Martin Morris sfo
23 April 1999

Some years ago my then Parish Priest, the late Fr. John Bartley, said in a homily that the most distinguishing mark of this generation was the loss of the sense of sin. I have reflected on his words since noting how many people including Catholics deny that they have committed sin even in the face of specific Church teaching. This seems to be especially the case with personal sin as opposed to societal or communal sin. People deplore what is going on in Kosovo but support the practice of abortion. More recently though I have come around to the view that it is not so much the loss of the sense of sin as what Pope John Paul II in his encyclical "The Third Millenium" (T.T.M.) terms the "crisis of obedience". The problem is not limited to the Church; it is present throughout society especially in the Western countries since the 1960's and more recently in Asian countries. Taking a more positive approach I would term this development the "revolt against authority". In colloquial language, "Nobody is going to tell me what to do".

This refusal to acknowledge that one's actions can be sinful is the probable explanation for the diminishing numbers of Catholics who go to Reconciliation regularly. The Pope has called us to a journey of authentic conversion with two aspects to it, namely, a negative asspect-liberation from sin, and a positive aspectacceptance of the ethical values expressed in the natural law which are confirmed and deepened by the Gospel. He says that this is the proper context for a renewed appreciation of and a more intense celebration of the Sacrament of Penance (T.T.M., N.50).

This talk is entitled "The Sacrament of Penance" which nowadays is frequently referred to as the "Sacrament of Reconciliation". I prefer the latter term because the word 'penance' has other meanings. There is the Franciscan meaning of living a life of sacrifice (Gospel poverty) but it has commonly been applied to the tasks stipulated by the priest after the penitent has confessed sins and expressed contrition and before absolution is given. A better name which is used in some of the readings is "Satisfaction". The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" (C.C.C.) NN. 1423-4 uses five terms to describe the Sacrament viz., Conversion, Penance, Confession, Forgiveness and Reconciliation. To avoid confusion I shall use the term 'Reconciliation' for the Sacrament and 'Satisfaction' for the prayers and good deeds directed by the priest.

The C.C.C., NN.1427-8, says that Jesus calls us to "conversion", that Baptism is the first conversion but Jesus calls us also to an on-going conversion because we are all sinful people (not always sinners). We are potential sinners burdened with concuspiscence (the inclination to sin-the residual effect of Original Sin.) We try to achieve this on-going conversion by both our own efforts and with the help of God's grace which incidentally comes to us in large measure through Reconciliation.

The effects of sin are threefold: by sinning we

Despite changes in discipline and celebration of the Sacrament over the past two millenia, the fundamental structure remains. It comprises two essential elements, viz.,contrition, confession and satisfaction on the part of the penitent and God's action through the Church personified by a bishop or priest (C.C.C. N.1448).

The Church continues to make a distinction between mortal and venial sins. Mortal sin of which the penitent is aware must be specifically disclosed during Reconciliation. Holy Communion cannot be taken by a person aware of having committed mortal sin notwithstanding deep contrition (C.C.C. N.1457). Regular disclosure of venial sins in Reconciliation helps us to fight concuspiscence.

The three actions of the penitent mentioned earlier, contrition, confession and satisfaction, can be likened, I think, to the three stages in our lives, past, present and future. We examine our consciences (the past), we disclose the sins we are aware of (the present) and we undertake to make satisfaction for past sins and, equally importantly, henceforth avoid sin (the future). Even if we are fortunate enough not to have committed any mortal sins, regular Reconciliation is beneficial because of the grace it affords us but also because we have the opportunity to seek spiritual guidance from the priest as to how we might do better. For this reason I see great value in using the same priest where possible. He will in time get to know our particular circumstances and problems and give us appropriate advice.

Any consideration of Reconciliation must, I think, deal with the nature of Sin. At the outset I spoke of the denial of sin as a manifestation of the revolt against authority from which the Church is suffering as greviously as any secular organization. The Pope in another encyclical, "The Splendor of Truth" (S.T.) deals with some current misconceptions about what is and is not a sin. Some of these are related to a crucial issue, human freedom. He says that there is an insistent demand that people be permitted to enjoy the use of their own responsible judgement and freedom and decide on their actions on grounds of duty and conscience without external pressure or coercion. In particular the right to religious freedom and to respect for conscience on its journey towards the truth is increasingly perceived as the foundation of the cumulative rights of the person. (So., N.31).

