Rorate Caeli

Guest Op-Ed: The Six Principles of Penance according to St. Thomas Aquinas

By Veronica A. Arntz

In Summa Theologiae III, q. 85, a. 5, St. Thomas Aquinas writes that there are six principles of penance. These principles of penance, according to Aquinas, are the “acts whereby in penance we co-operate with God operating” (III, q. 85, a. 5, corpus). Reflecting on these principles during the season of Lent can be helpful for us as we prepare for the Holy Triduum.

How have we been using our time during this Lent? Have we been truly sorry for our sins, or are we wasting our time idly pursuing worldly ends and goals? How diligently have we been purging ourselves of earthly attachments, bad habits, and sinful behaviors? Have we been striving to become closer to God in prayer? These are the questions to ask ourselves as we read and reflect upon the six principles offered by Aquinas.

First, a note on penance in general: in I-II, q. 113, a. 5, Thomas writes that sadness is a sign of love. Penance is sadness over our sins; we repent over the wrong that we have committed, and we resolve not to commit the same sins again. Thus, when we are sad over our sins, we should ultimately be sad because of offending God who is Love, who loved us so much that He suffered and died for us on the Cross.

As will be seen below, sometimes we have imperfect penance, in which we are only sorry for our sins because we fear the punishment of Hell. The perfection of our penance, however, should be in feeling sadness for offending the God of the Universe, Who created us out of His infinite goodness and love, and Whom we love in return with our whole hearts.
The first principle of penance according to Aquinas is the operation of God turning our hearts to Him. Aquinas cites Lamentations 5:21, “Convert us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be converted!” This principle reminds us that God Himself always calls us to penance and deeper conversion; this call is always a grace, bestowed on us from God’s mercy.

We are converted back to God only because He first extends an offer to us through His grace: as the Scripture cited above explains, we ask for God’s invitation so that we might be converted. In this way, the act of conversion always has a divine beginning, because God is always the one who draws us to Himself.
The second principle is an act of faith. Once we have turned back to God through His grace, we must make an act of belief in His power to save us from our sins. We must express our faith that Jesus truly did suffer, die, and rise for us on the third day. Indeed, our falling into sin is precisely an act against faith, because we did not trust ourselves to God’s redeeming love, and we denied the power of the Paschal Mystery. In a word, our sin was one more slash of the whip during Jesus’s scourging, one more pounding of the nail into the wood of the cross.

Thus, once we make an act of faith, we can no longer hold onto our idols of sin, because we have professed that God Himself is the only One who deserves our worship and love. The act of faith, therefore, is twofold: we must profess our belief that God will redeem us from our sins, and we must deny the idols that we have made out of sin because we have committed to returning to God.
The third principle of penance is a movement of servile fear, through which man is withdrawn from sin for fear of punishment. This is the way of beginners in the spiritual life, according to the great spiritual authors. Those who are just beginning to repent of their sins out of fear of the punishment of Hell; thus, there is a movement of the soul toward God again, but only out of fear, not love. We must still rejoice in such a movement, however, because even though it is out of fear, we are still turning back to the Lord after living in sin. Those who are proficient will not experience this principle of penance, because they have moved beyond repentance out of fear.
The fourth principle of penance is the movement of hope, whereby man makes a purpose of amendment with the hope of attaining pardon for his sin. This movement is related to the movement of faith. Part of being sorry for one’s sins is having the hope that God will offer forgiveness; we must believe and trust what he says in the Scriptures. Indeed, repeatedly, God says that he will have mercy on those who return to him with a contrite heart.

This hope is beautifully expressed in Psalm 51, in which David pleads that God might have mercy on him, because he is truly sorry for his sins and possesses a contrite heart. David is expressing hope in God’s mercy, that he will offer him forgiveness despite the horrific nature of his sin. Indeed, this is why this principle is rooted in hope. God has no need of us, and He certainly has no reason to forgive us of our sins—one sin against an infinite Creator deserves an infinite punishment. Nevertheless, we hope in God’s eternal love and mercy for mankind, that He will still bestow his forgiveness on us even though we are entirely undeserving of it.
The fifth principle of penance is the movement of charity, whereby sin has become displeasing to man, and he is repentant for its own sake, not out of fear of punishment. At this level, man is repulsed at the idea of sin, and because of that, he turns to God in repentance. This is not the perfect way yet, because he does not yet fully love God perfectly. Nevertheless, he has come a long way in the spiritual life, because he confesses his sins, knowing that they are wrong, without fearing the punishment that they might bring. He confesses his sins because he knows that they offended his God, Who he loves deeply, and Who loves him infinitely in return.
The sixth and final principle enumerated by Aquinas is the movement of filial fear, through which man, of his own accord, offers to make amends to God through fear of Him. Notice that this principle is not like the third one. This man is moved out of “filial fear,” meaning that he loves God and sorry for having offended Him.

He offers to make amends to God; he is not the passive receiver of the required penance. This man has entered into the way of the proficient and the perfect; everyone is called to this kind of perfect contrition, but not all will reach this level. At this level, man truly sees the infinite debt caused by his sin, and he is no longer sorry because of fear, but because he loves the infinite God Who has offered him redemption.
These principles can guide and shape our penance during this Lent. Are we still afraid of the punishment of sin, or do we offer ourselves in penance to God, Who loves us infinitely and died for us while we were yet sinners? Let us ask for the grace to approach God through filial fear, entirely out of love for Him.

Let us be like St. Paul, who said, “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all” (2 Cor 5:14, RSV2CE). Paul is convinced that Christ died for his sake, and for this reason, he endures many sorrows, sufferings, and pains on account of Him (2 Cor 11:16-33).

Let the love of Christ compel us forward to approach the Sacrament of Confession not with fear, but with true sorrow for our sins, in preparation for the Holy Triduum.