QUAERITUR: Can a priest in the confessional assign AA meetings for penance?

From a reader:

Can a priest give AA meetings for a overindulgent penitent?

WHAT?!?  Noooo… bad idea.

Look. A priest can, I guess, give whatever penances he can get away with.   If the penance is too onerous or impossible, or too vague (“Do something nice for someone.”), you can, as a penitent, ask for a something clear and doable.

In my opinion it is – in general – a bad idea to propose (and that is what assigning a penance is, a proposal which the priest is obliged to propose) something that the penitent cannot do easily and in a short period.  For, example, it is best to assign something the penitent can complete before leaving the church.  Thus, prayers are good penances.

In the case of a habitual sin, such as a real problem with anger at other drivers, a penance could be along the lines of – and this is pushing it a bit – “For one week say one decade of the Rosary each time you get into your car but before you turn the key.”

In the counsel part of a sacramental confession a priest might usefully advise someone to seek therapy, or to attend AA, or to join Weight Watchers, or to frequent meetings of Liturgical Ad-Libbers Anonymous (LALA). Those suggestions are not good penances.


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  1. frjim4321 says:

    Starting out the week with a huge agreement.

    Penances should be “doable.” Absolutely.

  2. Lisa Graas says:

    I realize the general basis for AA is Catholic but I take strong issue with their forcing people to always say “I am an alcoholic” for the rest of their lives. God does heal people of alcoholism. I know because my father was an alcoholic before he became a Christian. He went to AA meetings, which WERE helpful to him, then he became a Christian and was completely healed of his desire for alcohol. He then refused to stand up and say “I am an alcoholic.” This did not go over well with them. He stopped attending the meetings, but after my dad became a Christian, he never again touched a drop. Our Lord healed him.

    Identity in Christ trumps everything else. Everything. [This entry isn’t really about AA. It is about reasonable penances that can be done by the penitent.]

  3. APX says:

    The other problem here is with the nature of these 12 step programs.

    When I was a Probation Officer, even if a “client” was court ordered on their Probation Order/Conditional Sentence Order (aka house arrest) “to attend, fully participate in a meaningful way, and provide written proof of completion of any counseling, treatment, programming deemed necessary/appropriate for [whatever was listed or learned of during meetings], as requested by your probation officer or the courts”, I could not require anyone to attend AA, NA, GA, etc because those programs will not admit someone who is not there under their own free will. That being said, that didn’t stop me from “strongly recommending it” and giving them a tracking sheet to be signed off.

  4. Iowander says:

    Doesn’t such a penance essentially break the seal of the confession? [No.] How can you keep a sin secret if you’re required to reveal it to others as a penance?

  5. frjim4321 says:

    Doesn’t such a penance essentially break the seal of the confession? How can you keep a sin secret if you’re required to reveal it to others as a penance?


    I’ve found that the seal of confession is not as inviolable as it once was especially among younger priests. The seal of confession includes not bringing up what you hear in confession at a dinner party with other priests, including mentioning the prevalence of certain sins, without impugning at least indirectly those who go to confession at their parishes. [I think that priests talking together about the prevalence of certain sins does not violate the Seal. But this entry is NOT about the Seal.]

  6. Speravi says:

    I thought a priest is to avoid assigning a penance which would force a person to disclose their conscience? If a penitent confessed drunkenness, it doesn’t make sense a priest would bind the penitent to attend, as his penance, a meeting where he would be expected to tell everyone that he has been struggling with drunkenness. It might, however, be very wise for a priest to counsel such an action, and even very strongly…but not to bind someone to it as a penance.
    I think, if it is a matter of the penitent not wishing to disclose his conscience, it might be okay to return to confession (to the same or a different priest) and explain the situation and ask that the penance be commuted to something else (correct me if I am wrong, but I believe priests who can hear confessions usually also have the faculty to commute a penance which a penitent was unable to fulfill). In the confessional, even if it is intimidating, is it definitely okay for a penitent to tell the priest that the assigned penance seems too difficult or impossible..the priest has to make an judgement call in assigning an appropriate, but realistic, penance…the inability of the penitent to do the assigned penance would be very useful information to the priest!

