(An assignment presented to Prof. G.Iuliano as a partial fulfillment for the course of TLD 1005 - Penitenza: celebrazione e sacramento, Faculty of Dogmatic Theology, Pontificia Università Urbaniana, Rome)
Study MaterialOsborne, K., Reconciliation and Justification: The Sacrament and Its Theology, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 2001 (Paulist Press, New York, 1990).
Fr. Kenan Osborne, O.F.M is a Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the Franciscan School of Theology and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He is the past-president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and a worldly renowned teacher and scholar. His other books are including The Christian Sacraments of Initiation, Sacramental Theology and Priesthood.
The Reconciliation and Justification presents two main concerns of Fr. Osborne namely the full efficacy of Jesus’ saving act and the absolute gratuity of God’s grace in relation to the Sacrament of Penance. In his efforts to bring out these two points, Fr. Osborne develops the following subjects:  The issues of justification and Sacrament of Penance,  Jesus, the Primordial Sacrament,  The historical and theological background of the Sacrament of Penance,  Vatican II and the Sacrament of Reconciliation,  The Unresolved Issues on Justification and the Sacrament of Penance.
The issues of justification and the Sacrament of Penance
“Justification” in Fr. Osborne’s mind is one way to speak the mystery of salvation. There have been other terminologies preferred in the various Christian traditions i.e. redemption, divinization, sanctification as well as “reconciliation”. The ritual or sacrament of penance is intended for reconciliation of the penitent and God. However, it should not be seen as the only means for the reconciliation because every Christian sacrament actually involves reconciliation. The issues in justification and the issues in the sacrament of penance are interdependent because both are focusing on the full efficacy of Jesus’ saving act and the absolute gratuity of God’s grace.
Jesus, the Primordial Sacrament of Reconciliation
Jesus, the “Primordial” Sacrament of Reconciliation is seen from the fact that the New Testament is all about reconciliation. In other words, reconciliation is an essential part of gospel living. Thus, the Church, being the Body of Christ, is the basic sacrament of reconciliation. In this sense, the classical passages on the power to forgive sin (Mt 16:16; Mt 18:18; Jn 20:22-23), cannot be interpreted as applying only to hierarchy but to the power to isolate, repel and negate sin. It’s a power which Christians found in every aspect of their life, not simply in leadership. That Jesus the primordial sacrament of reconciliation is to be considered from two aspects:  his message of reconciliation;  his life-death-resurrection. These two aspects call to realise that a new way of being with and in God is the goal of all salvation.
The historical and theological background of the Sacrament of Penance
There is no indication in the New Testament of a sacramental ritual of reconciliation. The earliest historical evidence of a rite of reconciliation for sins committed after baptism is found in the writings of Hermas (c. 150). The ritual was public, imposed to serious sins (i.e. adultery, apostasy and murder) and could be received only once in a lifetime. It required an entry in the “order of penitent” for at least three years and exclusion from attending Mass. This public ritual was a normative approach for the next nine hundred years throughout the Christian church.
The present sacrament of penance which is private in nature and can be repeated as often as needed has the origin of the Celtic Churches (Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England). It started as a form of spiritual direction in the monastic life. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council adopted it, thereby officially abandoning the public form of sacrament. The Celtic form of penance encouraged the “confession” of sins and, as a help had several Penitentials, books which listed sins and penance. The Celtic form of penance was one of the most important catechetical means that brought about a genuine renewal in the moral life of continental Europe in the early medieval period.
In the reformation period the sacrament of penance became an issue of focus of criticism because the theology of justification found expression in the sacrament of penance. Unfortunately, the Catholic response (in particular the Council of Trent) did not really address the real issue. In many ways the response focused on the denial of sacramentality, not on the interrelationship of the theology of justification and the theology of penance. The ambiguity of the statements of Trent among others was influenced by the unsettled issues between various schools (i.e. the Thomists and Scotists). Council of Trent, however, became the dominant approach to the Sacrament of Penance in the Roman Catholic Church for the next 400 years.
Vatican II and the Sacrament of Reconciliation
The new rite for the sacrament of penance (Ordo paenitentiae), promulgated on December 2, 1973 is an important development of the sacrament of penance. Its significance is noted mainly because of the two documents of Vatican II (Lumen Gentium and Sacrosanctum Concilium) that become the basis for renewal. Among notable points in the new rite are the presentation of the social nature of sin (offence against God and the Church) and also the communal nature of reconciliation (reconciliation with God and with the Church).
