Exercise of the Power
The granting by Christ of the power to forgive sins is the first essential of the Sacrament of Penance; in the actual exercise of this power are included the other essentials. The sacrament as such and on its own account has a matter and a form and it produces certain effects; the power of the keys is exercised by a minister (confessor) who must possess the proper qualifications, and the effects are wrought in the soul of the recipient, i.e., the penitent who with the necessary dispositions must perform certain actions (confession, satisfaction).
Matter and Form
According to St. Thomas “the acts of the penitent are the proximate matter of this sacrament”. This is also the teaching of Eugenius IV in the “Decretum pro Armenis” (Council of Florence, 1439) which calls the act’s “quasi materia” of penance and enumerates them as contrition, confession, and satisfaction. The Thomists in general and other eminent theologians, e.g., Bellarmine, Toletus, Francisco Suárez, and De Lugo, hold the same opinion. According to Scotus “the Sacrament of Penance is the absolution imparted with certain words” while the acts of the penitent are required for the worthy reception of the sacrament. The absolution as an external ceremony is the matter, and, as possessing significant force, the form. Among the advocates of this theory are St. Bonaventure, Capreolus, Andreas Vega, and Maldonatus. The Council of Trent declares: “the acts of the penitent, namely contrition, confession, and satisfaction, are the quasi materia of this sacrament”. The Roman Catechism used in 1913 says: “These actions are called by the Council quasi materia not because they have not the nature of true matter, but because they are not the sort of matter which is employed externally as water in baptism and chrism in confirmation”. Regarding the form of the sacrament, both the Council of Florence and the Council of Trent teach that it consists in the words of absolution. “The form of the Sacrament of penance, wherein its force principally consists, is placed in those words of the minister: “I absolve thee, etc.”; to these words indeed, in accordance with the usage of Holy Church, certain prayers are laudably added, but they do not pertain to the essence of the form nor are they necessary for the administration of the sacrament."
“The effect of this sacrament is deliverance from sin” (Council of Florence). The same definition in somewhat different terms is given by the Council of Trent: “So far as pertains to its force and efficacy, the effect (res et effectus) of this sacrament is reconciliation with God, upon which there sometimes follows, in pious and devout recipients, peace and calm of conscience with intense consolation of spirit”. This reconciliation implies first of all that the guilt of sin is remitted, and consequently also the eternal punishment due to mortal sin. As the Council of Trent declares, penance requires the performance of satisfaction “not indeed for the eternal penalty which is remitted together with the guilt either by the sacrament or by the desire of receiving the sacrament, but for the temporal penalty which, as the Scriptures teach, is not always forgiven entirely as it is in baptism." In other words baptism frees the soul not only from all sin but also from all indebtedness to Divine justice, whereas after the reception of absolution in penance, there may and usually does remain some temporal debt to be discharged by works of satisfaction. “Venial sins by which we are not deprived of the grace of God and into which we very frequently fall are rightly and usefully declared in confession; but mention of them may, without any fault, be omitted and they can be expiated by many other remedies." Thus, an act of contrition suffices to obtain forgiveness of venial sin, and the same effect is produced by the worthy reception of sacraments other than penance, e.g., by Holy Communion.
The reconciliation of the sinner with God has as a further consequence the revival of those merits which he had obtained before committing grievous sin. Good works performed in the state of grace deserve a reward from God, but this is forfeited by mortal sin, so that if the sinner should die unforgiven his good deeds avail him nothing. So long as he remains in sin, he is incapable of meriting: even works which are good in themselves are, in his case, worthless: they cannot revive, because they never were alive. But once his sin is cancelled by penance, he regains not only the state of grace but also the entire store of merit which had, before his sin, been placed to his credit. On this point theologians are practically unanimous: the only hindrance to obtaining reward is sin, and when this is removed, the former title, so to speak, is revalidated. On the other hand, if there were no such revalidation, the loss of merit once acquired would be equivalent to an eternal punishment, which is incompatible with the forgiveness effected by penance. As to the further question regarding the manner and extent of the revival of merit, various opinions have been proposed; but that which is generally accepted holds with Francisco Suárez (De reviviscentia meritorum) that the revival is complete, i.e., the forgiven penitent has to his credit as much merit as though he had never sinned.
Written by Edward J. Hanna. Transcribed by Donald J. Boon.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York