  7. The seal of confession means that the confessor is not allowed to say or do anything that could indicate a sin the penitent had committed. It is not binding on the penitent, and does not mean that the penitent is never obliged to directly or indirectly reveal his sin. Sometimes in order to undo or make amends for the harm done by a sin, and/or in avoid to take reasonable means to avoid the sin in the future, the penitent must publicly reveal his sin. The are some injustices, for instance, for which one cannot properly make amends without in the process revealing the sin. Again, there are some sins which one cannot reasonably expect to avoid in the future without revealing them. In such cases the penitent is obliged to reveal the sin as part of making amends, or as part of the resolve to avoid the sin in the future.

    Theoretically, if a penitent’s attending AA meetings were the only realistic way the penitent could expect to avoid drunkenness in the future, and that were clear, a priest might assign that as a penance, or make absolution conditional on a resolve to attend such meetings. [Speculation like this isn’t helpful.] I can’t concretely imagine this situation really happening, though.

  8. Choirmaster says:

    I’ve had similar experiences with penances that are vague or inappropriate. The most recent was a direction to “spend 10 minutes a day for the next week in ‘unstructured’ prayer”. The priest didn’t want me to say a Rosary (the Gold Standard of Daily Prayer, if you ask me), but instead to do some vague ‘reflection’ or something. Needless to say, the first few days did include 10 minutes of ‘unstructured’ prayer, the following couple of days included 3 minutes of prayer and 7 minutes of sleep, and the balance of the days were a total write-off. I’m going to have to get a new penance for that next time I go to confession.

  9. Choirmaster says:

    Also, regarding penances, I wasn’t aware that a penance was ordered primarily towards restitution or correction, but strictly for demonstrating contrition as part of sacramental absolution, a “token” act, as I believe I’ve heard it called. If the Catholic Philosopher is correct, I don’t see how any penance would ever be good enough. Imagine a man confessing a murder. There is no penance on Earth that could even come close to addressing that, or to making reparation.

  10. APX says:

    Also, regarding penances, I wasn’t aware that a penance was ordered primarily towards restitution or correction, but strictly for demonstrating contrition as part of sacramental absolution, a “token” act, as I believe I’ve heard it called

    Making restitution and penance are two separate things in Confession. That said, penance assigned is also making restitution towards God, but what our penance is given is not sufficient to completely make up for it.

    Making restitution for sin appears to be a little more complex than simply just giving back the money one stole, or something of that sort. I have a Moral Theology handbook that goes into great detail on all the different sins that require restitution, and when restitution is required/not required, how restitution is to be made, etc. That being said, sometimes making restitution isn’t feasible, or it has to be delayed, isn’t possible, etc. For example, in my handbook, in cases of rape, the individual is required to make reparation for all damage done. Realistically that’s not possible.

  11. Scott W. says:

    Also, regarding penances, I wasn’t aware that a penance was ordered primarily towards restitution or correction, but strictly for demonstrating contrition as part of sacramental absolution, a “token” act, as I believe I’ve heard it called

    I think you are right on the money. One might still have a moral obligation to repair or correct even after receiving absolution, but getting everything in order first is not a condition of absolution .

  12. anilwang says:

    Choirmaster, I agree. Forcing reparation doesn’t sit right with my understanding of the seal of confession. If someone murders someone else, the only way to make anything close to reparation is to admit to police that you’ve done the murder and take care of any dependent family members of the murdered.

    While it is just for force the murderer, thief, adulterer, and embezzler to come clean, if confessors did assign such penances these sinners would likely never go to confession, and be counseled to truly repent.

    Its the reason that if a prominent lay person in a priest’s parish council, confesses to murdering a priest and close friend of the confessing priest, embezzling parish funds, and child abuse of a priests family member, the priest cannot use this information in any way for the safety of his parish and his own personal safety.

    So forced reparation does seem to violate both the letter and the spirit of the seal of confession.

  13. APX says:

    BTW: AA isn’t for people who confess drunkeness. Just because someone gets drunk, even repeatedly, doesn’t mean he’s an alcoholic and would even benefit from AA. Someone could have an issue with alcohol/substance abuse, which is not the same as being an alcoholic per se, and would require different treatment. Granted, unless priests have any education in substance abuse/addictions, which I don’t think too many do, but it wouldn’t hurt to learn the basics, they’re not going to know this, which is a shame.

