Confession and Penance


The Council of Trent

Sixth Session: Decree on Justification; Chapter XIV.

As regards those who, by sin, have fallen from the received grace of Justification, they may be again justified, when, God exciting them, through the sacrament of Penance they shall have attained to the recovery, by the merit of Christ, of the grace lost: for this manner of Justification is of the fallen the reparation: which the holy Fathers have aptly called a second plank after the shipwreck of grace lost. For, on behalf of those who fall into sins after baptism, Christ Jesus instituted the sacrament of Penance, when he said, Receive ye the Holy Ghost, whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. Whence it is to be taught, that the penitence of a Christian, after his fall, is very different from that at (his) baptism; and that therein are included not only a cessation from sins, and a detestation thereof, or, a contrite and humble heart, but also the sacramental confession of the said sins,—at least in desire, and to made in its season,—and sacerdotal absolution; and likewise satisfaction by fasts, alms, prayers, and the other pious exercises of the spiritual life; not indeed for the eternal punishment—which is, together with the guilt, remitted, either by the sacrament, or by desire of the sacrament—but for the temporal punishment, which, as the sacred writings teach, is not always wholly remitted, as is done in baptism, to those who, ungrateful to the grace of God which they have received, have grieved the Holy Spirit, and have not feared to violate the temple of God. Concerning which penitence is written: Be mindful whence thou art fallen; do penance, and do the first works. And again: The sorrow that is according to God worketh penance steadfast unto salvation. And again: Do penance, and bring forth fruits worthy of penance.

Session XIV: On the Most Holy Sacraments of Penance and Extreme Unction.

Chapter I: On the Necessity, and on the Institution of the Sacrament of Penance.

If such, in all the regenerate, were their gratitude towards God, as that they constantly preserved the justice received in baptism by his bounty and grace, there would not have been need for another sacrament, besides that of baptism itself, to be instituted for the remission of sins. But because God, rich in mercy, knows our frame, he hath bestowed a remedy of life even on those who may, after baptism, have delivered themselves up to the servitude of sin and the power of the devil,—the sacrament to wit of Penance, by which the benefit of the death of Christ is applied to those who have fallen after baptism. Penitence was indeed at all times necessary, in order to attain to grace and justice, for all men who had defiled themselves by any mortal sin, even for those who begged to be washed by the sacrament of Baptism: that so, their perverseness renounced and amended, they might, with a hatred of sin and a godly sorrow of mind, detest so great an offense of God. Wherefore the prophet says: Be converted and do penance for all your iniquities, and iniquity shall not be your ruin. The Lord also said: Except you do penance, you shall also likewise perish; and Peter, the prince of the apostles, recommending penitence to sinners who were about to be initiated by baptism, said: Do penance, and be baptized every one of you. Nevertheless, neither before the coming of Christ was penitence a sacrament, nor is it such, since his coming, to any previously to baptism. But the Lord then principally instituted the sacrament of penance, when, being raised from the dead, he breathed upon his disciples, saying: Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. By which action so signal, and words so clear, the consent of all the Fathers has ever understood that the power of forgiving and retaining sins was communicated to the apostles and their lawful successors, for the reconciling of the faithful who have fallen after baptism. And the Catholic Church with great reason repudiated and condemned as heretics the Novatians, who of old obstinately denied that power of forgiving. Wherefore, this holy Synod, approving of and receiving as most true this meaning of those words of our Lord, condemns the fanciful interpretations of those who, in opposition to the institution of this sacrament, falsely wrest those words to the power of preaching the Word of God, and of announcing the Gospel of Christ.

Chapter III: On the Parts and on the Fruit of this Sacrament.

