The virtue of penance in the United States, 1955-1975

Date of Award


Degree Name

Ph.D. in Theology


Department of Religious Studies


Advisor: Sandra A. Yocum


This dissertation examines the conception of sin and the practice of penance among Catholics in the United States from 1955 to 1975. It begins with a brief historical account of sin and penance in Christian history, indicating the long tradition of performing penitential acts in response to the identification of one's self as a sinner. The dissertation then considers the Thomistic account of sin and the response of penance, which is understood both as a sacrament (which destroys the sin) and as a virtue (the acts of which constitute the matter of the sacrament but also extend to include non-sacramental acts). This serves to provide a framework for understanding the way Catholics in the United States identified sin and sought to amend for it by use of the sacrament of penance as well as non-sacramental penitential acts of the virtue of penance. The dissertation argues that there was a change in the conception of sin both at popular and academic levels, and that this coincided with the decline of practices of the virtue of penance, including, but not limited to the sacrament of penance. With the change in the concept of sin, American Catholics became less likely to identify their actions in terms of sin or themselves primarily as sinners. Given this change in self-understanding, Catholics perceived the need to do penance in a different light. Both sacramental and non-sacramental penances were criticized for being too routine and unreflective, and there were numerous approaches to counter these perceived problems and to revitalize penitential practices among American Catholics in the 1960s. One particular response was the National Catholic Conference of Bishops' Pastoral Statement that changed non-sacramental penitential practices in the U.S. in its implementation of Paul VI's Paenitemini. The language of this document reflects the change in academic moral theology toward an emphasis on individual freedom and responsibility and the willing acceptance to live out one's faith commitment in a more personally authentic way in contrast to personal obedience to routine communal obligations. All of these changes did not produce the desired effect of revitalizing Catholics' full participation in the sacrament of penance and other penitential practices. The changes made to the sacrament of penance as well as the non-sacramental penitential practices did not strengthen the virtue of penance as described by Thomas, and they did not lead to a revitalization of penance. This dissertation examines the decline in the sacrament in the broad context of the decline in Catholics' participation in obligatory communal penitential practices and hence adheres to the long tradition in Catholic moral theology, articulated succinctly in Thomas's Summa Theologiae, that understands penance as a virtue that requires habitual practices that include but are not limited to frequent reception of the sacrament of penanc


Catholic Church. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Pastoral statement on penance and abstinence, Catholic Church United States History 20th century, Penance United States History of doctrines 20th century, Sin Christianity United States History of doctrines 20th century, Sacraments Catholic Church History of doctrines 20th century, Ethics; history; theology; American Catholicism; sin; penance; sacrament of penance; virtue; Catholic Moral Theology, Thomas Aquinas; Summa Theologiae; 1960s; John C Ford; Gerald Kelly; Bernard Haring; Friday meat abstinence; Paenitemini; Lent; penitential practices

Rights Statement

Copyright © 2013, author