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Theology Annual


(A Contemporary Role)



Of all the sacraments in the Church, the most complex in its execution is the Sacrament of Penance. Like any of the other sacraments, of course, it demands an empowered minister and a capable recipient. But whereas the other sacraments demand simply the desire to do what the Church does on the part of the minister and simply the desire to receive the specific sacrament on the part of the recipient, Penance has a number of added conditions that are to be met by both the recipient and the minister before the sacrament in its entirety becomes an accomplished fact. On the part of the recipient, these are summed up under the aspect of conversion of heart whereby in the acts of contrition, confession and promised satisfaction, he clearly indicates to the minister that this is the case. On the part of the minister, all are summed up under the aspect of spiritual judge whereby he must make the decision to pronounce absolution under the power of the keys and must levy a penance that will be salutary for the recipient.

What this means in practice, then, is that the Sacrament of Penance on both the part of the minister and the part of the recipient demands a level of sophistication that none of the other sacraments demands. Historically this demand has meant much for the intellectual training of the diocesan priesthood. Anyone who is at all acquainted with the history of the development of seminaries after the Council of Trent is aware of the fact that the Council's call for the better administration and reception of this sacrament was the single most powerful influence on the development of the seminary theology course that became in time the standard course.(1) But while the minister of the sacrament was trained, the recipient of the sacrament was left at a relatively low level of understanding for some time.

The prevailing mentality in the Church was that a well trained ministry would take care of the needs of both the minister and the recipient of the sacrament. That is, the minister would be well versed in the understanding of both roles and the recipient accepting the minister as an expert, would simply follow his directions in preparing for and carrying out a proper reception of the Sacrament of Penance. For a long time this system was perfectly adequate and still is in some parts of the world today. But during the present century, this system started to break down in many places. The reason was that the ordinary recipient of the sacrament began to be better informed thanks to rapidly advancing Catholic educational opportunities, and under this impetus he began to realize that he was capable of developing his own expertize for his role in the Sacrament of Penance. What was a timid recognition at first, was given a powerful boost by the lengthy controversy in the Church over the use of conjugal love, commonly known as the Birth Control Controversy.(2)

It was Pope Paul VI who officially recognized the personal competence of the recipient of the Sacrament of Penance in this regard while attempting to safeguard the role of the Hierarchical Magisterium. In an allocation to the cardinals of 23rd June, 1964, he said the following:°–

The Church recognizes manifold aspects of the problem (Of birth control), that is to say, the manifold areas of competence, among which is certainly preeminent that of the spouses themselves, that of their liberty, of their conscience, of their love, of their duty. But the Church must also affirm hers, that is to say, that of the law of God, which she interprets, teaches, promotes and defends°K°K(3)

Such a statement clearly indicates the competency of the recipient of the Sacrament of Penance in his role and recognizes a potential area of conflict between the magisterium and the individual concience.

The tension between the magisterium and the individual conscience frequently leads to a feeling of inadequacy among confessors in fulfilling their role as judge. Caught between a determined magisterium and an equally determined laity, both of whom have legitimate areas of competence on a moral question, the confessor seems to be left without a personal role in the dispute. On the one hand, the magisterium is reminding him that he is a minister of the Church and that he must follow its teachings; on the other hand his penitents remind him that he must respect their freedom of conscience. What is he to do?

In an attempt to solve this dilemma, confessors sometimes have taken strict sides. But this course of action is hardly a satisfactory one because it tends to alienation. On the one hand when the confessor authoritatively takes the side of the magisterium, he only serves to alienate his penitents from himself and from the Sacrament of Penance. On the other hand when he cavalierly takes the side of a penitent, he only serves to alienate him from the magisterium of the Church and perhaps is even a cause of his loosing all respect for the teaching authority of the Church. Either position is always a disaster.

