Hi, Constance —
I presume you're asking about penances
in the sacrament of Confession. The
priest uses his discretion. There
is no formula, although the penance
should be somewhat commensurate with
the sin and preferably serve as an
antidote to it.
As for good works, this is a complex subject. Try doing a Knowledge base search for keywords such
as "works", "justification" or "justified", "law",
and so forth. Different people have
different definitions of works.
It is possible to say in Catholicism
that we are saved by faith
working through love.
- For some people, works are deeds
- For others, works include
- For still others, works even includes sacraments such as
Jesus spoke a lot about works and
their necessity. Consider the parable
of the sheep and the goats, which
suggests at least some people will
be judged on the basis of their deeds
of charity (Matthew 25:32-46). (I
disagree with one of my colleagues
on who specifically this judgment
applies to but we agree it applies
to some people.) Even St. Paul says
something similar in Romans 2:1-11.
When asked about how to be saved,
Jesus replied to the rich young ruler
with the Ten Commandments (Mark 10:17-21).
In fact, he added something — go
sell all you have and give it to
the poor. The man went away unsaved.
No "faith alone" here.
(The only time justification
[salvation] by faith alone appears
in Scripture is when the concept
is condemned in James 2:24— an instructive
chapter worth reading. Perhaps
you have already read it.
Jesus says something interesting
in Matthew 7:15-19. He talks about
good trees and bad trees. He
says a tree will be judged
by its fruit, and those who do not
bear good fruit will be cut down
and thrown into the fire. This parallels
what Jesus said in the parable of
the sheep and the goats and what
St. Paul says in Romans. It also
says that a good tree cannot bear
bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot
bear good fruit. The deeds manifest
the faith, but the faith is useless
without the deeds. They go together.
As in many things Catholic it's,
not an either-or, but a both-and.
So your friend is right in a sense,
that good works come naturally from
faith. We, as Catholics, believe
that salvation is pure grace — no
one can come to God except by grace,
and no unsaved man is saved by his
good deeds or even his moral goodness.
We are saved through Baptism and,
for adults, repentance. The fact
that we believe that the just-baptized
infant is saved and would go to Heaven,
if it died, proves that we do not
believe that works are necessary
At the same time, someone who spurns
God's grace after having received
it, by willfully disobeying one of
the Lord's precepts in a serious
way, without repentance, as St. Paul
says in Romans, will not be saved.
We also believe that all our good
works are gifts of God that come
by his grace. The
Catechism has a good line
from St. Augustine:
You are glorified in the
assembly of your holy ones, for
in crowning their merits you are
crowning your own gifts.
Roman Missal, Prefatio I de sanctis; Qui in Sanctorum concilio celebraris, et eorum coronando merita tua dona coronas
. . . citing the "Doctor of grace," St. Augustine, En. in Ps. 102,7:PL 37,1321-1322.
Good works come naturally from faith,
but good faith naturally manifests
itself in good works.
You can't pit faith against works
any more than a good tree can product
bad fruit; they work together. We
are saved by works not in the sense,
that of our own, we did something
pleasing to God, but in the sense
that we received and cooperated with
God's grace which bore fruit in our
lives, and that fruit, like the trees
in the parable, God recognized and
Also, we, as Catholics, believe that
the justified (meaning saved, in
sanctifying grace) person can
be justified more (meaning grow more
righteous) by doing good deeds.
don't generally believe this; for
them, justification happens once
when the unsaved person becomes saved.
This confuses the issue because
when a Catholic says that we are justified
by works, he means the just
can become more just by good deeds
prompted and enabled by God's grace,
but Protestants think he [the Catholic] means the
unsaved can work his way into salvation,
which we don't believe at all.