    While I know the Confessional isn’t for counseling sessions, the seal and the anonymous factor of it give priests a lot of power to help people get pointed in the right direction to get the help they need.

  14. Getting everything in order first is not a condition of absolution, but the intention of undoing any grave evil one has done to the extent reasonably possible is a condition of valid absolution and of the forgiveness of sin. If a penitent conceals his unwillingness to make amends for a grave sin, the absolution by the priest has no efficacy for the forgiveness of sins, as the person is not disposed, is not in fact penitent. A priest is not allowed to give absolution if the indisposition if the person confessing is manifest, thus not if he is clearly unwilling to make amends for a grave evil.

    What is called “penance” in English was traditionally termed “satisfaction”, and refers to making things up to God for the offense done to him. However, since every offense done to one’s neighbor is an offense against God, making things up to one’s neighbor is part of making things up to God. (See Thomas Aquinas, In IV Sent., d. 15, q. 1, a. 5 — “satisfaction made to one’s neighbor is a part of satisfaction made to God”; for Aquinas satisfaction to one’s neighbor is more than mere restitution of something taken, or undoing of evil done).

  15. Father K says:

    To put it simply, to give such a penance is mixing the internal and external forum. However it may be appropriate to advise a person to seek help such as AA. Likewise a confessor cannot demand a murderer turn himself into the police, otherwise he will refuse absolution. He can and probably should exhort him to do so.

  16. For centuries the Church commonly required those who had committed grave sins such as murder to make satisfaction before reconciliation with the Church.
    If the implication of the Church’s practice was correct, namely that that making satisfaction for such a crime by humbly admitting the crime and doing public penance for it is a necessary element of true contrition, then it is no true mercy to the criminal to make an appearance of giving absolution if he is not truly contrite, and is a sacrilege.
    Willingness to admit one’s crime is not always a necessary company of true condition, but in some cases it is.

  17. Choirmaster says:

    @APX: I think you’re right, and you maybe said what I wanted to say but in less than 10 words. I’m very suspicious of AA as a matter of personal bias mainly because I’ve fallen (several times) into gripping ‘substance addiction’ and each time did not have the luxury of ‘support groups’ or ‘therapy’ to help me out. The twelve-step system seemed bogus to me. The answer was a simple, two-step process: get clean, then stay clean. Difficult but encouraging in its simplicity. I can’t imaging going through that again and having to talk about it every week. How would I have gotten away from all of that if I hung around those people all the time? It would have been an occasion of temptation and sin!

    I am glad that my confessors at the time offered me no penance such as the reader in this post! By the grace of God, I got the Fr. Z-style “token” penances with the admonishment to “go and sin no more”.

    Like Lisa Graas said above, healing comes from Christ, that is, absolution through His Church, and not from support groups and creative penances.

  18. Imagine someone comes to a priest in confession and confesses that he has repeatedly felt compelled to rape and kill a young woman, and whenever this urge has come upon him, he has done so. Whatever degree of subjective guilt he carries, repentence of his sin requires the resolve to take the steps necessary to avoid repeating the sin in the future. And since it is matter of a compulsion, those steps require outside help. In such a case the confessor certainly may not give absolution for this sin unless the person expresses resolve to get that help — from psychiatrists and institutions for treatment of mental problems, or from the police, or from another such source. (It is more complicated if there seems to be no subjectively grave sin, as a confessor may absolve a penitent even if that penitent is not repent of all individual (subjectively) venial sins.)

  19. Choirmaster says:

    @CatholicPhilosopher: I agree that part of the process of forgiveness as instituted by Christ is to “go and sin no more”, but that seems to be a wholly separate concern from the matter of imposing a penance as a result of confession and absolution. I think when we speak of the concrete actions that need to be made to amend one’s life and make reparation in justice for past sins, we move into the territory of justification, indulgences, and Purgatory and away from the confessional.

  20. Joe Mulvihill says:

    The AA program is something which, according to it’s literature, is never completed. Therefore I believe it would be a very inappropriate penance but certainly a very valid suggestion to make to anyone who has an alcohol problem that is bothering them enough that they would take it to the confessional.
    AA welcomes anyone to attend “open” meetings and there is no requirement that one identify themselves as an alcoholic in order to attend such meetings.