The obvious answer to this dilemma is to recognize that the confessor of today is called upon to exercise a completely new role in his penitential ministry, namely that of mediator between the magisterium and the individual conscience. In this role, the confessor cannot take sides which would alienate; rather he must seek to heal division by bringing both sides together in an effective penitential situation. Since this is a recent role thrust upon the confessor, unfortunately sacramental theology texts and manuals are usually unacquainted with it. As a result, as yet little printed direction is offered to the confessor. But there are two things that he must have a clear understanding of; first that this is indeed a valid role springing from the nature of the sacrament itself and second that to fulfill this role properly calls for serious intellectual study rather than simply pastoral counseling techniques.

The validity of the new role as springing from the very nature of the Sacrament of Penance itself, unfolds from the history of the sacrament. In the early days of the Church, the sacrament was a rare occasion in the life of a Christian. It was celebrated with great solemnity and severity for serious sinners who by their sin had cut themselves off from the life of the Church. In such a context, the category of serious sins was understandably small°–idolatry, murder and adultery being the original triad of mortal sins.(4) Given the social structure of the time in both the larger society as well as the Church community, such sins were never secret. Thus the culprit stood accused in the sight of all and he did his penance in the sight of all.

As the Church's awareness of the richness of the Sacrament of Penance grew, the catalogue of sins to be penanced began to become more complex and with it the role of the penitent. A larger list of sins meant that many faults were no longer public knowledge and to disclose them could well have had harmful effects for the penitent. As a result, the sacrament began to take on a double form; one the public form for public sins and the other the private form for private or secret sins. In the first form, the sinner stood accused by the very public nature of his faults and he approached the tribunal of penance simply as a culprit seeking forgiveness. With secret confession, however, the sinner took on an added role, that of accuser as well as culprit seeking forgiveness. Meantime the role of minister remained the same, that of judge primarily of the salutary penance to be given to rectify or bring back into proper balance the life of the sinner that had been disordered by his fault. With the passage of time, secret confession became the rule and public penance gradually disappeared except in extraordinary cases. At the present time, even in these cases it is hardly an effective measure in the life of the Church.

The development of theology in the middle ages added greater sophistication to the understanding of the dynamics of the Sacrament of Penance. Under theological analysis it came to be understood that Penance consisted of certain material elements and certain formal elements neither of which could be separated from the other if the sacrament was to be integral. The accuser-accused role of the penitent was understood to consist in three concrete acts; contrition, confession and satisfaction. The judgmental role of the confessor then shifted somewhat to be seen as consisting primarily in the decision as to whether or not the penitent fulfilled these acts that were necessary for an integral sacrament to be confected.

From the time of the Council of Trent up to the present, the essential form of the Sacrament of Penance and the essential acts of the penitent and confessor have remained unchanged. But at the same time there has been a great development in the understanding of what the dynamics are whereby one accuses himself of sin. Put simply, it was the task of the moral theologian to clarify classes and types of sins so that the penitent in examining his conscience would know what material he should accuse himself of. If he were not certain, then he would have to make a judgment of conscience but he was also given detailed instruction on how this was to be done. As mentioned above, the system worked well for a number of years°–in fact until the advances of technology began to pose new problems for old situations. One of these, of course, was the birth control problem.

What made the kind of a problem that birth control offers such a celebrated one was a certain shift in the way that the Church had been addressing such problems. For a long time in the history of the Church, moral problems were given solutions by theologians. If the solution arrived at was judged by the Church to be an improper one, then that solution would be set aside and corrected by the teaching authority of the Church. Thus in practice the positive magisterium of the Church consisted of theologians whereas the negative magisterium consisted of the hierarchical teaching authority. In serious times and for serious questions, this latter authority acted through a general council.

During the nineteenth century and particularly after the defining of the dogma of papal infallibility, the hierarchical magisterium of the Church came to assume a position of prominence in the solution to moral questions. Thus in response to modern birth control questions, it has not been moral theologians in a slow developmental way but rather papal pronouncements that have constituted the positive teaching authority of the Church. On the one hand this system has benefitted the Church in so far as it has given quick, decisive answers but on the other hand the mode of presentation°–parent to child tradition°–and the sense of finality of a papal statement the continuing infallibiliy discussion°–have made it difficult for an increasingly educated adult laity to adjust. In practice this is experienced particularly in the penitent's role of accuser in confession.

