A Study on Roman Catholic Doctrine of Penance


This paper is a brief study on the Roman Catholic doctrine of Penance. It aims to fairly present the Roman Catholic understanding on the problem of sin and her dogmatic solution to this problem, partly the sacrament of Baptism and mainly the sacrament of Penance. A brief evaluation of key points of Roman Catholic doctrine on sin and Penance will be offered towards the end from a Reformed-Biblical perspective.

The Problem of Sin in Roman Catholic Understanding

One of the most basic issues which confront all of us relate to sin.[1] The Roman Catholic Church does not take sin lightly. In fact, recent news mentioned of Pope Benedict XVI citing the “loss of a sense of sin” in modern society and urging his fellow bishops that the recovery of a sense of sin must be a “pastoral priority.”[2] When it comes to the Roman Catholic Church's view of sin, one Evangelical Protestant author has rightly observed some forty years ago, “There is no doubt that the Church of Rome takes sin seriously and this, as in other points [of doctrine], shows a healthy divergence from the shallow optimism of liberal theology.”[3] This seriousness is evident in the way the reality of sin is treated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was officially approved by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger himself, now Pope Benedict XVI, where it says,

Sin is present in human history; any attempt to ignore it or to give this dark reality other names would be futile. To try to understand what sin is, one must first recognize the profound relation of man to God, for only in this relationship is the evil of sin unmasked in its true identity as humanity's rejection of God and opposition to him, even as it continues to weigh heavy on human life and history (original emphasis).[4]

The Church of Rome also affirms the doctrine of original sin. The Catechism summarizes, “Although set by God in a state of rectitude, man, enticed by the evil one, abused his freedom at the very start of history. He lifted himself up against God and sought to attain his goal apart from him.”[5] The Catechism further adds, “By his sin, Adam, as the first man, lost the original holiness and justice he had received from God, not only for himself but for all human beings. Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called 'original sin.'”[6] The Roman Catholic Church thus confesses that as a result of original sin, “human nature is weakened in its powers; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the domination of death; and inclined to sin. (This inclination is called 'concupiscence.')”[7]

It would be a misrepresentation if one would assert that sin is a trivial matter for the Church of Rome. In fact, to further show how serious Roman Catholic Church takes sin, one has to hear her clear note of warning as she talks about the reality of hell: “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, 'eternal fire.'”[8] The Catechism further asserts, “The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny (emphasis original).”[9]

The Vatican's understanding of the gravity of sin can be seen also in her doctrine of the sacraments, especially in the sacraments of Baptism and Penance, which is basically her answer to the problem of sin. But before we move on to discuss Vatican's doctrine of Penance it is appropriate to explore further her doctrine of sin in order to better understand her solution to it.

While the Roman Church admits that all sins are ultimately an offense against God and a failure to genuinely love God and neighbor, yet she makes a distinction between greater and lesser sins, which are then classified as 'mortal' and venial'.

How does the Roman Church determine mortal sin? She sets three conditions for a sin to be deemed mortal. “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent (emphasis added).”[10] For the Vatican Church grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, 'summarized as they are by Jesus in the twofold requirement to love God wholly and to love our neighbor as ourselves.'[11] Mortal sin also 'presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God's law' and 'it implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice.'[12] Aside from transgressing the Ten Commandments, the seven deadly sins – pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, sloth – can also be considered as mortal sins. Thus mortal sin results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, bringing with it spiritual death, and if it is not pardoned, it will exclude the sinner from Christ's kingdom and cause eternal death of hell.[13]

A venial sin, however, is a sin that is less serious and is more easily pardoned. It does not result in the loss of charity but weakens it. It also impedes the soul's progress to virtuous and moral living and merits temporal penalty. In his 1984 Apostolic Exhortation entitled Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, the late Pope John Paul II reminds the Roman Catholic faithful, “Venial sin does not deprive the sinner sanctifying grace, friendship with God, charity, and consequently eternal happiness.”[14] A hasty word or carelessness in prayer may be considered as venial sin.

