crises in American Catholicism: the decline in participation in the sacraments, and the decline of the authority of the priesthood.

When I first looked at the layout of “God’s Gift of Forgiveness,” I was a little taken aback. It looked like some of the tracts given to me by some of my Jehovah’s Witnesses friends. There’s picture of a father hugging his son, along with a reference to the “Parable of the Lost Son” in Luke 15. But the logo of the USCCB did tell you upfront where it came from.

The document does not draw upon fears of hellfire or threats of damnation. Instead, it emphasizes how God wishes everyone to have the experience of forgiveness. The bishops’ statement talks about how priests are ready to help Catholics who haven’t received the sacrament in a long time and might be hesitant about it. The entire feel of the document is kind; there’s much more on reconciliation and forgiveness than there is on sinfulness and penance.

Sacraments like penance are central to the religious life of Catholicism. They not only structure the collective and communal aspects of the Catholic church, but they are also understood as special opportunities for the reception of grace. Recent surveys, however, have noted that while a majority of Catholics “can’t imagine being anything but Catholic,” Mass attendance has declined among most generational groups. Seen as a whole, American Catholicism appears like a series of concentric circles around participation in the ritual life of the church. While there remains a core group of Catholics who attend Mass each Sunday, there is an ever-growing number of Catholics who participate in the life of the church selectively, sporadically, or at distance.

Being welcoming about the sacrament of penance is one way to draw these Catholics back and allow them to be “reconciled” both with God and the church.

Every Catholic of my generation has a confession story, though it’s rare that we share the specifics of what we actually confessed–or the details of how the priest responded. I can say that for myself, the experience of confession has been transformative. I can chart crucial turning points in my life in relation to the times that I went to confession. It is a sacrament that emphasizes both responsibility and mercy in a way that can be profoundly liberating.

But confession isn’t like meeting with a therapist. It’s also fundamentally different from the “fifth step” as practiced in recovery programs. What makes Catholic confession different is the authority of the priest. A priest, as the bishops’ statement makes clear, is ordained by Christ to minister “forgiveness in His name.”

If the bishops’ document is about welcoming Catholics back, it’s also about reminding them that the priest has a central role in the process.

There are a number of theories about the decline of Catholicism in North America and Europe. One explanation that I have heard quite often is that it all has to do with the decline in the authority of the priest. This chain of argument has a number of links: because the special authority of the priest has been de-emphasized, the priesthood is less attractive; because the distinction between priests and laity has been lessened, the power of Catholic rituals to convey the sacred has been almost lost. The sexual abuse scandal has also damaged the reputation of the Catholic priesthood in fundamental ways.

In one sense, underlining the authority of the priest as a mediator for the forgiveness of sins gives an assurance that sins actually can be forgiven. In another sense, what is being re-articulated is sacramental specialness of the priest himself.

For a good number of American Catholics nowadays, the authority of the priest raises deeply conflicting thoughts and feelings. Part of this has to do with a cultural climate that makes the whole idea of a priesthood difficult to articulate. But as far as the sacrament of penance is concerned, I think many individual Catholics find themselves painfully confronting their own attitudes about priestly authority when considering whether to go to confession. For some, these attitudes might very well involve doctrinal questions. But for most, they have to do with interpersonal issues and experiences that have yet to be acknowledged and “reconciled.”

Against this background, I found the most hopeful part of the document to be the bishops’ statement that: “We want to offer ourselves to you as forgiven sinners seeking to serve in the Lord’s name.” There’s still much work to be done in repairing the relationship between priests and laity in today’s Catholic church. Penance begins with confession but it doesn’t end there. The spirit of the sacrament lies in recognizing that we continually need to reconcile ourselves with one another.

Mathew N. Schmalz
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  • sisterwife

    THANK YOU for such a balanced, accurate description of Catholic belief and practice. It is a pleasure to see comments on the Church from someone who knows what they are talking about.


    The mass should have a general confession part. The history of confession is very interesting and todays box type started in the late 1300s which was started in Ireland in the early 1300s monk to monk but stop by Rome for about fifty years. What they had before the box type and after the early church was really something else. Do RCs go to confesstion today at the same regularity as just 50 years ago? No. Do RCs today classify things as sin as they did 50 years ago? No. Do adult RCs belive all that they where taught as a child by their religious indoctrinnation? Very few. Do RCs have time to meet the Saturday confession time standing in line? No. Do different priest give the same reply for the same sins confessed? No. Why has not the RCC changed in this area? Control of the RCs by way of the guilt complex to seek forgiveness. The mass should have a general confession part.

  • Louise10

    I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church from birth. I am no longer a Catholic for many reasons. One of them is my recollection of being a young child (age 7 and on) convinced by nuns and priests that I was a sinner who regularly needed to enter a dark, curtained box with a man behind a screen, say aloud my chidish “sins,” and get a verbal punishment from that dark presence. This was called the sacrament of penance. I call it bizarre and child abuse.

  • It wasn’t me

    Or title could have been :

    Catholic Priests,Pedophilia and no remorse.

  • ThomasBaum

    I believe the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a gift from God and one of the reasons that I say this is because some times some people need to say things to another human being rather than directly to God.

    However, I do not believe that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the only way to seek forgiveness.

