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.