Therefore the Roman Catholic Church affirms the reality and problem of sin, both as original and actual or personal. But how does she deal with this problem? What does the Church teach concerning the way for a Roman Catholic adherent to be set free from guilt and pollution, as well as from the penalty of sin? How, in the Roman Catholic view, is one saved from sin and made right with God? The answers to these questions will be the focus of the next section.

Sacraments: The Roman Catholic Church's Solution to the Problem of Sin

No one can appreciate the Roman Church’s solution to the problem of sin without understanding her high view of the sacraments, which for Rome are seven, not two as Protestant churches maintain. Romanism is essentially a sacramental religion. We may say that through and through, one’s life in Roman Catholicism, from the cradle to the grave, even beyond the grave, in purgatory, ‘is conditioned by this sacramental approach.’[15] Herbert Carson is quite right in his summary observation about a person’s life in the Roman Catholic Church when he said,

We may summarize Rome’s teaching on the seven sacraments thus: in baptism original sin is removed; in confirmation the Spirit is given; in the sacrament of penance mortal sins are forgiven; in the mass [or Holy Eucharist] the priest offers on man’s behalf the sacrifice by which sins are atoned for; in the hour of death he hopes for the unction to be administered by the priest. Should he be married or should he be ordained to the priesthood the grace required for either of these states of life comes again through the sacraments.[16]

According to the decrees of the Council of Trent in its Seventh Session on March 3, 1547, a sacrament is an ‘effective’ or ‘efficacious’ sign instituted by Christ. The Roman Church holds that by divine institution a sacrament “possesses the power both of effecting and signifying sanctity and righteousness.”[17] Thus sacraments for Rome are said to work ex opera operato for by virtue of the performance of the sacrament, when ‘celebrated worthily in faith’, the grace it signifies is also conferred.[18]

This is clearly shown, for example, in the sacrament of Baptism. Kenneth Baker, a Jesuit theologian, writes,

There are many ways in which God could cleanse man from his sins and communicate to him the divine life. But what we are concerned about is what God actually did, not what he could have done. It is a matter of divine revelation that original sin and all actual sins, if there be any, are remitted by Christian Baptism which requires a flow of real water and a calling upon the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.[19]

Baker further says that the administration of the sacrament of baptism has twofold effect.[20] First, baptism infuses 'sanctifying grace – the divine life – into the soul of the one baptized,' which is also referred to as the grace of regeneration.[21] Second, baptism also remits all the recipient's sins, both original sin and all personal sins, both mortal and venial.[22] The Catechism summarizes the outcome of Baptism in the recipient’s life in this way,

The fruit of Baptism, or baptismal grace, is a rich reality that includes forgiveness of original sin and all personal sins, birth into the new life by which man becomes an adoptive son of the Father, a member of Christ and a temple of the Holy Spirit. By this very fact the person baptized is incorporated into the Church, the Body of Christ, and made a sharer in the priesthood of Christ.[23]

In other words, through the sacrament of Baptism a baptized person, whether a child or an adult, is infused with grace which regenerates him and makes him righteous, entitling him to become an adopted son of God and member of the Church, the Body of Christ. When he dies immediately after Baptism the Roman Catholic Church leaves no room for doubt that he would go directly to heaven. Rome thus claims,

The Holy Spirit marks the baptized with ‘the seal of the Lord (“Dominicus character”) “for the day of redemption.” “Baptism indeed is the seal of eternal life.” The faithful Christian who has “kept the seal” until the end, remaining faithful to the demands of his Baptism, will be able to depart this life “marked with the sign of faith,” with his baptismal faith, in expectation of the blessed vision of God – the consummation of faith – and in the hope of resurrection.[24]

The grace of baptism also ‘imparts to the baptized person the infused theological virtues (i.e., faith, hope and charity), the moral virtues (i.e., prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude), and the gifts of the Holy Spirit (i.e., wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, piety, fortitude and fear of the Lord).’[25] Rome asserts that these virtues and gifts enable the Christian to daily live a sanctified life.