  21. acardnal says:

    CatholicPhilosopher said, “And since it is matter of a compulsion, those steps require outside help. In such a case the confessor certainly may not give absolution for this sin unless the person expresses resolve to get that help — from psychiatrists and institutions for treatment of mental problems, or from the police, or from another such source. “

    That is not Catholic teaching with respect to the Sacrament of Penance. Fr. Z and Fr. K are correct.

  22. The main point I would offer, for the benefit of the faithful who are reading this, is this:

    Confessors want to help you get out of whatever trap you’re in. That’s what leads to penances that are problematic, as our genial host has so ably described.

  23. The Masked Chicken says:

    There is a site on the Internet called, Rate-my-professor.com which allows students to discuss every professor from American universities (maybe it includes other countries).
    I have often thought of hacking the site to change the name to, Berate-my-professor.com or Rat-on-my-professor.com.

    In any case, be glad that there is not a site called, Rate-my-confessor.com!

    The more I think about the penance the priest gave, the angrier I get. There are three things needed of the penitent in order for there to be a the valid confession: confession of mortal sins in kind and number, contrition, and sincere desire for restitution (if possible). The problem comes, and it can be subtle, with the second condition, contrition. It need be only imperfect contrition (fear of Hell, for example), but different people manifest contrition in different ways. Some people are so shaken by contrition when they enter the confessional, their sense of self so off-balance (in psychology, this is called an adverse emotional arousal state), that the imposition of something, a command (the penance), in an authoritative manner, especially in a situation with someone who is speaking in persona Christi, allows no escape from the anxiety until the command is performed. This situation is a recipe for spiritual abuse, especially if the command is vague, impossible, or even contradictory (this last particular situation is so dangerous that it can completely destroy the person’s faith).

    Not much is known about spiritual abuse. The literature is sparse and there are few who really understand the conditions needed, although there are many anecdotal descriptions of it. I was going to write an article for Homiletics and Pastoral Review summarizing what we know (after I described what I knew to a priest I was talking to and maybe my spiritual director, one or both thought it was a good idea to write the article) but it is one more article I haven’t been able to get to. Sigh.

    The point is that a focused, easily done penance, is far less likely to trigger an attack of spiritual anxiety then some vague penance. I have seen or heard of people reduced to tears in the confessional when there was an emotional mismatch between the confessor and the penitent. Vague penances, especially those imposed under the wrong emotional conditions, can lead to scruples and almost despair. There is no way to know if the penance has been fulfilled, so no way to get rid of the spiritual anxiety caused by the self-focused contrition. The result can be spiritual hell. In certain Pentecostal groups, where such things as Discipling have been tried (not exactly the same thing, but close enough for discussion), suicides have occurred, so great was the fear that they would never be able to satisfy the conditions needed to get to Heaven imposed by the over-seer. Catholics, generally, have a bit more common sense, but many people do not know that a burdensome or impossible penance can be commuted by another priest. This knowledge would help more sensitive souls.

    Let me pose a hypothetical: Adrian Monk, the OCD-ridden detective, decides to go to confession. He, being Monk. is terrified. He doesn’t know what to expect. His whole self is put into his contrition, but he knows this is the only way to get, “clean.” Father hears him confessing an attachment to cleaning and the well-meaning priest assigns, as a penance, for Monk to avoid cleaning for a week. Monk is confused. He leaves the confessional wondering if he is allowed to brush off his feet on the mat before entering his apartment. He sneezes and wonders if he can blow his nose. He reasons that not blowing his nose would cause positive harm to his sinuses, which is an evil and God would not want him to do evil and, yet, God (in the person of the priest) has told him not to clean anything for a week. So, he reasons, God has told him both to clean and not to clean. He is then left in the situation where, to him, the Law of Non-contradiction is violated and ex contradictione sequitur quodlibet (from a contradiction, anything follows). He no longer knows what to believe and the cycling back and forth drives him to a state of catatonia. For Monk fans, the closest he came to this situation was in the episode, Mr. Monk and Mrs. Monk, when he discovers that Trudy is alive, but can’t be. That was not spiritual abuse, but it does manifest something like what can happen under the wrong conditions in a confessional.

