Penance is a confusing term to me. It seems to be tied to confession and temporal sin but I don't fully understand it.
What is Penance and how has it been understood by the Catholic Church?
Oh also Happy New Year to all!
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What is Penance and what has been its traditional role in the Catholic Church?
The term penance have several different meaning within Catholicism. Here follows as modern definition of the term:
The virtue or disposition of heart by which one repents of one's own sins and is converted to God. Also the punishment by which one atones for sins committed, either by oneself or by others. And finally the sacrament of penance, where confessed sins committed after baptism are absolved by a priest in the name of God. (Etym. Latin paenitentia, repentance, contrition.)
More detail can be gleaned from the Catholic Encyclopedia on this issue:
Penance (poenitentia) designates (1) a virtue; (2) a sacrament of the New Law; (3) a canonical punishment inflicted according to the earlier discipline of the Church; (4) a work of satisfaction enjoined upon the recipient of the sacrament. These have as their common centre the truth that he who sins must repent and as far as possible make reparation to Divine justice. Repentance, i.e., heartfelt sorrow with the firm purpose of sinning no more, is thus the prime condition on which depends the value of whatever the sinner may do or suffer by way of expiation. The Sacrament of Penance will be treated in a separate article; here, we shall deal only with penance considered as a virtue.
Penance here is a supernatural moral virtue whereby the sinner is disposed to hatred of his sin as an offence against God and to a firm purpose of amendment and satisfaction. The principal act in the exercise of this virtue is the detestation of sin, not of sin in general nor of that which others commit, but of one's own sin. The motive of this detestation is that sin offends God: to regret evil deeds on account of the mental or physical suffering the social loss, or the action of human justice which they entail, is natural; but such sorrow does not suffice for penance. On the other hand, the resolve to amend, while certainly necessary, is not sufficient of itself, i.e., without hatred for sin already committed; such a resolve, in fact, would be meaningless; it would profess obedience to God's law in the future while disregarding the claims of God's justice in the matter of past transgression. "Be converted, and do penance for all your iniquities. . . . Cast away from you all your transgressions . . . and make to yourselves a new heart, and a new spirit" (Ezekiel 18:30-31; cf. Joel, 2:12; Jeremiah 8:6). In the same spirit St. John the Baptist exhorts his hearers: "Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of penance" (Matthew 3:8). Such too is the teaching of Christ as expressed in the parables of the Prodigal Son and of the Publican; while the Magdalen who "washed out her sins with her tears" of sorrow, has been for all ages the type of the repentant sinner. Theologians, following the doctrine of St. Thomas (Summa, III, Q. lxxxv, a. 1), regard penance as truly a virtue, though they have disputed much regarding its place among the virtues. Some have classed it with the virtue of charity, others with the virtue of religion, others again as a part of justice. Cajetan seems to have considered it as belonging to all three; but most theologians agree with St. Thomas (ibid., a. 2) that penance is a distinct virtue (virtus specialis). The detestation of sin is a praiseworthy act, and in penance this detestation proceeds from a special motive, i.e., because sin offends God (cf. De Lugo, "De paenitentiae virtute"; Palmieri, "De paenitentia", Rome, 1879; theses I-VII.).
The Council of Trent expressly declares (Sess. XIV, c.i) that penance was at all times necessary for the remission of grievous sin. Theologians have questioned whether this necessity obtains in virtue of the positive command of God or independently of such positive precept. The weight of authority is in favour of the latter opinion; moreover, theologians state that in the present order of Divine Providence God Himself cannot forgive sins, if there be no real repentance (St. Thomas, III:86:2; Cajetan, ibid.; Palmieri, op. cit., thesis VII). In the Old Law (Ezekiel 18:24) life is denied to the man who does iniquity; even "his justices which he has done, shall not be remembered"; and Christ restates the doctrine of the Old Testament, saying (Luke 13:5): "except you do penance, you shall all likewise perish." In the New Law, therefore, repentance is as necessary as it was in the Old, repentance that includes reformation of life, grief for sin, and willingness to perform satisfaction. In the Christian Dispensation this act of repentance has been subjected by Christ to the judgment and jurisdiction of His Church, whensoever there is question of sin committed after the reception of Baptism (Council of Trent, sess. XIV, c. i), and the Church acting in the name of Christ not only declares that sins are forgiven, but actually and judicially forgives them, if the sinner already repentant subjects his sins to the "power of the keys", and is willing to make fitting satisfaction for the wrong he has done.