On “Severe Penances” Print
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Benedict XVI (General Audience, October 17, 2012) said that many problems are caused by incomplete or inaccurate understandings of the precise words and meanings of doctrine, particularly the Creed. We think that, with a good heart and a rosy outlook, we need not be too exacting about what is taught. Aren’t we to obey a “Person,” not abstract truths? This is right, provided that we realize that truth exists in a person carefully affirming what is true or denying what is not.

Accuracy of speech and definition stands at the basis of our liberty in law. Christ, as Peter Kreeft noted in his Philosophy of Jesus, shows Himself as a precise thinker and speaker. Understanding the “Word made flesh” bears with it a long history of fuzzy thinking that has caused many untoward practical results among us. To say “Christ, the person, is the Truth” does not excuse us from speaking accurately about who and what He is. Not every word means the same thing.

Frank Sheed, the Australian writer and founder, with his wife Maisie Ward, of the once famous Catholic publishing house of Sheed & Ward, loved to recount his experiences with the Catholic Truth Society. He and his friends would present and debate the particulars of the faith with anyone who appeared at Hyde Park Corner or other famous London debating spots. The rules of the game were to match wits and truth. Recently, I found a Sheed essay entitled “The Church and I.” He recalled these experiences in street-side controversy (Catholic Digest, January 1975).

Evidently, one day, a colleague was heckled and challenged by a rather raucous and not too attractive lady. She was famous among them for expressing her not altogether positive views of the Church’s practices. The CTS man talked of Confession, the lady mockingly interrupted him: “Oh I know you Catholics. Your young men go to Confession in the church across the street from my house. Immediately afterwards, they come over and make love to me.” Obviously, this sally needed to be handled gingerly.

The CTS man let the import of the lady’s accusation hang in the air. Then he very properly replied: “Madam, I had no idea that priests were handing out such severe penances these days.” Something positive must always be said. I think, for the place of wit in theology!

One has to know enough about Catholic practice and teaching to appreciate the humor of this retort. Many people do not themselves believe in sin and dispute whether, in practice, there is any such thing. Yet they still accuse Catholics of hypocrisy because some of them confess their sins, do the penance, and go out, in spite of the admonition, and sin again.

       Saint Peter Repentant by George de La Tour (1645)

Christ Himself was asked how many times should we forgive the sinner. “Up until seventy times seven” He said (Matthew 18:22). The Lord seems to have been less surprised over repeat sinners than we are. He understood, with Aristotle, the difficulty we have in overcoming our vices.

Christ said repeatedly that the righteous have no need for repentance. He came to save sinners, the existence of which seemed obvious enough. The saving of sinners would logically presuppose: a) that sin existed (or, perhaps better, that we failed to do what is good and right when we could); and b) that some means existed whereby such sins were acknowledged and forgiven.

A “penance” followed the self-recognition by the sinner that what he did was his fault. Moreover, a sin was not just a disordered human rejection of an objective standard of the good. It also carried the notion that all sins were personal. They touched the very being of the sinner. This realization explained why neither men nor angels could “forgive” sins, but only God.

The disorder of sin is something that reaches even to the divinity. Jesus scandalized the Scribes and Pharisees by claiming the power to forgive sins. They well knew that He was claiming a divine power, which He implicitly proved by His miraculous actions following His claim.

In point of fact, “severe penances” were intended to show one’s own understanding of the disorder caused by one’s own sins. They were the best we could do to restore the damage to the moral order that we had caused. Plato rightly had already said that we should will to be punished for this very reason.

The absence of penance, severe or otherwise, I suspect, signifies a world in which nothing we do makes any real difference.  Such a world is exactly the opposite of the one God created. In this latter world, two things, wit and sin, can exist side-by-side. For when the Word was made flesh, sin did not have the final word.

Is this why we read of more joy in heaven over one who repents than ninety-nine just who do not need “repentance”? (Luke, 15:7)

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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