    Mercifully, this situation happens very rarely, since most priests have good common sense, but I cannot say that it has never happened. Look at Martin Luther as a related example. Picking up on a scrupulous penitent is sometimes not easy.

    One other problem with vague penances, like, “do something nice for someone this week,” is that the priest hasn’t really assigned a penance, but, rather has, in effect, left that to the penitent, since the priest has not defined what, “nice,” means, but has left that up to the penitent to figure out. What the priest has done is give an outlined or second-order penance, leaving the penitent on the front lines of filling in the gaps. The problem is that what is nice for the priest might not be nice for the penitent or even the person receiving the “niceness”. Consider: you pass by a little child who is is crying, “I want candy…” His mother’s back is turned and you sneak him a piece of candy. Is that being nice? Does it satisfy the penance? Suppose the child is diabetic? Suppose the little old lady you help cross the street slips on the ice when she gets to the other side. Was crossing the street an act of niceness? Are doing and intending two different things with regards to the imposed penance?

    To avoid these situations, a clear, easy penance is best. When Naaman, the Syrian, was given a condition by Elisha, was it onerous? No. In fact, that it was so clear and easy made Naaman doubted that it could have restorative effects, but he was able to do it and know that he had done it.

    If someone has a drinking problem (something a priest should NOT try to diagnose in a confessional), assigning an AA meeting as a penance, if the person is not ready, can trigger a spiritual crisis. Counseling might be possible in the confessional, but imposing going to a meeting as a penance is a very risky thing.

    The Chicken

  24. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    fwiw, imho, CatholicPhilosopher has misstated a number of points about confession, etc. i regret i don’t have time to point them all out, but, well, as i say, verbum sat.

  25. Catholic teaching with respect to the Sacrament of Penance is and always has been that contrition for sin (which includes the will to make amends) and the resolve to avoid it (which includes the will to take the means necessary to avoid it) are necessary for valid absolution. What that means in concrete situations is a prudential matter. The Church’s practice here has varied, at times and in some cases requiring the penitent to manifest his contrition by making amends before he may receive absolution. This is still required in certain cases, e.g., “One who confesses the false denunciation of an innocent confessor to ecclesiastical authority concerning the crime of solicitation to sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue is not to be absolved unless (nisi) that person has first formally retracted the false denunciation and is prepared to repair damages, if they have occurred.” (Code of Canon Law, n. 982).

    Again, “Publicly admitting the sin might even be required of a penitent if it would clear the name of another person unjustly accused of the same act, they said.” (Article on confession of sexual abuse)

  26. pmullane says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that penances should be easily ‘doable’. I had a real issue on one occasion when a well meaning but ‘creative’ priest gave me a penance which took some time to complete. It can bring up all sorts of anxieties, ‘can i complete it in some other way’, ‘can I go to communion in the meantime’ etc etc. Fortunately I have solid resources, such as this blog, to find answers to this problem.

    Also, I have never, ever, met a priest who treated the Sacrament and the seal with anything other than the utmost seriousness, and would never violate the seal of confession.

  27. Batfink says:

    This is not directly related to the AA issue, but just to say I love my priest!

    I have in the past received plenty of the vague penances, but my confessor now not only gives very specific penances but also says that part of his role is to widen and deepen my prayer life, so he always gives really interesting prayers which it is a joy to seek out and pray.

    (fwiw, I know that when it comes to an anonymous confession, he gives standard Our Fathers and Hail Marys so people can always complete the penance easily).

  28. Imrahil says:

    Dear @CatholicPhilosopher,
    For centuries the Church commonly required those who had committed grave sins such as murder to make satisfaction before reconciliation with the Church.

    Where do you have that from? And while it could be that the Church wanted solemnized (i.e. public) penance for this, once the only existing penance, to my information the element of confession in that was long silent too.

    Adultery certainly was counted among the serious grave sins. Yet St. Alphonsus goes into great detail about how a formerly adulterous wife is to treat the adulteries consequences (possible children, etc.) and things like that, without revealing her sin to her husband.

