Why I Could Never Become a Roman Catholic – Part 5: The Sacrament of Penance

25 Jul

I first have to be honest and declare that I no longer attend the Catholic parish.  This is in part due to the crystallisation of my theology through these writings and was given impetus by a change of time of the weekly Mass, which meant I had to attend other churches in the group where I felt less comfortable and more challenged by the differences.  However, I still visit and am still as welcome as ever when I do.

This section on penance turned out to be a lot more complex than I had first thought and,as a result, has taken much longer to put together than the previous sections.  From my reading, it seems to me that the Sacrament of Penance is little more than a jumble of man-made traditions – confession, penances, indulgences and purgatory – which are given precedence over the revealed Word of God set out in the Holy Scriptures.

The Catechism describes the Sacrament of Penance as “The forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism is conferred by a particular sacrament called the sacrament of conversion, confession, penance, or reconciliation.” [CCC1486].

It is claimed that this sacrament was instituted by Christ [CCC1446] and Catholic theologians usually cite three biblical examples in support of this claim:

1. The healing of the paralytic ( Mtt 9:1-7; Mk 2:1-12; Lk 5:17-26);

2. The sinful woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Lk 7:36-50);

3. The woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:2-11).

Let’s examine each one to see if the claim can be substantiated.

1. The Paralytic

The healing of the paralytic occurs in all three synoptic gospels.  Mark, the earliest gospel and the source for both Luke and Matthew, has the longest account, while Matthew has the briefest.  In none of them do we encounter any “conversion, confession, penance, or reconciliation” on the part of the paralytic, who is entirely passive until the point he takes up his bed and walks. There is no mention of his faith or of his even thanking Jesus.  The healing – a sign of forgiveness of sin – was prompted by the faith of his friends (Mk 2:5; Lk 5:20; Mtt 9:2).  Hence, there is no scriptural support for the claim from this healing.

2. The Woman in the House of Simon the Pharisee

Here, at least, there does superficially seem to be a semblance of support if one believes that the woman’s actions are a form of confession (of unspecified sins – which is not permitted within the sacrament)  or some form of penance (self-imposed as there is no indication that Christ or anyone else initiated it).  While the woman is clearly penitent, at no point does Jesus ask her to confess her sins.  Nor does he set her any penance for “satisfaction” (CCC1459).  Jesus simply, following the telling of a parable, forgives her many sins. He gives two reasons for this action of grace: her love (v47) and her faith (v50).  Clearly some kind of conversion took place, but none of it after baptism (CCC1486).  Thus, on closer examination, it becomes clear that the support from this text is as lacking as that of the healing of the paralytic.

3. The Woman Caught in Adultery

There is even less evidence of penance in this case than in the previous two.  The woman doesn’t even show penitence!  Far from seeking confession of her adultery, let alone setting any penance of reconciliation, Jesus refuses to condemn her but simply instructs her to “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (v11).  As we know nothing more of her, it is impossible to know whether any conversion or reconciliation took place and to base any claim on such a lack would be spurious.

It is clear, therefore, that the sacrament was instituted by Christ has no foundation in the Scriptures cited.  But if it didn’t originate with Jesus, could it have been instituted by the Early Church?

When we examine the earliest church writings (Didache – 1st Century ad), we find that there is no evidence that verbal confession was required by the Early Church.  However, by the time of Irenaeus (2nd Century ad) public confession appears to have been widely practised (as it is today in many Protestant churches), though there is no indication that it was (or had to be) to a priest.

Thus, we see there is no evidence that the Sacrament (sic) was instituted by Christ or that it was the practice of the very Early Church.  Given that the earliest evidence of confession to a priest occurs in the writings of Origen in the mid-3rd Century ad, more than enough time had elapsed for it to be a tradition of human rather than divine origin.

To return to the catechism, CCC1446 also further amplifies the description of the sacrament given in CCC1486 by stating that it is

for all sinful members of his church: above all for those who, since baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion.  It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification.  The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as ‘the 2nd plank of (salvation) after the shipwreck of faith’ Tertullian (Trent 1547)“.

