Form and Matter of Reconciliation

I know that each sacrament must entail proper form and also proper matter. My question is about the “matter.”

We Catholics are big on this because we know that God works through his creation. We like smells and bells! And I can perfectly understand what types of matter (oil, water, etc.) are used in each sacrament except for Penance.

I read that the “matter” for Penance is the penitent’s sins. But this isn’t matter as we normally think of it! Maybe I’m being too scientific about this, but doesn’t it sound kinda weird to use non-material acts (sin) to fill the requirement of matter?

There must be a theological answer such as God using matter as a channel of His grace, but then shouldn’t the catechism use a different word besides “matter”?

All I can say is “yep, sins are the ‘matter’” in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Sins are things, which makes them a noun. Abstract rather than concrete. But it is what it is, and I’m not about to suggest rewriting the catechism.

This is somewhat of a complicated question since there have been different schools of thought on what exactly constitutes the matter of the sacrament of penance. One book that comes to mind that is available online is Pohle’s “The sacraments: a dogmatic treatise” (Vol. 3). It gives an overview (with a strong preference) of the schools of thought. If you would like to read more detailed expositions of each theory, I can suggest a few other books and articles.

As regards the use of the term “matter”/ “materia”, that is why some used the word “quasi-materia” to designate the matter of penance. This goes back to the definition of the Council of Trent. The Catechism of Trent expounds on this by saying

"It is not because they are not the real matter that they are called by the Council the matter as it were (quasi materia), but because they are not of that sort of matter which is applied externally, such, for instance, as water in Baptism and chrism in Confirmation. "

The ‘matter’ of the Sacrament of Penance is ‘contrition, confession and satisfaction,’ the ‘form’ being the words of the minister starting with ‘I absolve thee, etc.’ This is pointed out in Chapter 3 in Council of Trent, Session XIV.

This is a teaching of the highest authority and cannot be changed, in error, or taken back.

– Nicole

I wasn’t asking for a change – I just don’t understand how intellectual concepts such as “contrition, confession, and satisfaction” can be called matter. I’m thinking of matter as something I can see under a microscope, such as oil and water, which are matter used in some of the other sacraments.

I guess I’ll have to step out of my engineer mind and realize that in this case matter can be an action, too.

Here’s something else to think about:

The matter in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony is also similar to the matter of Penance in that it is not a concrete/touchable thing.

I can’t say for certain why these two sacraments are as such, but I guess that it is because these sacraments take the wills of the ones involved in the sacrament. In Holy Matrimony, the wills of the ministers (i.e., the contracting couple) and in Penance, the will of the penitent, are necessary to make the sacrament, hence…part of what these people will makes the “matter” of the sacrament.

It is not so, as far as I can see, with the “matters” of Baptism (water), Confirmation (chrism), Extreme Unction (chrism), Holy Communion (sacred species of bread and wine) and Holy Orders (laying on of hands).

– Nicole

The words of Trent can be disputed, although a great body of theological opinion would agree with the interpretation you provided. What Trent said was

"Sunt autem quasi materia hujus sacramenti ipsius pœnitentis actus, nempe contritio, confessio, et satisfactio. "

The minority view taken would be that the word “materia” can mean many things in theology, that by affixing “quasi” to it, the Fathers did not intend to define the matter of the sacrament. They are merely integral to the sacrament, and the *materia ex qua * is actually the absolution of the priest.

I think the definition of “materia” is where the confusion lies - not least, because it has often been given in this view in popular handbooks and catechisms.

“Materia” is often rednered as “matter”, which exacerbates the confusion because “matter” is often taken to me, some object or thing possessing some sort of mass. But “materia” especially when used in the sacramental context has a broader meaning. The Bull Apostolicae Curae lays it down quite nicely

…the “matter” is the part which is not determined by itself, but which is determined by the “form”…

Basically, the sacrament has two parts: the indeterminate, and the determinate. The former (also called the “res”) is the “materia” and the latter (“verba”) is the “forma”. The indeterminate parts may be thought of as “actions”. The problem arises because we are so used to using theological shorthand i.e.

What is the matter of Baptism? Ans: Water
What is the matter of Confirmation? Ans: Chrism

Etc. But actually these answers are not correct. The matter of baptism is “*washing *with water”, that for Confirmation is “*anointing *with oil”. The actions also form the “materia”. Seen in this way, one can easily understand why one can say that “contrition, confession and satisfaction” are the matter of the sacrament, even though they are not things, or bodies, if you will.


I’ve only been Catholic for a year and a half & I have no issue with anything thus far, everything pretty much makes sense. I was curious though. Someone was talking to me about Confession & Eucharist & essentially if you havent been to confession, you cant take the eucharist. MY understanding was if you have committed a MORTAL sin, then yes, to the confessional, and it’s ok to receive the eucharist. If a Venial sin is committed, (7 lesser or deadly, however you want to call it), then the PERFECT thing to do is go to confession, then you can receive the eucharist, BUT if you dont make it to confession, and you DO go to mass, then before mass, make a good act of contrition for your venial sins. Is this true? Can someone shine some light on this? I know Confession is for all sins in a perfect world, if that were the case I’d be in there every week. Is it for the mortal sins, & if you have venial, get those out too? I mean, I got this info from a life long catholic & I have a hard time accepting anything unless I bounce it off a second opinion. THANKS!!!

AJV’s response is the key for me – I knew that there was something about the term “matter” that I wasn’t getting.

As for marriage, I had thought about that, and while the intention of the spouses is part of the “matter,” it could be said that their bodies also act as matter when they engage in sexual relations.

Thanks, all!

CCC 1456 says that mortal sins must be confessed in the sacrament of penance.

CCC 1458 says that confessing venial sins in the sacrament of penance is not strictly necessary, but is a very good practice in order to, ‘form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ’.

CCC 1394 says, ‘As bodily nourishment restores lost strength, so the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life; and this living charity wipes away venial sins.’

CCC 1436 says, ‘Eucharist and Penance. Daily conversion and penance find their source and nourishment in the Eucharist, for in it is made present the sacrifice of Christ which has reconciled us with God. Through the Eucharist those who live from the life of Christ are fed and strengthened. “It is a remedy to free us from our daily faults and to preserve us from mortal sins.”’

CCC 1437 says, ‘Reading Sacred Scripture, praying the Liturgy of the Hours and the Our Father - every sincere act of worship or devotion revives the spirit of conversion and repentance within us and contributes to the forgiveness of our sins.’

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