The difficulty that the penitent has in integrating magisterial statements on morality into a proper framework in his role of self-accuser in the Sacrament of Penance, of its very nature calls for a counter response on the part of the confessor. By virtue of his role as judge of the integrity of the acts of the penitent, he is therefore obliged to mediate between the magisterium and the conscience. Perhaps some might say that this is not true mediation because the confessor in the actual context of the Sacrament of Penance is in contact with only one party and therefore the usual give-and-take of the mediating situation is impossible. Thus the role of the confessor in this situation is no more that that of a persuader of the one side that can change (the conscience) to adapt itself to the side that is unchangeable (the magisterium). However, this obviously is not the case.

The confessor in his role of judge in the Sacrament of Penance does not act by virtue of delegated authority; rather he acts by virtue of a power that comes to him directly from Christ through his ordination. Once the Church gives him the care of souls through office or delegated jurisdiction, he exercises a power that is his directly and does not depend for its execution on any other person in the Church. Since the exercise of such a power contains within it all the means necessary to carry it to its fulfillment, the confessor in the opere operanti of the Sacrament of Penance becomes in his role as mediator the authentic interpreter of the teachings of Christ and a fortiori of the magisterial teaching of the Church. He thus plays an active role as the representative of the magisterium with full power to interpret for the magisterium. In fact, when he exercises this role properly it may even be said that he partakes of the infallibility that is implicit in the Church In so far as the penitent need not fear that the interpretation he receives will be detrimental to his salvation. However, it must also be clearly understood that since this charism of the confessor flows from the integrity of particular penitential situations, the interpretations that he makes of the teachings of Christ or the magisterium of the Church are valid only for the individual sacramental situation connected with that interpretation. In short, the confessor in his role as magisterial mediator with the individual conscience does not in any way modify the objective magisterial teachings of the Church.

But as mentioned above, the proper fulfillment of the role of mediator on the part of the confessor demands a deep knowledge of magisterial decrees. In the question of birth control, this would be the encyclical letter of His Holiness Pope Paul VI, HUMANAE VITAE.(5) And just as Pope Paul made use of mature reflection and assiduous prayers in arriving at his conclusion, so the confessor must do the same. He should be able to penetrate behind the words (what is stated) in order to arrive at the heart of the message (what is affirmed). HUMANAE VITAE is not a difficult document but a very clear one. Arguments against it fall into two categories; the first of these is that the teachings put forward in the encyclical are based on an inadequate conception of the natural law and the second is that the teachings do not do justice to the integrity of the human person.(6) It is not the purpose of this paper to criticize these points but suffice it to say that the author sees them as the result of a focus on the words of the encyclical (what is stated) rather than a focus on the real message (what is affirmed). The confessors' primary interest must be on the message.

A careful study of the text of HUMANAE VITATE reveals very clearly that the intent of the encyclical was to safeguard the essential nature of conjugal love. Therefore anything that would violate this essential nature°–that is, remove entirely from acts of conjugal love any reference to its life-giving aspect°–would be a serious disturbance of a natural order that both revelation and human reason have recognized as a sine qua non of the human condition. In its absolute understanding, it clearly affirms a basic human life-style°–the family in its root sense°–and it clearly denies the validity of contrary life-styles like homosexual marriage. This absolute under-standing that the confessor takes from the document, becomes the principle from which his mediation between the magisterium and the individual conscience in the Sacrament of Penance will flow.