It appears from this and (CCC980) that, for Catholics, despite a convert’s sins having been washed in the Blood of Christ (Rev 1:5-6), which imparts redemption and the forgiveness of sins (Eph 1:7; I Jn 1:7), and his/her being “justified by faith” (Rom 5:1-2), s/he is not in a state of grace until s/he has been baptised with water; whereas, any babe in arms, despite his/her being incapable of faith, is through baptism deemed to be in a state of grace.However, this state of grace is, due to sin, precarious and may be lost at any time and so must be restored through human actions that are additional to faith in Christ.  This suggests that, contrary to Scripture, (eg Rom 3: 25-26), the work of Christ on the Cross is insufficient for salvation.

The catechism having listed all “the usual elements” of the sacrament of Penance in CCC1480, continues that, as with all the sacraments, “…Penance is always, by its very nature, a liturgical action, and therefore an ecclesial and public action.” [CCC1482]   This is further borne out by CCC1437 which asserts that “Reading Sacred Scripture, praying the Liturgy of the Hours and the Our Father – every sincere act of worship or devotion revives the spirit of conversion and repentance within us and contributes to the forgiveness of our sin.”  Once again this suggests that it is our actions rather than Christ’s sacrifice on the cross which lead to salvation.

This sense that penance, for Catholics, is a work of salvation extra to the Cross of Christ is confirmed by a statement in The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism (1969, Vol 2, p 199): “The priest gives us a penance after confession that we may make some atonement to God for our sins, receive help to avoid them in the future, and make some satisfaction for the temporal punishment due to them.”

Yet the theological stance of these catechismal statements is at variance with Holy Scripture, in which we encounter the following texts:

21 But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.”  (Romans 3:21-26)

“4 But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7)

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” (Romans 11:6)

But let us once again return to the catechism.

As “Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance” [CCC1456], “every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the ‘sacramental seal’, because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains “sealed” by the sacrament.” [CCC1467].

While this “sacramental seal” may seem a worthy intention, given that no person is likely to confess anything of importance to their priest without the protection it offers, the very fact that it “admits no exceptions” means it also prevents the priest from protecting victims (potential or actual) from physical, psychological or sexual abuse. Thus, by his sacramental seal the priest is thwarted from preventing a paedophile from working with young children, a wife beater from continuing his abuse, or a murderer’s victims receiving justice, for example.

Furthermore, unless the priest hearing the confession does not know his flock well, the identification of the penitent is highly likely despite grills and other attempts at anonymity. It is utterly naïve to believe that the way a priest views a penitent, whose voice he has recognised, will not be coloured by what he has heard in the confessional despite both the sacramental seal and the priest’s best intentions to the contrary; unless, of course, the sins confessed are utterly mundane (which, given that most common penance seems to be saying a number of prayers over and over, would seem to be the case).

CCC1460 sets out a variety of forms of penance, which “must take into account the penitent’s personal situation and must seek his spiritual good.” and “It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed.”

As noted above, the most common penance is the repetition of prayers from the rosary multiple times, which reduces prayer to a chore to be endured rather than a communication with the living God; and, additionally, risks contravening Christ’s warning in Matthew 6:7 not to emulate the Gentiles who “think that they will be heard because of their many words.”

Similarly, CCC1434 ends with the phrase “and the practice of charity ‘which covers a multitude of sins.’”(partially quoting I Peter 4:8 out of context, as is usual in the Roman Church). Given that the section begins with the themes of Prayer, Fasting and Alms-giving, it is clear that the writers are conflating the archaic use of charity with its modern sense. While older versions of the Bible translated ἀγάπη (agape – selfless love) as “charity”(i), they did not do so consistently, but alternated it with the word love (eg in I Cor 13 and I Pet 4:8 it is ‘charity’ but in Jn 3:16, Gal 5:22 and I John 4 it is ‘love’). The context of the word in 1 Peter, however, makes it clear that it is not charity in the modern sense of alms-giving or good works but in the sense of that self-less love, which is the first of the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22), which is intended.