The holy Synod doth furthermore teach, that 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 which words indeed certain prayers are, according to the custom of holy Church, laudably joined, which nevertheless by no means regard the essence of that form, neither are they necessary for the administration of the sacrament itself. But the acts of the penitent himself, to wit, contrition, confession, and satisfaction, are as it were the matter of this sacrament. Which acts, inasmuch as they are, by God’s institution, required in the penitent for the integrity of the sacrament, and for the full and perfect remission of sins, are for this reason called the parts of penance. But the thing signified indeed, and the effect of this sacrament, as far as regards its force and efficacy, is reconciliation with God, which sometimes, in persons who are pious and who receive this sacrament with devotion, is wont to be followed by peace and serenity of conscience, with exceeding consolation of spirit.

Chapter V: On Confession.

From the institution of the sacrament of Penance, as already explained, the universal Church has always understood that the entire confession of sins was also instituted by the Lord, and is of divine right necessary for all who have fallen after baptism; because that our Lord Jesus Christ, when about to ascend from earth to heaven, left priests his own vicars, as presidents and judges, unto whom all the mortal crimes, into which the faithful of Christ may have fallen, should be carried, in order that, in accordance with the power of the keys, they may pronounce the sentence of forgiveness or retention of sins. For it is manifest that priests could not have exercised this judgment without knowledge of the cause; neither indeed could they have observed equity in enjoining punishments, if the said faithful should have declared their sins in general only, and not rather specifically, and one by one. Whence it is gathered that all the mortal sins, of which, after a diligent examination of themselves, they are conscious, must needs be by penitents enumerated in confession, even though those sins be most hidden, and committed only against the last two precepts of the decalogue,—sins which sometimes wound the soul more grievously, and are more dangerous, than those which are committed outwardly. For venial sins, whereby we are not excluded from the grace of God, and into which we fall more frequently, although they be rightly and profitably, and without any presumption, declared in confession, as the custom of pious persons demonstrates, yet may they be omitted without guilt, and be expiated by many other remedies. But, whereas all mortal sins, even those of thought, render men children of wrath, and enemies of God, it is necessary to seek also for the pardon of them all from God, with an open and modest confession.

Chapter VI: On the Ministry of This Sacrament, and on Absolution.

But, as regards the minister of this sacrament, the holy Synod declares all those doctrines to be false, and utterly alien from the truth of the Gospel, which perniciously extend the ministry of the keys to any others soever besides bishops and priests; imagining, contrary to the institution of this sacrament, that those words of our Lord, Whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth shall be loosed also in heaven, and, Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained, were in such wise addressed to all the faithful of Christ indifferently and indiscriminately, as that everyone has the power of forgiving sins,—public sins to wit by rebuke, provided he that is rebuked shall aquiesce, and secret sins by a voluntary confession made to any individual whatsoever. It also teaches, that even priests, who are in mortal sin, exercise, through the virtue of the Holy Ghost which was bestowed in ordination, the office of forgiving sins, as the ministers of Christ; and that their sentiment is erroneous who contend that this power exists not in bad priests. But although the absolution of the priest is the dispensation of another’s bounty, yet is it not a bare ministry only, whether of announcing the Gospel, or of declaring that sins are forgiven, but is after the manner of a judicial act, whereby sentence is pronounced by the priest as by a judge; and therefore the penitent ought so to confide in his own personal faith as to think that,—even though there be no contrition on his part, or no intention on the part of the priest of acting seriously and absolving truly,—he is nevertheless truly and in God’s sight absolved, on account of his faith alone. For neither would faith without penitenance bestow any remission of sins, nor would he be otherwise than most careless of his own salvation, who, knowing that a priest but absolved him in jest, should not carefully seek for another who would act in earnest.

Chapter VIII: On the Necessity and on the Fruit of Satisfaction.

The holy Synod declares, that it is wholly false, and alien from the Word of God, that the guilt is never forgiven by the Lord, without the whole punishment also being therewith pardoned.