However, in the event that a Christian did not ‘remain faithful to the demands of his Baptism’ but committed a grievous sin, one that is considered mortal, such as adultery or stealing, he will forfeit the grace of Baptism and will be liable to eternal punishment in hell. The only way for him to be redeemed and to be restored is through the sacrament of Penance, to which we direct our attention next.

Penance: Remedy for the ‘Shipwrecked’ Soul

The Roman Catholic Catechism is explicit in saying that “Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion.”[26] Rome recognizes the deadly effect of mortal sin in the life of the believer. He who commits such sin is sometimes described as one whose soul has been shipwrecked[27] and needed to be rescued. The sacrament of Penance ‘offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification’[28] for anyone who lost their salvation because of mortal sin.

The sacrament of Penance is variously called because of its nature. First of all, it is called the sacrament of Penance because ‘it consecrates the Christian sinner’s personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and satisfaction.’[29] Second, it is also called the sacrament of conversion because ‘it makes sacramentally present Jesus’ call to conversion, the step in returning to the Father from whom one has strayed by sin.’[30] Third, sometimes it is also known as the sacrament of confession ‘since the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of this sacrament.’[31] Fourth, it may also be properly described as the sacrament of forgiveness for ‘by the priest’s sacramental absolution God grants the penitent “pardon and peace.”’[32] Fifth, it is also identified as the sacrament of Reconciliation ‘because it imparts to the sinner the love of God who reconciles.’[33]

Thus, speaking of its effect, the Catechism goes on to say,

‘The whole power of the sacrament of Penance consists in restoring us to God’s grace and joining us with him in an intimate friendship.’ Reconciliation with God is thus the purpose and effect of this sacrament. For those who receive the sacrament of Penance with contrite heart and religious disposition, reconciliation ‘is usually followed by peace and serenity of conscience with strong spiritual consolation.’ Indeed the sacrament of reconciliation with God brings about a true ‘spiritual resurrection,’ restoration of the dignity and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God.[34]

The Roman Church identifies two equally essential elements in the sacrament of Penance. On the one hand, the person who undergoes this sacrament of conversion must perform penitential acts through the action of the Holy Spirit, namely, contrition, confession, satisfaction or penance. On the other hand, God must act through the intervention of the Church, which acts through her bishops and priests in granting forgiveness of sins in the name of Christ, in determining the manner of satisfaction, and in praying for the penitent sinner and doing penance with him.[35]

In other words, for the sacrament of Penance to be effective, the penitent believer must act in conjunction with God’s act through the Church. The first act of the penitent is contrition. This act is defined by the Council of Trent as ‘grief and detestation of mind at the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin in the future.’[36] It is close to the idea of repentance and it arises from a love for God above all else. Rome distinguishes contrition from attrition, which is a sorrow for sin not motivated by love for God or hatred for sin but by fear of hell. Attrition would suffice for venial sins but contrition is necessary for mortal sins.

The second penitential act is called confession. This involves disclosure or admission as well as the taking of responsibility before a confessor-priest of the sins one is guilty of. Trent decrees that ‘all mortal sins that penitents are aware of after a careful self-examination have to be related in the confession, even if they are very private and committed only against the last two commandments of the Decalogue, since these may often quite seriously damage the soul and are more dangerous than those which are openly admitted.’[37]

The third act, satisfaction, involves making amends for the sin or sins committed. The penitent must ‘make satisfaction for’ or ‘expiate’ his sins. This satisfaction is also called “penance.” It must be imposed by the confessor upon the penitent taking into consideration the latter’s personal situation and must seek the spiritual good of the penitent. On this act Trent declares,

For this satisfaction which we offer in payment for our sins is not so much ours that it is not also done through Christ Jesus; for we can do nothing of ourselves as of ourselves; with his cooperation we can do everything in him who strengthens us. Thus we have nothing of which to boast; but all our boasting is in Christ, in whom we live, in whom we merit, in whom we make satisfaction and yield fruits that will benefit repentance, which have their worth from him, are offered by him to the Father, and through him are accepted by the Father.[38]