  29. hungry_papist says:

    Fr. Z, I can recall a habitual sin I had when I was young (constantly imitating and mocking my older sister) being broken by a great penance given to me in confession by my wise old pastor. He told me to pray a decade of the rosary each time I made fun of my sister. At one point, I even had a “backlog” of 32 decades due to how frequently I made fun of her, but I would end up catching up on them while mowing the lawn. Long story short, I started to grow in self-control and soon stopped making fun of my sister. Because I am a seminarian, I would be interested in hearing your response; based on my good experience with this penance, I would consider using it someday, but only for someone who would respond well to it (like I did–I’m sure it wouldn’t be good everyone). Of course, any responses are welcome, but I’m mostly interested in hearing priests’ experiential wisdom.

  30. Random Friar says:

    One has to judge the penitent’s ability to carry out assigned penances at well. It may be that the priest knows the penitent well enough, so that he is able to assign a less “fixed” penance. However, if there is any scrupulosity or doubt in the heart of the penitent, I try to ensure that they trust God and complete the simple penance. Even non-scrupulous sorts should not be left wondering, “Did I do the penance right?”

  31. Speravi says:

    That penance is very problematic. It sounds like he gave you a never-ending penance. Have you finished it yet? If you were to make fun of your sister today, years later, would your obligation to do that penance revive? What about 20 years from now? This would be a great practice of personal satisfaction for sin, opposing a lack of charity with charity. It would be wonderful counsel/advice. It would be a great personal penitential exercise. But it is NOT a good thing for a priest to impose on someone as a penance. It would be far better to say something like this: “In order to break this habit, you might find it helpful to pray a decade of the rosary each time you make fun of your sister, and to hold yourself to it; but that is only counsel. You are under no obligation to do it…but you might find it helpful. For you penance, however, please…”
    Then give a clear and concrete penance.

  32. Hungry Papist:

    I would make a distinction between a priest telling you to do that as penance, versus as advice. I would never give that as penance–because it’s never-ending. It’s too burdensome.

    But it is a perfectly valid tool, and I’ve suggested things like that. Surely we’ve all heard of the “swear jar”? The idea being that every time I use a swear word, I have to put a quarter–or a buck–into the jar; and the jar of money goes to charity. A lot of folks say it works; so I’ve suggested trying that.

    Sometimes I suggest that folks commit themselves to offering a Glory Be, silently, every time they use God’s name in vain, or commit any other habitual sin, particularly of the tongue. So often, these things seem to be “auto-pilot,” and changing our routine, so we think about what’s happening, can help. But I always explain these things, so that penitents can themselves decide if they want to try it. I don’t impose such a thing.

    One time, I imposed a particular penance, more severe than usual, but I did so only after very carefully explaining to the penitent the reason, and I made crystal clear that s/he didn’t have to accept it. S/he accepted the rationale and decided it would be helpful. I even explained that the penitent, if s/he changed his/her mind later, could have another priest commute the penance. The whole point, right or wrong, was to offer something helpful, and in that case, the penitent readily agreed.

  33. @Imrahil, I didn’t have a particular article in mind, but but was thinking of the practice of the early Church, rather than the last few centuries. There was of course not an altogether unified practice in the early Church, but public and long penance for the most serious crimes was generally required before admission to Eucharistic Communion. See the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on penance, in particular the section on Public Penance: “Solemn penance, the most severe of all, was inflicted for the worst offences only, notably for adultery, murder, and idolatry, the “capital sins”. The name of penitent was applied especially to those who performed public canonical penance. “There is a harder and more grievous penance, the doers of which are properly called in the Church penitents; they are excluded from participation in the sacraments of the altar, lest by unworthily receiving they eat and drink judgment unto themselves “(St. Augustine, “De utilitate agendae poenit.”, ser. cccxxxii, c. iii). ” Various numbers of years were assigned fo
    A much longer and thorough article on penace in the Church is the Dictionnaire de théologie Catholique’s article on penance, which however is (to my knowledge) only in French, and not available online.
    There are of course various problems with the early Church’s practice in this regard, and the development was on the whole surely for the better. But it does seem to me it would be a bit presumptuous to consider the early Church’s practice as clearly wrong or silly.

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