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St. Thomas Aquinas
Catechetical Instructions

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  • THE FIFTH PETITION: "And Forgive Us Our Trespasses As We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us."
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Concerning the second consideration of this petition (viz., how it may be fulfilled), it must be known that there are two factors in sin: the fault by which God is offended, and the punishment which is due because of this fault. But the sin is taken away in contrition which goes with the purpose to confess and make satisfaction: "I said: I will confess against myself my injustice to the Lord. And Thou hast forgiven the wickedness of my sin"9 One has no need to fear then, because for the remission of a fault contrition with a purpose to confess is sufficient.10


But one might say: "If sin is thus taken away when a man is contrite, of what necessity is the priest?" To this it must be said that God does forgive the sin in contrition, and eternal punishment is changed to temporal, but nevertheless the debt of temporal punishment remains. If one should die without confession, not out of contempt for it but prevented from it, one would go to purgatory, where the punishment, as St. Augustine says, is very great. When you confess, the priest absolves you of this punishment in virtue of the keys to which you subject yourself in confession.11 When, therefore, one has confessed, something of this punishment is taken away; and similarly when he has again confessed, and it could be that after he has confessed many times, all would be remitted.


The successors of the Apostles found another mode of remission of this punishment, namely, the good use of indulgences, which have their force for one living in the state of grace, to the extent that is claimed for them and as indicated by the grantor. That the Pope can bring this about, is sufficiently evident. Many holy men have accomplished much good, and they have not greatly sinned, at least not mortally; and these good deeds were done for the common use of the Church. Likewise the merits of Christ and the Blessed Virgin are, as it were, in a treasury; and from it the Supreme Pontiff and they who are by him permitted can dispense these merits where it is necessary. Thus, therefore, sins are taken away not only as regards their guilt by contrition,12 but also as regards punishment for them in confession and through indulgences.13


9. Ps. xxxi. 5.


10. See Editor's Note in English Translation of "Summa Theologica Supplement," Q. xviii, art. 1, which says: "St. Thomas here follows the opinion of Peter Lombard. . . . Later in life he altered his opinion. Cfr. P. III, Q. lxvii, art. I; Q. lxiv, art. I; Q. lxxxvi. art. 6." See footnote below.


11. The effects of the Sacrament of Penance are: (1) sanctifying grace is imparted whereby the guilt of mortal sin is taken away and at the same time the guilt of eternal punishment; (2) the guilt of temporal punishment is more or less remitted according to the dispositions of the penitent "and the disposition can be such that in virtue of contrition the entire punishment is removed," says St. Thomas (IV Sent., Dist. xviii, art. 3, sol. 2, ad. 4). The Council of Trent (Session XIV, cap. 2) teaches that this entire remission of punishment, which is obtained through Baptism, is not obtained through the Sacrament of Penance "without much tears and labors" ("magnis nostris fletibus et laboribus"). For other effects of this Sacrament, such as the bestowal of sacramental grace and the revival of the merits of former good works, see the Manuals of Moral Theology (e.g., Aertnys-Damen, II, lib. VI, tract. v, n. 272).


12. See footnote above.


13. An indulgence is a remission of that temporal punishment which, even after the sin is forgiven, we have yet to undergo either here or in purgatory. Indulgences derive their value and efficacy from the spiritual treasury of the Church. which consists of the superabundant merits of Christ, His Blessed Mother. and the Saints. This treasury is to be considered as the common property of the faithful, committed to the administration of the Church. In virtue of the Communion of Saints, by which we are united as members of one body, the abundance of some supplies for the want of others. The Council of Trent (Session XXV) points out to all the faithful that the use of indulgences is very salutary.


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