QUAERITUR: Is a penance assigned in confession a canonical obligation?

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.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. JordanH says:

    Is it really completely unreasonable for a priest to assigned a penance that can not be completed quickly, like a novena?

    The old joke about the man confessing he has been stealing lumber comes to mind.

  2. APX says:

    The problem with Novenas is some of us have terrible memories. I have never been successful with a Novena because I always seem to forget one day. Why not a 15 decade rosary then if we’re getting into longer penances?

    I had one penance recently that I couldn’t realistically do, but I didn’t say anything at the time because the last time I did at this particular parish, it quickly degenerated into a argument. It was when I was pretty shaken up and not particularly functional, and given the circumstances, Confession seemed like the answer. I was told to “say three Our Fathers extra slow, and spend the afternoon discerning what you plan on doing with your life now.” I was able to do the three Our Fathers, but I couldn’t discern myself out of a paper bag at the time. When I and my regular confessor returned the next week, he had to combine my new penance with another penance for the previous confession.

  3. Cafeam Fruor says:

    Is it wrong to ask a confessor for a different penance? I once received a penance to say the same prayer three days in a row. Problem is, at the time, I was chronically ill, and said illness severely depleted my capacity for short term memory. Frequently, I couldn’t even remember to take the medicine I needed to take. Anyway, I forgot one day of the penance, and then after realizing it, I said the prayer on the fourth day. As it turns out, when I next went to confession (in a church where they didn’t tell you which priest was in which confessional and where they were never in the same confessional from time to time), I explained this to the priest, and then he gave me…are you ready for this?…the very same penance again. Sigh! So, I set up a reminder on my computer calendar in hopes that I could remember the penance the next two days, and I managed to do it each day, but even then, it was hard for me to remember.

    Could I have told the priest, “I’m sorry, but I’m just not capable of multiple-day penances. Please give me a different one”?

  4. Cafeam Fruor says:

    Oops, that should read: “…from time to time), I ened up with the same priest again, and I explained…”

  5. acardnal says:

    If I forgot to do an assigned penance or found it too abstract to feel confident that I have done it satisfactorily, do I have to re-confess my sins in order to receive a new penance from a different priest? [No. They were absolved. Just say that you forgot to do your penance.]

  6. LisaP. says:

    At my last Confession the priest got a little creative on me and gave me the penance of stopping on the way home from Confession to do some small favor for someone. Then he paused, thought a minute, realized it was evening (and probably connected the kids outside the Confessional with me), and asked, “Or does that impose a burden on you?”

    I was so grateful! I don’t like the “creative” penances when they seem to be about a priest proving how creative he is (or how bored he is with giving the same penances), but when they really reflect personalization and thought, like this guy? How can you not love that?

    I do think this is a great question in this post — there have been a few penances I’ve completed wishing the priest had simply given me a prayer or task. Once I was told to go spend time alone doing something or other for a significant amount of time — this really was difficult to do since I had parenting responsibilities that meant this would burden my husband during a time he was working double time, etc. But I held my nose and found a way. I can see penances that would actually cause a penitant to face refusing the penance or doing some harm to his family or etc., that would be hard to deal with.

  7. acardnal says:

    Penances are supposed to be concrete and definitive so that the penitent knows without any doubt that he/she has completed it.

  8. rpgivpgmr says:

    That would be funny to ask for a different penance. I wonder if Father would be having a bad day and I got one far worse… Ha. But anyway I thought since the Father is in communion with God that a penance and absolution was coming straight from God, not just from a Man. Is that not true?

  9. babochka69 says:

    I really appreciate it when I’m given a penance that reflects thought and is intended to help me work toward overcoming a certain sin. If my confessor gives me a particularly difficult penance, he asks me first if I accept it. I have found that having a penance that lasts a while continually brings me back to the sin and helps me to reflect on it over a longer period, thus delays my falling back into the sin.

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