Whilst praising this development the Pope warns that there is a tendency to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute which then becomes in turn the source of values. The individual conscience is accorded the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgement. To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one's conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one's moral judgement is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience (S.T., N.32).

The Pope continues that although all individuals have the right to be respected in their journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known. He quotes Cardinal Newman, "Conscience has rights because it has duties". (S.T., N.54). The Pope stresses the dependence on truth. He mentions theories which misuse scientific research about the human person leading to a relativistic conception of morality. The power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to humans but to God alone. Human freedom finds its authentic and complete fullfilment in the acceptance of the moral law given by God (S.T., N.35).

Given the current enthusiasm for individual freedom in matters of morality and the purported supremacy of conscience in matters of private and social morality, this encyclical warrants careful reading by all Catholics.

It seems to me that Sin can be active or passive. Examples of active Sin are murder and stealing but we should remember that we will be judged by God for what we have not done as much as what we have done in this life. "For I was hungry and you never gave me food . . . . I was sick and in prison and you did not care for me . . . When you refused it to one of my least brethren here you refused it to me".(Matt. 25:42-45). I suggest further that we will be judged not only on the human needs we failed to provide but also for failing to meet the spiritual needs of God's children-for failing to give help and advice where possible to people entrapped in sinful situations, for not doing what we could to prevent legislation which contravenes God's Commandments.

There are two aspects of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, viz., the personal and the public or communal. The history of the Sacrament discloses a tension between the two. In the first five centuries the so-called Mediterranean school of thought held sway. There was an emphasis on the communal aspect. Forgiveness was given by the bishop after public acknowledgement by the penitent. Indeed forgiveness was not automatic. The penitent was subjected to an extended period of special discipline, for example, he could not marry and if already married was forbidden to exercise conjugal rights. After a long period of restrictive participation in Church life plus constraints on secular activities, he would eventually be received back into full communion. Only a minority went through this process, presumably those whose sins were scandalous or who took the risk of postponing Reconciliation until near death. The majority simply prayed, gave alms and fasted but there is no evidence that they actually confessed to a bishop or priest (Orsy, pp.31-34).

The Irish church from the 5th Century on developed a process of private forgiveness of sins. Priests had reference books of appropriate satisfaction for all sorts of sins. The Irish missionaries took this process with them to Europe (Orsy, p.35).

Inevitably the two ideas came into conflict from the 6th Century on and the conflict continued for five centuries. Different Church councils composed of bishops from different parts of Europe extolled one form and condemned the other. The conflict was finally resolved by the Fourth Lateran Council which ruled that the faithful should confess all sins at least once a year. The Council of Trent reaffirmed this and significantly affirmed that Reconciliation was in fact a sacrament (Orsy, pp.46-47). Vatican II made no fundamental changes but revised the liturgy, in particular allowing use of the vernacular for the whole liturgy (Orsy, p.50). (See also Helwig, pp.89-118, which also provides an easy introduction to the theology of the Sacrament; the authoritative treatment is of course the Catechism while for a short but equally authoritative treatment see Rite of Penance.)

The present process takes from both the Mediterranean and Irish schools. The First Rite is completely private. The Second and Third Rites are communal but both require individual confession afterwards as soon as practicable (Rite of Penance, N.34).

The Pope has urged us to make greater use of the Sacrament as a means of conversion, a turning of our hearts to God, a revision of our values and a return to God, the Father of Mercy.


  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Society of St Paul, Homebush NSW 1994
  2. Rite of Penance, English Translation approved for use in Australia by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, E.J.Dwyer (Australia) Pty Ltd, Sydney, NSW 1974.
  3. Theological-Historical Commission for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, God, the Father of Mercy, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1998.
  4. Helwig, M. K., Sign of Reconciliation and Conversion
  5. Orsy, L, SJ, The Evolving Church and the Sacrament of Penance
  6. Pope John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth, Society of St Paul, Homebush, NSW, 1993.
  7. Pope John Paul II, The Third Millenium, Society of St Paul, Homebush, NSW 1995.

Contact: Jack Smith: phone 61-2-62583824 fax 61-2-62583151