Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Protestant Dictionary: Penance

PENANCE. A more or less painful exercise, imposed by a priest on a so-called penitent, making satisfaction to God for the sins that he has confessed and for which he has received absolution.

It was long before the word penance " came to bear the above meaning. Poenitentiam agree meant originally "to be penitent or sorry," but whether by mistake or wilfully, it came to be translated "to do penance." See DOUAY VERSION. The difference was momentous, for thus external acts were substituted for the feelings of the heart. But even after that declination from spirituality had occurred, the idea of satisfying God’s wrath or justice was for centuries alien from the notion of penance. In the earliest ages men guilty of great sins were excluded from communion. As long as they were thus excluded they were regarded as being in a state of penitence or penance. No rules were laid down at first as to the length of time that this penitential state was to last; that was left to the penitent himself. When his conscience assured him that he had sufficiently deepened his sorrow by this deprivation of Christian privileges, he returned humbly to take his place again among the faithful, and he was gladly received by his brethren, who by witnessing had been assured of his contrition. By the fourth century this system of dealing with transgressors, which had spontaneously grown up, was organised. The special sins which required exclusion from communion were then enumerated, and the penitence, changing into penance, became rather a disciplinary rule of the Church than the instinct of a contrite soul. The sins thus designated were some ten or twelve, and according to the heinousness of the sin, a longer or shorter exclusion from the Holy Communion was imposed. Penitents were divided into classes weepers, hearers, kneelers, non-communicating attendants, and according to the judgment of the bishop, the offender was placed in one or other of these classes, and kept in penitence so many ays or years, as the disciplinary rules of the Church required. Penitence now began to be something to be done rather than something to be felt, but still it consisted in being excluded from the Lord’s Table, and in doing the things that had to be done by the whole of the class to which the penitent was assigned, not in penances imposed on individuals by the will of the bishop or priest; and the purpose with which the penalties were inflicted was not to appease God s anger or satisfy His justice by the transgressor’s pain, but to deepen the repentance of the sufferer, to assure the congregation which witnessed his penance, of the reality of his sorrow, and to obtain the prayers of the brethren. When private confession to the priest was substituted for public confession to the congregation, a practice which began to spread about A.D. 600, and was consummated and made compulsory in 1215, and when first the advisableness, then the necessity of confession was extended from a definite list of transgressions to minor faults, and when the priest, from being the representative of the congregation and offering prayer for the transgressor, became the representative of God bestowing forgiveness upon him, the whole idea of penance was changed. After the time of Innocent III. the theory was, and is, that the priest’s absolution forgives the transgressor’s sin, and delivers him from eternal punishment, but on the condition that the transgressor shall still make satisfaction to God by the endurance of some pain. What this pain shall be, was, and is, left to the discretion of the priest, who must, however, impose some penance, heavy if the penitent seem likely to perform it, light (such as beating the breast) if he does not. Logically, the absolution, on this theory, should be deferred till the penance has been accomplished, and failure to perform the penance should prevent the absolution being given, or should vitiate it if already granted. But instead of this the absolution holds good, the transgressor having to work out his unfinished penance in the imaginary realm of Purgatory, unless he has secured a plenary indulgence for the hour of his death, which wipes off his dues, or unless he is bought out of Purgatory by Masses for his soul, or by an indulgence specially applied to him by a friend who has earned it for the purpose.

No one understood more thoroughly the bearing of the doctrine of penance than our great theologian Hooker. "It is not to be marvelled that so great a difference appeareth between the doctrine of Rome and ours when we teach repentance. They imply in the name of repentance much more than we do. We stand chiefly upon the true inward conversion of the heart; they more upon works of external show. We teach above all things that repentance which is one and the same from the beginning to the world’s end; they, a sacramental penance of their own devising and shaping. We labour to instruct men in such sort that every soul which is wounded with sin may learn the way how to cure itself; they, clean contrary, would make all sores seem incurable unless the priest has a hand in them."

" As for the inventors of sacramental satisfaction, they have both altered the natural order heretofore kept in the Church, by bringing in a strange and preposterous course, to absolve before satisfaction be made, and more over, by their own misordered practice are grown into sundry errors concerning the end whereunto it is referred. They imagine beyond all conceit (imagination) of antiquity, that when God doth remit sin and the punishment eternal thereunto belonging, He reserveth the torments of hell-fire to be nevertheless endured for a time" (the fire of Purgatory being regarded as equal in intensity to that of hell), "either shorter or longer, according to the quality of men’s crimes. Yet so that there is between God and man a certain composition (as it were), a contract, by virtue whereof works assigned by the priest to be done after absolution shall satisfy God, as touching the punishment which He otherwise would inflict for sins pardoned and forgiven. ... If a person depart this life the debt of satisfaction being either in whole or in part undischarged, they steadfastly hold that the soul must remain in unspeakable torments till all be paid. There fore for help and mitigation in this case they advise men to set certain copesmates on work, whose prayers and sacrifices may satisfy God for such souls as depart in debt. Hence have arisen the infinite pensions of their priests, the building of so many altars and tombs, the enriching of churches so with many costly gifts, the bequeathing of lands and ample possessions to religious companies, even with utter forgetfulness of friends, parents, wife, children, all natural affections giving place unto that desire which men doubtful of their own estate have, to deliver their souls from torment after death. Yet behold, even this being also done, how far forth it shall avail, they are not sure; and therefore the last up shot unto all their former inventions is, that as every action of Christ did both merit for Himself and satisfy partly for the eternal and partly for the temporal punishment due unto men for sin; so His saints have obtained the like privilege of grace, making every good work they do not only meritorious in their own behalf, but satisfactory too for the benefit of others. Or if having at any time grievously sinned, they do more to satisfy God than He in justice can exact or look for at their hands, the surplusage runneth to a common stock out of which treasury they hold God satisfied for such arrearages as men behind in their account discharge not by other means .... So that by this postern-gate cometh in the whole mart of papal indulgences; a gain inestimable unto him, to others a spoil; a scorn both to God and man. So many works of satisfaction pretended to be done by Christ, by saints and martyrs; so many virtuous acts possessed with satisfactory force and virtue; so many supererogations in satisfying beyond the exigence of their own necessity; and this that the Pope might make a monopoly of all, turning all to his own gain, or at least to the gain of them which are his own. Such facility they have to convert a pretended sacrament into a true revenue " (Eccl. Pol., vi. 5, 9).

Mr. Staley in his Catholic Religion misrepresents St. Augustine when he quotes him as saying that sins are forgiven by baptism, prayer, and penance, and that " by penance he refers to Sacramental Confession with a view to gaining Absolution" (p. 214). That is not true. Augustine’s teaching (Enchir., 71 ; De Symb., i. 7 ; De Fide, 26), like that of Chrysostom, and all the earlier Fathers, is that sins are forgiven at baptism and after that by simple prayer for pardon, except only in case of certain specified great transgressions, when the offender had to confess his sin before the congregation, not for the purpose of absolution, but to exhibit his repentance to the scandalised congregation, and to get their prayers with a view to being restored to communion. That the " Sacrament " of Penance "was instituted by Christ" (ibid. p. 264) is also untrue. [F. M.]

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