Receiving a Penance

After we have confessed our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we receive a “penance.” We are not just “given” or “assigned” a penance as punishment for our sins. We must receive the penance. By “receive” I mean we willing accept the penance as an admission of our sins and our desire to change.

If we think of the “penance” as something we are “given” or “assigned,” it might go with an attitude that the penance is “punishment” for our sins. It does serve as punishment but it is more than that. I already mentioned that the penance serves, in part, as a sign of our desire to change.

The word in Greek from which our understanding of “penance” comes is “metanoia.” It is seen as a “shifting of the mind,” a “conversion.” In the case of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it is our desire for conversion from sin to the Father’s Will. It is this desire that God seeks when we come to him in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Now, I would like to broaden our discussion of the purpose of “punishment” to include our judicial and prison systems and what we look for when we have been wronged by others.

In her book, The Moral of the Story: An Introduction to Ethics, Nina Rosenstand refers to five purposes or approaches to “punishment” (277-279. Third Edition, Mountainview, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company. 2000. Please note I am citing the third edition as that is the one I have as a textbook from seminary. There are newer editions). They are deterrence, rehabilitation, incapacitation, retribution, and vengeance.

Deterrence seeks to motivate people to not commit crimes out of the fear of stiff punishment. At times, parents use this to discipline their children. However, it only works when the punishment is feared. (See my recent article “More Shootings, More Stress” as it relates to people who don’t value their own lives.)

Rehabilitation seeks to help the person to change for the better. This is the point of the penance we receive in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This is why I do not assign lengthy penances. I look for penances that help the person think about how to do better. Turning to our prison system, I believe rehabilitation must be a key component of prison life. If we expect the person to commit no future crimes, we must give them the tools they need to change. Yes, they deserve punishment for the crime they committed but we need to help them change for the better.

Incapacitation is a form of punishment that seeks to protect others by taking away the ability for the criminal to continue committing crimes. For example, we incarcerate a serial killer to stop (incapacitate) them from being able to continue to murder. This is a necessary action when the criminal refuses to change but it should not be the only element.

Retribution is seen as paying for one’s sins. People cite Leviticus 24:20, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” to justify retribution (cf. “Does God Change?”). People need to make amends for their sins and crimes. However, if amends is all we seek, does that do anything to help the person change for the better to follow Jesus as the way and the truth and the life? Retribution is logical but more is needed for conversion than logic.

Lastly, I see vengeance as the emotional desire behind seeking retribution. Unchecked, it moves one from seeking fair retribution to revenge. (For more on vengeance, see my recent article “Does God Change?”.)

Rosenstand speaks of the first three (deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation) as forward-thinking while retribution and vengeance are backward thinking. While seeking retribution can be appropriate, it only seeks to address the past. It does not, along with vengeance, do anything to make the future better.

Incapacitation is forward-thinking in that it seeks to protect the innocent in the future. Deterrence is forward-thinking in that it seeks to prevent future crimes. Both incapacitation and deterrence focus on the external actions (crimes and sins). They do not have as their primary goal to change the heart of the person. This is where rehabilitation comes in. Rehabilitation seeks to help the person change what is in their heart, removing evil desires. For those who steal or commit crimes or sins out of basic needs, rehabilitation in the form of education also helps the person become better in giving them skills so they can have what they need without resorted to theft or violence.

God is motivated in the way He punishes us out of his love for us. A good parent disciplines their child out of love. Let us pray that the way we treat others when we have been wronged always be rooted in love. Let us pray for the same for our judicial and prison system.


Fr. Jeff


  1. The blog is very informative and provides much food for thought. As Father Jeff noted punishment as related to the criminal justice and prison systems in United States needs serious attention. Punishment needs to be forward thinking. The comments below are strictly my opinion and not intended to be political, judgmental or inappropriate but rather encourage dialogue and thought.

    It seems to me that this needed change is step three in a four level system. To me the steps would include discussing what sin is, what a crime is, what appropriate justice is, and lastly how to effect change.

    If we use free association or reflect on Dostoevsky’s famous novel the terms crime and punishment are often paired. Before we can discuss punishment or leveling justice, we must determine what crime is and before we can discuss crime, we need to discuss sin.

    As Catholics, we know what sin is and we know that we hurt God by this action or thought. I believe that people know when they are committing a sin. We all have a moral compass (the exceptions to this may be people who are mentally challenged or have mental health issues or those who have been seriously abused and do not value their own life). I believe this moral compass is the Holy Spirit deep in our soul.

    This moral compass is crucial to determining right from wrong. I believe that today’s society encourages us to disregard this moral compass in the name of relativism. Relativism allows each person to determine what they feel is their moral compass and is not always in harmony with God in any of the three persons. The lack of moral compass leads to decisions such as questioning the value of life, acceptance and promotion of sexual deviance and making the government a god.

    Crime also has to be defined. Our moral compass and the Catholic Church tell us that killing, stealing, lying, etc. are wrong but our government does not consider many of these things wrong. Killing is ok if you call it reproductive health or empathy for the aged or making your point politically, stealing in the form of looting is okay as long as you are not caught or if you feel it is something owed to you. (The idea of stealing can be a gray area if you are stealing for survival but I do not think pulling up to, a store in a Cadillac wearing designer clothing and stealing large screen televisions is for survival) Lying is acceptable if twisting or spinning a story to fit your narrative.

    If we can make some headway on instilling the importance of a moral compass and God’s role in our lives, determining, what a crime actually is and separate it from the political system, we open the door to discussions on justice and rehabilitation and the ability to effect change. This can only happen through sincere dialogue. The people involved in the dialogue must “come to the table” without political bias, personal agendas or fears of retribution or mockery.

    Justice defined as “getting what you deserve” must provide an opportunity for change and must truly be blind to race, ethnicity, gender, financial status, political status, or favoritism and provide protection from retaliation or redress.

  2. Linda,

    Thank you for your comment. It offers a lot to think about. I am afraid the concept of what constitutes sin is being lost. I don’t know if anyone would deny sin happens today. However, I think many would apply it only to the very worst activities.

    Linda said people know when they are committing a sin. I think we all have a conscience that helps us know that there is a right and a wrong. What is being lost is the sense that God determines what is right and wrong. We need to make sure our consciences are “well-formed”, meaning that we have put effort into knowing not just what people say is right and wrong but what God says is right and wrong and why so we can correctly apply it in our lives.


    Fr. Jeff

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