It is important that the confessor understand the intent of HUMANAE VITAE as a principle and not as a law. Catholic moral theology from the very earliest days of its development has exhibited a marked tendency to reduce Christian conduct to a series of laws which establish a criterion outside of as well as prior to any act the Christian may perform. The law, then, simply provides a blue-print of rectitude of conduct whereby one simply forms his conscience by comparing his conduct to the blueprint. In this examination he ticks off as sin whatever in his conduct does not correspond to the outline in the blueprint. The confessor must understand that the need for his role as mediator became necessary precisely because such a reduction of Christian conduct is largely rejected by recipients of the Sacraments of Penance today and specifically in their role of self-accuser.

A principle, on the other hand, while establishing a criterion outside any act the Christian may perform, does not establish a criterion prior to the act. What this means is the principle is a part of the act itself, enhancing or vitiating the perfection of the act. Principles in regard to human conduct, then, are concerned with virtues rather than laws and it is within this context that the confessor mediates between the magisterium and the individual conscience. In the question of birth control, the mediation will concern the affirmation or denial of basic human dignity in the conduct of ones conjugal life from both the standpoint of the individual and the standpoint of the principle, both of which enter into the one act.

In summation, then, the birth control problem gives a prime example of the role of the confessor as a mediator between the magisterium and the individual conscience. And as more sophisticated moral problems arise which make greater demands on the penitent in his role of self-accuser, the confessor's role will 'obviously also become more demanding. One might well ask, then, if new moral problems will continue to make the roles of the confessor and the recipient of the sacrament increasingly more complicated to the point where Penance will become a meaningful sacrament only for the best educated. It is the opinion of this writer that such will never be the case. New moral problems are not new in the strict sense but rather new variations on a theme. And the history of moral problems has shown that they wax and wane in accord with the times. But that is another study.





Beekle, Franz. 'Bibliographical Survey on the Question of Birth Control' CONCILIUM Vol. 5 No. 1 (May, 1965) 53-69.

Cardegna, Felix F. 'Contraception the Pill and Responsible Parenthood' THEOLOGICAL STUDIES Vol. 25 No. 4 (December, 1964) 611-636.


Flynn, Fred. 'Humanae Vitae and Natural Law' PRIEST 25(1969) 81-88.

Kelly, Gerald. 'Pope Pius XII and the Principle of Totality' THEOLOGICAL STUDIES Vol. 16 No. 3 (September, 1955) 373-396.

Mahone, John. 'Understanding the Encyclical' MONTH 226(1968) 233-244.


Reed, John J. 'National Law, Theology and the Church' THEOLOGICAL STUDIES Vol. 26 No. 1 (March, 1965) 40-64.

Springer, Robert H. 'Notes on Moral Theology' THEOLOGICAL STUDIES Vol. 30 No. 2 (June, 1969) 249-288.

Vereecke, Louis. STORIA DELLA THEOLOGIA MORALE MODERNA VOL. II Roma: Accademia Alfonsiana, 1980.



1)Cf. Louis Vereecke, STORIA DELLA THEOLOGIA MORALE MODEKNA, VOL. II (Roma: Academia Alfonsiana, 1980), pp. 113-122.

2)An excellent survey of this appeared in Franz Bockle 'Bibliographical Survey on the Question of Birth Control' CONCILIUM Vol. 15 No.1 (May, 1965) 53-69. The statement made by the chairman of the U.S. Bishops' Conference at the 1980 Synod of Bishops in Rome showed that the situation outlined in the article had not changed in the last fifteen years.

3)Cf. Paul VI, Allocation to the Cardinals, 23rd June, 1964; ACTA APOSTOLICAE SEDIS 56(156(1964) 588-89.

4)Cf. Paul F. Palmer, SOURCES OF CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY VOL . II: SACRAMENTS AND FORGIVENESS (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1959), pp. 66-67.

5)Cf. the official English translation of HUMANAE VITAE. EN CYCLICAL LETTER OF HIS HOLINESS POPE PAUL VI ON THE REGULATION OF BIRTH (Vaticana: Tipografia Polyglotta, 1968).

6)Cf. Robert H. Springer, 'Notes on Moral Theology' THEOLOGICAL STUDIES Vol. 30 No. 2 (June, 1969) 249-288.



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