From a reader:
Dear Fr Z,
I’ve been reading back some of your old entries on penance and the efficacy of sacramental absolution, and they have helped clarify many things, so thank you for that! I do, however, have a few more things to clarify (hope I am not splitting hairs here!) as I’m preparing for a General Confession of my past life and I would really like to get some things straightened out for that, without being unnecessarily scrupulous of course.
So my question is this: Is the penance imposed on us by our confessor an actual canonical obligation that must be fulfilled, or simply some kind “personal obligation” we fulfill out of good will and contrition?
I get that the penance does not affect the validity of the absolution, but if one does not fulfill the penance imposed, is that a grave/mortal sin in itself? I’m sure you’d understand that I’m referring especially to those vague or “creative” penances, like “go tell your parents that you love them” (still not so bad) or “do something nice for your family at home”. … [I cut here, because he drifts into tangential points. It is easier to handle one thing at a time.]
You mention the word “canonical”.
Can. 981 The confessor is to impose salutary and appropriate penances, in proportion to the kind and number of sins confessed, taking into account, however, the condition of the penitent. The penitent is bound personally to fulfil these penances.
In other words, penances are to be given by the priest, and the penitent is obliged to do them personally. This obligation to give and do penances does not affect the validity of the absolution or the efficacy of the sacrament. If the penitent hasn’t done the assigned penance before going to Communion, he is still forgiven and can still go to Communion. But on remembering that she hasn’t done his penance, she should do it as soon as possible. This is a good reason why priests should keep penances simple and doable.
That said, an imposed penance seems to be a serious canonical obligation. It is probably in the same category as a vow, that is, it is a promise made to God. It is also owed in justice as a meager human attempt to make restitution for the horrifying violation of God’s love which we commit in sinning. Failure to fulfill the penance given doesn’t “undo” the absolution, of course. Forgetting the penance – especially if it’s long and complicated – might not be sinful, but obstinately refusing to do it would definitely enter the category of serious sin. A subsequent confessor could commute the penance that was not done or could assign a new penance. Once a new penance is assigned, the former penance would no longer apply (presuming one has confessed failing to perform the assigned penance).
Let common sense govern on both sides of the confessional grate. Let priests give penances that are clear and doable in a reasonably brief time. Let penitents accept them and then apply themselves in a spirit of love and justice, understanding that penances are meant to help us to heaven.
Remember that if you are given a penance that you think is too vague or too hard to perform in a reasonable period and manner, you can ask for a different penance.