And it beseems the divine clemency, that sins be not in such wise pardoned us without any satisfaction, as that, taking occasion therefrom, thinking sins less grievous, we, offering as it were an insult and an outrage to the Holy Ghost, should fall into more grievous sins, treasuring up wrath against the day of wrath. For, doubtless, these satisfactory punishments greatly recall from sin, and check as it were with a bridle, and make penitents more cautious and watchful for the future.

Chapter IX: On Works of Satisfaction.

The Council teaches furthermore, that the liberality of the divine munificence is so great, that we are able through Jesus Christ to make satisfaction to God the Father, not only by punishments voluntarily undertaken by ourselves to atone for sins, or by those imposed by the judgment of the priest according to the measure of our offense, but also, and this is the greatest proof of love, by the temporal afflictions imposed by God, and borne patiently by us.

Canon VI. If any one denieth, either that sacramental confession was instituted, or is necessary to salvation, of divine right; or saith, that the manner of confessing secretly to a priest alone, which the Church hath ever observed from the beginning, and doth observe, is alien from the institution and command of Christ, and is a human invention: let him be anathema.

Canon VII. If any one saith, that, in the sacrament of Penance, it is not necessary, of divine right, for the remission of sins, to confess all and singular mortal sins which after due and diligent previous meditation are remembered, even those [mortal sins] which are secret, and those that are opposed to the two last commandments of the Decalogue, as also the circumstances which change the species of a sin; but [saith] that such confession is only useful to instruct and console the penitent, and that it was of old only observed in order to impose a canonical satisfaction; or saith that they, who strive to confess all their sins, wish to leave nothing to the divine mercy to pardon; or, finally, that it is not lawful to confess venial sins; let him be anathema.

Canon IX. If any one saith, that the sacramental absolution of the priest is not a judicial act, but a bare ministry of pronouncing and declaring sins to be forgiven to him who confesses; provided only he believe himself to be absolved, or [even though] the priest absolve not in earnest, but in joke; or saith, that the confession of the penitent is not required, in order that the priest may be able to absolve him: let him be anathema.

Canon XII. If any one saith, that God always remits the whole punishment together with the guilt, and that the satisfaction of penitents is no other than the faith whereby they apprehend that Christ has satisfied for them: let him be anathema.

Canon XIII. If any one saith, that satisfaction for sins, as to their temporal punishment, is nowise made to God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, by the punishments inflicted by him, and patiently borne, or by those enjoined by the priest, nor even by those voluntarily undertaken, as by fastings, prayers, alms-deeds, or by other works also of piety; and that, therefore, the best penance is merely a new life: let him be anathema.
Canon XIV. If any one saith, that the satisfactions, by which penitents redeem their sins through Jesus Christ, are not a worship of God, but the traditions of men, which obscure the doctrine of grace, and the true worship of God, and the benefit itself of the death of Christ: let him be anathema (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1919 ed.), Decree on Justification, Chapter XIV; Fourteenth Session, On the Most Holy Sacrament of Penance and Extreme Unction, Chapters I, III, V, VI, IX).

Vatican II

Those who approach the sacrament of penance obtain pardon from the mercy of God for offences committed against Him…By the sacrament of penance sinners are reconciled to God and the Church (The Documents of Vatican II, Walter M. Abbott, S.J., General Editor (Chicago: Follett, 1966).

The Code of Canon Law

Canon 959: In the sacrament of penance the faithful who confess their sins to a lawful minister, are sorry for those sins and have a purpose of amendment, receive from God, through the absolution given by that minister, forgiveness of sins they have committed after baptism, and at the same time they are reconciled with the Church, which by sinning they wounded.

Canon 960: Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the sole ordinary means by which a member of the faithful who is conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and with the Church.

Canon 965: Only a priest is the minister of the sacrament of penance.

Canon 966: 1. For the valid absolution of sins, it is required that, in addition to the power of order, the minister has the faculty to exercise that power in respect of the faithful to whom he gives absolution. 2. A priest can be given this faculty either by the law itself, or by a concession issued by the competent authority in accordance with can. 969 (The Code of Canon Law (London: Collins, 1983).

