Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 31: Some Fundamental Convictions, Part 2: A Tribunal of Mercy

The second conviction concerns the function of the sacrament of penance for those who have recourse to it. According to the most ancient traditional idea, the sacrament is a kind of judicial action; but this takes place before a tribunal of mercy rather than of strict and rigorous justice, which is comparable to human tribunals only by analogy namely insofar as sinners reveal their sins and their condition as creatures subject to sin; they commit themselves to renouncing and combating sin; accept the punishment (sacramental penance) which the confessor imposes on them and receive absolution from him.

Certainly a traditional view of Penance, but is it the very best way to invite a wider practice? I ask, but not to avoid judgment for others, but to find a way to draw people in with a perspective just as true, but more attuned to a modern sensibility. Healing:

But as it reflects on the function of this sacrament, the church’s consciousness discerns in it, over and above the character of judgment in the sense just mentioned, a healing of a medicinal character. And this is linked to the fact that the Gospel frequently presents Christ as healer,* while his redemptive work is often called, from Christian antiquity, medicina salutis. “I wish to heal, not accuse,” St. Augustine said, referring to the exercise of the pastoral activity regarding penance,(St. Augustine, Sermo 82, 8: PL 38, 511) and it is thanks to the medicine of confession that the experience of sin does not degenerate into despair.(Ibid., Sermo, 352, 3, 8:9: PL 39, 1558f) The Rite of Penance alludes to this healing aspect of the sacrament,(Cf Ordo Paenitentiae, 6c) to which modern man is perhaps more sensitive, seeing as he does in sin the element of error but even more the element of weakness and human frailty.

The starred footnote:

*Cf Luke 5:31f: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” concluding: “I have…come to call…sinners to repentance”; Luke 9:2: “And he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal.” The image of Christ the physician takes on new and striking elements if we compare it with the figure of the Servant of Yahweh, of whom the Book of Isaiah prophesies that “he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” and that with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4f).

The Lord’s public ministry involved both healing and forgiveness. Often enough the two were intertwined in one experience for a person. The mysterious nature of sin–something that besets us despite our best intentions to avoid–suggests something beyond our ability to conquer. We need outside help. Jesus offered healing, saving condemnation for a select few.

Whether as a tribunal of mercy or a place of spiritual healing, under both aspects the sacrament requires a knowledge of the sinner’s heart in order to be able to judge and absolve, to cure and heal. Precisely for this reason the sacrament involves on the part of the penitent a sincere and complete confession of sins.

Without a full and honest diagnosis, the healer cannot offer a cure.

This therefore has a raison d’etre not only inspired by ascetical purposes (as an exercise of humility and mortification), but one that is inherent in the very nature of the sacrament.

This document is Copyright © 1984 – Libreria Editrice Vatican. The link on the Vatican site is here.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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