The term “mortal” and “venial” also have been carefully avoided in the new ritual. Furthermore, the new rite highlights the importance of the use of scripture in the liturgical celebration of the sacrament of penance. The theology of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is also linked to the baptismal and Eucharist. Nonetheless, despite all these, the new ritual of reconciliation (hence Vatican II) did not address in any way the issue of justification nor attempt to bring the theology of justification into the renewal effort.
The Unresolved Issues on the Sacrament of Reconciliation
Fr. Osborne remarks that the Post-Vatican II theology is left with a number of unresolved issues on the Sacrament of Reconciliation and has selected five issue for consideration:  The issue of general absolution,  The issue of private confession to a priest,  The issue of the age for first reconciliation,  The issue of frequent confession,  The issue of justification.
 The issue of general absolution
The problem lies on the statement of 1972 regulation (Sacramentum paenitentiae) that instructing the usage of general absolution only in “case of necessity”. It is theologically incorrect because obviously every time the rite of reconciliation is celebrated, there is operative in one way or another a “case of necessity”. Even if it is referring to the situation in “imminent danger of death”, one still can argue as such situation has its own form (cf. Shorter Rite 1). The instruction that requiring the penitent who received general absolution to come back “within a reasonable time” to private confession to a priest is also another problem. By giving a “condition” to general sacramental absolution given, it is compromising the full efficacy of Jesus’ saving act and the absolute gratuity of God’s grace.
 The issue of private confession to a priest
The new ritual of reconciliation instructs that all sin is an offence against God and an offence against the community. Also, the instruction goes that reconciliation at all levels is both reconciliation with God and reconciliation with the community. In other word, there is no such thing as completely private or personal sin neither a merely personal reconciliation. Thus, private confession to priest becomes an issue. The teaching of the Church on contrition (which of itself takes away sins), the recognition that the priestly absolution given generally is valid and the theology that an integral confession of all serious sins is necessary for an absolution of sin make this issue even more complicated.
 The issue of the age for first reconciliation
This is closely related to the issue of receiving first Holy Communion. The first confession prior to the first Eucharistic is a current practice of the Roman Catholic Church. The problem arises not only with regard to the catechetical process of the children but also to the theology of the sacrament i.e. “there is no necessary prior reception of the sacrament of penance unless there has been a serious and substantive separation by a Christian both from God and from the community”. The directives of the Church authorities which have been adopted from time to time to require first confession before first Eucharist, therefore, become questionable. To be exact, it can’t be said “absolute”. They can only be interpreted as endorsing and encouraging a pastoral practice otherwise we will be having an erroneous theological doctrine.
 The issue of frequent confession
This issue become a problem because the renewed rite of reconciliation, especially Rite 1 (private confession to a priest) signals priests to spend more time with each penitent. On the other hand, church officials signal priests to confess large number of penitents. The two signals do not fit well together. It also can foster many unhealthy pastoral position and ambiguous theological positions. For example, a doubt that sin is truly forgiven in the sacrament of reconciliation and also an implication that the penitent must “do” something again and again so that sins can be forgiven. Such consequences, obviously, compromise the full and absolute gratuity of God’s grace and the full efficacy of the salvific work of Jesus.
 The issue of justification
Justification has been a long-standing issue that Fr. Osborne claimed to have not been officially addressed by the leadership of the Roman church. Many areas in the new rite of penance are ambiguous because they are not developed in these contexts of justification. For instance, the various theologies of the sacrament of penance on the “the work of the penitent”, the “efficacy of the priestly absolution”, the “disposition of the penitent” and the “intention of the priest” could be appeared to compromise the absolute gratuity of God’s grace.
Other Pastoral Observations
Fr. Osborne’s critical analyses on the unsolved issues of the sacrament of reconciliation are mainly linked with the theological issue of the full and absolute gratuity of God’s grace and the full efficacy of the salvific work of Jesus. The following issues on the sacrament of reconciliation are some other observations that probably more pastoral in nature:
1. The individual comes to the Reconciliation Chapel or confessional wanting something other than the Sacrament of Reconciliation. They may have a question; they may want advice; they may want a candle or a rosary blessed; they may need money or food or medicine. They may be lonely and want to talk to someone. They may need psychiatric help: advice, counselling or therapy.
2. The conviction that sins will be forgiven if, in true contriteness, an individual ask God directly for absolution. Hence, confessional box, reconciliation chapel, and the priest are unnecessary.
3. The people are losing confidence in their parish priests’ ability to understand and relate to the real-life trials in their daily lives. Confessional counselling isn’t taken seriously. Worst still, they see no leadership or example being set by their priests where the sacrament of reconciliation is concerned. They see that many priests seldom, or never, go to confession themselves.
