What is a penance according to canon law?


While I wouldn’t exactly say optional, the forgiveness of sins isn’t contingent upon completion of the penance. For example, if you go to confession right before Mass and don’t have time to complete your penance before Mass starts, it is perfectly acceptable to receive communion at that Mass. If you willfully refuse to complete the penance, that might be a new sin.

Completion of penance isn’t part of the essential nature of the sacrament.



No, this isn’t something that is addressed in Canon Law. Canon Law is about how the Church works.

If you have a question about your penance, you should go back to your Confessor and ask is Evening prayer “counts” as your Our Father penance. Or alternately, mention in your next Confession that you aren’t sure if you completed your penance since the OF was part of Evening Prayer.

It’s your Confessor or Spiritual ad visor that can answer the question, not a canon lawyer.

as an aside, unless you are in a state of life that requires you to say the LOTH, Evening Prayer or Vespers is already independent prayer ]


From the Vatican.va Archive: Here is the CODE OF CANON LAW Click Here



Other posters are correct that we are forgiven the moment the priest grants the absolution and free to receive holy communion…that being said, canon law is clear that we are BOUND to carry out the penance assigned to us. We are absolved regardless of whether we carry out the penance, but to deliberately avoid completing the penance would be a new sin of disobedience.


Which brings us back to the hypothetical. If my penance is X, but I already do X anyway, is it not fulfilled if I only do X as much as I always do it?


Yes it is still fulfilled. This is one of the values of having a regular confessor, by the way. Your confessor would know that you regularly go to vespers and would probably not assign that as penance. But it still “counts” as fulfilling your penance.


Do you have a magisterial/canon law citation for this?


It’s not a canon law issue. :banghead::banghead::banghead:

It’s simple:

Priest: say an Our Father
you (say our father as part of your vesper prayers)
Priest: Did you say an Our Father?
You: yes

Penance completed. The penance is what the priest says it is. If the priest says “one Our Father” that’s what it is. If the priest says “say some **extra **prayers” that’s what it is. If the priest says “do an act of charity,” that’s what it is.



“What is a penance according to canon law?
“…so will the penance be validly achieved?”

Please see: Post Reply #6:
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

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

Please see: Post Reply #9: CHAPTER III. The Penitent

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

See also: Can. 959 & Post Reply #20 (link)

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

Please see Post Reply#22From the Vatican.va Archive: Here is the CODE OF CANON LAW Click Here

“Would that be a hypothetical Our Father for the hypothetical scenario?” Do you have a magisterial/canon law citation for this?

Please see: Post Reply #2 & #17& #27


I’m sorry if I am frustrating you – while I agree with your answer, I would like some sort of official citation to this (if not canon law, then maybe a CDW response to the same question? or a quote from the ritual book?), rather than assuming what seems logical to me to be true.

That doesn’t actually answer the question – the question is if the penitent is fulfilling the assigned penance if he would have done the same penance regardless of the confessor’s assignment.

Please see Post Reply#22From the Vatican.va Archive: Here is the CODE OF CANON LAW Click Here

I briefly skimmed this and couldn’t find an answer, could you perhaps give me a more specific citation?


The best I could find in The Code is Can.981 & CHAPTER III. The Penitent.


Try investigating the Catholic Doctrine of “Satisfaction”.


Exactly. It is a question for the interpretation of the Catechism not a question that is addressed by Canon Law.

The purpose of the Catechism is to explain/define the faith. I would expect to find the meaning and intent of absolution, forgiveness, penance here.

The purpose of Canon Law is to define the rules for running the Church. I would expect to see the rubrics of how to perform a Confession here.

Oh, and my answer is “no” it would not count as penance because there is a certain lack of contrition implied in what your proposing and somebody else mentioned it, you may be forgiven but the temporal punishment is still there. More time in purgatory for you.


You’re right that the purpose of the Catechism is to explain and define matters of faith, and you are further correct in what you would hope to find there. Canon Law, as you note, is for the proper administration of the Church in her functions of teaching, governing, and sanctifying. However, it DOES NOT contain the rubrics for the rite of Confession, but rather all the regulations regarding what surrounds it–the penitent, the confessor, the seal of confession, and even the assigning of penances, although it doesn’t go into much detail about that.

As for the answer being “no,” that’s a rather bold statement, as you don’t know the state of the soul of the original poster. You don’t know what temporal punishments are still present in their soul. And you can’t know whether they will have more time in purgatory, as you say. It is possible that in praying Vespers, one could intend that the Our Father therein be offered as the penance, and thus fulfill the request of the confessor.



Perhaps you could go into more detail here and explain what you mean and how it pertains to the question.


Please note that the current ritual notes four, not three, essential parts of the sacrament: contrition, confession, act of penance, and absolution. Regarding the ‘act of penance’, the ritual states (#6c):

True conversion is completed by expiation for the sins committed, by amendment of life, and also by rectifying injuries done. The kind and extent of the expiation must be suited to the personal condition of penitents so that they may restore the order that they have upset and through the corresponding remedy be cured of the sickness from which they suffered. Therefore, it is necessary that the act of penance really be a remedy for sin and a help to renewal of life. Thus penitents, ‘forgetting the things that are behind’ (Philippians 3:13), again become part of the mystery of salvation and press on toward the things that are to come.


Catholic Encyclopedia: The Sacrament of Penance
Summa Theologiae: Satisfaction
Council of Trent: Penance

By the way, the keyword you are looking for is “satisfaction”.

These are all great and monumental works on the sacrament and none of them really take into account the case where someone already intended to do the penance. I would call your attention to where the satisfaction is commonly referred to as “payment” and “compensation” for a debt, the debt of temporal punishment due to sin already committed. Therefore dans0622 has a more profound question: whether someone who is already obligated to say the Lord’s Prayer at prescribed times adequately pays his debt to both obligations at once? I would say that no, by the metaphor of payment, that you cannot use the same $20 bill to pay two creditors, so you can’t pay God with the same prayer twice. However, if you were not obligated to say these prayers but merely intended them in the course of your day (you implied this case in your OP), I would certainly say you were in the clear.

I am speaking as your hypothetical confessor, of course. The only good advice on this thread is to follow that of your confessor. This is a question to ask the next time you avail yourself of this sacrament. Answers will vary, and that’s OK, because this is not a matter of doctrine or infallibility.

As your hypothetical confessor I would just discern whether this conundrum exists and then avoid it completely by imposing penance such as self-denial or service to your neighbor instead of a prayer.


Please see Elizium23 reply#36 and his three links.

There is an old Blues song that goes:
“I can’t do it for ya; you’ll hav’ ta do it all by yerself”


DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.