CC1477, which is based on Indulgentiarum doctrina 5, talks about the “Church’s treasury” which, “includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God.” As we have seen before, the Catholic Church ascribes attributes that rightly belong to Christ to the Virgin Mary, interposing her, in place of Christ, between the believer and God. And when we examine the public confession (when it is used, which is usually only in the penitential seasons of Advent & Lent), we find the same appeal to authorities other than Christ to intercede with God on the sinners’ behalf:

…and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God”.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that section CC1477 continues, “In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission in the unity of the Mystical Body.”  Again an unnecessary barrier is being placed between the believer and the direct access to God through Christ by his death on the cross contrary to the teaching of the Bible (Hebrews 4:147:25 & 9:24-25).

Not surprisingly, both the benefits of this “treasury” and the effects of the Sacrament of Penance are closely linked to the “doctrine and practice of indulgences” which the faithful can gain “for themselves or apply them to the dead” [CCC1471]. This doctrine finds Papal (Pius IV) approval in the Trentine Creed (1564), article 9 of which states, “I also affirm that the power of indulgences was left by Christ in the Church, and that the use of them is most wholesome to Christian people.” but without offering any shred of Biblical support for the assertion.

In response to the question “What is an Indulgence?”, CCC1471 gives the following definition:

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.” So here again, we have the Church replacing Christ as “the minister of redemption” and relying on an imagined treasury to bring remission of sin. However, depending on whether part or all of the temporal punishment is supposedly removed, such indulgences may only be partial or plenary (total) in effect [CCC1471].

So what constitutes an indulgence? Turning again to The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism, one finds on the inside cover a prayer, below which are written the following words: “An indulgence of five years. A plenary indulgence on the usual conditions, provided this prayer has been recited daily for a month.”

On the same page is written, “The faithful who devote 20 minutes to a half hour to teaching or studying Christian doctrine, may gain: an indulgence of three years. A plenary indulgence on the usual conditions, if the above practice is carried out at least twice a month.”

Thus, we are back to the same old bugbear of Christ’s once and for all sacrifice on the cross being insufficient for the remission of sin and the penitent having to work for his own salvation, which is, as we have seen time and again, contrary to the revealed Word of God.

As we saw earlier, it was claimed that indulgences could be “applied to the dead” [CCC1471] and is confirmed by article 6 of the Trentine Creed, “I constantly hold that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls therein detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful.” This claim is explained in CC1498 which states, “Through indulgences the faithful can obtain the remission of temporal punishment resulting from sin for themselves and also for the souls in Purgatory.” These practices, it is claimed, have their scriptural basis in Job 1:5 and II Maccabees 12:46 [CCC1032]. Apart from not being accepted as part of the Canon of Scripture by Protestants (such as myself), the text in Maccabees (like that in Job) cannot be used to justify indulgences as, like the animal sacrifices laid down in the Pentateuch, it pre-dates the saving work of Christ on the Cross, which rendered them no longer necessary [Heb 10:11-12].

CCC1030 declares, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” The place (ii) of this purification and its supposed Scriptural foundation are given in CCC1031: “The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned…The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire.”

This once again reinforces the view that, for Catholics, the saving work of Christ is deficient and that justification is not by faith alone, which is contrary to the revealed Word of God in the Bible. So on what biblical foundation do they make the claim?

The two passages cited in the Catechism are I Corinthians 3:15 and I Peter 1:7. Note, first of all that neither are the direct words of Christ; second both use literary devices (simile in the former and metaphor in the latter); third both texts are taken out of context, which permits the misinterpretation (“a text out of context is just a pretext“, as Kim Tan used to say).

In I Cor 3:10-15, the context is that St Paul is talking about his (and others’) missionary work, the quality of which will be tested with fire. In verse 15, which is supposed to refer to Purgatory, St Paul is clearly using a simile as indicated by highlighted the word: “If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved–even though only as one escaping through the flames.”

Likewise, when we examine I Pet 1:7, we see that St Peter is describing the trials suffered by his readers, mentioned in the preceding verse, metaphorically: “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.”[I Pet 1:6].

Thus, we can see that Roman Catholic belief moves seamlessly from the dodgy doctrine of the “Church’s Treasury”, through the dubious doctrine of “Indulgences”, to the indefensible doctrine of “Purgatory” without any bona fide scriptural support.