The Roman Catholic Church firmly believes that only God forgives sin (Mk.2:7). Further, she claims that our Lord Jesus Christ, being the Son of God, has the authority on earth to forgive sins (Mk. 2:10) and He exercises this divine power when He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mk. 2:5). By virtue of His divine authority Jesus gives this power to men to exercise in His name (cf. Jn.20:21-23). And in what way did He do this? Rome says, “Christ has willed that in her prayer and life and action his whole Church should be the sign and instrument of the forgiveness and reconciliation that he acquired for us at the price of his blood. But he entrusted the exercise of the power of absolution to the apostolic ministry which he charged with the ministry of reconciliation.”[39]

Thus for Rome the Church, through her bishops, whom she claims to be the rightful successors of Christ’s apostles, and priests, who are the bishops’ collaborators, continues to exercise the power to forgive sins in the name of Christ. Part of discharging their duties, bishops and priests ‘must encourage the faithful to come to the sacrament of Penance and must make themselves available to celebrate this sacrament each time Christians ask for it.’[40] Rome adds

In celebrating this sacrament, the priest is fulfilling the ministry of the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost sheep, of the good Samaritan who binds up wounds, of the Father who awaits the prodigal son and welcomes him on his return, and of the just and impartial judge whose judgment is both just and merciful. The priest is the sign and the instrument of God’s merciful love for the sinner.[41]

So the sacrament of Penance was instituted to address the problem of mortal sins committed by the believer after Baptism since those sins endanger his status before God and the Church. The purpose of the sacrament is to restore and reconcile the penitent sinner into holy union and communion with God and the Church through various penitential acts of the sinner and by the word of absolution of the priest who declares the words of forgiveness and reconciliation upon the penitent in the name of Christ.

An Evaluation of Rome's Doctrine of Sin and Penance

One can appreciate Rome's seriousness in addressing the problem of sin. It is seen to be the greatest evil in the world. At its root is breaking the law of God and therefore it correspondingly brings upon man serious consequences. So Rome is to be commended in her effort to face the issue of sin seriously.

We, however, take issue with Rome in her teaching regarding sin and Penance. Here I limit my critique to four points only.[42] First, the problem with Rome in her treatment of sin is in the distinction she makes between what is mortal and what is venial. For a sin to be mortal it must be a serious matter and must be done consciously and deliberately. But, if we may ask, what really constitutes a 'serious matter'? Ever since Eden man has been an adept at excusing himself, and the whole idea of less serious offenses is one which gives him abundant scope for attempting to evade the judgment of a holy God upon every sin. While it is true that there is a difference in the nature and the consequences between a careless word and murder, for example, yet there is no difference in the sight of God between one sin and another as far as guilt is concerned. James is emphatic in his rejection of the idea that any sin is venial when he said, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (Ja. 2:10).

Second, when the Bible declares that 'the wages of sin is death' (Rom. 6:23) it neither draws distinction between one sin and another nor between one penalty and another.[43] Thus Rome's distinction between eternal punishment for mortal sins and temporal punishment for venial sins is not Biblical but arbitrary, which may prove both morally and spiritually dangerous. We who believed in Christ and repented of our sins may therefore confess with Paul that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

Third, Rome's distinction between contrition and attrition has no Biblical ground either. What we see, however, in Psalm 51 is a Biblical repentance that sees sin as being loathsome because it is an offense against God and sees sin's consequences as being a loss of God's favor. Basically the same idea is evident in the New Testament where Paul, for example, knits together repentance toward God with faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21). The call in the New Testament is 'to repent and believe the gospel' (Mk. 1:15). To separate repentance from faith is to produce an attitude which bears no relationship to the authentic sorrow of the sinner. True repentance is centered on God not on man's effort. To give any place to such a notion as attrition is to open the door to what may appear to be the pathway to forgiveness but is in fact a spiritual blind alley.

Fourth, human satisfaction contributes nothing to one's justification. The Bible is emphatic on the completeness of the pardon given by God in view of the perfect satisfaction offered by our Lord Jesus Christ. We do not deny that the temporal consequences often remain even after sin has been confessed and forgiven. A man, for instance, who has lived an immoral or unchaste life will bear in his body the ravages of past misdeeds even though he himself is pardoned by God. God may in chastening love leave us to live with consequences of our sins that He may humble us and teach us how completely we are in need of His grace (cf. 2 Cor. 12:7-10).

