Theory and practice of the confessional by Caspar Erich Schieler, Richard Frederick Clarke
2. The Sacrament of Penance.
The arguments for the existence of the Sacrament of Penance do not form part of our task; they come within the scope of dogmatic theology. We shall only point out some theological propositions on which our subsequent dissertations are based.
1. Jesus Christ gave to His apostles and their successors in the holy ministry the power of forgiving and retaining sins committed after Baptism.
2. This power is judicial and is exercised in the form of a judicial process. On this evident deduction from the words of the institution is based the entire Catholic teaching concerning the Sacrament of Penance.
3. The exercise of this judicial power constitutes a Sacrament, the object of which is to reconcile the sinner to his God.
4. The outward sign of the Sacrament is the exercise of the judicial functions; this comprises, on the one hand, the acts of the penitent, — contrition, confession, and satisfaction; and on the other, the priestly absolution, being the sentence delivered by the representative of God.
5. The grace conferred by the Sacrament is the remission of all sins, embracing the effacement of the guilt, the obliteration of the eternal punishment, and the condonation of, at least, a portion of the temporal punishment. This remission of sin is accomplished by the infusion of sanctifying grace, which, moreover, constitutes a title to certain actual graces, helping the penitent to bring forth worthy fruits of penance, to overcome temptation, to avoid relapse, and to amend his life.
At the same time the infused virtues are restored and the merits of former good works lost by sin are regained.
On zealous penitents, besides, special gifts are bestowed, such as peace of heart, cheerfulness of mind, and great spiritual consolation.
Though the Sacrament of Penance is administered after the fashion of a judicial trial, still its administration deviates in many points from the customs of forensic practice. The chief points of divergence are the following: —
1. The aim which the secular judge has in view is to convict the criminal, and by the infliction of a penalty, proportioned to the nature and the greatness of the crime, to restore the order of justice violated by the offense; the acquittal of the innocent is only a secondary consideration. The sacramental judge, on the contrary, re-establishes the relations between God and man, destroyed by sin, not so much by imposing a punishment, as by effecting a reconciliation. His chief preoccupation is the individual welfare of the penitent; the verdict, therefore, is a sentence of absolution and release from guilt; however, the sinner must perform a certain penance, to be determined by the confessor.
2. It follows from this that the final sentence in the tribunal of penance, by which the case is decided, is always one of acquittal. Any other sentence passed in the sacramental court is only intermediate, amounting to a temporary postponement of absolution.
3. In the ordinary session of justice, besides the judge and the accused, we find a prosecutor, witnesses, and pleaders. In the sacramental court there are only the judge and the sinner, who is his own prosecutor, pleading guilty. The proceedings are shrouded in perfect secrecy. The bench cites the criminal against his will, and holds him by force; at the confessional, the sinner presents himself of his own free will. The spiritual judge must credit the account of the penitent, be it in his favor or disfavor, since he alone can bear witness to the state of his conscience. Only when there is moral certainty of the opposite, may the priest distrust the statements of the sinner. On the contrary, the ordinary judge has the right to reject any plea advanced by the criminal. (Cf. S. Th. Quodl. I. a. 12; S. Alph. Theol. Mor. Lib. VI. n. 600 s.; Lehmkuhl, 1. c. n. 255; Müller, 1. c. Sect. 107, in fine.)