What is a penance according to canon law?


Hypothetically suppose I go to confession. My priest absolves me, and gives me a penance to pray the Our Father. I don’t immediately go and do that, because I say to myself, “I’ll pray Evening Prayer later, and there’s an Our Father in that; may as well save the time and combine my penance with the Hour”.

So will the penance be validly achieved? Or does that not count because the penance merely coincides with a prayer I was already going to do?


Personally I always do a penance apart from other usual prayers. And would always recommend such.


Why would anyone rely on canon law for answers concerning salvation? Nobody has, nor will anyone ever be saved by Canon Law, just as Paul tells us we cannot be saved by THE law.:shrug:


Pax Christi!

I’ll guess: No, it doesn’t count. We need to be truly contrite and fully willing to atone (i.e. perform penance).

Eternal punishment is avoided, in the case you mention, but not temporal.

Just my opinion.

God bless.


Thank you for your responses – though I am not asking what is prudent, since that scenario obviously is not. I’m asking if legally speaking, am I not fulfilling the penance given to me by the priest, by doing the “bare bones minimum” so to speak.



Good question. I don’t pretend to have a definitive answer and I don’t think canon law itself has one either. For reference, here’s what canon law says: “Can. 981 The confessor is to impose salutary and suitable penances in accord with the quality and number of sins, taking into account the condition of the penitent. The penitent is obliged to fulfill these personally.”

I would conclude that it would be up to the confessor to determine whether or not you would have fulfilled the penance: what did he mean by imposing an Our Father? That you could “incorporate” it into other prayers you would have done anyway or that it be in addition to your other prayers? Since he imposes the penance, he can determine how it can be “validly” completed.

Perhaps a confessor would say “Sure, that’s fine. Do it as part of your Vespers.” Perhaps not. If I was a confessor, I’d probably want something as simple as one Our Father to be done independently of any other prayers. If it was more substantial, like a Rosary, then I certainly would say a person’s usual, daily Rosary would “count.”

A twist on the scenario would be: what if you were a cleric who is already obliged to say Vespers? Could you fulfill two obligations with one recitation?



Thank you for the response. Seems as though this issue can only be answered by a canon lawyer, then.


Uh…yeah. Maybe a smarter one.



CHAPTER III. The Penitent

CAN. 987† To receive the salvific remedy of the sacrament of penance, a member of the Christian faithful must be disposed in such a way that, rejecting sins committed and having a purpose of amendment, the person is turned back to God.
CAN. 988 §1.† A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and number all grave sins committed after baptism and not yet remitted directly through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, of which the person has knowledge after diligent examination of conscience.
§2.† It is recommended to the Christian faithful that they also confess venial sins.

Code of Canon Law: New English Translation. (1998). (p. 317). Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America.


That’s more to do with confession than with the assigned penance, though.


In the case mentioned, where the penance assigned is one Our Father, I am inclined to think the confessor would expect the prayer to be said in addition to anything else you normally do.

Certainly trying to combine such a small request as part of another “previously scheduled” prayer speaks to the penitent’s true state of contrition (or lack thereof).

Ultimately it is between the penitent and God. Should the penitent believe they have faithfully completed the assigned penance, who am I to judge?

For what it is worth, it certainly took much more time to ask the question than it would to say the prayer.

Peace -


CAN. 1357 §1.† Without prejudice to the prescripts of cann. 508 and 976, a confessor can remit in the internal sacramental forum an undeclared latae sententiae censure of excommunication or interdict if it is burdensome for the penitent to remain in the state of grave sin during the time necessary for the competent superior to make provision.
§2.† In granting the remission, the confessor is to impose on the penitent, under the penalty of reincidence, the obligation of making recourse within a month to the competent superior or to a priest endowed with the faculty and the obligation of obeying his mandates; in the meantime he is to impose a suitable penance and, insofar as it is demanded, reparation of any scandal and damage; however, recourse can also be made through the confessor, without mention of the name.

Code of Canon Law: New English Translation. (1998). (pp. 424–425). Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America.


I guess it depends on intent. If I’m just rolling it up into another prayer that I was going to say later, then IDK if that’s really penance. If I decided that instead of just saying one Our Father, that I’m going to pray and entire Rosary as my penance, then that’s different considering that I wouldn’t have normally prayed a Rosary at that particular moment otherwise.

Penance should be beyond what you would normally do. It’s kind of like the whole giving up meat thing. If you’re a vegetarian, then giving up meat on Fridays really isn’t penance, is it? Of course that even depends on your intent. Maybe you’re giving up meat permanently as a penance and every time you see it your mouth waters, who knows?

It’s really one of those gray areas and it depends on your intent.


Again: it’s obvious that doing the bare-bones minimum is not entirely healthy for one’s soul. Nevertheless this question is worth asking. If in this scenario I didn’t validly achieve my penance then I am still in a state of mortal sin and cannot receive Holy Communion without blaspheming the Sacrament.


That is incorrect. You are forgiven at the absolution and it is not dependent upon completion of the penance.

As to the original question, I think it is sad to deal with penance in such a legalistic manner. Penance is intended to help us in our spiritual growth, to give us the proper medicine for an ailing soul. I don’t think it particularly matters whether we say an “Our Father” as part of our regular prayers, keeping our penance (and repentance) in mind, or tack on an extra “Our Father” for our penance.

I went to confession last night and my penance was to pray for peace in my family. I do that regularly, but yesterday when I prayed for peace in my family, I did it with my penance in mind.


Is that so? That means the penance is optional then, and you don’t actually have to do it to receive Holy Communion.

As to the original question, I think it is sad to deal with penance in such a legalistic manner.

For the third time. I know that. The question is to the nature of the Sacraments, not about what’s best for the soul.


A penance is “optional” in the fact that being given a penance, such as praying the Our Father, is an option that the priest can do or not do. In fact, the hardest penance I have ever received was no penance at all. I was shocked, even questioned my confessor- "Can you DO THAT? :eek: (obviously, the answer is yes!)

That said, the priest will also ask you if you accept the penance, so if you agree to it, then choose not to do it because “it’s not required and I have already been absolved”, IMHO, you are moving towards a slippery slope.

As Babochka said, penance is for our benefit not something that should be looked at from a legalistic standpoint.


Step 1: Say an Our Father, right now. Drop whatever you’re doing, and just do it.

Step 2: Offer that Our Father in thanksgiving for having had your sins forgiven in the sacrament of confession, and as penance as assigned by your confessor, since you are unsure whether you did it or not.

Step 3: Go in peace.



Could you perhaps find me a citation for this from Magisterial documents or canon law?

Would that be a hypothetical Our Father for the hypothetical scenario?


Leaving aside the penance question are you not aware that Catholics are not only bound by Church teachings but we are also BOUND by Canon law so do not dismiss it so readily.

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