Thus the whole idea of a continuing punishment for sin for which satisfaction or penance must be offered dishonors the perfect atoning death of Christ. To say that I, by the performance of penance must satisfy the offended justice of God is to say that Christ's offering has not adequately met God's demands. But Christ's satisfaction is surely perfect. His offering after all was provided by the Father (Rom. 3:25). He is the propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:2). His present position at the right hand of God is a clear declaration that the propitiation He has offered, the once-for-all sacrificial death He has died to satisfy God's wrath, has been accepted (Heb.10:12-18). God's justice has been satisfied and the guilty sinner needs a humble reliance upon Christ alone.


[1] See Herbert Carson's The Faith of the Vatican: A Fresh Look at Roman Catholicism (Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1996), 135.

[2] From “Canadian bishops urged to preach on sin, Confession,” news article on-line at http://www.miraclerosarymission.org/sin-conf.html, accessed April 16, 2008.

[3] H. M. Carson, Roman Catholicism Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 92.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 109, par. 386. This catechism is a summary of Roman Catholic belief based on her doctrinal interpretation of Scripture and traditions.

[5] Ibid., 117, par. 415.

[6] Ibid., 117, par. 416-417.

[7] Ibid., 117. par. 418.

[8] Ibid., 292, par. 1035.

[9] Ibid., 292, par. 1036.

[10] See Ibid., 507, par. 1857. This quote is from Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia issued in Decemeber 1984.

[11] Carson, The Faith of the Vatican, 138.

[12] Catechism, 508, par. 1859.

[13] Ibid., 508, par. 1861.

[14] See Ibid., 509, par. 1863.

[15] Carson, Roman Catholicism Today, 54.

[16] Ibid., 55.

[17] This is a quote from the creed of Pius IV, the Roman pope from 1559 to 1565, regarding the effectiveness of the sacrament as a sign. This is quoted in Carson’s Roman Catholicism Today, 55.

[18] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 319, par. 1127-1128.

[19] Fundamentals of Catholicism, Vol. 3 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 198.

[20] See also Catechism, 353, par. 1262.

[21] Fundamentals of Catholicism, 200.

[22] Ibid., 201.

[23] Catechism, 357, par.1279.

[24] Ibid., 356, par. 1274.

[25] Fundamentals of Catholicism, 202.

[26] Catechism, 403, par. 1446.

[27] Tertullian used the idea of being shipwrecked to describe a person sinking in the waves of sin in his treatise On Repentance 4.2. See also Catechism of the Catholic Church, 403, par. 1446.

[28] Catechism, 403, par. 1446.

[29] Ibid., 397, par. 1423.

[30] Ibid., 396-397, par. 1423.

[31] Ibid., 397, par. 1424.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., 409-410, par. 1468.

[35] Ibid., 404, par. 1448.

[36] Creeds and Dogmatic Decrees of the Council of Trent, 1545-63, in Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, Vol. 2, eds. Jaroslav Pelikan and Valerie Hotchkiss (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003), 851.

[37] Ibid., 852.

[38] Ibid., 856.

[39] Catechism, 402, par. 1442.

[40] Ibid., 408-409, par. 1464.

[41] Ibid., 409, par. 1465.

[42] I am indebted mainly to Herbert M. Carson in my evaluation and critique of Rome's doctrine here. His two books Roman Catholicism Today and The Faith of the Vatican are good resources on Roman Catholicism.

[43] William Webster, Salvation, the Bible, and Roman Catholicism (Edinburgh: Banner of truth, 1990), 44.


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eds. Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983.

__________. Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T.
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___________. The Faith of the Vatican: A Fresh Look at Roman Catholicism, Durham,
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Mick, Lawrence. Understanding the Sacraments Today: Revised Edition, Collegeville,
Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2006.

Pelikan, Jaroslav & Valerie Hotchkiss. eds., Creeds and Dogmatic Decrees of the Council of
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, in Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian
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