The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism

1318. What is penance?

Penance means repentance or satisfaction for sin.

1320. Why is the virtue of penance necessary?

The virtue of penance is necessary for a sinner to be reconciled with God. If we expect his forgiveness, we must repent. Penance is also necessary because we must expiate and make reparation for the punishment which is due for our sins. That is why Christ tells us, “Unless you repent you will all perish” (Luke 13:5).

1321. What is the sacrament of penance?

Penance is the sacrament instituted by Christ in which sinners are reconciled with God through the absolution of the priest.

1322. Why did Christ institute the sacrament of penance?

Christ instituted this sacrament to give us a ready and assured means of obtaining remission for the sins committed after baptism.

1368. Why is personal, specific confession necessary?

Personal specific confession (called auricular confession) is necessary because this was taught by Christ. He gave his apostles and their successors the power to forgive sins, but also not to forgive them, implying that the faithful had to tell their sins in order for the preist to judge whether they should be absolved.

1386. Why must satisfaction be made for sins already forgiven?

Satisfaction must be made for sins already forgiven because normally some—and even considerable—temporal punishment is still due, although the guilt has been removed.

1392. How can we make satisfactions for our sins?

We make satisfaction for our sins by every good act we perform in the state of grace, but especially by prayer, penance, and the practice of charity. While all prayer merits satisfaction for sin, it is most effective when we ask God to have mercy on us, and unite our prayers with voluntary self-denial. Penance for sin is not only bodily, like fast and abstinence, but also spiritual, like restraining curiosity or conversation and avoiding otherwise legitimate recreation. Moreover, the patient acceptance of trials or humiliations sent by God is expiatory. Finally, the practice of charity toward others is a powerful satisfaction for our lack of charity toward God.

1394. What is sacramental satisfaction?

Sacramental satisfaction is the penitential work imposed by a confessor in the confessional in order to make up for the injury done to God and atone for the temporal punishment due to sin already forgiven. The penitent is obliged to perform the penance imposed by the priest, and deliberate failure to perform a penance imposed for mortal sin is gravely sinful.

1395. What is extra-sacramental satisfaction?

Extra-sacramental satisfaction is every form of expiation offered to God outside the sacrament of penance. Our works of satisfaction are meritorious if they are done while in the state of grace and in a spirit of penance(John Hardon, The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism(Garden: Image, 1981).

Catechism of the Catholic Church

The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others. Alongside the radical purification brought about by Baptism or martydom they cite as means of obtaining forgiveness of sins: efforts at reconcilation with one’s neighbor, tears of repentance, concern for the salvation of one’s neighbor, the intercession of the saints, and the practice of charity ‘which covers a multitude of sins.

Conversion is accomplished in daily life by gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right, by the admission of faults to one’s brethren, fraternal correction, revision of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, acceptance of suffering, endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness. Taking up one’s cross each day and following Jeus is the surest way of penance.

Eucharist and Penance. Daily conversion and penance find their source and nourishment in the Eucharist, for in it is made present the sacrifice of Christ which has reconciled us with God.

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 sins(Cathechism of the Catholic Church (New Hope: Urbi et Orbi, 1994), Paragraph 1434, 1435, 1436, 1437, p. 361).


The Roman Catholic Church teaches that an individual can fall from the grace of justification, thereby losing his salvation, and the only means whereby he can regain that grace and a proper standing before God is through the Roman Catholic sacrament of confession and penance. By teaching that men must go through the mediation of a priest to confess sin, that they must receive priestly absolution and that man’s works of penance and self–sacrifice expiate sin and are necessary for forgiveness, the Roman Catholic Church undermines the sufficiency of the atonement of Christ. Christ’s work of atonement is not sufficient for the attaining of forgiveness. Man’s works and sufferings must be added to those of Christ. Such teaching distorts the truth of the gospel.