4. They have had terribly bad experiences in the confessional at one time or another either because of the crudely, tactlessness, or insensitiveness of the priest. They are also often embarrassed or hurt by priests who imply that some of the sins they confess are nothing more than triviality.
Joseph Ratzinger and the Sacrament of Penance
In the course of the recent development in the Post-Vatican era, there have been a lot of insights from other Catholic theologians as well as the Roman Catholic officials that either for or against to Fr. Osborne. In the context of this study, it is of vital necessity to mention that of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) in the motu proprio Misericordia Dei dated 2 May 2002. The letter highlights other aspects which were not touched by Fr. Osborne. Obviously, it was not intended as a response to Fr. Osborne but the insights are important for us to understand the position of the Catholic Church on the issues in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger starts with the Personalist nature of Christian life. Despite all our bonds with the human community, sin is ultimately something totally personal. Thus, our healing with forgiveness also has to be something that is totally personal. God does not treat us as part of a collectivity. He knows each one by name. This nature is manifested in a particularly clear way in the Sacrament of Penance. Personal confession and the forgiveness directed to this person, therefore, are constitutive parts of the sacrament. Collective absolution is an extraordinary form that is possible only in strictly determined cases of necessity; it also supposes the will to make the personal confession of sins as soon as it will be possible to do so.
Secondly, the Judicial-Sacramental character of the Sacrament of Penance is explained. The disciples are not simply a neutral instrument of divine forgiveness, but rather a power of discernment is entrusted to them and with it a duty of discernment for individual cases. Hence, two aspects belong essentially to the Sacrament of Penance: (i) the sacramental aspect, namely the mandate of the Lord, that goes beyond the real power of the disciples and of the community of disciples of the Church; (ii) the commission to make the decision that must be founded objectively and, therefore, must be just and in this sense has a judicial nature that requires a juridical order in the Church. The judicial-sacramental character of the sacrament implies that the sacrament of penance is different from Baptism. It is a specific sacrament that supposes a special sacramental power and it is linked with the Sacrament of Orders.
Thirdly, the limitation of the Church with regard to the sacrament of penance is acknowledged. The duty of confession was instituted by the Lord himself and is constitutive of the sacrament. Therefore, it is not in the power of the Church to replace personal confession with general absolution. Hence, only in situations of necessity, in which the human being's final salvation is at stake, can the absolution be anticipated and the confession left for a time in which it will be possible to make it.
Finally, the individual confession is affirmed as an experience of liberation in God. The simple confession of one's guilt is presented with confidence in God's merciful goodness. If it is done with the spirit of trust proper to the children of God it can become an experience of deliverance, an experience of liberation in God. This last explanation expresses the conviction of the Catholic Church on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The spirit of trust proper to the children of God implies that our liberation is not our personal effort but because of the full and absolute gratuity of God’s grace and the full efficacy of the salvific work of Jesus.
The book of Reconciliation and Justification is indeed an excellent work of Fr. Osborne. His thorough historical and theological analysis on the issue of reconciliation and justification enriches ones understanding on the background of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Most importantly, his observations offer informative insights and stimulate the readers to think critically in order to perceive the truest celebration of penance as a sacrament.
In the context of our study, the question of Fr. Osborne remains valid for reflection: “In what way does the sacrament of reconciliation, in its currently revised form, celebrate the central mystery of justification?” There is no simple answer for this question but definitely, as Fr. Osborne has consistently echoed, the way in which it is to be answered must incorporate the issue of justification in its theology and pastoral dimensions.
In any rate, it must be noted that Fr. Osborne is neither promoting nor supporting the justification issue of the reformation era, in particular the Lutheran’s opposition to the Catholic Church. His critical analysis on the issue of justification with regard to the sacrament of reconciliation should be rather seen as a call to the Church authority to officially address this long-standing issue.
On the other hand, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) offers a remarkable reflection on the sacrament of penance. His deeply grounded theology enables him to integrate the personal design of God for human being with the essence of the sacrament of penance. The individual character of the sacrament of penance does not despise the social dimension of it. In fact, individual or private confession is seen as a corporate act of worship which builds up the Body of Christ.
The recognition of the limitation of the Church must not be looked from Christological perspective i.e. the church as a Body of Christ rather in a juridical sense i.e. the Church as an institution. The judicial-sacramental character of the sacrament of penance distinguishes it from the other sacraments. As such, it is a “specific sacrament” that should be treated in a manner proper to its nature. In this sense, one can say that “penance” is truly a “celebration” of the Mystery of God’s love and also a “sacrament” namely, an outward sign of the inner grace of God.