  • Cossackathon

    To give some historical perspective, the sacrament of penance was at the center of the passions behind the Reformation. It is somewhat of a cliche that the Protestant reformation was motivated to free Christianity from Roman tyranny. But one of the reformers central criticisms of the Papal rule was not that it was too strict but, quite the opposite, was too morally lax. We know about the abuse of indulgences, but the criticism went further, extending to the sacrament of penance. Reformers saw this as a non-biblical Papal invention which encouraged the view to do whatever you want, then like magic, a priest could scrub your soul clean. The Reformation may have contributed to political liberty for Europe’s elite, but it introduce a much more foreboding take on Christianity, whereby one could do almost nothing to further his chances at salvation.

  • Orangutang

    I see you prefer hatred to reconciliation. Now that makes you a much better person.

  • Orangutang

    Louise, I’m sure you forgive your neighbours without fail, you understand with those around you who are misguided, you assist those who can ill afford it, you give company to those who are lonely, you suffer for those who are treated unjustly. Well since along with so many other things you are great I guess there is no need for you to undergo “child abuse”.

  • artsy01

    I was raised a Roman Catholic and it just seems to me that many of the practices of the church are about power and control.

  • Mighty Mac

    I went to confession for only the second time in my life last year. It was an absolutely wonderful experience. There were things I never told another soul, though I had confessed to God directly. Despite that, the feeling of peace I felt afterwards was enormous. The priest was very pastoral, understanding, and helpful. It’s a wonderful sacrament, and I’m glad to see the push to bring it back.

  • Mighty Mac

    John 20 talks Jesus granting the desciples the power to forgive sins. Origen (circa 250 AD) and other Church fathers talk of confessing to a priest. It wasn’t novel, though the forms may have changed over the years.

  • Rainbow Sash Movement

    The issue is not the Church’s position on confession, nor is it about authority. Rather in my opinon it is about relationship and communication. Long gone are the days when there was a parent child relaitonship. Fortunately or unfortunately we have become far to educated and mature to exsist under that relationship. We also understand how frail our clergy are, and that includes our bishops. Until there is true reform in the Church these statements I fear will only fall on deaf ears.

  • MisterH

    Confession is about healing, not about power and control.

  • MisterH

    You abandoned the Real Presence of Jesus in Eucharist over a bad experience in the confessional?


  • jubilie13

    The parent/child relationship in the Church is between God and man. We are His children, the Priest is a human, only in certain situations does he represent Christ to the people, i.e. mass, confession, sacraments. We are never to educated for God, trust me, God knows more than we can even fathom. To say we are “above” the Church is like saying you know better than God. The Church is not here for the perfect people because then we would all be in heaven and there is no need for earth. The Catholic Church was set up by Christ to help sinners know and love God. I am proud to be a child in the Catholic Church because I know we can all use a little help.

  • Secular1

    “We are never to educated for God, trust me, God knows more than we can even fathom.” Really, your sky daddy could not predict that Adam would eat the fruit off tree of knowledge and you are telling us your sky daddy knows everything and we don’t? I could told your sky daddy that his boy Adam will eat that fruit from that tree the moment he turnded his back.

  • Secular1

    Really Mac? Talking to a clown in a gown gave you a bigger wet dream than talking directly to the sky daddy? Why did you feel that after you spoke to sky daddy, you still needed to go through this silly ritual of telling the guy? Don’t you think the sky daddy already knows that you were really repentant? He needed to get a first hand report from the clown in the gown? Can you tell me how he will give his information to sky daddy?

  • ThomasBaum


    You wrote, “To say we are “above” the Church is like saying you know better than God.”

    Actually, we, people, are the “Church”, living stones, just as Jesus referred to Peter as “this rock”, we are all to be “rocks”, that is living stones.

    This Church also has a mission and that is “that the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it”.

    And as the Catholic Church teaches, this Church is not confined just to those that are official members, so to speak, but is also not confined to those that are considered Christian.

  • ThomasBaum


    You wrote, “Really, your sky daddy could not predict that Adam would eat the fruit off tree of knowledge and you are telling us your sky daddy knows everything and we don’t? I could told your sky daddy that his boy Adam will eat that fruit from that tree the moment he turnded his back.”

    I can see why you don’t believe in your childish “conception” of God as being God, I also don’t believe in your childish “conception” of God as being God.

  • ThomasBaum


    You wrote, “I was raised a Roman Catholic and it just seems to me that many of the practices of the church are about power and control.”

    If one looks past the surface, one may be surprised at what one may find.

  • ThomasBaum

    Concerning John 20:

    [Jesus] said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

    Seeing as it was Jesus Who sent them and all who came after them that were sent and it is Jesus Who extends the invitation to All to “Come follow Me”, not to follow any follower of Jesus but to follow Jesus and it was Jesus Who said that He would “send the Holy Spirit to guide…”, who are we to try and limit God’s forgiveness, thru people, only to some of Jesus’s followers?

    That said, one can go directly to God for forgiveness.

  • Warren Hicks

    Alas, I do wish there was more of an emphasis, or even a recognition that this is part of the Anglican ecclesiology as well. The gift is one not given so much as one passed on by those of us who have been liberated by the confession of the truth about ourselves.

    Thanks Mat.