Despite the constancy of the faith throughout two millennia, Christianity is always being adapted to the present age, usually with some difficulty, debate, and struggle. Catholic history presents us with so many examples of this that we can hardly claim that our particular time or setting deserves the crown of being the “most unique,” despite the rise of automobiles, smartphones, computers, nuclear weapons, and the nuclear family. And yet, it is our time! One of the tasks of moral theology is to identify the needs of the present situation and to aid in the moral discernment of contemporary Christians, while trying to avoid the arrogance of presuming that there is nothing to be learned from the virtuous lives of those who practiced the faith before our time, dealing with moral struggles that were every bit as genuine as those of our own days.

When we look at the current era, we find something distinct in the present articulation of the role of the laity. The now famous  Chapter V of Lumen Gentium, entitled “The Universal Call to Holiness in the Church,” emphasizes that holiness is not solely for priests and professed religious, but for every believer: “Therefore, all the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed they have an obligation to so strive. Let all then have care that they guide aright their own deepest sentiments of soul” (no. 41).

The call to holiness of the laity is nothing new per se, but this particular description, as well as Chapter IV, which focuses on the laity specifically, brings both clarity and challenge. Another document from this time period is Pope Paul VI’s 1966 Apostolic Constitution, entitled Paenitemini; On Fast and Abstinence. At the close of Vatican II, the pope wanted to guide the Church of the modern era in adjusting to those times, and “among the grave and urgent problems” the pope identified, “the significance and importance of the divine precept of penitence.”

Penitence, he noted, has been a constant marker of Christian identity:

The Church…has noted with joy that almost everywhere and at all times penitence has held a place of great importance, since it is closely linked with the intimate sense of religion which pervades the life of most ancient peoples as well as with the more advanced expressions of the great religions connected with the progress of culture.

Paul VI made several declarations here concerning penitence, beginning with the statement that, “By divine law all the faithful are required to do penance” (I.1). Towards the end, he also included the following: “It is strongly recommended to all the faithful that they keep deeply rooted in their hearts a genuine Christian spirit of penitence to spur them to accomplish works of charity and penitence” (IX. 2).

It may seem curious, then, that in a time where American laity are so clearly called to holiness, we are perhaps the least penitential of all Catholics in the history of the Church. Note that I do not here speak solely of the sacrament of confession (which has undergone a dramatic decline since Vatican II), but more broadly of daily and weekly penances that have been commonplace throughout all of Christian history. Of course, there is a fascinating historical explanation for the penitential decline in the United States, but that will have to wait for another blog post.

Instead, let us focus our attention on the questions that arise from these observations concerning holiness and penance. Are American Catholics today holier than they were before Vatican II? Are we better Catholics? Can we become holy and virtuous with minimal to no penitential practice? How do we all live penitential practices, including fast, abstinence from meat, voluntary mortifications, and the sacrament of reconciliation? Has the diminishment of penance served us well…or has it possibly been detrimental to our practice and witness of the faith? In what way is the renewal of penance a task of moral theology? Might penance also be a foundation of moral theology?