Some Catholics have suggested that, as there is no Sacrament of Penance in Protestant churches, Christians of other denominations cannot be sure which sins have been forgiven and which have not. However, in my experience, it is more usual to encounter such angst over sin among Catholics than among Protestants (with the exception of the unforgivable sin of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” [Mk 3:9; Lk 12:10; Mtt 12:31-32] . Others have claimed, perhaps because of this lack of angst, that Protestants do not take sin seriously. This is not so. The Protestant Churches believe that the Bible, as the Word of God, takes precedence over any tradition. So let’s examine what the Bible actually says about confession.

St John tells us that we must confess our sins:

8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (I John 1:8-10)

Note there is nothing to suppose that the penitent should confess her/his sins to a priest or even to any fellow believer. This is confirmed in the next chapter where St John says:

1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (I John 2:1-2)

It should be noted that the words “atoning sacrifice” – ἱλασμός (hilasmos) in the original Greek – were often, in older versions of the Bible, rendered as “expiation” or “propitiation”.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines expiation as “The act of making amends or reparation for guilt or wrongdoing; atonement” and propitiate as “Win or regain the favour of (a god, spirit, or person) by doing something that pleases them.” As the verses above make clear, it is not the believer who “makes amends or reparation” or “wins or regains favour” but Christ alone.

In his book “Knowing God”, J I Packer, a well-known and widely esteemed 20th century evangelical theologian, contrasts propitiation in Christianity and other religions in the following manner, “In paganism, man propitiates his gods, and religion becomes a form of commercialism and, indeed, of bribery. In Christianity, however, God propitiates his wrath by his own action. He set forth Jesus Christ… to be the propitiation of our sins.” (p 207). We might detect a corrupted aspect of this “commercialism” in the much reviled Sale of Indulgences, which was a contributing factor to the Reformation in the XVI century.

It was at that time that John Calvin wrote his Institutes. In Institutes II:16:4, he quotes from an opus on the Gospel of St John by the Catholic scholar – and Teacher of the Church – St Augustine, who wrote:

Our being reconciled by the death of Christ must not be understood as if the Son reconciled us, in order that the Father, then hating, might begin to love us but that we were reconciled to him already, loving, though at enmity with us because of sin. To the truth of both propositions we have the attestation of the Apostle, ‘God commendeth his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,’ (Rom. 5: 8.) Therefore he had this love towards us even when, exercising enmity towards him, we were the workers of iniquity.” (John’s Gospel cx:6).

The noted and internationally respected Evangelical leader, John Stott, wrote that propitiation “does not make God gracious… God does not love us because Christ died for us, Christ died for us because God loves us” (The Cross of Christ, p 174), succinctly bridging the theological stance of both Packer and Augustine.

As none of the Scriptures cited in support of the so called Sacrament of Penance stand up to close scrutiny, we must conclude that it is of no true spiritual value, as it adds nothing to the saving work of Christ on the Cross, which, according to Scripture (eg Eph2:8; Rom 11:6; Heb 10:12), is wholly sufficient. Therefore, we must also conclude that its allied doctrines of indulgences and purgatory, which no other Church accepts (iii) , are no more than tenets of self-expiation that bind the faithful to the liturgical, priestly authority of the Roman Catholic Church in place of the propitiatory actions and divine authority of Christ our Redeemer.



(i)  The Greek word ἀγάπη has no direct translation to Latin or English so Thomas Aquinas, who appears to have had a dread of “love”, tried to equate it with the Latin word caritas, which has a somewhat different meaning (closer to the English word “grace”).

(ii) Contrary to popular belief, the Roman Catholic Church has not revoked this doctrine but merely reworked it to now claim that Purgatory is a “state” rather than a physical place (just as some theologians have argued that Hell is not a place but a state of being).

(iii) The Greek Orthodox Church, under influence from the Church of Rome, introduced indulgences in the form of Certificates of Absolution which were sold during the 17th century, a practice which was officially recognised at the 1727 Constantinople Council but which was condemned as a “horrid and unheard-of evil usage, originating in arrogance” [Encyclical 9th Clause] at the 1838 Council of Constantinople. The Orthodox Churches have always opposed the Doctrine (sic) of Purgatory.


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