Is mortification or penance actually effective in the remission of sins? It may be prudent, in entering into this question, to lead with a theological consideration of two other relevant questions: what is the effect of sin in the sinner, and is punishment just?
The first question, regarding the effect of sin, is fairly simple, so long as what is meant by “sin” is understood. Sin is, first of all, a privation. It is more like a “nothing” than a “something.” This is because sin is an imperfection in or total lack of charity in the soul according to the soul’s free choice. A person can achieve sin by acting on a desire for some good in a way which is contrary to divine law. Because charity is the principle of unity between persons and between a person and God, sin also disrupts the natural community of creation (by moving against charity). Therefore a sinner’s soul is changed in three ways through sin: it suffers a deficiency in charity proportionate to the gravity of the offense, a disunion within its natural powers (the term for this disunion is concupiscence), and guilt. What is guilt? Guilt is the culpability in justice of one who has violated right law and who therefore deserves punishment.
This leads us into the second question: is punishment just? There are many confused thoughts and feelings about punishment nowadays, especially when it is considered socially. Some of this confusion may result from a lack of precision. It may be helpful to consider that wherever there is some kind of order, that order defends itself against anything which rises against it. And when an order is disturbed, it can only be rectified by acting against the offense, as when the body destroys invasive bacteria. Thus sin, by disrupting the order of man to his end, incurs a debt of punishment. More precisely, in the Summa, Ia IIae q. 87 a. 1, Aquinas says that insofar as sin disrupts three orders—the sinner’s nature, human authority or governance, and divine law—it incurs a debt of punishment with respect to each, i.e., a penalty inflicted by the person (remorse), by others, and by God.
Further clarification concerning the ends or purposes of punishment follow from this. The primary end of punishment is rectification of order according to justice; its secondary end is the protection of others; its tertiary end is to encourage others not to sin by way of deterrence; and its quaternary end is medicinal—i.e., the renewal of the sinner. (I can hardly advocate enough for a close reading of q. 87 cited above: Aquinas sets all this forward clearly and in greater detail, answering many interesting objections.)
Now enough of systematic theology. Let us examine the implications of these brief definitions in order to answer the question of the effectiveness of suffering.
A few years ago, during Lent, I found it very difficult to understand in what way God could be considering my little fasts. If they seemed little even to me, for whom they were difficult, how must they have seemed to God, who knows the treasures of heaven? I did not understand the simplicity or trust of St. Therese’s “little way,” thinking rather that my actions had no value in themselves except insofar as God chose to value them. I found it very difficult to believe that such a tiny thing as choosing not to eat sugar at such-and-such a moment, or impeding such-and-such a benign habit could possibly have spiritual implications. I thought instead that no human actions as such could be pleasing in the sight of the Almighty unless He should choose to be pleased by them, ordaining them to Himself through some kind of grace. I still accepted, however, that mortifications and penances were useful for teaching the heart to love.
I did not begin to understand the adequacy of even my own imperfect penances before God until I learned the difference between punishment and satisfaction. Here the theological reflections above become useful. A few paragraphs above, I defined the primary end of punishment to be the rectification of a person’s relationship to himself, to others and to God. Actual punishment can therefore be formally defined as a privation of some good inflicted against the will for the sake of guilt (since the will itself has rebelled, and so must be “put down,” to use Aquinas’ language). Satisfaction differs only in that it is the voluntary payment of the debt of punishment incurred by sin. It is accepted by, not inflicted against, the will, while still making good the debt incurred by sin.
This, then, is the theological meaning of penance. If fasting, for example, is taken on to make satisfaction for sin, it effects an actual (that is, not a merely symbolic or legal) restitution of the soul’s relationship to God, insofar as that relationship was damaged or destroyed by sin.
The discovery of this Catholic teaching was and continues to be extremely heartening for me. This is, of course, a very brief and very dry discussion of an extremely beautiful part of Catholic theology—a part, I might add, necessary for a proper understanding of the cross—but there are two spiritual implications I wish to draw out as a brief conclusion. First, while it is certainly true that except through the grace of the Holy Spirit there is no proportion between the absolute goodness of God and the goodness of any created thing, much less the goodness of my own half-hearted attempts at a well-lived Lent, (see Ia IIae q. 114, a. 3), still it is enough that I freely choose to make reparation for my sins. The freedom of penances make them acceptable to God far, far more than the gravity of the action. Second, it follows that God looks with unimaginable love on even the smallest things that we do through a desire to be united to Him. A little penance well done is not insignificant. God does not regard us as though from the great distance of His dignity, but with the unfailing proximity of a father, who loves even the most precarious steps of His little child, not because they are particularly athletic, but because they answer with joy his desire to embrace his darling.